If your idea of holiday reading includes cuddling up with some romantic poetical angst, help yourself to a e-copy of my novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady. This tale inserts Mary Crawford, a character from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, into a real-life mystery concerning the tragic life of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. This special offer is available through Amazon until Friday, December 18.
The story opens with Mary encountering Percy Shelley in the woods, stark naked. This is based on true fact. When Shelley lived in Bagni di Lucca in Italy, he found a sunny rock near a waterfall where he liked to strip down and read. I've posted the opening of the story below:
Madame Ciampi was busy setting out the breakfast platters in the dining room when she heard the tinkle of the bell in the lobby. She hurried to respond, hiding her irritation at the interruption. There, to her surprise, stood the English lady who had arrived late last night, looking as fresh as a flower, and attired in an elegant riding habit.
“Madam Ciampi,” said her new tenant,“Did you arrange for a horse for me?”
“Certainly, madam,” came the reply, and fortunately it was true—she had managed to make arrangements with the riding stable last night. “But—does madam intend to ride out so early? Or will you take some breakfast first, ma’am?”
The lady stepped to the entrance to the dining room and looked about. Save for a housemaid and a waiter, the room was empty.
“I shall take some coffee,” she said to Madam Ciampi.
“And shall I arrange for a guide to escort madam?” Madam Ciampi followed her guest into the dining room.
“I hardly think it necessary,” replied the lady, taking a seat by the front window which overlooked the river. “There is only one road to the forest, is there not?”
“That will be all.”
Madam Ciampi walked away, elaborately shaking her head. She relieved her feelings by tugging firmly on the wooden shutters which framed the windows facing eastward over the Appenine hills. The shutters closed with an emphatic bang and Madam Ciampi snapped the latch firmly into place. This was not Venice, thank the blessed saints—here in Tuscany people were sober and decent.
Peculiar, arrogant, and demanding as the English were, she had to admit they had restored the prosperity of Bagni di Lucca. In the cafés, at the baths, in the casino, one only heard English spoken. At least this new lady spoke Italian—unlike the others, who believed anyone could understand them if they spoke loudly and slowly enough.
A few more of Madame Ciampi’s lodgers were now drifting down from their apartments, calling for tea or coffee, exchanging greetings, and taking note of the fashionable newcomer seated by the window. But the beautiful stranger ignored everyone and everything, watching out the window until she saw a groomsman lead a small brown mare into the courtyard. Then she gracefully rose and collected her hat and riding crop.
“I shall return for dinner,” she informed Madam Ciampi.
“Very good, Madam Crawford.”
Mary stroked her little brown mare’s nose, then expertly inspected the girth and the harness before climbing on the mounting block. Once she was settled on the saddle, she dismissed the groom and directed the mare out of the courtyard at a slow walk, getting to know her new mount and letting the horse get to know her. It felt so good to be on horseback again.
Bagni di Lucca, the Baths of Lucca, was a series of little settlements strung out along a narrow valley between forested hills. Mary rode out along the main road—indeed, the only road—toward the upper village, while taking note of the features of the resort which Madam Ciampi had described to her. Here was the casino, here were the baths and the steam grotto. Here was the villa of Napoleon’s sister, the Princess Borghese. The Princess had lived apart from her husband for years because royalty, even upstart Corsican royalty, could do as they pleased.
Mary likewise intended to do as she pleased, for during her marriage she had often been unhappy, and if she was unhappy, it followed logically that it was Edmund’s fault. Or, if she must admit to one error, it was in marrying Edmund in the first place. “A clergyman is nothing,” she had told Edmund upon learning he intended to take orders. She was fitted by character and ability to be the partner of a great man, a man whose name and reputation outlived his death, someone whose bust adorned the halls of Parliament.
Heaven knows she had tried to elevate Edmund out of obscurity. Once, she had collected and made fair copies of his sermons, intending to have them published. But Edmund’s formal style, so much like his father’s, was of a former age. She engaged a writer to revise his staid essays into passionate epistles, but her first candidate had taken her money and produced, after much delay, some very indifferent work, and another had rejected her overture so indignantly that she was too mortified to ask anyone else.
That spring in Rome Mary had realized, with a sense of desperation amounting almost to panic, that her thirtieth birthday was approaching. Thirty! So little time left to fulfil her ambitions. Then came the letter from home, the unexpected stroke, the final rupture.
Mary continued upward, passing more lodging-houses and villas, until she came across the path made by other wanderers over the years, a path which led into the chestnut forests which spilled across the hillside. Looking back, she could glimpse the river twisting down through the valley below her. Before her, the bridle path, lit by patches of dappled sunlight, beckoned her into the forest.
It was fashionable, these days, to fall into raptures over a scenic prospect or a lightning-blasted oak, but Mary had never pretended to be an enthusiast for Nature. It was enough to have quiet and solitude to consider the past and plan for the future, and she was grateful to have arrived early in the season, when there were still few visitors in town. More tourists would arrive as June turned to July—old soldiers taking their ease after years of fighting Napoleon’s armies; nannies herding young children up and down the street, gout-ridden old men hobbling to the hot baths while the young ladies set up their easels by the river.
Mary was so absorbed in her thoughts that at first the faint sound of rushing water did not obtrude upon her notice. Then she paused and looked about her. There was definitely a stream nearby. Hadn’t her landlady spoken of a little waterfall in the forest? Exploring the source of that sound would make as good a destination as any for her morning’s ride, and accordingly, Mary directed the mare off the path to a rougher track through the trees. She was not afraid of getting lost in the wood, for she need only travel downhill again to find her way back to the village.
