Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Painful Consequences of Free Love

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Painful Consequences of Free Love

Article excerpt

Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

YOUNG ROMANTICS: THE SHELLEYS, BYRON AND OTHER TANGLED LIVES by Daisy Hay (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]20) IT'S A familiar story and cast list: Percy Bysshe Shelley leaping around Italy with William Godwin's daughters, Keats coughing his last by the Spanish Steps, Leigh Hunt serving time for libelling the Prince Regent, Claire Clairmont chasing Lord Byron, first for sex, then for revenge. We all know about the genesis of Frankenstein and have heard the strumming of Jane Williams's guitar many times before. When the sky darkens ominously over the Bay of Lerici and the pleasure boat Don Juan sets sail, we know it will all end in tears.

Daisy Hay's take on this material is to question "the myth of the romantic poet as solitary and introspective" by emphasising the interdependence of the Shelley-Byron-Hunt circle, which, she says, existed to withstand the criticism that their politics attracted, such as Lockhart's characterisation of them as vulgar "cockneys" who threatened the fibre of society: "There can be no radical distinction between the private and public character of a poet. If a poet sympathises with and justifies wickedness in his poetry, he is a wicked man."

Readers, however, lapped up Don Juan, Endymion and Prometheus Unbound; they even quite liked Leigh Hunt's Foliage, a terrible poem, but full of juicy hints about incest. What was Hunt up to with his sister-in-law, or Byron with his sister? How many illegitimate children did Shelley have? Notoriety wasn't as much fun for the girls and women whose lives were mangled in the process, not to mention the even younger members of the group, the children, among whom there was such a pitifully high mortality rate. On the run, on the move, in prison, harangued by parents, the cost of loving these men was even higher than the adrenaline rush. …

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