Mad, Bad and Conflicted

Article excerpt


Consider Daisy Hay's rehash of the interwoven lives of poignant Romantic era poets a pre-Victorian Desperate Housewives with a mild dose of incest. Turns out that diabolical combination makes for a great read.

In Young Romantics, her first book, the British writer chronicles the tangled lives of English Romantic poets, a raucous group that included Leigh Hunt (the unsung godfather), Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, her promiscuous stepsister Claire (Jane) Claremont and the illustrious Lord George Gordon Byron. A brief cameo appearance from the venerable John Keats rounds out the group, and readers are treated to a veritable feast of weird behavior.

The drama around which the group rallies is Hunt's imprisonment for a charge of libel. Hunt had written a number of articles perceived to have slandered the prince regent. Hunt, whose name, Ms. Hay asserts, does not excite much attention today, earned a good deal of outrage from his supporters, who were angry at the perceived injustice of his imprisonment.

Among the high-spirited rebels at the center of the book, the wiry vegetarian Percy Shelley was particularly put out. Sharing Hunt's outlandish demeanor, the tortured poet found common cause with the troublesome Hunt. Hunt and Shelley both hailed from complicated households and Ms. Hay depicts them as natural allies.

Ms. Hay lavishes a great deal of attention on the two young men, revealing their eccentricities, often in amusing detail. For instance, Hunt, recognizing the inevitability of his imprisonment, transformed his cell (literally) into the Lake District, papering the walls with flowers.

According to Ms. Hay, Shelley was especially bonkers, and she does a particularly good job of depicting his unorthodox - and fraught - relationships with Mary and Jane Godwin, daughters of the renowned philosopher and friend of Shelley, William Godwin. On a whim, Shelley convinces the young women to join him on a journey to Switzerland. Shelley abandons his pregnant wife, Harriet Westbrook, to make the trip.

Hay's strength is recounting this now legendary story with precise detail, capturing the love brewing between Shelley and Mary Godwin and the awkward tension felt by Jane, the proverbial third wheel. Ms. Hay does not directly address the charges made by Jane's contemporaries who claimed that she had an illicit affair with Shelley during this time, instead choosing to leave the relationship ambiguous. Ms. Hay does, however, mention instances when Shelley and Jane would talk late into the night while Mary recovered from frequent illnesses. …