Andrea/Cara here, happy to welcome back Tracy Grant to the Wenches! For those of you who aren't familiar with her Malcolm & Suzanne Rannoch historical mystery series, you are in for a great treat . . . and for fans like me, it's always wonderful news when a new book in the series is out, especially as Tracy, who is a meticulous researcher, always has such an interesting back story behind her plots. Gilded Deceit, the latest one, features appearances by (fluttery sigh) Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley in Italy, where a murder draws them into a tangled web of . . . But wait! I'm now going to hand the pen to Tracy and let her tell you herself!
I have toyed for years with the possibility of including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley as characters in one of the novels in my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch historical mystery series. Byron’s ex-lover Lady Lamb has played an important role in two of the books. I wanted Byron to appear in The Berkeley Square Affair (I thought the lost version of Hamlet at the center of the plot would appeal to him), but the book needed to take place in late 1817 and he had left England by then in a cloud of scandal around the break up of his marriage to Annabella Milbanke and accusations that he had had an affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and fathered one of her children. So he was relegated to a few mentions in The Berkeley Square Affair, with Lady Caroline intrigued by the manuscript in the hopes that it will intrigue Byron.
But my 2016 release, London Gambit ended with the "series game-changer" of Malcolm and Mélanie Suzanne and their family fleeing Britain because of Mélanie's past as a French spy. It was a plot twist I'd had in mind for a long time in the series, but even as I wrote London Gambit, I dithered. I felt guilty about putting my characters through so much. I wondered if I was writing myself into a corner. At the same time I was really excited about the possibilities their leaving Britain opened up for the series. New conflicts, internal and external, a new setting – and new characters.
When London Gambit ends, the Rannochs are planning to take refuge at Malcolm's villa on Lake Como. My new book Gilded Deceit finds them (after a stop in Switzerland to see Suzanne's friend Hortense Bonaparte and solve an unexpected mystery for her in the novella Mission for a Queen) arriving at Lake Como in August of 1818. When I sat down to research and plot Gilded Deceit, I realized that Percy and Mary Shelley also traveled to Italy in 1818, and that Byron was already there. In a book which thematically in many ways is about exiles and ex-patriates, the Shelleys and Byron seemed the perfect real historical figures for my fictional characters to encounter. I spent a lot of time trying to plot Gilded Deceit around the Shelleys' and Byron's actually chronology. But the over all chronology of the series and some developments with secondary characters locked me into a certain timeline. So in the end, I confess, I took shocking liberties with Byrons’ and the Shelleys' chronology in Italy in the summer of 1818.
This literary trio had already spent a now-famous summer together on the Continent in 1816 when Percy was still married to his first wife Harriet. He and Mary (then eighteen) and run off to the Continent, accompanied by her stepsister Claire Clairmont. They stayed with Byron at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. Byron proposed that everyone at the house party write a ghost story, and Mary came up with an idea for a short story that ultimately became the novel Frankenstein. Her sister Claire, meanwhile, was more interested in captivated a poet of her own. She and Byron had begun an affair before he fled to the Continent. By the time they all met up in Switzerland Claire was pregnant with his child. They briefly resumed to their affair that summer, but in the end Claire returned to Britain with Percy and Mary and gave birth to baby Allegra, her daughter by Byron.
Claire doted on the baby, but she was penniless and could not support herself if she was known to be the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite being known for their bohemian ways, Percy and Mary (by the time married after the suicide of Harriet Shelley) were at some pains to conceal Allegra’s parentage. In the spring of 1818, Claire, Percy, and Mary traveled to Italy with Allegra, and William and Clara, Mary and Percy’s two young children. The plan was to take Allegra to Byron, who had agreed to raise her, though he wanted nothing to do with Claire. Claire was very conflicted about this, but she was single and penniless. Maintaining a fiction about Allegra's birth was getting challenging.
Percy and Mary visited Lake Como soon after their arrival with the idea of taking a villa there for the summer and inviting Byron to join them. But Byron preferred to remain in Venice, and in the end the Shelleys, their children, and Claire spent time in Milan, from whence Claire tearfully sent baby Allegra to Venice to live with Byron. The Shelleys and Claire then traveled south, stopped for a month in Livorno, and spent the summer in the spa town of Bagni di Luca, in the Apennine Mountains.
On 17 August, Percy and Claire left for Venice to try to see Allegra. They found Byron in an agreeable mood. He offered the Shelley party the use of his villa at Este for the summer. Claire could spend time with Allegra there which was ideal. The only problem was that Percy had told Byron Mary was with them, so that Byron, who could be surprisingly puritanical, wouldn't be shocked at Percy and Claire traveling alone. Percy wrote to Mary that she needed to join them at Este at once with the children. Their baby daughter, Clara, already ill, worsened on the journey. Mary and Percy took her to a doctor in Venice, but by the time Percy brought the doctor to the inn where Mary was with the baby, Clara was dying.
In Gilded Deceit, I have the Shelleys and Byron in Milan over at least part of the summer, so they can meet some other characters in the book with whom their connection later becomes significiant. I have also moved Clara's death back about a month from the end of September to the end of August. And rather than Percy and Mary spending time in Este and Venice after Clara's death, I have the Shelleys go to Lake Como, accompanied by Lord Byron.
I agonized, as I always do, when changing historical facts. But all three characters add an immeasurable amount to Gilded Deceit. Both the novel and the Rannochs benefit from their presence. Not only does their exile from Britain resonate with that of the fictional characters, the Shelleys complicated marriage both echoes and contrasts with the the Rannochs’ marriage and those of other couples in a series where marriage in an ongoing theme. And both Claire’s and Mary’s situations echo issues Mélanie Suzanne and many of the other female characters face trying to carve out lives for themselves beyond the confines of what is expected of a wife and the consequences of defying society’s expectations.
So, how do all you readers feel about authors changing historical chronologies? Writers, how do you approach such situations yourselves? Tracy will be giving away a e-book copy of Gilded Deceit to one lucky person chosen at random from all who leave a comment here between now and Thursday evening.
(For further reading about Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, I recommend Miranda Seymour's Mary Shelley (New York: Grove Press, 2002); Florence A. Thomas Marshall's The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Volume I (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1889); Daisy Hay's Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); and Benita Eisler's Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). Author photo credit: Raphael Coffey