The men are famous, their names immediately recognizable: Byron, Shelley, Keats — the great English Romantic poets, whose poetry people still learn by heart. The names of the women who loved them, their wives, their mistresses, are much less familiar: Lady Caroline Lamb (Byron), Fanny Brawne (Keats), Claire Clairemont, Augusta Leigh and Annabella Milbanke (Byron, again, all three of them) and others. The exception of course is Mary, Shelley’s wife, whose novel “Frankenstein” has rendered her name as well-known, maybe better-known, than those of the famous poets.
These poets and the women were famous — in some cases, infamous is the more accurate word — in their own time, too, at least most of them, and not just for poetry, but for their freethinking views, their outspoken contempt for the old order and for the enormous scandal and ensuing nonstop gossip their tempestuous love affairs and equally stormy marriages created not only in England, but across Europe in the first decades of the 19th century.
Those extraordinary relationships are the subject of a new book by English writer Jude Morgan aptly named “Passion” and subtitled “A Novel of the Romantic Poets.” What is surprising and rewarding is that Mr. Morgan takes these more or less well-known stories and very familiar people and turns them into very good fiction and into characters of flesh and blood, and most definitely of genuine passion, even if that passion is often (though by no means always) woefully misguided.
“Passion” opens with an attempted suicide by Mary Wollstonecraft, outspoken admirer of the French Revolution, pioneer feminist and author of “Vindication of the Rights of Women” and future mother of Mary Shelley. It ends some three decades later, about 1825, when the three great poets are dead: Keats at age 25 of consumption in 1821, Shelley drowned at sea off Italy at 29 the following year and Byron, who succumbed to fever at 36 in Greece in 1824 where he had gone to fight in that country’s war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.
Into their short lives, however, the three men packed a great deal of living and writing. Mr. Morgan’s research has been prodigious. He knows the works of the poets well; he’s read all the requisite biographies. But all this erudition the novel wears well, even gracefully. And because two of the men, Byron and Shelley, were high-born, as were two of the women Augusta Leigh (Byron’s half-sister) and Lady Caroline Lamb, the author can introduce a host of characters these aristocrats met in the natural course of their lives: George III and his queen, for example, Czar Alexander I and the German Gen. Blucher, to name just a few.
The author is an ease with the styles of clothing these people wore, the modes of transportation they employed and the innumerable other factors that comprised their daily lives. But where Mr. Morgan excels is with his central figures themselves, what they said to one another and did and how their passionate love for another could quickly descend into comtempt and outright hatred.
The author introduces his poets through the eyes of the women who fall in love with them. Here is Mary on first meeting the tall, stringbean-thin Shelley at the home of her father, William Godwin, the radical and improvident political philosopher. “Shelley ate only vegetables. Even in her father’s circles, Mary had never known such a thing: a young man was by definition someone who tucked heartily into brawn and steak. Shelley absently fed himself carrot and greens and bits of crumbled bread. There was nothing hearty about him; but nothing languid either… .” And then comes the clincher: “he was like a stretched wire.”
Stretched wire, indeed. It’s a simile that could be used to describe any one of these men and women. Mr. Morgan takes us through Shelley’s and Mary’s falling in love, their fleeing England for the Continent, condemned — Shelley was already married — by Mary’s father, Shelley’s father and society in general.
Interspersed with Mary’s and Shelley’s story are episodes in Lord Byron’s love life, first with the hot-tempered and overwhelming Caroline Lamb, a three or four month affair Lamb never got over (she took every opportunity to broadcast her passion to the world as loudly as possible), and then his incestuous relationship with his married half-sister Augusta. Is it any wonder that all of England and Europe were talking, and eager to hear the details (and invent new ones) of these affairs?
By comparison, the love between Keats and Fanny Brawne was tame, though very intense. Mr. Morgan’s portrait of this poet and his love are deeply touching; it’s clear that he’s sympathetic with them in ways he’s not with Shelley and Byron and their loves. Mr. Morgan’s Keats and Fanny Brawne are more down-to-earth than the novel’s other central characters, less prone to narcissistic excess, less likely to regard themselves as the last word on all that’s good and honest.
But Mr. Morgan idealizes none of his characters, and he drops a few clues about how he regards Romantic excess. The poet Coleridge, struck by how the younger generation is all for freedom, for example, gently warns Mary Shelley that rebellion is finally hollow, “You will find in the end, my dear friend, that there is nothing more oppressive than freedom.” And much later in the novel, Mary warns her step-sister Claire Clairemont, who has been loved, impregnated and now totally abandoned by Byron and who expresses a wish that she had imagination, something that might have kept Byron interested in her and which Claire knows the Romantic poets valued highly, “Oh God, don’t have imagination, Claire. Whatever you do, don’t have that.”
This is a long book — 536 pages, but it doesn’t drag. If it is tedious at times, it’s because it deals in detail with episodes such as the endless bickering between Byron and Annabella Milbanke, the woman he married, but shouldn’t have. Bickering is boring, in real life or fiction. Mr. Morgan, who writes with ease and great skill, varies the pace of his prose and style from section to section. The book’s theme can be summed up in a quote the author cites from Keats’ “The Fall of Hyperion,” “Thou art a dreaming thing, / A fever of thyself.” Mr. Morgan’s Romantics are dreaming things, fevers of themselves.