Is there anything new to be said about the lives of the Romantic poets? I’m not sure, and doubtless some scholars will complain loudly that there is nothing original or revelatory to be found in Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. But to do so is to miss the point. For the non-scholar, Hay’s group biography of the Shelleys, Byron and their circle is complete bliss: a feat of concision and clear thinking that will remind you why, all those years ago, when you were young and foolish, you were so thrilled by these writers, by their unruly credos and marvellous verse-making, by their frilled shirts and luxuriant hair. Truly, it’s delicious.
For the reader, her strategy is a little like being at a good party: should you grow weary of one guest, over his or her shoulder someone more interesting will always be coming into view. Even better, its pace and sweep induces you to investigate nooks and crannies into which Hay is able to shine a torch only briefly, to take down from your shelves books you haven’t touched in two decades. In my own case, this year’s holiday reading is going to look mighty strange by the pool.
It is Hay’s contention – though it is somewhat counter-intuitive, as she readily admits – that Shelley, Keats and Byron were in some sense built by their friendships. Far from being the solitaries of popular mythology, their associations with one another, sometimes ecstatically happy, sometimes painfully fraught, were vitally important, to their daily lives and to their work.
So she weaves their stories into a single narrative, a long and incestuous tale that begins with Leigh Hunt, the journalist and radical, holding court in his prison cell (he was incarcerated for two years in Surrey jail, Horsemonger Lane, for libelling the Prince Regent) and ends with the premature passing of the generation he so generously championed in his journals (Hunt, of course, outlived them all). This approach is challenging, and occasionally throws an odd emphasis on things. The death of Keats, for instance, is dispatched in a single paragraph, and long before the book’s end. But in the case of more minor characters, and particularly the women, it works a treat; it is a kind of levelling, one that restores them to their rightful place at the table.
If the book has a presiding spirit, it is, perhaps, Mary Wollstonecraft, for all that she is already cold in her grave when Young Romantics begins. Her terrifying (for the times) unconventionality, her feminism, and her suicidal impulses lived on in both her daughters, Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley), and, more strikingly, in their stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Claire’s mother married Wollstonecraft’s widower, William Godwin, after Mary’s early death); and it is one of these three, Claire, whose near constant presence in the narrative comes to seem to the reader most significant. Sometimes, Claire appears to be mad, even monstrous; you feel, as Mary often did, that you would like to escape her neediness and her strange reinventions. But at others, she is sympathetic, being more sinned against than sinning, yet another casual victim of the Shelleys, whose self-absorption could be devastating. Either way, without her, the story would have been very different.
Claire had a brief and unhappy affair with Byron, a liaison she conjured out of thin air, having conceived a delirious crush on him, one based solely on her reading of his poetry; later, they had a daughter, Allegra, who died young. I would not describe Claire as human glue, though she had the tenacity of a limpet when necessary. But she was both witness and catalyst. It was Claire who introduced her future brother-in-law, Shelley, to Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva, and it was because of Claire’s daughter that Shelley travelled in 1818 to Italy, where he wrote many of his greatest poems. (Byron, always on the move, had decreed that the child would live with him; Claire, Mary and Shelley decided to deliver her personally.)
Then there was Claire’s relationship with her stepsister, the author of Frankenstein. For both of them, the question – burden – of reputation was problematic from the start. Their connection to Wollstonecraft gave them a notoriety even before they left home, and when they did exit Godwin’s Skinner Street household, it was as moral fugitives.
Mary eloped with Shelley, a married man (they were only able to marry when his abandoned wife, Harriet, drowned herself in the Serpentine), and Claire accompanied them on their ill-planned trip to the continent. This arrangement further isolated her both from society and from her family – even William Godwin, the famous radical, disapproved of it – and without even the consolation of love.
Why did she do it? Hay suggests that Claire, too, was infatuated with Shelley, and her diligent charting of the course of her complex and often secretive relationship with the poet, not to mention the intense stress this placed on the bond with her stepsister, is one of the great pleasures of her book. Like some white-coated ward doctor, she takes the pulse of this non-couple at regular intervals, and her medical notes are always fascinating. Claire outlived her stepsister, Mary, by 28 years, and Shelley by 57, a passage of time that afforded her a sense of perspective rare in an age where so many died young.
Hay has published for the first time a fragment of autobiography written by Claire, discovered in 1998. It makes for stunning reading. In it, she launches an excoriating attack on Byron and Shelley’s belief in “free love”, a conviction that did poor Claire no good at all (after their deaths, forced to work as a governess in Russia, she lived in fear of discovery of her association with them). Free love, she writes, “dissolves” tenderness, abusing affections “that should be the solace and balm of life”. She goes on to assert that it turned even the poets’ own lives into a “perfect hell”.
It would be worth devouring Young Romantics for Claire’s story alone. But if it’s the men you’re after, they’re all here, too. Byron’s scandalous doings are retold with verve, from the disaster of his marriage to Annabella Milbanke (the rot set in on their honeymoon, which Byron thereafter referred to as his “treaclemoon”) to the infamous summer he spent in Switzerland with the Shelleys and Claire, in the course of which Mary first conceived Frankenstein (one local hotelier did a brisk trade in sailing trips on Lake Geneva, during which appalled English tourists inspected the washing drying outside Byron’s villa for evidence of female inhabitants).
Personally, I did not take to Leigh Hunt, on whom Hay lavishes great attention. But his relationship with his sister-in-law, Bess Kent, is intriguing. She is Claire’s echo: a more shadowy figure, for sure, but perhaps just as sorely used.
The epigraph to Young Romantics is taken from something Keats wrote of his circle in 1817: “The web of our Life is of mingled yarn.” It is the author’s great achievement to have so deftly unpicked the glorious knot formed by these jumbled and many hued fibres, and by doing so, to have revealed their true colours, blazing and afresh.