The author of the award-winning novel, Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley, Kathleen Williams Renk is a retired professor who has published three scholarly books, numerous journal articles and essays, short stories, and creative nonfiction. Her second historical fiction novel, In an Artist's Studio, is forthcoming in November 2023 from Bedazzled Ink Press, which fosters writing by and about women.
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Mary Godwin is a teenager with a formidable pedigree. Both of her parents are philosophers but it is Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother who died giving her life, who haunts her waking and dreaming worlds. Reading about her mother’s unconventional life and death inspires Mary to keep a journal. Just as the tumult of her parents’ relationship comes alive in her imagination, she meets emerging poet Percy Shelley. Even though he is married and his wife is pregnant, Shelley threatens to kill himself if Mary will not elope with him. It’s possible that Shelley is mad, but their intellectual and creative affinities convince her that she is his Child of Light.
Passionate and intellectual, Mary struggles with the demands of her volatile husband and their circle of friends, including her stepsister Claire and George Gordon, Lord Byron. But as she writes Frankenstein, she also muses about her encounters with her creature and the philosophical questions of life, death, and creation that undergird her novel. Justifying their unconventional life and enduring personal tragedies, Mary follows in her mother’s footsteps, as she contemplates a woman's place in literature and the world.
Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley
Kathleen Williams Renk
Mary follows in her mother’s footsteps, as she contemplates a woman's place in literature and the world.
Book Excerpt or Article
Tragically, I never knew my mother. Nevertheless, she haunts my waking and dreaming worlds.
Like God, my father forbade me from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He encouraged me to read everything that my philosopher mother had penned but did not permit me to read the memoir that he had written about my mother after I killed her.
One evening, after one of our rows, my stepmother, Mrs. Clairmont, announced that it was time I learned my origin and she handed me the outlawed book that included an account of my mother's death. I read it and then stayed up until my candle burned all the way down and imagined what my mother and my father may have thought and felt during Mother's last days, days that forever changed the course of my own life. Thus, I returned to my origins for it is sometimes said that a mother's life ends when a child is born. In this case, that is literally true.
Right now, I am fourteen years old. I endeavor to be close to my mother Mary by visiting her grave and resting against her tombstone while I learn from her by re-reading her writings and what my father wrote about her after she died. I feel such guilt that my birth effected the end of a modern Hypatia, a brilliant female philosopher who advocated for women's rights, a champion for women and girls who told women the truth -- that their minds are "enfeebled by false refinement" -- that they are rational beings, like men -- that they have the right to be educated in the same way as males are. The "organ" that nourished me in her womb, essentially a part of myself, and the cord that connected me to my mother, extinguished my mother's life. That seems so ironic and obviously tragic. Something straight out of Sophocles. Whenever I read or hear the story of her gruesome and untimely death, I cover my eyes and ears so that I feel less responsible for killing my mother. I feel shame. My father has lamented that I failed to save my mother, but I dare not ask what that even means. How can a newborn child possibly save her mother?
I often sit and gaze for hours at my mother's portrait, which hangs above the fireplace in Father's study. Father commissioned it after my mother died. She looks so wise and learned, as if she is a great counselor of all women and men, as if she could be one of Plato's Guardians in his Republic. I speak with her and disclose my heart to her, telling her how I wish she could return to earth, telling her that I wish that she could tell me her own life story. She remains silent and stoic, though, and I am forced to turn to her writing to hear her words.
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