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Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives


Daisy Hay


London: Bloomsbury, 2010. £20 (hardcover), xi+364 pp.

ISBN-10: 0747586276, ISBN-13:978-0747586272.


Reviewed by Aurora Barsalou

York University (Toronto, Ontario)



Although Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives is Daisy Hay’s first published book, this is a highly polished piece worthy of much praise and acclaim. Indeed, the narrative is so seamless, that at times, the reader can easily lose themselves in the adventures and experiences of the Romantic poets and their friends. While the subject matter of this book has continued to capture the interest and imaginations of literary scholars for almost two hundred years, Hay’s take on the familiar landscape is refreshing as she explores new themes, elements, and angles that are crucial to our understanding of Romantic poetry and Romantic poets. Contrary to the spirit of individualism that inspired the genius of the first generation of Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake, the second generation of poets, from Byron, Shelley, and Keats, were motivated and stimulated by the friendship, support, and sociability of “co-operative creativity” [123, 142, xiv-xv]. Significantly, this "creative co-operative" was by no means restricted to or exclusively composed of the Canonical poets. Thanks to Hay’s meticulous research, the community of literary personages that initially formed up around imprisoned journalist Leigh Hunt in support of his libellous attack against the Prince Regent is revealed to be far more complex and dynamic than scholars have previously suggested. United in one text, the creative forces of Byron, the Shelleys, and Keats, are analysed alongside the more ordinary women and men in their lives. By expanding her scope of analysis to include Claire Clairmont, Jane Williams, Bess Kent, Joseph Severn, John Trelawny, and Leigh Hunt, among many others, Hay demonstrates that this small, but influential circle shared ideas and spaces that were crucial to the development of political, social, economic, and cultural alternatives and calls for reform. And although many of this groups’ published works and philosophies were publicly ridiculed and rejected by their contemporaries, their particular association fostered an environment of productivity, creativity, and collegiality, which resulted in the production of some of the finest literary works of the early nineteenth century.

Presented in three distinct sections, Hay’s text is suitable for any audience, although academics will likely appreciate the particular nuance of her argument and the fact that the poets and their friends are often allowed to speak for themselves, through excerpts from their published works and personal letters. Although some might be wary that Young Romantics is solely biographical in nature, the author has very carefully framed this highly detailed text against a backdrop of political change, upheaval, and instability, both in Britain and abroad for several purposes. Firstly, in the wake of the death of Princess Charlotte, the Peterloo Massacre, the very public divorce proceedings launched by King George IV against his estranged wife Queen Caroline, and revolutionary struggles in Italy and Greece, the book is grounded in a real sense of time and place, which serves as an important reminder that the world in which the Young Romantics lived was in flux. Furthermore, these political events are important because they informed a body of literature and philosophical engagement that produced some of the most vivid poems of the age. Hence, Hay keenly demonstrates that not only is poetry political, but as in the case of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab and Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, poetry is also subversive and serves as a record of countercultural ideologies during a period of heightened repression and censorship.

The political climate in the first half of the nineteenth-century also significantly influenced the formation of a community of Romantic writers, who were initially drawn together in support of Leigh Hunt during his two-year imprisonment in Surrey gaol. Imprisoned on a libel charge for criticising the Prince Regent in an editorial in 1812, journalist and co-owner of the liberal newspaper The Examiner, Hunt soon found himself and his young family installed in private living quarters in an old prison infirmary. Here, Hunt and his wife, and her sister Bess Kent, created a salon of sorts to welcome the artists, musicians, and writers that came to visit Hunt in prison, and in turn, demonstrate to the censorious Tory government that the imprisonment of Hunt and his brother would not quash free speech, political criticism, and calls for reform. Hence, as Hay correctly asserts, by 1813, friendship with Hunt was increasingly associated with political resistance [9]. The community of creative spirits that gathered around Hunt during this period stimulated a coalescence in his thinking surrounding the importance of “sociability” to literary productivity [41]. Although Percy Shelley seemed initially hesitant to embrace this ideological transformation from "individualism to friendship" and "solitude to sociability" the way Hunt did, as demonstrated in Alastor, it is clear that Shelley benefited greatly, and very much enjoyed, the company of free-thinking intellectuals.

