You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view

Reviews

Daisy Hay. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. ISBN: 978-0374123758. Price: US$27.50

  • Elizabeth Scott-Baumann

…more information

  • Elizabeth Scott-Baumann
    Wolfson College, Oxford University

Article body

Daisy Hay’s group biography starts from the engaging premise that both Romanticism and biography have tended to focus on the individual. It has, of course, been a long time since we believed that Romantic poets spent their days wandering lonely as clouds. The Romantic poets, both the first generation of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and the second generation of Shelley, Keats and Byron (to limit to the canonical), are now seen as political and sociable writers who often collaborated and revised each other’s work. The solitary genius has, then, been toppled in scholarship on the poems, but have biographies tended to retain their focus on the life of the individual? Biographies of Shelley, Mary Shelley, Hunt, Byron and Keats have already portrayed these figures in relation to each other, and explored the political and poetic importance of sociability. Hay does offer something different though, in the first group biography which seeks to characterize all five lives through their friendships, and which pays almost equal attention to all its protagonists. Young Romantics combines a focus on friendship with a return to intentionality; the readings of the poems are focused on what they reveal about the friendships, and how the friendships illuminate the text. In a book which will reach a wider audience than academic articles and monographs, Hay portrays the Romantics as champions of sociability, friendship and community, rather than solitary, tragic individuals.

Leigh Hunt is central to this project of socializing the Romantics, and Nicholas Roe and Anthony Holden (among others) have portrayed him as intrinsically enmeshed in a social and political network, never allowing him to be an isolated figure. As his friendships with Shelley and Byron developed, Hunt lead The Examiner into more literary ventures and it was he who first characterized these poets as an identifiable group. In an 1816 Examiner article entitled “Young Poets,” Hunt heralded the birth of a new school of poetry. He claimed that a new generation of poets “called to mind the finer times of the English Muse,” before the stiff neoclassicism of Pope, he suggested. The poets Hunt had yoked together, John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats and Shelley, were pleased with the publicity but, as Hay shows, Hunt’s move was not entirely philanthropic; “Young Poets” was also a way for him to claim them as his finds.

A year after the “Young Poets” article, Keats’ and Shelley’s connection with Hunt would leave them the objects not of praise but of censure and scorn. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published the first of two articles on the “Cockney School,” articulating stunning (and politically motivated) snobbery, sneering at Hunt and Keats in particular as suburban, politically radical and insufficiently educated. These personal and bigoted attacks damaged Keats, but Hunt seems to have twisted them to his advantage. The articles further solidified the notion of a ‘school’ of poetry connected with Hunt, whether praised as the “Young Poets” or dismissed as “Cockneys.” A year later, Hunt published Foliage, a collection of his poems including those addressed to Shelley, Keats, Byron, Reynolds, Marianne Hunt, her sister Bess, Lamb and Hazlitt. Hunt’s collection was also explicitly about friendship, as he asserted that the “main features of the book are a love of sociality [and] of the country.” For Hunt, friendship and sociability were not only the optimum conditions for creativity but also political, philosophical and aesthetic principles: “I write to enjoy myself; but I have learnt in the course of it to write for others also; and my poetical tendencies luckily fall in with my moral theories.” This was a powerful statement of intent, but not all Hunt’s friends were so happy to be harnessed to his cause. While he remained loyal to Hunt, Keats did begrudge these public statements of allegiance, regretting that “they have smothered me in ‘Foliage.’”

If Keats’ relationship with Hunt was sometimes reluctant, Shelley was more abundantly willing to share in Hunt’s publishing ventures, both creatively and financially. While Hunt was moving his family into Surrey Gaol with him, Shelley was busily disrupting his own domestic arrangements. In July 1814, leaving his wife Harriet pregnant with their second child, Shelley eloped with Mary Godwin. He eloped not only with Mary, however, but also with her half-sister Jane, also sixteen, who came to call herself Claire Clairmont. Hay draws out the way in which this triangular relationship, which dominated the futures of all three involved, also proved one of the curious patterns of the young romantics’ lives. Marianne Hunt’s sister, Bess Kent, lived much of her life with the Hunts, and lived with Leigh Hunt alone for some of the time in Surrey Gaol when conditions became too unhealthy for Marianne and her children.

