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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones