In this Issue:
CultureWatch: For anyone enamored of English literature in general and its romantic poets in particular, Young Romantics is a treasure. The Anthologist has a rather bittersweet plot, but includes more criticism, philosophy, and satire than ordinary fiction. Following the Water is actually poetry in prose and science as art, including philosophy and religion without confrontation. The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything is a treat for all who enjoy trivia; a fine resource for straightforward and authoritative information.
The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation
by Daisy Hay
Published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux; ©2010, 311 pp
For anyone enamored of English literature in general and of its romantic poets in particular, this book is a treasure. Its author, Daisy Hay, has a recent doctorate in English Literature from Cambridge, and currently teaches at Oxford. This is her first book, and one may only hope that others will follow. Her scholarship is impeccable (copious notes, a fine bibliography, and a very thorough index), but it’s her careful interpretation of the dynamics of a group of youngsters who were striving to be heard and acknowledged, that excites a reader’s intellect and touches the heart.
In the early years of the 19th century, a young journalist and poet named Leigh Hunt gathered around him a group of young artists, writers, musicians and poets, all of them eager to make a name for themselves in the world of the arts. It was, to be sure, an exceptional group, one that included John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Gordon, aka Lord Byron. Intertwined with those easily-recognized names were the women in their lives, most notably Shelley’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (author of Frankenstein) and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont (née Jane, who had renamed herself Clara and then Claire). The latter threw herself at Lord Byron, was briefly his mistress, and, at the age of about 16, bore him a daughter.
My only quibble with this book has to do with its subtitle. The claim of “English Poetry’s Greatest Generation” seems a bit of gratuitous hyperbole. The members of the group were certainly an extraordinary bunch, but then, English literature boasts a remarkable number of extraordinary bunches. Giving this particular group of free-thinking poets the title of “greatest” seems a bit of an overreach.
Any group of young people interested in the arts will attract individuals of widely varying talents and gifts, from supremely creative artists, to those who yearn but have gifts of lesser brilliance, to hangers-on who simply attach themselves to the high achievers in hopes of catching a little stardust. Hay’s Young Romantics has them all, and she manages to make all of them interesting, or at least interesting as texture to her tale.
Her portrayal of the women in this group is the most detailed, sympathetic treatment this reviewer has seen. She doesn’t, as others usually do, identify Mary Shelley simply as Shelley’s wife, nor even as the surprising woman who wrote Frankenstein: she gives us real insight into the Shelleys’ relationship, and credits Mary with remarkable intellectual brilliance, as well as beauty. 1
Young Mary eloped with Shelley when she was just 16, and her stepsister Claire accompanied them. Shelley was already married, and it wasn’t until his wife, Harriet, committed suicide a few years later that he and Mary were free to marry. In the meantime, a son, William, was born to them.
Mary’s and Claire’s reputations were ruined, and although Shelley seems to have survived the scandal rather better than the girls, his free-thinking lifestyle cost him the two children from his marriage to Harriet, for her family gained custody of them, despite English law which said children belonged to their fathers. The court deemed Shelley too depraved to be a fit parent.
For many years, Claire lived with the Shelleys. It was an age when an unmarried woman who was not independently wealthy could not find much to support herself unless she was willing to hire out as a governess. Ultimately, this was the fate of both Claire and Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law, Bess. In the years covered by this book, however, they were very much on the scene, at times causing great stress to the marriages of the Shelleys and the Hunts, or at least for the wives, who had to share their husbands, mentally, emotionally, and possibly physically.