Claire Clairmont responded with equal complexity and perhaps more fire than Bess Kent to her socially indeterminate position as sister-in-law to a great man. Claire seemed at times entirely dependent on Shelley’s affection and confidences and at others desperate for her own independence. Hay suggests that it was her desire for a dashing poet of her own that caused Claire to offer herself to Byron. When he travelled to Switzerland, Claire decided to follow and persuaded Mary and Shelley to join her. During this famous summer on the shore of Lake Geneva Byron worked on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Shelley on “Mont Blanc” and the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Mary Shelley also began Frankenstein. However artfully composed Mary Shelley’s account of the harmonious working party may be, it makes a strong claim for the importance of company and conversation to the writer’s work: “Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone.” By this time, Byron was no longer interested in Claire, and when she bore his child, Allegra, Byron claimed his daughter only to send the four year-old to a convent where she died.

Hay presents the Romantics as preoccupied by the question of whether sociability or isolation better fosters creativity, and her readings of the texts focus on this tension. Mary Shelley’s works are investigations of the dangers of isolation, whether Frankenstein’s irresponsible solitary act of creation, the monster’s desperate loneliness, or Matilda’s analysis of what Hay calls “the selfishness of grief”: “the living were not fit companions for me, and I was ever meditating by what means I might shake them all off, and never be heard of again.” By contrast, Shelley’s Epipsychidion, “Julian and Maddalo” and “Letter to Maria Gisborne” are “meditations on the nature of human interaction” (206). “Julian and Maddalo” is seen by Hay as a version of conversations between Shelley and Byron; A Defence of Poetry, we are reminded, is a part of a dialogue between friends, as Shelley responds to Thomas Love Peacock.

While stressing the importance of sympathy among her protagonists, Hay also maintains authorial sympathy for her subjects, even the most trying. Shelley, for instance, writes to his abandoned wife Harriet with spectacular lack of empathy after eloping with Mary and Jane, suggesting that she join them, and bring some money with her. Hay often allows quotations to reveal her characters’ foibles without the need for further comment, such as Shelley’s diary entry shortly after the birth of Mary’s first child. He comments plaintively that while the mother is “perfectly well & at ease,” he, poor man, is “much agitated & exhausted.” This small disjuncture sadly foretells the greater one that would occur after Mary lost her third child and suffered from a serious depression, leaving both husband and wife feeling alienated and despairing. Shelley is endlessly self-contradictory, and it does not hinder the argument here that he desired solitude as often as he demanded company.

The multiple inflections of friendship, parasitic as well as nurturing, competitive as well as admiring, are suggested by these poets’ deaths. Keats was buried by his friend Joseph Severn, who had cared for the young poet as tuberculosis was killing him. Shelley and his friend Edward Williams drowned together, but it is Edward Trelawny, the tall-tale-telling adventurer, who succeeded posthumously in his desire to be alongside Shelley. Trelawny demanded that his grave be inscribed with some of Shelley’s lines (“their two hearts in life were single-hearted”) implying an implausible intimacy between the two men who had known each other for less than a year. In what he saw as a Hellenic funeral pyre, Trelawny poured wine over the bodies and reported with visceral detail that Shelley’s “brains literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled as in a cauldron.” Hunt remained in his carriage, while Byron went for a long swim.

The conflict over Shelley’s memory became disturbingly corporeal, as Mary and Hunt tussled over Shelley’s heart (which may actually have been his liver). Once in London, Jane Williams, to whom Shelley had written adoring poems, complicated matters further by spreading gossip about the Shelleys and telling friends that Mary had made her husband unhappy. Unknown to Mary, it was Byron who showed her the most sensitivity and respect, sending the money to pay for her transport to England to Hunt so that she would be “spared any fancied humiliation” and able to travel “handsomely.” In a peculiar twist to the financial threads of these friendships, Hunt seems not to have given the money to Mary. At the opening of Young Romantics, Hunt is the group’s fulcrum, the link between Shelley, Byron and Keats, and a powerful political writer able to menace the Prince Regent. By the end of the study, he has faded from view (though he lived for almost forty more years). The image we are left with is a frustrated, petty man, scrapping over a liver and siphoning money due to a young widow.

