Clairmont: Q & A with Lesley McDowell


‘It’s the summer that will change her life – she wrote that she had had “ten minutes of happy passion” but that that those ten minutes had discombobulated “the rest of my life”.’

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein continues to fascinate, not only the novel itself, but the story around its creation. Lesley MacDowell’s latest book Clairmont fictionalises this moment and the life of Mary’s friend, Claire Clairmont, in literary history. She spoke to us about her novel and it’s inspiration.


By Lesley McDowell
Published by Wildfire



Hi Lesley, congratulations on the upcoming publication of Clairmont. Can you tell readers a little bit about what they can expect from the novel?

I hope they can expect something thrilling, Gothic, and feminist! Thrilling because there are a lot of secrets and lies, which you might expect from a group of people as incestuous as the Shelley-Byron circle; Gothic because there’s a great house and violent storms at the centre of that summer in Geneva in 1816, when Claire, Mary, Shelley, Polidori and Byron all gather at the Villa Diodati, and Mary’s novel, Frankenstein, is born; and feminist because we’ve never properly heard from Claire about her experiences that summer when she was pregnant with Byron’s child, and her life after Shelley and Byron died young has largely been ignored.


You choose to tell the story of Claire Clairmont across three distinct timelines. What were your reasons for using this kind of structure?

I really wanted to put Claire’s afterlife on an equal footing with that summer in Geneva. It’s the summer that will change her life – she wrote that she had had ‘ten minutes of happy passion’ but that that those ten minutes had discombobulated ‘the rest of my life’. So it’s an enormous catalyst, but her life afterwards – going to Russia to work as a governess, living independently in Paris – while being deeply affected by what happened to her that year, is also testament to her independent spirit, her determination to support herself and earn her own money and never to marry. She’s a real counter to the narrative that women of this era had to get married in order to survive, a narrative we tend to privilege because of Jane Austen, I think.


This is your second novel based on a friend of Mary Shelley’s, following Unfashioned Creatures in 2013. What is it about Shelley and that circle of Romantic intellectuals that appeals to you as a writer?

There are so many things! They do embody that ‘small r’ romantic notion of what it means to be a poet or writer – flouting social norms, not having a ‘proper job’, living for the moment and in so many different places, and so on. They were also doing extraordinary things in literature – Shelley, for me, is probably one of the greatest poets who ever lived, if not the greatest; Mary Shelley effectively started a whole new genre of fiction with a single novel; and Claire is an exemplary letter writer (a genre that has been much underestimated). But from a novelist’s point of view, they are also extraordinary characters, who keep secrets about parentage, and tell lies about affairs, and so their personal lives are as fascinating as their literary output. They leave many questions unanswered about the choices they made, and that’s great for novelists, who can speculate and examine them dramatically, in a way that biographers can’t.


You’re a writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, but your concerns – specifically in regards to gender – are timely and modern. What can the study of history teach us about contemporary issues, and how does fiction allow you to explore these ideas?

Although I’ve written mostly about people who lived pre-Darwin and pre-Freud, so that it’s hard to really know exactly how they thought and felt, even when there’s a large body of diaries and letters that give us so much of their inner lives. But for me, what’s important about history is how surprising it often is, how it disrupts our notions of the past, and makes us re-think the present. For example, we tend to think that middle-class women of the Regency era had to be married or their lives would be in ruins, because most of our understanding comes from Jane Austen, whose novels stress that fact for women. And yet, when we study the lives of Claire Clairmont and Mary Shelley, not only do we find they were both, at different points, unmarried mothers, but we also find that their mothers were unmarried mothers, too. And yet, none of them had their lives destroyed by this. Were they an anomaly, or were they typical, of women of their class and era? That’s a question we need to ask, because it impacts on how we think about the status of women and marriage even today.

I think fiction allows you to open up the inner life of someone who lived at a certain point in the past, so that they’re not just a figure in a history book, or the subject of a biography. Fiction lets me, specifically, to cross that pre-Darwin, pre-Freud divide, and, hopefully without mapping my own 21st century sensibilities too much on to them, understand their motives, their desires, their needs, much better.


You wrote your Ph.D on the “Feminine Fictions” of James Joyce, and that interest in the ways in which women are written in and out of literature clearly continues today with Clairmont. Does the study of women (or absence of) in literary history change the way you read the work of celebrated male authors, and if so, how?

I think what that kind of study has done for me is emphasise that the male point of view is simply one point of view, and that there are others that are equally valid. And further to that – that those ‘others’ don’t just offer up a different point of view, they can offer up a point of view that disrupts, challenges, even denies that male point of view, one that has been accepted for so long as the only view worth seeing from and speaking from. One of my favourite writers is Henry James, who liked to write very often from a woman’s point of view. That he’s also famous for ambiguity in his writing reflects, I think, that notion that a female viewpoint is less trustworthy – the male viewpoint in his novels is also ambiguous, but those male characters are often not aware of that aspect. He immortalized Claire Clairmont in his novella, The Aspern Papers, which is based on the real-life American collector Edward Silsbee, who visits Claire in old age for her memories of the great poets Byron and Shelley, and hopes to buy her letters from them. The novella is told from the point of view of the Silsbee character, though. Claire Clairmont, as ‘Miss Bordereau’, tellingly wears a veil throughout, until the moment she discovers the Silsbee character rifling through her papers, and the shock of it kills her. I find it fascinating that a male writer had to have a male character effectively kill off Claire in fiction, when the truth is that no man managed to do that, and she actually outlived Byron and Shelley by over fifty years!


Lastly, if you could go on holiday to Geneva with one member of the Byron/Shelley circle, who would it be and why?

It would have to be Claire, of course, although, I’d prefer to be about eighteen, too, so that I could keep up with her! In my head, I imagine being her friend, the one she confides in about how she really feels about Byron, and about Shelley, and about Mary. I don’t think I could have changed her mind about the decisions she made that summer – I think she was too headstrong to listen, as we all tend to be at 18. But I’d like to have tried.


Clairmont by Lesley McDowell is published by Wildfire, priced £18.99.

Share this


Sleekit click Sleekit

‘I live on, I play on the souls/ Of many from where heather grows’


Poor Things click Poor Things

‘What will become increasingly clear is that despite the various male characters’ attempts to contro …