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Merry pranksters of Regency

Fresh look at stormy, entwined lives of the rebellious young Romantics

(Elvis Swift)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2010

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“And did you once see Shelley plain?’’ Browning wrote in a poem, imagining this airy Ariel of a poet buttoning his coat and going about his daily affairs. In “The Young Romantics,’’ Daisy Hay gets not just Percy Bysshe Shelley plain but also his wife, Mary Shelley (author of “Frankenstein’’), Byron, Keats, Leigh Hunt, and others. Though plain is hardly the word for lives so extravagantly self-invented and rebellious as to suggest a Regency version of Ken Kesey’s bus-riding beatniks.

The bus image is appropriate; Hay has a thesis to present, namely to downplay the notion of the Romantic poets as heroic solitaries, and stress instead their community: friendship, sometimes stormy, interacting lives, and mutual literary influence. This is usefully convincing, though not entirely startling. Young academics (this is Hay’s first book) in such a massively studied field may find it convenient to shut a partly open door so as to push against it.

To simplify the connections: The central figure initially was Hunt, who with his brother, John, put out The Examiner, a radical political and literary paper. At the book’s start he is serving a two-year prison sentence for calling the Prince Regent, George IV, a useless slob.

Hay, who writes extremely well and not at all academically, shows him enjoying his stay, what with a specially decorated two-room prison suite and catered food and wine, all arranged by his moneyed brother; and above all a literary salon of regular visitors, among them Byron, William Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb. After his release, Hunt remained the circle’s active convener (despite the severe agoraphobia that followed his pleasant confinement), expanding it to include Shelley and Keats.

We read of Byron and Shelley discussing poetry on long walks around Lake Geneva while Mary stayed indoors writing “Frankenstein’’ (with Shelley’s edits), of Hunt and Shelley summering with families and friends in a lavish communal house where Hunt would closet himself in a quiet room to work on an epic poem, while Shelley wrote his own epic while wandering the woods or lying in a boat, returning home garlanded with flowers. In the evening they would read their writing to the circle amid a crowded hubbub of literary and political argument. Influences galore.

As for the lavishness, with apologies to Browning, did you see Shelley rich? He was, erratically; and over the years he subsidized both Hunt and Mary’s father, the great free-thinker William Wollstonecraft. When he could, that is; the money came from his baronet father who, hating his son’s poetry and his cobwebby radicalism, periodically cut him off. Shelley would borrow on his expectations, mortgaging 8,000 pounds of future inheritance for not quite 2,600 pounds in cash.

This is only one of the many details that keep diverting the reader from Hay’s thesis to the principal charm of her book: the chewy portraits she draws of her young Romantics. Convinced they were going to set aflame the consciousness of the established world, they found themselves eventually burned, wearied, or turned cynical by it. Hunt emerges with more than a touch of supine self-indulgence; Byron figures as the capricious aristocrat, alternately generous and cruel with his friends; Shelley, as a dangerously innocent child.

It is with the women, though, that Hay is at her best; particularly with Mary Shelley. Beautiful, brilliant, and fiery-spirited, she met Shelley when she was 16, he arriving as an admiring disciple of Wollstonecraft, her father. There was quick conflagration, and before long the pair had eloped to the Continent, even though Shelley was still married to Harriet, his first wife, who later drowned herself.

More than a pair, in fact. Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, burned to copy her liberating ardor and insisted on coming along. The three, with little in the way of funds (Shelley had yet to learn how to finance himself from his father’s will), trekked footsore and ragged for a while before retreating to England. And Claire, wanting a grand passion like Mary’s, offered herself to Byron, who languidly accepted; briefly, though long enough to get her pregnant. The result was Allegra, whom Byron put in a convent at age 4, where she soon died, while forbidding Claire from seeing her.

Hay discerns a pithy resilience beneath Claire’s hapless impulses. Even more impressive is her account of Mary’s youthful romantic fire tragically banked in a struggle to hold life together, as her will-o’-the-wisp husband blithely leads them from hardship to hardship around Italy, as three of their four children die, and finally as Shelley drowns sailing his boat slipshod into a storm in the Gulf of Lerici.

Hay’s account of the passionate and messy lives of her Romantics is vivid, picturesque, and finely told. Her portraits of Claire and, above all, of Mary go beyond anecdote; they explore them with the sympathy of a literary artist.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications. He can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

YOUNG ROMANTICS: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation
By Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $27.50