There is, I think, a myth about creative genius that it takes place in solitary glory. Picture an author, writing. Picture Hemingway, or Wordsworth, or Shakespeare; picture George Eliot or Mary Oliver or Isabelle Allende. In my mind, unless I have direct evidence to the contrary — like Jane Austen, who never had a room or even a proper desk of her own, and hid what she wrote when someone came in the room — I picture them alone, working at a desk, perhaps surrounded by books. But how seldom must this really have been the case? Authors had wives and children and husbands and in-laws, and friends, and money troubles. They travelled, if they could. They walked a lot, in woods and vales and heaths. They had breakfast and dinner and tea, and the servants to provide it, often. They had hobbies: music, especially, and languages, and needlework. They lived, and by definition they wrote, in context.
The great value of Young Romantics, by Daisy Hay, is that she places a whole generation of fantastically talented Romantic poets in their context, which frequently happened to be one another. She begins with Leigh Hunt, whose work is so largely forgotten today, but who was the catalyst for so many of these relationships: his gregariousness, his ability to surround himself with close friends, even when he was improvident, impecunious, and in jail, was unsurpassed. Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, Byron, Hazlitt, Haydon, and many others met at his home (or in his jail cell), and when they spun off and found their own friendships, it was Hunt who had led them there by his poetry, his radical politics, and his good humor.
Hay goes into the swing and balance of these men and women as they move in and out of one another’s orbit, in and out of close friendship, in and out of sexual and flirtatious alliance, in and out of stimulating intellectual proximity. The young Romantics were liberals, both politically and personally, and many of the relationships are scandalous even today: Shelley left his first wife, Harriet, pregnant and with a young child, to elope with Mary Wollstonecraft and Claire Clairmont across the continent, and then wrote to Harriet asking her to send money when he ran short. Byron had an affair with his half-sister, Augusta, along with every other animate object he saw, apparently. Shelley (again) asked Mary to be his friend’s mistress in an experiment in free love. All this (and far more — I’ve hardly scratched the surface) took a toll on human relationships: by the time a few years had elapsed, Mary and Claire could scarcely live under the same roof.
But the point of all this is not the tense sexual relationships (though there are plenty of those.) The point is that Mary Shelley drafted Frankenstein during an intellectual summer when Byron, Shelley, Claire, and John Polidori were in close contact with her. Shelley wrote “Julian and Maddalo” about the stimulus of long talks and rides with Byron. Byron sent cantos of Don Juan to Shelley for ideas and criticism. Keats dedicated some of his poetry to Leigh Hunt, and Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” at Hunt’s fireside during a timed sonnet-writing contest. These authors prized their solitude, of course, but according to Hay, it was the tangled web of their lives, the friction of their interactions, that really sparked their genius in ways that might not otherwise have happened.
A couple of months ago, I read an excellent group biography of the Lunar Society, by Jenny Uglow. I think, having read Young Romantics, that this, rather than the singleton hero-of-his-own-life biography, is the way to go. Hay’s ability to create a context for these authors — a social, political, sexual, familial context — was intricate and fascinating. She was able to write about the burden experimental living placed on the women in the picture, without marginalizing either the women or the importance of the experiment; she was able to talk about spectacularly cruel behavior (I’m looking at you, Byron) with a discerning eye about the way it sheds light on his work. Her approach was fresh and helpful, and frankly I didn’t want to stop reading it just because most of the characters had died before their thirtieth birthdays. If this group has ever caught your interest, this comes highly recommended.