After the death of Shelley, Hay’s story becomes that of the women left behind. Mary arrived back in England to the rejection of her friends, to Jane Williams’ slanders and the ungenerous attitude of her father-in-law Timothy Shelley, whom she would never meet. One happier surprise, though, was the success of Frankenstein as a stage adaptation. Mary was “much amused” by the production, perceiving its melodramatic silliness but also pleased with the “breathless eagerness” of the audience, and the financial rewards of the play for her. Bess Kent, Hunt’s live-in sister-in-law, became a botanical writer. Her first work, Flora Domestica, took the Cockney School’s maligned domesticity and interest in rural and suburban England in a new direction, and was moderately successful .

Claire Clairmont has the most prominent role as the story reaches its close, not least because during her research for the book Daisy Hay found fragments of Clairmont’s memoir in the New York Public Library. This discovery has provoked heated responses from some Romanticists (not to mention sexed-up headlines in various newspapers) and more research of course remains to be done on this fascinating manuscript. The memoir is quoted here for the first time, and it seems to reflect both the feelings of the young Claire and the judgments of the old. Given Byron’s rejection of her, and the fate of her daughter, it is perhaps no surprise to hear Claire characterize him as a “human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women.” More unexpected, as Hay argues, is Claire’s condemnation of Shelley in the same terms as Byron; both men are “monsters of lying, meanness cruelty and treachery” who committed cruelty in the name of free love.

Hay resists any suggestion that this fragment offers proof of whether Claire and Shelley had an affair. She is similarly cautious and even-handed in her treatment of Shelley’s mysterious “Neapolitan ward,” whom some have argued was his and Claire’s illegitimate child. Shelley certainly found a frisson in Claire’s presence in his household, and when they were living apart he poured out thoughts to her in a correspondence which was not openly shared with Mary. On one occasion, Shelley wrote to Claire of his frustration at domestic life, and contemplated a trip to Egypt, confiding that he did not know if it were practicable but “that if it were it would give me the greatest pleasure, & the pleasure might be either doubled or divided by your presence or absence.” It is very difficult to gauge accurately the tone of such statements. A serious intent to elope with his wife’s sister seems improbable, though Shelley had already left one wife and child. Perhaps it is more likely that these are idle musings in a confidential correspondence representing, as Hay suggests, a fantasy of freedom.

Claire Clairmont emerges as a resourceful and seductive character, but also sparring, competitive and demanding. Hay does not fall for her as so many of Claire’s contemporaries and even biographers have done. Claire’s life was always both exciting and devastating, from the elopement with her sister and sister’s beloved, to the bearing of Byron’s child, the loss of her daughter to the convent where she died and to a difficult life of governess work in Russia. Claire was strongly influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft (her stepsister’s mother) and prided herself on bringing up her wards as “violent defenders of the Rights of Women.” Young Romantics does not claim any explicit gender agenda, but certain balances are redressed simply by giving Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Marianne Hunt, Bess Kent and Jane Williams equal space on the page to their male companions.

Young Romantics tells these well-worn lives freshly enough to read like a novel. The literary and anecdotal material cannot but shine as, for instance, Byron, begrudgingly married to Annabella Millbanke, refers to their “treaclemoon,” while Annabella reports Byron refusing the marital bed but instead pacing up and down with a dagger drawn. These figures seemed always to have had an eye to posterity. Hay’s focus on relationships, on friendship as politically radical but also on domestic sociability, brings to light rich and less familiar quotations.

Following studies such as Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite’s Romantic Sociability (Cambridge 2002), Hay emphasizes cooperative creativity and influence. This is not portrayed as an oedipal struggle with the previous generation (the Elderly Romantics?) but synchronic influence upon each other’s works as peers, friends, rivals and admirers. Hay sees friendship not simply as one of the conditions in which works are produced, but as the driving philosophical and poetic ideal behind much of the poetry of Shelley, Keats and Byron, and the prose of Mary Shelley and Leigh Hunt. The glamour of the sociable romantics certainly equals that of the solitary inspired poet, but Hay is good also on the baser notes struck by jealousy, abandonment, slander and financial demands. Leigh Hunt, desperately trying to move his family to Italy in order to start another journal in collaboration with Shelley and Byron, conveys the extreme, often melodramatic, but always intensely-felt emotions of this turbulent group; “what a disappointing, wearisome, vexatious, billowy, up-and-downy, unbearable, beautiful world it is!”.

Appendices