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.

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