Saturday, July 16, 2011

Staff Pick - Young Romantics by Daisy Hay

In my imagination I pictured Romantic poets wandering solitary through the moors of England and the Italian countryside giving expression to their emotions and reveling in the natural world. I did not see, until shown in Young Romantics: the tangled lives of English poetry's greatest generation by Daisy Hay, that they worked hard all day long - writing, thinking, creating - put the children to bed and then enjoyed an evening of music and games. Hay's collective biography focuses on the so-called second generation of Romantic writers - Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Vincent Novello, and their wives, lovers and children.

While at first it can be difficult to manage your way through this "tangled" cast of characters, it is an entirely appropriate way to approach this group as they were so interdependent and connected with one another. Although the main action of this biography occurs between 1813 and 1822, the individual whose presence which is felt keenly throughout is that of Mary Wollstonecraft, who died years before any of these events occurred. Her philosophies and radical beliefs influenced not only her daughter, Mary Shelley, but the entire generation of Romantic writers.

So much happens in this brief time period that you have the sense that a lifetime has passed. Unfortunately, for many of them, this is case as few lived into their forties and beyond. As a group they shared the energy of youth, an idealized view of life that included free love, friendship and creativity. They were brave, especially the women. They turned their back on conventional life and comfort. They lived communally and supported one another financially and emotionally. And, of course, as with any group of creative talented people, there were big egos, jealousy, competitiveness and humiliations both petty and large.

Although this is a group biography, it was Claire Clairemont who attracted my attention. Claire was stepsister to Mary Shelley and joined Mary and Shelley when they ran away together leaving Shelley's pregnant wife behind. Claire goes down in literary history as the person who introduced Shelley and Lord Byron. She pursued Byron and became pregnant with his daughter. This became the big tragedy of her life, first losing her Allegra to Byron's care, followed by Allegra's death at age 5. The relationship between the sisters broke down and Claire courageously supported herself as a governess in Russia. She lived the longest of the group and was the one to give perspective.

It seems funny to describe a poetical biography as a page turner, but there we are. The focus of the book is on the relationships amongst the group rather than on the works they produced making it a very accessible read if you are not interested in their poetry, but rather interested in their radical beliefs and commitment to their ideals.

As one book inevitably leads to another, I think I will next add to my list Vindication: a life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon. "In this stunning new biography of the eighteenth- century writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Lyndall Gordon explores the life of a woman often criticised by biographers, historians and feminists alike. Gordon challenges such slanders, and portrays instead the genius of this extraordinary woman. The two-generation approach to her life examines not only Wollstonecraft herself, but also her effect on her daughters and heirs (Mary Shelley, Fanny Imlay, Claire Clairmont and Margaret Mount Cashell), and the ways in which they carried her influence into subsequent generations. Gordon takes stock of Wollstonecraft's life in accord with her own values rather than through the reputation history has given her. The author looks at her important relationships with Gilbert Imlay and William Godwin, and her ideas about issues such as the problems of communication between the sexes and parenthood. Through this brilliant study, Gordon, the author of biographies of Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Bronte among others, successfully reinterprets Mary Wollstonecraft for the twenty-first century." publisher

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