"Young Romantics": Bohemians behaving badly

From idealism to incest in the tangled, magnificent lives of Shelley, Byron and Keats

By Laura Miller

Published May 30, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

John Keats and Mary Shelley
John Keats and Mary Shelley

People were intrigued by the lives of writers before the early 1800s, but the modern fascination with "the writer's life," and specifically with the idea of a coterie of unconventional young talents hanging out together in some appealing setting, began then. If you're smitten with Bloomsbury or Paris in the 1920s or the Beats, you have -- by extension, at least -- fallen for the group of poets, essayists, musicians and artists Daisy Hay writes about in her new book, "Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation." They set the pattern; those who came after were variations on their theme.

"Young Romantics" focuses on two complicated households, one lastingly notorious, the other now nearly forgotten. The first is the family group surrounding the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which included his wife, Mary Shelley (author of "Frankenstein"), and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. The second belonged to a journalist, critic and poet named Leigh Hunt, whose two-year incarceration in the Surrey County Jail for the crime of criticizing the Prince Regent kicks off Hay's narrative. The two other major poets of this circle, Lord Byron and John Keats, come into the story as well, of course, though Byron played a larger part than Keats -- who had the sense to stay out of most of the bigger messes his cohorts got into.

This second generation of Romantic poets (after the group led by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1790s) shaped our contemporary conceptions of creativity and morality so profoundly that it's safe to say we've never really gotten over them. It's become a cliché to call them the first hippies, rock stars and celebrities; above all, these men and women defined what it means to be an artist in the modern age -- a heroic, if lonely figure who insists on remaining true to his genius in a harsh and venal world. Hay explains that she hopes, with "Young Romantics," to look "beyond the image of the isolated poet in order to restore relationships to the center of the Romantic story." In this, she's attempting a bold revision of how the Romantics portrayed themselves and at the same time tapping into our long-standing infatuation with the idea of a community of brilliant free spirits, inspiring and infuriating each other via a web of friendships, love affairs and feuds.

Hay works in a shadow; Richard Holmes, arguably our greatest living biographer, specializes in the Romantics. (His "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" was among the most celebrated works of nonfiction published last year.) Hay doesn't write as captivatingly as Holmes does -- but then, neither does anyone else. The strength of "Young Romantics" lies in its perspective, not so much on her subjects' works (the critical passages in the book are perfunctory) as on the delights and agonies of la vie boheme as it was lived in its early days.

Hunt and Shelley both longed to create countercultural communities, and made several creditable stabs at it. Perversely, getting tossed in the clink turned out to be a blessing for the impractical Hunt, who was co-owner, editor and chief contributor at a liberal newspaper, the Examiner. In those days, with enough money and the right friends, a jail cell could be comfortably outfitted; Hunt had a charming room with flowered wallpaper and a private garden in the midst of an otherwise dank prison. His confinement, and his principled conduct in the face of it, made him a hero to the reform-minded left, and as he penned a series of influential columns about European politics, his parlor received a steady stream of notable visitors and patrons.

As a result, Hunt became the center of a group whose "emergent identity" was based on the ideal of "sociability," described by Hay as "an experiment in living which elevated the rituals of friendship -- communal dining, music-making, letter writing , shared reading -- so that these rituals ... took on a cooperative, oppositional significance." How people, especially creative people, conducted their personal lives became not just a political statement, but a kind of political activity at a time when the British government was trying to tamp down rising popular discontent with a raft of oppressive new laws.

No one could have endorsed this vision more fervently than Shelley, an aristocratic proponent of radicalism and free love who'd been expelled from Oxford for his atheistic views. His mentor in these beliefs was the political philosopher William Godwin, who turned dishearteningly unsympathetic when Shelley eloped with his 16-year-old daughter, Mary, in 1814. (Shelley already had a wife, and a pregnant one at that.) The "immorality" of their relationship made living in England, or in any other settled situation, difficult for the young couple, but eventually (after the suicide of his first wife) Shelley and Mary did get married, and the second half of "Young Romantics" describes the poet's efforts to forge assemblies of like-minded friends, including Byron, in various Italian cities.

Money and sex usually conspired to foil these plans, or to cut them short. The impecunious Hunt was always hitting up his exasperated friends for loans; Dickens based the sponging Harold Skimpole, in "Bleak House," on him. And for all their lofty ideals, Shelley and Hunt could be stunningly insensitive to the women in their lives, the ones who had to suffer most of the consequences of all that free love. Claire Clairmont, whose relationship with Shelley was ambiguous at best, bore Byron's illegitimate child, a daughter she adored but who was taken away from her and died in a convent at the age of 4. By the time "Young Romantics" gets to the year 1822, when Shelley drowned in a boating accident, it comes as a jolt to learn that Mary Shelley had run away to Europe with a great poet, written a seminal English novel, buried three children (only her fourth survived to adulthood) and lost her soul mate -- all by the age of 25.

Whether or not they were formidable thinkers (like Mary Shelley) or intrepid adventurers (like Claire), the women in these artsy enclaves had the unenviable task of running the households where revolutionary sociability was cultivated. Most of these establishments included extra women of uncertain status, usually sisters. Hunt, Shelley and Byron all wrote poems featuring brother-sister incest and were rumored to have such propensities, which didn't make being part of their domestic entourages any easier. (Only Byron actually appears to have slept with a blood relation, his half-sister, Augusta, but a dalliance with a sister-in-law was considered quasi-incestuous at the time.) Claire eventually fled to Russia -- viewed by the English as a barbarous outpost -- to seek work as a governess, hoping to escape the taint of her association with Shelley and Byron. One of Hay's research discoveries is an autobiographical fragment by Claire, in which she indicts both Shelley and Byron as "monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery," primarily for their championing of free love.

But the two poets could also be kind and magnanimous, and they were certainly correct in thinking that Claire was more wronged by the sexual mores of her time than by either of them. Hay -- a stolid rather than a lyrical writer -- is better at pruning back the moral thickets of these relationships than she is at invoking why so many people got swept up in Byron's charisma, Percy Shelley's radiant idealism, Keats' meltingly lovely verse or Mary Shelley's ethical intelligence in the first place. No matter; their lives were also a kind of art, and one that never fails to cast its spell.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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