Winterson, whom I’ve encountered previously as a writer of contemporary fiction and memoir, here delves into history, of both the usual sort – events of the past – and the less usual – events yet to come. Her anchor is the artistic journey and personal tragedy of Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a social-activist author clearly ahead of her time. And of her daughter’s time as well, since the mother died in childbirth. That early loss shapes the younger woman’s mind and thoughts as she wanders in exile with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband) and his friend Lord Byron, and their entourage. The portions of the book narrated in Mary’s dreamlike musings are compelling and exciting, in some ways the most so of the novel.
That worthy story is interwoven with those of a transman doctor named Ry and Victor Stein, a scientist living in Manchester (where Winterson actually teaches…) as he attempts an advance in electronic intelligence which is every bit as audacious as the one in Shelley’s landmark novel, Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus. This portion of the novel reads more like a sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner for the TED Talk crowd. Oh, and just for good measure, those ample threads are braided with that of a mysterious refugee who claims to be the doctor of Shelley’s novel – on the run to escape his own creation before being imprisoned as a madman – but seems in the end to be actually a figment of someone’s – or perhaps even everyone’s – imagination. Yes, this plot seems to require a lot of hyphenation, and I haven’t even mentioned the story line involving intelligent sex-bots and a lovely Mormon!
That somewhat confounding recipe, though, cooks up a hearty stock, which Winterson then seasons with flavors of gender and culture, of mysticism, humanism and dogmatism, of art, science, culture and anthropology, urbanism and – well, the list seems endless, as the fictional ingredients are embellished by the wider reputation and known-history of the actual characters she has re-imagined. Even as one reads, there comes the thought that this book will demand a second reading, just as any decent painting merits more than a single viewing. There is more here than first meets the eye, which has always been part of the fun with Winterson.
One of the most affecting passages comes near the end, as Mary considers the plight of Byron’s daughter, the mathematical prodigy, Ada Lovelace:
“And I recalled our locked-in days on Lake Geneva, impounded by rain, and Byron and Polidori explaining to me why the male principle is more active than the female principle.
Neither man seemed to consider that being refused an education, being legally the property of a male relative, whether father, husband or brother, having no rights to vote, and no money of her own once married, and being barred from every profession except governess or nurse, and refused every employment except mother wife or skivvy, and wearing a costume that makes walking or riding impossible, might limit the active principle of a female.”
For this reader, that passage embodies Winterson’s signature; a blend of anger, insight and empathy that shines light where light is needed.
(And yes, one assumes Winterson must appreciate the irony that Byron’s somewhat notorious daughter should share a surname with Linda Lovelace, a twentieth-century porn star of broad notoriety. One wonders in fact, if a young Linda Boreman was aware of Ada’s history of escapades and it was that which led her to adopt the surname for her artistic persona. Oh yes, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tracy Chevalier or Emma Donaghue were to write an account of the life of Ada Lovelace, who certainly deserves one? “Doctor Livingstone, I’m thinking this river extends farther to the interior than first it seemed…”).
Always worthwhile, Winterson has once again rewarded her readers quite amply.