Young Romantics, by Daisy Hay. Best of.

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.

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The covers of the different editions (at least three) are a thing of beauty.

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.

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Painting by Edward Petre Novello, oil on canvas, circa 1830. Tag yourself.

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.

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Image from Trelawny’s wikipedia page. The cane belongs to his biographer.

Charlotte Dacre: a brief biographical account

Charlotte Dacre was a minor British woman writer of the Romantic period, whose production places her within the Gothic tradition. As with may other authors, especially women, her name and work are nowadays hardly remembered, which makes studying her even more challenging and interesting. The first time I came across this writer was browsing Adriana Craciun’s Women Romantic Era Writers page. I remember clicking on her name, clueless, and reading the short poem “Wine, I Say! I’ll Drink to Madness!”. Here is an excerpt:

Wine’s a sov’reign cure for sorrow,
Let’s drink to-day, and die to-morrow;
No wonder the bottle should mortals enslave,
Since it snatches the soul from the brink of the grave!

Gentle creature, hither bring,
Wine to soothe my love’s despair;
Then in merry accents sing,
Woman false, as she is fair!

Wine, I say! I’ll drink to madness!
Wine, my girl, to cure my sadness!
And tell me no more there is folly in drinking
Can anything equal the folly of thinking?

The theme and the style struck me as refreshing after so many verses on Nature and Moral Virtue, as did the fact that when reading it, although I knew the author was a female writer, I felt the narrator was intended to be male -if this thought is  the result of a patriarchal gender binary biased education, and therefore, problematic, I will not dwell upon. So, wanting to know more, I googled our mysterious poetess and  was told by my unreliable but usually inspiring friend Wikipedia that both Shelley and Byron had read and praised -the latter in his particular way- her. A minor writer I knew nothing about who we know was read by two of the Romantics? I must know everything.

Somehow, six months later, I find myself writing my Master’s dissertation on her. In the research process I have found out very interesting things, but I can only discuss part of them in my paper, which is why I shall use this space to share every insignificant and fascinating detail with you. Let us begin in the beginning, who is Charlotte Dacre?

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Charlotte Dacre herself, wearing a dress made of… sun, apparently. Her face says nice-to-meet-you, but her impossible breasts say my-reviewers-call-me-pornographic-gothic-writer.

Charlotte Dacre was the daughter of the Jewish “self-made banker, writer, blackmailer and supporter of radical causes” Jonathan -or John- King (born Jacob Rey). Biographers do not agree on a year of birth; if we believe the register, she died at fifty-three and was born in 1772. However, if we believe the preface of Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer, where she claims having written the story aged fifteen and leaving it untouched for three years, she might have been born around 1782. Her father married Deborah (according to Craciun; Sara, née Lara, according to the ODNB), with whom he had two daughters, Charlotte and Sophia. He divorced his wife under Jewish law in 1784-5 and married (the ODNB writes ‘set up home’) the dowager countess of Lanesborough. About the separation from her mother, Craciun writes “Dacre’s novels often take up on the theme of women abandoned by their unfaithful partners, as it appears her mother was”. King was known in London society as “Jew King”, and had dealings with Godwin, Shelley, and Byron as well as with Mary Robinson’s husband. Craciun explains there were even rumors of an affair with Robinson herself. His life, and consequently that of his daughters, was chaotic and turbulent. He was associated with radical political figures, financially involved and took part in several lawsuits, which he  later would detail in several publications. He became bankrupt before 1798, the year in which the two King sisters published a volume of gothic poetry, Trifles from Helicon, and dedicated it to him, showing their support: “the education you have afforded us has not been totally lost.”. Later in that year he was charged with sexually assaulting two women, and it was then when Charlotte began publishing under a pseudonym.

Charlotte  King first used the pen name Charlotte Dacre with the publication of Hours of Solitude, her first solo incursion in the literary world, and The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (both in 1805). The ODNB proposes that the choice of surname was intended to suggest aristocratic connections. She also wrote verses for both Morning Post and Morning Herald, under the pseudonym Rosa Matilda, from 1802 to 1815. At some point in that period she began an illicit relationship with the married editor of Morning Post, Nicholas Byrne, with whom she had three children, William, Charles, and Mary, all of them baptised in 1811. The couple married in 1815, when his wife died, and Charlotte King became Charlotte Byrne.

