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Agatha Award 2006
Best Children's/YA Novel
Down the Strings
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Nancy Means Wright

Midnight Fires - Preface

    Mary Wollstonecraft shocked the eighteenth century world with her outspoken views on marriage, children, and women's rights, her advocacy of divorce reform, and her involvement with the French Revolution.   She set off a tempest of scandal through her passionate love affairs, the birth of an illegitimate child, and her attempts at suicide.   A "hyena in petticoats," a contemporary called her.   Her short life was a continual struggle between her principles and her own sexuality.   The struggle ended at the age of thirty-eight when she died giving birth to a second but, this time, legitimate daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.   The latter married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and true to the Wollstonecraft blood, wrote the suspense novel, Frankenstein.
    Wollstonecraft (pronounced WALLston-croft) left numerous works to the world, including her famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman.   Her spirited, often emotional letters are amply quoted in several excellent biographies, but no diary or journal has come down to us in this century.   Yet in her autobiographical novel, MARY, the protagonist writes: "She retired to her cabin and wrote in the little book that was now her only confidante.   It was after midnight."
    There is no doubt in my mind but that Mary did keep a journal, one in which the writing is infinitely more personal, more straightforward, more confessional than in any of her letters or literary works.   This mythical journal has continued to gestate in my own late night reveries.   I had, in 1992, published a small press chapbook of poems using the Wollstonecraft persona, and had often considered writing a fictional biography of her short passionate life.   But other projects invariably interrupted.   After publishing eight contemporary mystery novels, I finally decided to tell her story in this genre, and as a third person narrative, since many aspects of her life have the earmarks of intrigue.
    Mary herself was so strong-minded and impetuous, possessed of such a brilliant, inquiring mind, so intolerant of injustice and sham, that in my opinion she makes an extraordinary sleuth.  The dramatic kidnapping of her younger sister from an abusive husband (mentioned only as background in this novel) is a case in point.   Moreover, her unconventional life suggests that there were incidents that Mary would never describe to her more conformable siblings—that were for her midnight thoughts only.
    In that vein I have taken the liberty of reconstructing her months as governess with the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family as a novelist would, while remaining, for the most part, true to time, place, and several of the individuals historically connected with Mitchelstown Castle.
    Caroline FitzGerald was proud of being descended from the medieval White Knight (his name derived, in part, from the color of his armor), who built his castle in Mitchelstown, in County Cork.   In the seventeenth century a FitzGerald heiress married into a King family of civil servants, and the family began its triumphant climb up the social ladder to become the Barons "Kingston." When Edward King attained the rank of 1st Earl of Kingston in the mid-eighteenth century, his son Robert took on his father's title as Lord Kingsborough.  And when Robert married his third cousin Caroline (the catch of the season), he inherited Mitchelstown Castle and built a whole town (or borough) around it.
    Although Lord and Lady Kingsborough and their offspring were a real part of Mary Wollstonecraft's life as governess, the scenes concerning the Kingsborough family's involvement with the local peasantry are wholly fictional.   I have tried to stay close to Mary's character and personality; and if the sequence of actual events during this period of her life is somewhat altered, or the local geography, or the people involved, the reader will kindly indulge me.
    The reader will, of course, be the final judge.

Nancy Means Wright, January, 2009

 

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