October 9, 2010


The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives
by Daisy Hay
384 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review by S.F Winser

I have, of course, read Frankenstein. But I’ve only really glanced at the works of Byron, Shelley, Keats and the other sundry creative-types we come across here. Though I knew about the reputations and tragic deaths of a couple, I didn’t have any sort of background knowledge about this period.

In ‘Young Romantics,’ Hay has boiled down the tragedies and triumphs and influences and themes of the works of a handful of poets, journalists and writers. She has teased out a common thread of sociability clashing with solitariness. All within the same group and set of works - the lives of Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Byron and others are all seen in this light.

Like it or not, most of the lives and works of these people were influenced by, or revolved around, Leigh Hunt, newspaper editor, political prisoner and all round financial ruin. For some this was tenuous (Keats), others it was defining (Shelley) and for others it was eventually embarrassing and conflicted (Byron and the painter Haydon). But it was Hunt’s social circle, political ideologies and self-belief that often fired the rest into action, or gave them a launching pad, or simply gave them an intellectually-open house to visit.

Hay does an excellent job of keeping people’s motivations and influences well-rounded and alive. At times each of the players is less than likable but Hay often sees these moments as stemming from what would equally be the person’s strengths (With the exception of Haydon, who comes across as a laughable, repressed hypocrite). And she sees enough in most of them to keep them admirable. Byron comes out worst – the closest thing to a villain in the book outside Mary Shelley’s father – but Hay is careful to show his best side. Shelley and Mary are often portrayed as the most motivated towards idealism, the most in love, the most willing to help others... But they are each thoughtless or hurtful to each other and their friends. At times, dangerously so. While technically about the way Leigh Hunt’s ‘Cockney School’ influenced the lives and works of many people, it is Mary Shelly who ends up very much the tragic, respected heroine of the piece – a woman who felt deeply and didn’t always express it, who considered herself the intellectual equal of those around her, while often being brushed over; devoted to her husband, her children and their ideals, willing to undergo hardships; author of perhaps the most read and respected of the works that came from that circle, and constantly ignored by history, ‘High Culture’ posterity and her own friends and family. It’s very odd that more people have read ‘Frankenstein’ than any other work from this social circle, it has influenced more literature and culture, and yet it is her husband who is seen as the ‘great’ author, simply because he was an (admittedly respected) poet with a tragic death. After reading this, it is hard to deny that the two of them were actually an integral part of each other’s work. Shelley helped steer and define Frankenstein, and Mary was equally the intellectual judge, influence of and sounding board for much of Shelley’s poetry. The works of each were distinctly their own, but the authorship is not a strict delineation of: only Shelley wrote this, only Mary wrote that.

Hay draws heavily on correspondence and diaries – particularly those of the Shelley’s and of Mary’s step-sister Claire. So they tend to be towards the centre of the history, with their motivations most deeply explored. Claire in particular was an eye-opener to someone only vaguely aware of the history of this literary era – Mary Shelley’s step-sister, Shelley’s occasional muse and rumoured lover, actual lover of Byron and intelligent, independent woman all round. A person clearly born in the wrong time, desperate to change her circumstances and caught up in Shelley and Mary’s contagious idealism – eventually, almost inevitably, becoming a bitter, lonely woman.

This is history at its most readable. Full of ideas and solid writing used to tell good stories with interesting figures, woven together by an expert (Hay has a PhD with an emphasis on the Shelleys). I’m not sure if this was written to defend the idea of Leigh Hunt’s influence to an academic audience or to simply provide a good, background history to the lay person. I think it might succeed on the first part, I know it succeeds on the second.

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