Charlotte’s pen name Rosa Matilda has been said to be a tribute to the gothic author Matthew Lewis and his character in The Monk Rosario/Matilda, the female demon lover. In fact, her association with Lewis has brought many critics to believe that his best known work, Zofloya (1816) is in fact a gender swap rewriting of The Monk –an with which idea I do not agree at all. Furthermore, “Rosa Matilda” associated her with the Della Cruscan poetic school, an eighteenth-century school of poetry known for its characteristic excessive ornamentation, effeminate style and exalted feelings, as well as a tendency to use Matilda as a pseudonym.  As Dacre the author faded into oblivion, Rosa Matilda the name remained, partly thanks to the fact that Byron dedicated her a few verses to that name in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers: “Far be from me unkindly to upbraid/ The lovely ROSA’s prose in masquerade/ Whose strains, the faithful echoes of her mind/ Leave wondering comprehension far behind” (519:1809).  Her last two novels were The Libertine (1807) and The Passions (1811).

Charlotte Byrne, née King, known as Dacre, died in November 7th 1825 and was buried in St Mary’s, Paddington.


And this is everything for this time. In my next post I will discuss Dacre’s political alliances, whether or not we can call her a feminist and Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know About Zofloya.

If you are interested in knowing more about Dacre’s life, I have read and used three authors for this article: Adriana Craciun’s introduction to the Broadview edition of Zofloya, Paul Baine’s ODNB entry on Charlotte Byrne and Kim Michasiw’s introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Zofloya.

  • Craciun, Adriana. “Introduction: Charlotte Dacre and the Vivisection of Virtue” in Adriana Craciun (ed.) Zofloya. Canada: Broadway Press. 1997: 9-29.
  • Michasiw, Kim Ian. “Introduction” in Dacre, Charlotte. Zofloya. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997: vii-xxxi.
  • Paul Baines “Byrne, Charlotte”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2015.

 

John Keats, by Robert Gittings: Best Of

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UAB could update their library one of these days.

I recently read Gittings’s biography of John Keats. I had wanted to read an account of the youngest of the Romantic trio for quite some time but I couldn’t decide on which one – and my three different lists about the matter attest to that. A quick search on Goodreads and Wordery suggested from the newest ones, Roe’s John Keats: A New Life or Plumley’s Posthumous Keats to the classics, such as Ward’s John Keats: Making of a Poet or Robert Gittings’s John Keats and, in between, Andrew Motion’s Keats. As it usually happens, no matter how many lists and planning I do, I end up following my impulses, so when I met with a friend on the second floor of our university’s library, I ended up being seduced by the least threatening-looking book in the Keats’s biography section, which happened to be Gittings’s. Yes, it’s true, his book and Motion’s are the same length, but the former’s Penguin edition –a dusty, seemingly ancient copy- had thinner paper and fooled me into picking it up. So home I went with my delicate borrowed book. The following is a summary of the stories and details that called my attention the most, with no better critical approach than the degree in which they amused me the most.

Gittings starts off with an account of his research on Keats’s genealogy, highlighting that amongst all the Keats he found, one had “Hoo” for his Christian name. This is the kind of thing I don’t forget, just so you know what to expect here. Oh, and it doesn’t take long for Gittings to show his true misogynistic self, in the very first chapter he deems it necessary to bring up that Keats had a “manly bearing”. Whatever that means. But it does not end here, it keeps getting better and better (or worse and worse, depending on how sarcastic you are feeling). About Keats’s mother, he points out that “she was abnormally fond of displaying her extremely good legs”. The rest of John Keats’s origin story can be summarized in: father dies, mother remarries, legal quarrel over legacy, mother’s family rebuffs her, stepfather dies, mother becomes ill, mother retreats to her deathbed, the Keats children (George, Tom, John and little Fanny) go to live with their grandmother on her mother’s side. On his infancy, I would like to rescue this one quotation: “instead of answering questions put to him, he would always make a rhyme to the last word people said, and then laugh.” And he did not decide to abandon medicine for poetry until so late! Gittings also explains –and he attributes it to his being brought up by his grandmother- he frequently spoke with country proverbs. Another of my favourite childhood anecdotes is when young Keats decided to aim to win the first literature prize in his school –which he did!- and, to that purpose, studied relentlessly, almost obsessively, day and night. After his triumph, he began a prose translation of the Aeneid (he was 14!). About his delicate health, and in line with this aforementioned feverish obsession, Gittings tells us that from a tender age he suffered tantrums and was prone to anxiety, and the author attributes those to the lack of familiar attention and care. But then again, I also suffer from anxiety and I am happy to let you know I have not been disregarded by my family. On his mother’s death, due to tuberculosis, he notes “It runs in my head. We shall all die young.” A notion he would always carry with him.

