Guest blog by Lesley McDowell
I first became interested in the real-life figure of Isabella Baxter Booth when I read what her friend, Mary Shelley, wrote about her in 1823:
I have now renewed my acquaintance with the friend of my girlish days – she has been ill a long time, even disturbed in her reason, and the remains of this still hang over her…The great affection she displays for me endears her to me & the memory of early days – Else all is so changed for me that I should hardly feel pleasure in cultivating her society.
‘Disturbed in her reason’! And did Mary mean Isabella had changed so much that she didn’t want to ‘cultivate her society’, or that she, Mary, had changed? Who was this woman who had played such an important part in Mary’s life, and why had madness touched her?
Madness is a great theme of the Romantic era because of the questions it poses about individual freedom and reason. As I discovered more about Isabella I learned that she married a man called David Booth, who was first married to her sister, Margaret. Isabella was sixteen when she married him; he was over forty and Margaret was not long dead. Isabella defied her church in doing so; the ‘Glassite’ faith, to which she and David Booth both belonged, didn’t permit in-laws to marry.
Booth was a self-taught man and whilst he admired the Romantics’ poetry, he didn’t like their ways of living and he forbade his young wife to see Mary Shelley. Mary and Isabella had become friends in their teens when Mary spent some time in the Baxter household just outside Dundee – many believe some scenes from Frankenstein are based on Mary’s experience of Dundee and the surrounding area. Isabella obeyed her husband, but then, just before Mary and Shelley left for the Continent for the last time, she told Booth that she was leaving with them.
Why did she want to abandon her husband? He had started to suffer bouts of madness, attacks that would increase throughout his life and would see him incarcerated in lunatic asylums more than once. Was this why Isabella wanted to go? In the event, she changed her mind, but when Mary returned to England after Shelley’s death and wrote of her friend that she seemed ‘disturbed in her reason’, perhaps Isabella had been driven mad instead.
We have very little of Isabella’s voice – no diaries, few letters. I wanted to explore what made her decide to stay with a man who often turned violent in his madness; how she coped with the disillusionment of her marriage; what regrets she might have had. I gave her a love affair that almost certainly didn’t happen, with an ‘alienist’ doctor, ambitious about the new science of psychiatry. I gave her choices, rather than entrapments, as I took her to the edge of her reason and back again.
This is an era dominated by male genius; Isabella was friends with a female example of genius, and married to a man whose ‘genius’ was madness. How she found and saved herself in the midst of all of that, was what I wanted my novel to show.
Lesley McDowell is the author of three books: two novels, The Picnic and Unfashioned Creatures, and a non-fiction study, ‘Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers’ (‘incredibly juicy details’, New York Times Book Review). She has won two creative writing awards and been writer-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library. She is currently completing her novel about Madeleine Smith, a Victorian woman accused of murder.