Lesley McDowell’s novel, Unfashioned Creatures, came to my attention as one of The Literary Sofa’s Hot Picks for 2014. As soon as I saw Füssli’s creepy Nightmare on the cover, I began to anticipate a very gothic tale of madness between the covers.
I found one, too, although it is not the tale McDowell wanted to write originally. Clare Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s half-sister and the mother of Lord Byron’s child was her original subject, but she found that Claire’s life is too well documented with insufficient gaps for the novelist’s imagination. (See footnote.) So McDowell found her inspiration in a 1823 meeting between Mary Shelley and her friend, Isabel Baxter Booth, which marked the end of a life-long friendship. Whatever happened? wondered McDowell.
Answer: The nightmare of Isabel’s marriage to a violent and deranged man; one who twists words and situations and insists that his wife is “disturbed in her reason”. She is losing her grip on reality, thanks to her little helper, the 19th century drug of choice, laudanum, and, thus, when she goes to see a psychiatrist about her husband, he judges her the patient! There’s something dodgy about this doctor as well. As the novel progresses, it’s possible to recognise many daemons crushing the life out of Isabel. (Cf Füssli’s painting)
The story is told alternately from the point of view of the psychiatrist Alexander Balfour and Isabel Baxter Booth. Whereas Isabel was a real person, Alexander was not. He serves as a spokesman for early 19th century psychiatric theory and practice. His 3rd person, clinical, dry and weighty point of view contrasts with the drama of Isabel’s 1st person emotional voice. Despite McDowell confessing to throwing away much of her research, I thought that, in places, it was still obvious. This is, however, a fascinating field. Who knew that in the early 1820’s, Scotland was pioneering the development of more humane psychiatric practice? The real historical mystery, McDowell said at her recent Aye Write! Event, is why Scotland didn’t produce a great nineteenth century psychiatrist.
However, Alexander’s not just a representative of his profession. He has sufficient personality and backstory to make him interesting, if not likeable. Nor is he the consummate professional. Poor Isabella, cast between the devil of her husband and the devil of her doctor …. you can’t get more gothic than that!
Footnote: McDowell has now written about Claire Clairmont on The Wordsworth and Romanticism Blog.