The Awakening of the Poet

Keats, fourteen, began apprenticeship with “a medical man”, and five years later he “joined the surgical practice of Guy’s hospital”. According to Charles Cowden Clarke, this apprenticeship was “the most placid period of his painful life”. He also affirms that it was the young still-not-a-poet’s own choice. He was eighteenth when he wrote his first poem, after discovering Spencer. It was originally entitled “Imitation of Spencer”. In Spring 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication, and having read his contemporary Leigh Hunt, he wrote “On Peace”. He would not read Milton until his twenty second year, and Clarke wrote his reaction was “did our poets ever write short pieces?” Nice foreshadowing you got there. Suddenly he became increasingly interested in poetry, and attended his lectures, dreamy and distracted with his own musings, scribbling away his medical education. However, he passed his apothecary examination, even though it was very hard to pass, Gittings writes. Keats had sent a poem to Hunt’s magazine, and the older poet published it and asked for more, eventually inviting Keats to his home in Hampshire: “It was gratifying for Hunt to be the discoverer of yet another promising young poet, only that week he had acknowledged a contribution from ‘Elfin Knight’, that is, Percy Bysshe Shelley”. Because of course Shelley would call himself that. Apparently Leigh Hunt was scatterbrained and kept losing things in his own house, including a manuscript of a poem by Shelley. So if anybody lifts a couch any of these days, maybe we find another treasure.

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Thank you Tumblr user bookwormbysshe for this

Speaking of Shelley, he and Keats met on December 1816. They didn’t speak much. A year later, Keats’s first collection of poems is published. There is one amusing recollection from Hunt and Keats’s relationship –one that was to deteriorate, partly due to Hunt’s indiscretion about the following. Hunt made a flower crown and put it on Keats’s head, to which the latter responded by doing the same. Then, they challenged each other to write a poem about the incident in fifteen minutes tops. Some visitors called on Hunt, who hastily removed his flower crown, but the young poet refused to be uncrowned and remained so the whole evening.

It was 1817 when our poet began reading one of most influential authors of his work, Shakespeare. He began writing Endymion and left Hamstead –where they had moved recently- for the Isle of Wright to seek a quieter environment and work. There he allegedly had an adventure with the supposedly dazzling Isabella Jones,- to Gittings, all women are either extremely beautiful, thus anybody’s interest of them, or simply uninteresting- who might or might not have inspired the poem Isabella, but who more certainly gave him the idea for The Eve of St Agnes. He then moved to Oxford, where he finished Endymion and discovered the writer Katherine Phillips, whom he admired very much. In Oxford –where else- he also contracted a venereal disease.

