At Passion's Heights, Depths; A Novel of Romantic Poets and Women Who Loved Them

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

At Passion's Heights, Depths; A Novel of Romantic Poets and Women Who Loved Them


Byline: Steve Goode, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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