Before we proceed, I think it important to distinguish between Hay’s "co-operative circle" and the ‘Romantic writing community’ discussed by scholars like Stephen Behrendt in his recent work, British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community.(1) While both authors are ostensibly making the same argument regarding the importance of community, fellowship, and material and intellectual support, Behrendt’s analysis is focused on illuminating the works of the female poets who have traditionally been excluded from the Canon. As such, Behrendt does not delve into the creative sphere surrounding the Canonical poets. As Hay convincingly demonstrates, however, the Young Romantics were influenced and inspired by people, and oftentimes women, on the margins of their own social and literary circles. Hence, in this respect, Hay’s study fills an important gap in our understanding of the significance of a wider literary and artistic community on the development of Romantic poetry from the centre.

Although the main thrust of Hay’s analysis is built around demonstrating the existence and importance of a co-operative poetic enterprise, several other key ideas resonate throughout the text. First and foremost of these, it would seem, is the degree to which Hay has taken the romance out of the Romantic poets. That is not to say that Hay has in any way denigrated her subjects or the works they produced; however, she has left no stone unturned when examining their public and private papers to expose the essential humanity of these authors and their circle of friends. For example, in the case of Mary and Percy Shelley, the deaths of their three young children over the course of a year traumatised the couple, and the subsequent isolation that Shelley experienced during Mary’s deep spells of depression, highlight the strains these personal hardships placed on their relationship. Moreover, while the death of her children significantly impacted Mary’s psychological health, her body also underwent severe periods of strain as she coped with multiple pregnancies and a miscarriage. Following Shelley’s death in 1822, the 25 year-old widow was left without an independent means of support, and Mary had to enter into negotiations with Shelley’s father to secure a modest allowance that would support the maintenance of her sole surviving son.

Mary’s stepsister Jane Clairmont, universally known as Claire Clairmont, was no stranger to the harsh realities presented by life among the Young Romantics and their “free love” philosophy [43-45]. For Claire, whose previously unpublished writings have given Hay a powerful degree of insight into the emotional toll membership or association with this group wrought on its participants, life on the lamb with Mary and Shelley was far from romantic. Having fled the family home alongside her stepsister in 1814, Claire Clairmont was not a woman of independent means. Hence, her fate for over half a decade was very much tied to that of Mary and Shelley. Over the course of several years, Claire traveled between France, Switzerland, Italy, and England. Throughout this period she was a friend and companion to Shelley, although never his intellectual equal like Mary, she served as an informal governess for Mary’s children, and was frequently a source of conflict in Shelley and Mary’s relationship. Although Claire’s temperament often made her difficult to live with, her unpleasant behaviour is somewhat understandable considering that she was caught up in the public critiques of their unorthodox living arrangements and Shelley’s philosophical challenges to monogamy; a situation that was indeed made worse upon the publication of Shelley’s Laon and Cythna, a poem that celebrated incest.

Despite the fact that Claire received several marriage proposals throughout her travels, she never married. It seems that her experience with the Shelleys and Lord Byron sullied her desire to commit herself to someone else’s care. The child she bore in 1817 was an enormous source of delight for Claire, and Hay suggests that during this period, Claire was truly happy, though still financially dependent upon Shelley. In 1818 however, Byron exercised his paternal right and ordered that Alba, now to be called Allegra, be removed to his care in Italy. This arrangement quickly proved tiresome for Byron, who was more interested in pursuing a relationship with a married Italian woman than the care of his daughter. At age 4, Allegra was sent to live and be educated at a convent, far away from the only friends or family she had ever known. Claire objected fiercely to this, and her letters to Byron express her anger at him and her concern for her child. Although Mary and Shelley also wrote Bryon on many occasions concerning the care of little Allegra, Byron would have none of it, and relations between the Young Romantics were thus frequently strained as a result of this issue. Tensions between Claire and the Shelleys increased further, however, when it was discovered that although Mary and Shelley disagreed with Byron’s handling of the Allegra affair, they valued his friendship too much to cut ties with him. Hence, in pursuit of this friendship, Claire was on several occasions installed away from the group.

In addition to her physical and emotional isolation from the creative co-operative, Claire was not informed of Allegra’s death for over two weeks. Although Claire was able to recover from this devastating blow, her experiences during this period were a painful reminder of her own powerlessness and the legal constraints that privileged paternal right in all matters pertaining to children and childcare. Thus, for the women associated with the second generation of Romantic poets, the costs of their “free love” philosophy were anything but romantic. For Claire Clairmont, Harriet Shelley, and Bess Kent, and countless mistresses and muses, the co-operative circle that formed up around Hunt and embraced Shelley’s views on sexual liberalism served as a double-edged sword. In one respect, the consequences of "free-love" were begotten on their bodies, and exposed these women to a dangerous series of illnesses, pregnancies, and social and economic consequences. In the case of Harriet Shelley, Percy’s first wife, after being abandoned and publicly disgraced by her husband, she took her own life, leaving behind their two small children. Less than one year later, Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law Bess Kent was also driven to attempt suicide. It seems that years of living with her sister and brother-in-law, in an unconventional domestic relationship, comparable to the situation Claire Clairmont found herself in with the Shelleys, took their toll on Bess. Although Bess’ suicide attempt was unsuccessful, this was but another public marker of her exclusion from the core group of creative geniuses gathered around Hunt.

