Bloomsbury £20

Young Romantics, By Daisy Hay

At last, Ms Shelley and her peers are given their due

The interwoven lives, loves and works of the coruscating second generation of English Romantic poets – prime among them Byron, Shelley and Keats – have fascinated the general populace, ever since they blazed into public view in the 1810s with their revolutionary verses and audacious, libertarian experiments in living. But too often, the remarkable women of this circle (notably Mary Shelley and her luminous stepsister, Claire Clairmont, briefly Byron's lover) have been portrayed as consorts and ciphers.

In 1816, English tourists to Lake Geneva would take boat trips to gawk at Byron's Villa Diodati (where Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was born). Forward to 2010, and a British tabloid report on Daisy Hay's discovery of Clairmont's memoir is headlined, "Lord Byron and Shelley branded 'monsters'... by ex-lover..."

If a breathlessly hypocritical, simplistic and ultimately chauvinistic prurience has characterised much of the popular interest in this group (it arguably infected even the enlightened portrayals in Ken Russell's film Gothic and Howard Brenton's sympathetic play, Bloody Poetry), Hay's book decisively eschews any such juvenile camp.

Young Romantics is a landmark group biography, the debut of a young Cambridge academic who deploys rigorous scholarship with an admirable lightness of touch. Her selection from the profusion of original accounts left us by these writers and their critics is both generous and judicious.

Hay's fluid narrative navigates pacily through an ingenious extended chronology. Alternating with deft psychological and literary analysis are enticing gobbets of social history and vivid sketches of grand political history. The account of radical journalist Leigh Hunt's defiant salons, in the Southwark prison where he was incarcerated for libelling the Prince Regent, is thrillingly animated.

"The web of our life is of mingled yarn," wrote Keats of this circle, borrowing the analogy from Shakespeare. Hay's distinctive approach is to emphasise the way in which the members of this group – diverse in class, character and sensibility – were "transformed as their worlds intersected, and as, in complex and ever-shifting configurations, they talked to each other, fought with each other, hated each other, and fell in love".

Hay traces the endless retellings of these lives, which began with the protagonists' own extensive and contradictory testimonies in their lifetimes, and the vicious diatribes of their critics. She bemoans the application of late-Victorian sentimentality and piety.

Most importantly, while acknowledging her debt to towering individual biographies such as Richard Holmes's on Shelley and Miranda Seymour's on Mary, Hay argues that the development of the mythology of the individual artist, striving alone to create works of genius, isolated from communion with any mind but his own (a view paradoxically encouraged by the Romantics' own musings on inspiration) has obscured the vital influence of friendship, love and shared intellectual endeavour in this most intimate of circles.

In this way Hay reinstates a number of characters hitherto considered bit-parts. The most thrilling revelation is her portrait of Hunt's fiercely intelligent sister-in-law, Bess Kent, significantly responsible for the continued publication of Hunt's radical newspaper, The Examiner, while he languished in prison.

Hay restores to their proper status the brilliant women of this circle – and with due complexity. Her investigative coup was to unearth, in the New York Public Library, a fragment of a memoir by Clairmont, in which she savages the experiments of her peers, arguing that they transformed libertarianism into mere libertinism: "Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery," she wrote of Byron and Shelley.

Yet, insists Hay, there is a more nuanced way to read Clairmont's papers. Taken together, they reveal that the Clairmont who inspired Peacock's Nightmare Abbey and Henry James's The Aspern Papers owed much of her character and intellect to her membership in this group, whose passions and talents soar above the storms and stresses and are made, two centuries on, so vital in the pages of this remarkable debut.

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff