While I was reading Jane Eyre and reading about the Brontes the term "Byronesque hero" kept appearing to describe Mr Rochester. I had heard the term before and I knew a bit about Lord Byron, famous in his day as much for his scandalous personal life as his poetry and so I became curious. Who was Lord Byron? How much of a rogue was he?
This question and many others are answered in Daisy Hay's Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation. Ms Hay is a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK and in Young Romantics she digs into the lives of John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt and their friends and family. I would have liked to have learned more about John Keats who died tragically from TB when he was only 25 but what a gifted young man. I could have done with a little less about Leigh Hunt who though an influential editor of the literary magazine the Examiner didn't in my opinion warrant as much attention as the author paid to him. As for Byron a little of him goes a long way.
Mostly though Young Romantics tells the story of the poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen. Mary Shelley was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical philosopher William Godwin. Percy Shelley, a big fan of William Godwin, went to see him and fell in love with his daughter Mary. She was sixteen years old and Percy was twenty one when they eloped.
Sounds romantic except that Percy Shelley was already married with a young child. Mary and Percy eloped to Italy accompanied by Mary's step sister Clare Claremont who wanted to go along for the adventure. Clare would later have an affair with Lord Byron which ended disasterously when Byron got custody of their daughter Allegra and then shipped Allegra off to a convent where she contacted typhoid fever and died at age five.
Death permeates the story of the Young Romantics. John Keats died at 25, Percy Shelley drowned at sea at 29. Byron dead at 36. Then there was Mary and Percy Shelley's children. They had four but only one survived beyond the age of three. Shelley to his credit loved Mary and was a supportive husband and generous to his sister-in-law Clare and his editor Leigh Hunt. It does not excuse his behavior to his first wife Harriet but due to the excellent job of research Ms Hay has done in reading old letters, diary entrys etc you get a sense of who Mary and Percy Shelley were and I closed the book realizing they were flawed but human. Clare Claremont who lived to age 80 left behind a partial memoir of her life with the Shelleys and Byron and it was a seering indictment of the costs of free love particularly on the wives and girlfriends involved.
Young Romantics is well researched and well written and though not a poetry reader I closed the book wanting to give the poetry of Keats, Byron and Shelley a try.