Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives

The story of how Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein as part of a storytelling competition is fairly well known, but that’s far from the only instance of how the circle around the Shelleys influenced each other, both personally and professionally. In Young Romantics, Daisy Hay posits that the idea of the Romantic poet as a solitary individual is a myth, at least when it comes to this particular group of writers. She traces the relationships among the Shelleys, Byron, Keats, and Leigh Hunt, among others, to show how their shared lives informed their work and sometimes vice versa.

As far as the work goes, the influences often come from shared projects, often helmed by Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, The Indicator, and other newspapers. The writers he published were part of his social circle. His publishing them gave them visibility, and, later, their appearance in his publications helped keep the papers afloat. He also published a collections of poems, Foliage, about his circle of friends, showing how they drew inspiration from each other. Similarly, Percy Shelley wrote poems about his relationship with Byron, Mary, and Mary’s sister, Claire Clairmont.

For me, however, the most interesting material in this book was not about the writers’ work but about their relationships and philosophy and how living out their ideas took a toll. Hay describes how Shelley and others’ belief in free love created a complex web of entanglements that didn’t live up to the writers’ fine ideals. That was especially the case for the women. A free love relationship where everyone knows the score is all well and good, but when they lead to babies, or when the women must depend on the men for survival, the inequality in the relationship is impossible to ignore.

Among the most notable relationships are those of Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley. When Mary leaves home to be with the already married Shelley, Claire comes along, and it’s implied that she and Shelley might have been romantically involved. Claire eventually, however, fell in love with Lord Byron and had a daughter with him, a daughter that he took custody of, breaking Claire’s heart and leading to years of conflict that often drew in the Shelleys. Lacking the protection of marriage, she remained on the edges of the circle, cared for when it was convenient but tossed aside when it wasn’t.

Sisters don’t fare well in this circle. Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law, Bess, also had a complex relationship with her sister’s husband. Bess was the one who went out in society with Leigh, while his wife Marianne stayed home bearing babies (so many babies). The tension in the relationship, exacerbated by Shelley’s presence as a demanding house guest, led her to attempt suicide, an act that was treated with scorn within the circle rather than compassion. Lucky for her, she survived and was eventually able to find some literary success of her own.

But marriage didn’t necessarily shield women from pain. Wives were just harder (but not impossible) to abandon than sometime lovers. Shelley sometimes treated Mary abominably, looking after his own needs instead of those of Mary and the children. Their years in Italy were marked by loss, and Mary suffered a great deal. Although Percy Shelley wasn’t necessarily overtly cruel, his impetuousness and lack of foresight was at the root of many of their problems. I didn’t come out of this book a fan of Percy Shelley the man, although I respected Mary’s commitment to his legacy after his death. (I’ve always been indifferent to his poetry and found the novellas of his that I’ve read excessively silly.)

One thing that this book makes clear is that ideals that sound, well, ideal on paper don’t always play out well in practice. But there are aspects of the Romantic ideal that I have to respect. Hunt and others wanted to make great art accessible to the masses, and they believed that conversation around big issues had the power to change the world. That is important, and regardless of how flawed these individuals were, they were willing to challenge the establishment where they saw it going wrong, sometimes at great risk to themselves. This tension between ideas and reality remains with us today.

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2 Responses to Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives

  1. Jeanne says:

    I wish I still believed that conversation around big issues has the power to change the world. But I think that only works when people pay attention to issues, rather than money.

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