by Stephanie Hemphill
2013 • 320 pages • Balzer + Bray
Oh, Mary Shelley. Daughter of fundamental English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, inventor of science fiction, and all around literary—dare I say it—monster. I only grow fonder of her the more I learn about her. I even might be biased towards The Bride of Frankenstein not for the Bride herself, but for the film opening with Elsa Lanchester’s Mary Shelley primly accepting Lord Byron’s stilted praise in one of the most stunning gowns of early Hollywood. (Even if it’s mostly to underline that there’s a moral point to the proceedings to free it from guilt.) I note the century-spanning gap of eighty-one years between that depiction of Shelley and the forthcoming dueling 2016 biopics A Storm in the Stars and Mary Shelley’s Monster with the most cutting of side eyes.
So Stephanie Hemphill’s young adult novel about Shelley, Hideous Love, with its near pre-Raphaelite cover of a redheaded young woman bent in a pose that recalls both Atlas and Prometheus, was catnip to me. I was always happy when the economies of space allowed me to face it out in the young adult nook back at the Tattered Cover. But, as ever, I dragged my feet about actually reading the darn thing. Although “drag my feet” is a poor metaphor for my reading habits—“got distracted by other books like a concussed magpie” is more like it. It’s a useful, if disorganized, methodology, because it lets me come to books fresh.
So fresh, in fact, that I had no idea that Hideous Love is a verse novel.
Poetry and I have ever been at odds with each other. I’ve read award-winning verse; I’ve cornered poetry-loving friends; I’ve even sat down with poetry professors to try and hash this thing out. But this thing remains steadfastly unhashed. I’m a stylist, not a poet, and the impulse to poeticize, like musical composition, remains so firmly outside of my wheelhouse that I can’t wrap my brain around enough to engage with it. Obviously, this is no fault of poetry, so I remain open to the idea that verse novels can be done exquisitely. (Recommendations, as ever, are heartily accepted.)
But, as my friend Andrea pointed out, if you’re going to translate the life of a Romantic writer into verse, shouldn’t you do it in Romantic verse? The point of writing a verse novel instead of a prose novel, I rather imagine, is that the format allows you to do something that prose cannot. But Hideous Love’s great difference from a prose novel is largely that writing in loose free verse allows Hemphill to nearly dispense with dialogue all together. This could be used to great effect, but here it just boils down to telling and never showing. Mary and Percy work on their writing, but precious few words are exchanged about it. We follow Mary throughout the conception, execution and publication of Frankenstein, but we get few details about her efforts. And what details we do get straddle the line between divine inspiration (acceptable in light of Shelley’s own retelling of how she was inspired to write Frankenstein) and a lack of authorial imagination (Hemphill has Mary pull names from her life for her characters). You never get the feeling that writing is work, which, as a woman in a household dependent on writing income, Shelley would probably have been pretty intimate with.
Instead, Hemphill is more interested in the relationship between Mary and Percy. The lack of dialogue makes it frustrating to watch the relationship seemingly progress without reason, but Percy’s interest in Mary’s intellect and Mary’s fascination with a man who values her mind shines through. Hemphill even touches on how Percy and Byron’s individualistic Romantic ideals sometimes seem to fail when it comes to the realm of extending complete equal rights to women. As Percy becomes more distant, Hemphill focuses more on the relationship between Mary and Claire Clairmont, her stepsister who became Lord Byron’s lover. And it’s almost completely negative, with Mary alternating between loathing to hear Claire mourn her dead daughter Allegra and suspecting that Claire is trying to get into Percy’s pants. Again, without any extended dialogue scenes to get a feel for what’s actually going on, it’s a deeply frustrating read.
Like VIII, Hideous Love is the rare young adult novel that takes advantage of focusing on a historical personage’s youth in order to tell their whole story. While Hemphill doesn’t go all the way to Mary’s death, she does go to Shelley’s. I really like this approach. It’s a good way to combat the idea that all young adult protagonists must be, themselves, young adults. While I’m still shying away from thinking of young adult literature as a genre instead of an audience, I think my championing of this technique just proves I’m circling around that conclusion. But that’s about the best thing I’m taking away here.
Well, here’s to A Storm in the Stars and Mary Shelley’s Monster succeeding beyond my wildest imagination. (Although I’m pulling for A Storm in the Stars, personally. Don’t tell Mary Shelley’s Monster.)
I rented this book from the public library.