Young Poets in Love
The romance of the Romantics.
Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By SARA LODGE
One of Hunt’s visitors was Lord Byron, then in his early twenties and caught in the trammels of a miserable marriage and impossible love affair with his half-sister Augusta. Another of his admirers was the 20-year-old Percy Bysshe
In the 19th century, prisoners like Hunt could live with their family in jail. Hunt was attended by his wife, Marianne, and their two children. When the elder child became sick, however, and Marianne took them to healthier quarters, Hunt was joined by his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent, who became his housekeeper and helped him to host literary parties. Although there is no evidence of an affair, the fact that Hunt lived so intimately with his “sister” would become part of the heap of insulting insinuations about Hunt and his “lascivious” and “vulgar” poetics leveled by the reactionary press.
Daisy Hay is particularly interested in the unacknowledged importance of sisters in the Romantic circle. Bess Kent was a complex character, probably manic-depressive: A sensitive writer herself, she enjoyed a late and well-deserved success with her Flora Domestica, an account of flowers that might be grown in pots and gardens, which is scattered with erudite botanical quotation from Romantic poetry. But her life as second female fiddle in the Hunt household, while it offered opportunities to move in exalted artistic circles, also demanded terrible self-control. A spinster, the object of gossip, she unsuccessfully attempted suicide-by-drowning in Hampstead ponds in 1817—a cry for help that some of the male members of Hunt’s literati were sufficiently callous to find amusing.
As Hay’s story makes clear, women bore much of the emotional cost of the great Romantic experiment in living outside convention. Percy Bysshe Shelley, an odd, pale, thin, high-voiced sprite of a man who could charm women away with him like the king of the fairies, shares center stage here with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Claire Claremont, the two remarkable teenage stepsisters with whom he ran off to France and Italy in 1814, an elopement that would change the course of literary history. Shelley was married, so Mary became his mistress until the suicide of Shelley’s pitiable first wife, Harriet, allowed their union to be legitimized. Meanwhile, Claire, although she did not (or did she?) ever share Shelley’s bed, also put herself beyond the social pale when she entered Shelley’s Dover-bound carriage. There could be no going back to the parental hearth. Claire became part of the Shelley ménage and, in a further act of courage and recklessness, offered herself to Byron. Byron accepted, but quickly became bored, and one of the most poignant and terrible episodes of these years is Claire, heartbroken, ceding her infant daughter Allegra to Byron—fathers had custody in those days—who denied Claire visiting rights and farmed the child out to an Italian convent, where she died, aged five.
It was Claire’s negotiations with Byron that took the Shelleys back to Italy and led to encounters between Percy and Mary Shelley and Byron that would be formative for each of these writers. Hay reminds us that most of the Romantic texts we continue to study (and many we don’t) had their genesis in shared discussions, readings, manuscript copying, translations, and competitions. We see, for example, Byron offering edits on Hunt’s poem The Story of Rimini, a retelling of Dante’s tale of Paolo’s illicit romance with his sister-in-law Francesca, and note that Byron in 1815 was also working on a poem, Parisina, about an incestuous union. We see Shelley exploring, in Julian and Maddalo, his relationship with Byron and the limits of “friendship as a vehicle for philosophical enlightenment.” We also see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a meditation on the essential value of fraternity to preserve the creative spirit from fatal solipsism.