Uphill, a tumble of boulders obscured the sight, but not the sound, of a small waterfall. Sunshine illuminated the leaves of some alder trees which had managed to establish themselves on top of the rocky escarpment. Apart from the rushing water, the grove was absolutely quiet, and so still, that she gave a little start when she sensed something moving on top of the boulders.
Looking up, she saw a large creature. It was not a bird, because it had no feathers, nor a beast, because it was not covered in fur.
Was she in the grip of some delusion? Had all the hours of walking about in marble palaces and museums, looking at old frescoes of nymphs and fauns in sylvan glades, so affected her fancy? For here, perched on top of the highest boulder, with his back to her, was a naked faun.
But—weren’t fauns covered all over with fur? Or at least, didn’t they have hairy haunches? She tried to recall the fauns in the paintings she had seen in Rome and Pisa and Florence. This creature on the rock above her was bare-skinned and so slender that his spine, shoulder blades and ribs were all clearly visible. And he was reading a book. Did fauns read books?
Just then, her horse noisily passed wind. The sound pulled the attention of the faun from his reading, and he looked around, looked down, and saw her. He smiled--a mischievous smile, just as she supposed a faun might smile. He rose, turned to face her, and made a graceful bow, as though they were both in the Court of St. James. He was completely naked and made no effort to use his book to shield his private parts.
Mary observed that the faun had long slender legs which were not hairy. From her vantage point at ground level, she was denied a view of his feet, so she was unable to determine if he had the hoofs of a goat. Nor could she spy any horns hiding in the dishevelled brown curls which covered his head.
“Welcome to my study,” said the faun. “Or, should this boulder serve as my pulpit? And shall these leaves, ablaze in the sunlight, serve as our stained-glass windows? Have you come to hear a dramatic monologue or a sermon—what would best suit you?” He turned a page in his book, struck an affected attitude and declaimed:
Down Pindus steep Penëus falls
And swift and clear through hill and dale
It flows, and by Larissa’s walls
And through wild Tempe, loveliest vale--
“Pray excuse me, sir, for disturbing your solitude.”
“Oh. I say. I did not intend to discompose you, madam. Well, actually, to tell the truth, I delight in discomposing people. Wait just one moment.” And the young man, who was clearly an Englishman and a gentleman by his speech and accent, disappeared behind his boulder and emerged at ground level a brief moment later, wearing a loose-fitting lawn shirt and some wide-legged trousers. He was barefoot.
“How do you do?” said the young man, advancing upon Mary. “What a fine animal you have got there. Is she yours or is she from the local stables? Are you newly arrived at Bagni di Lucca? I only came here last night myself. You are English, I presume. Are you—” and he broke off and stared at Mary with some perplexity. Mary stared back; or rather, she was unable to look away—there was something entirely captivating in the young man’s air, his open, intelligent countenance, his large and expressive eyes.
“We have met before, madam, have we not?” he asked abruptly.
Mary nodded as she suddenly realized this strange man looked familiar.
“Did we dine together at the Leigh Hunts, perhaps?” he asked, as he ran his long slender fingers through his unruly curls, as though it might aid his memory. “Or, are you acquainted with Mrs. Boinville?”
“No, sir, I do not know those persons. And yet, I am almost certain we have met before,” Mary returned. “But surely if we had, we would be able to recollect the occasion.”
“Yes!” The young man smiled in a most engaging fashion. “At least, I am certain I could never forget meeting you. Beauty such as yours is not to be forgotten. Perhaps I saw you in a painting by Botticelli.”
“That is just what I was thinking,” Mary replied. “I thought at first you were a faun out of a painting.”
At this, the man threw back his head and laughed—loudly, immoderately. His wild, high-pitched glee instantly recalled to Mary the circumstances of their first meeting.
“You—you are the hermit of Marlow!” she exclaimed.
“I am! That is to say, I once was—but not a handful of people, I think, know that particular pen name. How came you—-” sudden recollection dawned upon his countenance. “Ahhh! You are the lady I met at Grey’s Inn. You asked me to be your husband’s amanuensis! Or rather—” with a quicksilver change of mood, he became decidedly less friendly. “You asked me to re-write your husband’s sermons, to make them more evangelical, and I refused you.”
“You certainly did refuse me,” said Mary, likewise retreating to a chillier tone. “You fell upon the floor, actually fell upon the floor, laughing me to scorn.”
“I did, too,” said the man, not at all abashed by her reproof. “But, what a preposterous notion, that I—of all people—should write Christian sermons!” He spat out the word “Christian” with particular loathing. “Christianity, or rather, the false creed which profanes the name of one of the wisest, gentlest, noblest beings to walk upon this earth. I—to help keep the labouring classes in superstition and ignorance!” He sighed and shook his head. “Well, madam, if it is any consolation to you, there have been moments since that day when I could have made good use of the handsome fee you offered me.”
“As I recall, you said no amount of money would induce you to help propagate falsehoods and idolatry.”
“Oh, no doubt I said that, and much more,” the man said, suddenly reassuming his original cheerfulness. “So, did you engage another writer?”
Ordinarily, Mary would have replied that her affairs were no business of his, especially since he had declined her generous offer so peremptorily, but she was still so taken aback by this unlikely meeting and the odd demeanor of the man that she answered, “No, I abandoned the scheme. At least for now.”
“I see. Well, I might entertain myself by arguing you back into it, just to test my powers of persuasion,” he answered. “How extraordinary it is, that we should meet again, and in such an enchanted spot! This cannot be mere happenstance. What can this signify?”
By the way, the poem that Shelley is beginning to declaim in this excerpt is not one of his -- it is by his friend Thomas Love Peacock. He published some political pamphlets anonymously as "The Hermit of Marlowe" when he was living in the suburb of Marlowe, before he left England for Italy.
Check out my other novels here. And be sure to get your copy of Shelley and the Unknown Lady before Friday!.