Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives, by Daisy Hay, Bloomsbury £20, 364 pages, FT Bookshop price: £16
The younger British Romantic poets – Byron, Keats and Shelley – have been exhaustively chronicled. Even such a minor figure in the circle as the journalist Leigh Hunt attracted two biographies in 2005 (Nicholas Roe’s Fiery Heart and Anthony Holden’s The Wit in the Dungeon). There have been family biographies (the two-generational The Godwins and the Shelleys by William St Clair) and several books on the friendship between Byron and Shelley. Anne Wroe’s remarkable Being Shelley analysed his poetry and psychology, while feminist scholarship has tackled the lives of Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. Janet Todd’s Death and the Maidens – Shelley as demon lover – was bracingly antagonistic. So what’s left for the young Oxford academic Daisy Hay to disentangle?
There are few new revelations in her elegantly written book, as she traces the complex interweavings of these disparate households in the first quarter of the 19th century. The core of Young Romantics is the triangular friendship between Hunt, Shelley and Lord Byron, with Keats a more aloof figure, but the women of the group are given equal billing. Hay contends that these writers’ great works emerged from a collective philosophy of friendship based round their political radicalism. (She slightly overstates the tenuous bond between Shelley and Keats, who never really took to one another despite being thrust together on a kind of artistic blind date by the well-meaning Hunt.)
In many ways Hunt is the key figure. His imprisonment for libel against the Prince Regent made him a liberal figurehead. Byron visited him in gaol; Keats wrote him a sonnet; Shelley offered support. Hay’s theory about collective influence brings her to lesser-known works such as Hunt’s poetry collection Foliage; Mary’s novel Valperga, with its hilariously named heroine Euthanasia and veiled political commentary; Shelley’s poem “Alastor” – where artistic solitude, as opposed to collectivity, is seen as A Bad Thing – and his brilliant meditation on his friendship with Byron, “Julian and Maddalo”. But she has nothing to say about genuinely solitary works, like Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life”, and Byron’s ego-driven poetry is glossed over.
What Hay does exceptionally well is analyse the emotional undercurrents beneath the works and letters; particularly the difficult mix of warmth, admiration, class sensitivity and jealousy that existed between Shelley and Byron. She exposes Shelley’s disloyalty to Claire, Byron’s despised ex-lover. As Mary’s stepsister, Claire was very much a part of Shelley’s household but he was not prepared to jeopardise his relationship with the more famous poet for her. Hay is perceptive, too, on the emotional damage that free love caused to women, for example Hunt’s attraction to his sister-in-law Bess, which ended up tainting her life.
If there is little new here, at least this is a tale well told: an exciting and troubling story of love, death and ruined dreams. And if it causes just a handful of people to track down “Julian and Maddalo”, then that is justification enough.