The widely celebrated authors featured in Novel Conversations Season 5 are renowned for their timeless works, unforgettable characters and advancements in literature. Their personal lives on the other hand… kinda scandalous.
Mary Shelley’s Relationship Drama
Mary Shelley wrote Frankstein at the ripe age of 19. When it was published she was only 21 years old. It helped (greatly) that she came from a family of influence. Her parents were intellectuals, Mary Wollstonecraft, one of history's first feminist writers, and William Godwin, a philosopher.
Shelley's love life may have been as spooky as her horror novel. Rumor has it...
Mary's father may have killed to save his daughter's reputation. As the story goes, when she was just 16, Shelley met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — an admirer of her father's. Even though he was married and significantly older (age 22 at the time), the two fell in love and eventually ran away together in 1814. When they returned to England, Mary was pregnant and her father wanted nothing to do with her.
However, in 1816, the pregnant body of Harriet Westbrook - Percy Shelley's first wife - was found in London's Serpentine river after an apparent suicide. Mary and Percy got married soon after, but rumors persisted that Mary's father had Harriet killed.
Apparently, karma got the best of the power couple and Percy died at the young age of 29 after his boat sank in a storm.
Mary kept his heart in her desk. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais. Now that is love.
Gustave Flaubert’s Trouble with the Law
French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, suffered from a malady that he would always refer to as “my nervous attacks.” According to the New Yorker, “His father, a celebrated surgeon, had recognized the symptoms—hallucinations, convulsions, migraines, blackouts, disturbances of vision, and “cerebral congestion”—and had treated Gustave with the only palliatives then known: regular bloodletting and mercury massages bolstered by a regimen of swimming and a restricted diet. Neither the patient nor his family would ever admit the truth: that Flaubert had epilepsy.”
The depression that came with a lifetime of suffering may have been reflected in the morose undertones of his famed novel, Madame Bovary (1857). To offset the pain in life, Flaubert loved to travel… and… dabble.
He was never shy about his sexual habits, Flaubert was very open about his activities with prostitutes of both sexes during his travels. Again, the amoral conscious of a permiscuous Flaubert can be found reflected in the main character traits of adulterous, Madame Bovary.
SO… When Madame Bovary was serialized in the newspaper, the French government sued Flaubert and publisher on charges of immorality. The government lost.
Some say, because of Flaubert’s bold concepts on adultery and ‘pushing the envelope’ per say, marked the turning point in French fiction from Romanticism to Realism.
Voltaire Rigs the Lottery
Like Flaubert, Voltaire was a huge government target, due to the nature of his content. Voltaire was a charismatic and rebellious individual. This fiery spirit lead him to become versatile and prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken advocate of civil liberties, despite the risk this placed him in under the strict censorship laws of the time (it’s the early 1700’s, people!).
After the French government caught on to his seditious antics - which criticize intolerance, religious dogma and the French institutions of his day - this landed him in the Tower of Bastille for almost a year.
After he got out, he was broke. So...
In the year 1729, Voltaire teamed with mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine and others to exploit a loophole in the French national lottery. The French government, each month, gave out massive prizes for the contest, but an error in calculation could result in the payouts that were larger than the value of all the tickets in circulation. With the intention of using this flaw of the national lottery, Voltaire, La Condamine and a syndicate of other gamblers repeatedly raked in massive winnings. It is believed that the scheme left Voltaire with a windfall of nearly half a million francs, setting him up for life and allowing him to devote himself solely to his literary career.
Yes, the looks bad. However, had it not happened, this may have resulted in history forgetting this brilliant man. Afterall, wouldn’t your rig the lottery in 1717 to write books all day every day, forever?!
Mark Twain is a Poor Investor
Mark Twain might be America’s best-known writer but during his time, he struggled financially. Twain was a sucker for get-rich-quick schemes and bad investments. In his early days, he became obsessed with the idea of striking it rich by mining the Nevada territory for gold and silver. He found nothing but bad luck. But as luck would have it, this is where he turned to writing.
According to Listverse, “Once he started making money at writing, Twain made a string of horrible investments... He invested in an engraving machine called the Kaolatype, which he dreamed would revolutionize the printing industry. The inventor had already ruined one business, but Twain invested his money in the idea despite the inventor’s shaky reputation. When Twain went to see the machine in person, the shop had an untimely accident and burned to the ground the night before he arrived. Even after Twain finally realized he was being taken for a ride, he never stopped believing that the machine could have actually worked.”
“The next person to take advantage of Twain’s bad judgment was James Paige. Twain believed his “Paige Compositer,” an automatic typesetting machine, would do what Kaolatype didn’t and revolutionize the publishing industry. Paige milked Twain for about $4 million in today’s currency over the course of 14 years. The inventor, along with Twain’s own failed publishing company, eventually bankrupted the author.”
“His enormous debts forced Twain to embark on a highly publicized lecturing tour to pay them off. Once he finally paid back all the money he owed, he immediately began laying down plans to invest another $1.5 million in another invention that would design textiles. A friend talked him out of it, though it may well have been the one time Twain actually would have struck gold. The inventor of the textile machine went on to design a series of other successful inventions.”
That sucks. But a string of bad luck, poor investments and risky business dealings had nothing on his incredible legacy as a literary genius.
Unlike our previous mischievous authors, Sinclair Lewis was quite the opposite. In fact, his life was outstanding. In 1930, Lewis was the first American to win a Nobel Prize for literature. In 1926, Lewis's novel Arrowsmith was awarded a Pulitzer Prize; however, he declined the Prize saying he didn't approve of contest and deemed it “too commercial” as the award is not based on the merits of a career rather than a single book.
In addition to his literary success, he had two extraordinary marriages. In 1914 he married Grace Livingston Hegger, editor for Vogue Magazine. They divorced in 1928. Then in May of 1928, Lewis married well-known journalist, Dorothy Thompson who led the Berlin bureau of the New York Post. She was staunchly anti-Hitler and allegedly was one of the first American journalists expelled from Germany, an order given by Hitler himself. In 1939 she appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which named her one of the two most influential women in America... the other being Eleanor Roosevelt.
The only dirt I could turn up on this shining example of a human being was, at the age of thirteen, Sinclair ran away from home with hopes of joining the Spanish-American War as a drummer boy. His plans were foiled when his father caught him at the train station and made him come home.
Good thing he turned in his drum sticks for a typewriter.
It’s lucky for us that these authors led “interesting” lives, otherwise, how would we have come to know Victor Frankenstien, Madame Bovary, Candide, Huckleberry Finn and so many others. Please be sure to listen to some of the world’s greatest stories in Season 5 of Novel Conversations.
When and Where can I listen?? Here’s this season’s episode release list:
Ep. 2: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856) July 9
Ep. 3: Candide by Voltaire (1759) July 16
Ep. 4: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (1920) July 23
Ep. 5: White Fang by Jack London (1906) July 30
Ep. 6: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain (1896) Aug 6
Ep. 7: Parnassus on Wheels by Novel by Christopher Morley (1917) Aug 13
Ep. 8: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) Aug 20