In 1818 he met Brown, who was to become one of his closest friends until his death, a very possessive and jealous man who had an awful relationship with Fanny Brawne and who lent and forgave Keats a lot of money. With him he visited the Lake District, Scotland and Ireland. He returned quite sick and sought medical advice. In that same year he attended Haydon’s Immortal Dinner ™. If you are interested on hearing more about this celebrated event, I will shortly be reading the book under the same title by Penelope Hughes-Hallett. It is a very exciting and busy period for Keats, who is constantly surrounded for those who his friend Hazlitt would later describe in The Spirit of the Age. He begins Hyperion and starts to resent Wordsworth, partly due to Hazzlit’s energetic remarks against the author, partly because of Wordsworth’s new political views and Tory alliances. He also meets with Claire Clairmont. Later that year, his brother Tom gets ill. He would die of tuberculosis, and Keats’s nursing him would eventually lead him to the same fate. His other brother, George, marries and emigrates to America, where he would meet with constant economic difficulties. Keats receives crushing reviews and is sneered at for his social position. Blackwoods created a caricature of Keats called Pestleman Jack, an apothecary boy who recites Endymion. I am not entirely sure I did not hallucinate this bit. In April, the Quarterly Review –later to be accused by Lord Byron of having killed the young poet in the poem Who Killed John Keats? And to whom I humbly address now with a raised eyebrow, see if he gets what I mean- destroys him with a terrible review. In spite of that, he writes to George “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death”. Speaking of Byron, Keats writes about him “He describes what he sees, I describe what I imagine.” Mic drop, but not the last one; he also remarks, in anger: “You see what it is to be under six foot and not a Lord!”. He meets with his future neighbours, the Brawnes. And here the fans of the film Bright Star can pick up.

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We all know he was way shorter than dear Ben Whishaw.

It is now 1819 and things are getting darker and darker. On March 19th he sleeps, possibly under laudanum, and has a vision of the Grecian Urn. His relationship with Fanny Brawne keeps flourishing, he gives her books and they read passages together. She writes down Bright Star in Keats’s fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. It is a very productive Spring, he writes the May Odes, and after those, Lamia: “Keats as this point not only doubts his power as a poet; he seems to be doubting the power of poetry to benefit mankind” writes Gittings. That Autumn, guess what, he writes To Autumn. 

Keats expresses his wish to become a political journalist, but it seems to have been a passing whim. Apparently he would have accepted marrying Fanny for her sake, for he did not believe, at least now in this period of his life: “The Christ you believe in…” he writes to Fanny. He moves back to Hamstead and, Grittings says, gives her the ring. In the literary world, he insists on making it explicit that the lovers consummate in The Eve of St Agnes, and he is told that this would make it unsuitable for ladies. His answer is that, and I am paraphrasing, does not want the ladies reading his poetry. Well, that’s yet another dream that went unaccomplished. He plans to become a successful playwright, and Brown supports this idea with enthusiasm. However, Life had other plans for him; he arrives at Hamstead after socialising and coughs blood: “That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” He becomes closer and closer to Fanny [cue the cute Bright Star scenes with the written notes under the pillow]. If you thought eighteenth-century medicine would let our hero die in peace, you don’t know eighteenth-century medicine: doctor Bree visits him and affirms he has anxiety and asthma, anxiety induced, not tuberculosis. Keats is greatly cheered up by that, feels better and regains strenght. He begins preparing his volume of poetry. His friends find him a home for the summer, a mile from Hamstead so he can see Fanny. Brown pays for it. He has terrible jealousy fits and says horrifying things to his fiancée, such as “You must be mine to die on the rack if I want you”. We don’t know from Gittings what Fanny thought of that. He becomes increasingly ill, and is advised to go to Italy. Shelley, when news reach him, offers to host him there. His ship, the Maria Crowther sails that September. Fanny gives him her white cornelian, a very intimate tool for needlework. During the journey he is deeply suicidal, asking several times for help to terminate his life. Severn, who travels with him, notes that he makes more puns in a day than in a whole year. On arriving in Rome, Severn and Keats stay on The Spanish Steps, in what was to become the Keats-Shelley House. On 23th February 1821, he dies.

He was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, where, not too long later, Shelley was to join him. The friend who nursed him to his last breath, Severn, is buried beside him.

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My friend Amanda leaving flowers

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Keats and Severn

As I was finishing this book, my professor and head of the department walked past me and cheerfully pointed out “There’s another one. It’s better” in reference to Andrew Motions. So that will be some upcoming post for you to be waiting upon. As a final comment; Gittings hints at Keats’s almost disturbing relationship/regard to women. I’d like more insight into that. This bio was at times difficult to follow, but overall it provides a good overview and many interesting details. Half of it is textual analysis of his poetry, integrated into the life story, which was certainly noteworthy as well as instructing.

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Feline protectors of their eternal rest

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. London: Penguin Books, 1979.