Last month I read Daisy Hay’s biography of the Romantics, one of the most recent accounts of the lives of the Romantic circle. This book had been in my to-read list for six years, since its publication in 2010, and I finally decided it was time for it. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (Bloomsbury, 2010) explores “the interlinked lives of a group of writers, all of whom were characterised by their youth, by their idealism, and by a particular passionate engagement with politics, art, and the romance of intellectual adventure.” (xvi). Hay’s work differs from other Romantic biographies I have read in four main points. First, its scope is not limited to Byron and Shelley or their immediate circle, it dedicates a considerable space and well-researched attention to other personalities such as Leigh Hunt and his extended family, the Novellos, Jane and Edward Williams, John Keats, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Hazzlit, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, John Cam Hobhouse, Thomas Love Peacock, or Edward John Trelawny. This allows the author to consider the so-called second Romantic generation not as a “tightly coherent group of individuals” (xiv), but as group of people who draw inspiration from one another and found solace in their company, dismantling the idea that the Romantic writer’s creativity relies on isolation. It is refreshing and interesting to read a biography with this thesis, and not only does it make the book more engaging, but it also contributes to the field of research with an original approach. Thirdly, Hay devotes the same amount of consideration to the men as to the women. Not only does she discuss at length celebrated authors such as Mary W. Shelley, she also considers the life and works of women usually relegated to the shadows of the men in their lives, such as Bess Kent, who was not only the sister in law of Leigh Hunt but an author herself; Marianne Hunt; Claire Clairmont, Maria Gisborne, Mary Cowden Clark, or Jane Williams. Moreover, Hay also examines these women not only as individuals and in their own merits, but also in interaction with each other, demonstrating that emotional and intellectual ties and conflicts were not exclusive to the Romantic men. A final divergence from other biographies is that Hay does not finish her narrative when Shelley and Byron die. She continues her narrative until the latest member of the coterie is gone, so the reader gets to know Claire Clairmont and Edward J. Trelawny in their old age. Especially interesting is the approach to Claire Clairmont’s later years. Being the last surviving, she is able to review her life and her relationships with the perspective of time: “Claire idealised neither the individual nor the group, but instead presented a more complicated version of a shared history” (304). All in all, Daisy Hay offers a well-written, well researched, detailed account of the lives of several members of the Romantic coterie and explores with an acute insight how companionship, love, admiration, conflict and quarrels were at the core of the intellectual and artistic development of the Romantic circle.
Best of: curiosities and personal favourites
My paperback edition of Young Romantics is filled with a rainbow of sticky bookmarks, so this best-of promises to be long. I will, however, select the absolute favourites. Let us start at the beginning, with Leigh Hunt, incarcerated for two years at Surrey Gaol, accused of libel due to his radical publications in The Examiner. It is certainly curious, to the modern reader, that Hunt was allowed to live in the house of the master of the prison -a common practice amongst gentleman criminals charged with offences such as Hunt’s, Hay tells us-. He was, moreover, permitted to decorate his rooms and to receive visitors: “I papered the walls with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows were screened with Venetian blinds…” (5), bookcases, flowers and a pianoforte completed the picture. I found it significant, and particularly revealing of Hunt’s emotional comfort strategies that when he left prison he decorated his studio in the same way his gaol headquarters were. An amusing anecdote involves Marianne Hunt and her letters to her husband, who she missed very much: “fancy were you would like to have me most, and you will know that I’ve dreamt of , &c., &c., &c.!!!” (18). With three exclamations points, no less. It is no surprise that after Marianne came to live in the prison’s room with him, she immediately fell pregnant (Hunt himself acted as midwife months later on that birth).
But enough of the Hunts, let us now see what the Shelleys were up to: In one of my favourite footnotes of all time, Hay quotes Miranda Seymour and suggests that Mary and Percy’s first sexual encounter (this is getting monothematic) may have taken place in St Pancras churchyard, Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave being “presiding over their union […] conveniently shaded by willows” (36). I… will cherish this theory forever as a conversation opener at any party I might attend in the future.
The Novellos were a family of (11 children!) musicians. One of the Novello daughters, Clare, became one of the most celebrated sopranos of her time. Vincent Novello, the father, was one of the founders of the London Philharmonic Society, the objective of which was to bring music to the masses. The Novellos believed in treating their children as equals, which created an harmonious, happy household in which poets and journalists found themselves at peace. Hay mentions one particular party at the Novello’s in which Vincent Novello would play the piano, Hunt would sing, and Keats would play an unnamed instrument: “leaning against the instrument, one foot raised on his knee and the smoothed back between his hands” (113) while Shelley and Lamb listened. It’s a Romantics as musical band AU dream come true.
Byron was not the only one interested in the movements of independence struggle in Greece. Mary W. Shelley is said to have followed the developments of Mavrocordato’s battle with much interest: “she was thrilled that yet another Mediterranean country had thrown off the yoke of imperial rule” (212). In fact, her second novel, Valperga, is set in Renaissance Italy and explores, using parallels between the past and the present, the nationalist revolutions of the 1820s. Mary claimed that “Italy needed to rise out of political letargy in order to achieve its independence.” I was ignorant of Mary’s interest and involvement in politics and national independence movements, and I think it is a very interesting point I’d like to read more scholars engaging with in the future.
The group decided to perform Othello at Byron‘s palazzo. To nobody’s surprise, Byron wanted to play Iago.
When, after Percy’s death, Mary W. Shelley returned to London, she found herself famous. The Lyceum Theatre had staged a production of Frankenstein and Mary went to see it. The staging made the novel popular again, and with it, Mary as well. Her new status provided her with a little money and a certain respect and attention in the literary circles.
Hay writes that one of the Novello daughters, Mary Victoria Novello (who would later become Mary Crowden Clarke), thirteen-years old, had a crush on Mary W. Shelley. Mary W. S. brought her a necklace of coral beds and a copy of Frankenstein, and Mary Victoria expressed her admiration by writing a pen-portrait of the author (288).
Jane Shelley, wife of the only surviving child of Mary and Percy is described as having “transformed the reputations of Shelley and Mary through the sheer force of her personality” (302). Jane created a shrine for her deceased in-laws and made the bodies of Mary’s parents -William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft be disinterred and brought to where Mary was buried. When the vicar refused to allow her move them, she stood with the coffins outside of the cemetery until he relented.
Edward John Trelawny, best known for having an incredible imagination and lying more than he talked, left detailed instructions about his burial wishes. He had his ashes be buried next to Percy Shelley’s in Rome’s protestant cemetery. On his headstone, he had had inscribed four lines of Shelley’s poetry on friendship. This would not be surprising if it weren’t for the fact that Trelawny had known Shelley for less than a year and there is no evidence that in that time Trelawny was crowned with the honour of being the poet’s BFF.