Mrs Saville (Twelve Winters Press) is an eerie novel that I could not put down, and for me, that’s rare. Author Ted Morrissey channels a fictional character in a way that I have never experienced before. It reminded me of the practice of automatic writing in which a person goes into a trance, a spirit speaks through them, and they write down the otherworldly message. There is an unexpected supernatural quality to this novel.
The story is set in England in the early 1800s. Mrs. Margaret Saville is a middle-upper class wife and mother who dutifully writes letters to her husband, Philip, who has gone to find his fortune in a faraway land. In the spirit of Romanticism, Morrissey paints a picture: She, the wife in love who keeps the hearth warm, and he, the fearless adventurer seeking to bring back treasure.
Yes, I said letters, but don’t let this put you off. I have always shied away from books with letters. I skip over them. I find the italicized style annoying, so yes, I fought with myself to read this book, but I’m glad I lost. This jewel of a novel hypnotized me into the world of Mrs. Saville despite myself.
The rhythmic phrasing of the historically authentic conversational language lulled me into a dream state until I was no longer reading letters. I was sitting with Mrs. Saville as she wrote them, and then Morrissey’s magic happened. I psychically merged with Mrs. Saville and saw the world through her eyes, experienced her relationship with her husband, children, and the domestic world around her that she prunes like a bonsai tree, tending it with tenderness and patience until the pot it’s living in crashes to the floor. Yes, creepy, but I loved it.
The thing you need to know about Mrs. Saville is that she is a minor fictional character in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the recipient of letters from her brother and ship captain Robert Walton, letters that expose a horrible truth and the cause of much academic chatter. But Morrissey takes it one step further and moves Mrs. Saville out of one novel where she barely exists and into another in which she demands singular attention. I would be remiss if I did not give Morrissey hats off for embodying a woman’s psyche in such a stunning way.
Ms. Saville’s ghost-like brother Robert lands on her doorstep after many years at sea. He is shell-shocked (what we now call PTSD), with “a wild mane of air bleached sea salt grey and aged lion-lone beaten.” A nervous ball of shock and quiver. Mrs. Saville does not turn from this hurt creature but nurtures him with love and compassion. She has an ability to understand pain and works to resurrect her brother. (Yes, I was reminded of Frankenstein in terms of the theme of resurrection.)
Mary Shelley herself plays a part in this novel, but she’s a supporting actress that crosses Mrs. Saville’s path. Mrs. Saville encourages Shelley to succumb to her dark places to write, and clearly, she takes the advice to heart. But Mrs. Saville keeps her own darkness hidden behind stoic pastoral decorum, and that creates tension between the two women.
Shelley enters Mrs. Saville’s life as a curiosity, a woman who adds scandalous color to the story in stark contrast to Mrs. Saville’s domesticity. Her husband, the poet Percy Shelley is in debtor’s prison and Mary can barely take care of herself, never mind her children. And Ms. Saville, a perfect devoted wife, reports these events to her husband.
Being an animal rights activist, I will warn sensitive readers that there is a gruesomely described slaughterhouse scene in the book. It never dawned on me that slaughterhouses during this period existed as part of the town, and I was shaken by the horrors perpetrated where everyone could hear, and Mrs. Saville does.
Like most women in that time, Mrs. Saville is financially dependent on her husband, but with each letter, she gets more and more frantic as her finances start to dwindle. She asks her husband nicely to send help and then apologizes for bothering him with such unpleasantness, but she is forced to ask again and again. She patiently waits as the world around her crumbles, bewildered and desperate.
Mrs. Saville, a literary ghost we hardly knew, becomes a ghost we must know more about.