On the other hand, like some of the male hangers-on to the group, like John Trelawny and Thomas Medwin, for the women who occupied so-called marginal roles on the fringes, their lives benefited from their association with their famous friends. Indeed, one of the finer attributes of Hay’s text is that she has flushed out the stories of these individuals in wonderfully rich detail, and has fashioned a more dynamic picture of the creative community surrounding the Young Romantics. For example, in 1823, Bess Kent, a woman with only a rudimentary education, and previously the subject of much gossip and controversy, published Flora Domestica, a highly sophisticated instructional book on plant care. The positive public reception of her work demonstrates that in the absence of Hunt and his friends, she was able to establish a legitimate and independent literary reputation that enabled her to support herself financially. The success of Bess’ book also signalled that the world of arts and letters was no longer under the exclusive purview of the aristocracy. Hay is careful, however, to note that Bess’ success did owe something to her relationship with Hunt. Amidst their passionate letters to one another in the early 1820s, Hunt offered Bess encouragement and suggestions as to which quotes should be included in her volume. Moreover, Bess also benefited from the fact that the literary world was more receptive to contributions from new authors, thanks to the group's sustained criticisms against aristocratic and artistic privilege throughout the 1810s. This example is indeed one of many that lend support to Hay’s clever assertion that “individual lives were shaped by other people’s fame” [298, 284, 286].

Over vast distances, the spirit of "co-operative creativity" was maintained by a regular exchange of letters, communication with Hunt regarding submissions for The Examiner and The Liberal, relationships with publishers, and contemporary responses to the works of the Young Romantics and their friends. Following the early deaths of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, however, the close network of association that had bound these people together intellectually and financially for a significant period of time began to deteriorate. The notion that the group was changing in the early to mid 1820s seems to have escaped Hunt, who was then living among fellow expatriates in Italy. Upon his return to England in 1825, Hunt was shocked to discover that not only was he no longer the centre of a creative coterie, but that the surviving members of this association no longer had the time or resources to maintain their co-operative enterprise. Unlike Mary Shelley, Bess Kent, and Claire Clairmont, who all recognised that their means of survival were firmly tied to their ability and willingness to work, be it as a writer or governess, Leigh Hunt’s fascination with the links between sociability, creativity, and productivity seems to have outlived the youthful idealism of the past. Indeed, as the outlook of these women in essence matured, and they sought both personal and financial independence, Hunt continued to embrace the same passionate and quixotic views that abounded in the Surrey gaol. After years of domestic mismanagement and financial dependence, Leigh Hunt was incapable of taking responsibility for his family, and Hay’s narrative illustrates that this failure, no matter how progressive his political ideologies or intellectual philosophies, underscores the notion that by the mid-1820s, English society, culture, and politics had changed a great deal.

Not only were the social and political issues of the 1820s different from those of the 1810s, but the figures who inhabited Hunt’s co-operative creative community were no longer the same people either. Although everyone had their own memories of the past, with the exception of Hunt, the trend was to eulogise and enshrine their friends, lovers, and husbands and their achievements as individual expressions of creative genius. Hunt’s public insistence on underlining the merits of sociability was vehemently rejected and pushed him beyond the fringes of literary respectability. The pillars of the second generation of Romantic poets are thus recalled as independent creative forces. Hay’s work is therefore essential in rebuilding the relationships and webs of association that held these authors together over a crucial period in their lives. Moreover, some of the best literary works of the period were conceived of and produced as a direct result of the benefits of a broad and eclectic community of friends and intellectuals. Hence, the production of Romantic poetry was not the solitary experience it had been for the earlier generation. And while it is crucial that we acknowledge the intellectual, philosophical, political, and economic debts these individuals owed each other, it must also be recalled that for many of the "creative co-operative", membership in this circle was often suffocating, repressive, and far more restrictive than Hunt’s prison "cell". For anyone interested in Romantic poetry and/or the Romantic poets, this book is a must read.


(1) See Review.





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