Young Romantics by Daisy Hay

A radical web of poets and lovers
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The Independent Culture

Faced with what looks like just another rehash of the Romantic writers' complicated love-lives and tragic deaths, my head aches, and a drowsy numbness struggles to substitute alternative histories. Suppose those crazy 16-year-olds Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont had waited until suitable husbands came along, instead of eloping across the Channel in a rowing boat with a married atheist poet? Suppose his father had died young, leaving him Sir Percy Shelley with a country estate to grow old and fat on with his lovely wife Harriet?

Suppose their friend Leigh Hunt, poet and reformist editor imprisoned for telling the truth about the Prince Regent, was never released from his flowery dell (literally, not just in rhyming slang: the prison board knew an aesthete when they saw one and papered his cell with roses)? He might have gone on writing The Examiner in Surrey Gaol instead of chasing Byron's reluctant funds all the way to Pisa.

Shelley need never have gone to Livorno to meet him, or sailed back in the Don Juan with a storm coming on. Why couldn't they all, to adapt Baldrick, just stay home? Surely their genius would have emerged as unstoppably in tranquil lives?

Daisy Hay's erudite book should convince us that it wouldn't. Her focus is less on well-known events than the web of passionate connections the Romantics needed, she argues, to spark their writing. Her epigraph quotes Keats quoting All's Well That Ends Well, "the web of our Life is of mingled Yarn", as he mused on the alliances and antipathies of his generation of radical writers.

Hay identifies the web's chief designers as Hunt and Claire. From his cell Hunt established a "Cockney School", as the Tory press spitefully called it, that democratised poetry, painting, music, even gardening. Hay reconstructs his context in London and Italy between 1813 and 1822, years of repression that included the Peterloo massacre. Shelley, Byron, Keats, Hazlitt, Charles and Mary Lamb, Benjamin Haydon and many lesser-known figures lionised Hunt before and after his release.

His sister-in-law Bess Kent, Hay's interesting addition to this circle, published a handbook on pot plants, interspersed with Greek, English and Italian poetry, folklore and Linnaean categories, showing that people who rent rooms and move often can have beauty in their gardens. That sounds obvious now; it wasn't then. The farmworker-poet John Clare admired her.

Shelley wrote "Ozymandias" in a sonnet competition. A more famous competition at the Villa Diodati produced Mary's Frankenstein, but Hay identifies a wider provenance for this novel, and a group imagery shared even by Claire's brother. She shows how Shelley's "Alastor", Byron's Childe Harold, Keats's poems and other Romantic works had their genesis in the friction of intense friendships, books debated, rivalries, rows and partings.

Claire soon tired of being the odd one out in her eloping threesome; her impulsive temperament has appealed to a lot of biographers. At 18 she propositioned Byron and followed him pregnant to Italy, drawing Mary and Shelley after her. Hay centralises her as the catalyst who brought and kept Byron and Shelley together. A line from All's Well makes a good epigraph for Young Romantics. Claire's generation was discovering a Romantic Shakespeare, and she might have modelled herself on Helena in her recklessness, pursuit of a starry love-rat, instant pregnancy and nerve enough for crossing large stretches of war-torn Europe alone.

Even for the survivors, it didn't end well. In old age Claire felt nothing but bitterness about the men she had loved when young: "Under the influence... of free love, I saw the first two poets of England [Shelley and Byron]... become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery."

Hay publishes this newly-discovered fragment here for the first time. Living far into Victoria's reign too, Hunt found his version of the past discredited and himself travestied as horrible Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. But Hay catches the excitement as well as the sadness, brings out the best side of everyone, and from familiar biography directs her reader back to the work.

Loraine Fletcher's biography of Charlotte Smith is published by Palgrave Macmillan