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A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft

By Nancy Means Wright

Perseverance Press, 2010 ($15.95)

ISBN-13: 978-1-56674-509-5
Kindle eBook: $9.99

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

After a disastrous year in Ireland where she failed miserably as a governess, Mary Wollstonecraft returns to London and throws herself on the mercy of her friend and publisher, Joseph Johnson. He accepts the novel she wrote while in Ireland, even though it is not very well-written, and helps her get set up in a modest household. His kindness is repaid when he publishes her current book, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and it becomes a major success.

While she is finishing up her masterpiece, she becomes a part of the literary intellectual elite of London, many of them supporters of the anti-Royalists in the ongoing French Revolution. Included in the group are several historic figures, including Thomas Paine, Samuel Coleridge, Joseph Priestly, and several others. Both Joseph Johnson and Henry Fuseli, an eccentric painter whose fictional painting furnishes the title and the central theme of the story, were important to Mary's life.

Mary is notoriously anti-marriage, an early feminist who refuses to play the traditional role of a woman in the late 18th century. She turns down all marriage proposals, but she develops a mad passion for Henry Fuseli. She is both repelled and drawn to his painting, The Nightmare, which depicts the disturbing image of a sleeping woman about to be ravished by a demonic figure. Fuseli, who is married, is a womanizer, and he is attracted to Mary as well, until the thirty-two-year-old tells him she is a virgin and wants their love to be platonic. After she takes drastic steps to convince him to accept her terms, he casts her out of his home and his life, devastating her.

The painting is stolen, and Fuseli is convinced the thief is Roger Peale. Peale, engaged to Lillian Guilfoy, is taken to Newgate Prison. Lillian entreats Mary to help her clear Roger's name. They are told a friend will help him escape from the prison, but he ends up in an even worse place. Soon after, another of Mary's circle, is found murdered, arranged in the same pose as the lady in The Nightmare. Fuseli accuses Peale of this crime as well, even though he was supposedly locked up at the time. Mary is horrified at the fate of her friend, and in one of her impetuous moves she rescues the woman's illegitimate daughter from an orphanage. Her attempts to help her friend lead her to prison, to the mean streets of London, and to a madhouse, giving the reader a vivid look at the lives of both the wealthy and the desperately poor, and the way they are treated by the government and private institutions.

This is the second in the Mary Wollstonecraft series. She is not the center of the story as she was in MIDNIGHT FIRES, but her interactions with multiple characters, both fictional and historical, are interesting and true to her eccentric and controversial viewpoint of life. It is an excellent entry in the series. Wright includes biographical sketches of the historical characters and their connection to Mary, which adds interest to the story.

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