Most people probably havenít heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, although they might know her
daughter Mary, author of the original Frankenstein. The elder Mary was an early feminist,
famous for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and infamous for a tumultuous
lifestyle that included several affairs, accusations of corrupting a child in her care, a
daughter born out of wedlock and a failed suicide attempt.
As I said in a review of another historical mystery this month, Barbara Hamilton's
The Ninth Daughter, I
think less famous people like Mary make the best real life historical figure detectives.
Because theyíre not so well known, the character on the page isnít constantly battling strong
preconceived notions in the readersí heads. Ironically the less you know about them as people,
the easier it is to believe in them as people in the story.
Mary here is in her late 20s and on the cusp of fame, pre-Vindication but with a book
on the education of women just published. Financial difficulties put her on a boat to Ireland
to fill a position sheís not wholly qualified for as governess.† The appreciation for good-looking
members of the opposite sex and enjoyment of their company that were behind so many problems in
her real life come into play here as chatting with a handsome young sailor gets Mary pressed into
service to deliver a message when she arrives. While the recipientís even more impressive looks
draw her into involvement with the Irish resistance against the occupying English.
In between is a veritable whirlwind circus of seductions, pregnancies, children running wild,
currents and subcurrents and sub-subcurrents in relations amongst the houseís inhabitants, and,
of course, murder. The question isnít finding out whoís guilty—everyone seems to be guilty
of something—itís finding out which particular crimes or sins each person is responsible for.†
Mary herself is a memorably character—passionate, headstrong, intelligent, emotional, feisty,
impulsive... a changeable whirl of interests, concerns and passions, and as tumultuous herself
as the life she ultimately lived and the household she now finds herself in. This is no shy,
drab, retiring little dab of a governess, although what she goes through makes it easy to see
how many women would let life beat them down into that. The entire book is filled with memorable
characters. There's a solid sense of place and plot to spare, but characterization is the
author's real strength. There's a large and varied cast of characters you believe in, care about
and will remember after you finish the last page and close the cover.
Find a comfortable chair and a tall drink and make yourself comfortable for an extended stay
because this may not be a long book but it is one to immerse yourself in, with nary a still
moment inside the pages to provide a break.