The Romantic Poets as Soap Opera Stars ; Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Their Loves Come Alive in This Well- Crafted Novel

Article excerpt

The Romantic poets - Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley - bear more than a passing resemblance to modern celebrities (and not just due to some scandalous behavior): Every aspect of their lives has been so picked over that writing about them can seem as stale as a month-old Enquirer.

British writer Jude Morgan overcomes this difficulty handily in his absorbing new book, Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets.

Instead of the head-on approach, Morgan instead explores the lives of four of the women who loved the poets (Byron, of course, gets more than his fair share): the high-strung Lady Caroline Lamb, who has an affair with Byron; sparkling Fanny Brawne, who was engaged to Keats before his untimely death; generous, sunny Augusta Leigh, half-sister and lover of Byron; and Mary Shelley, Percy's teen bride and author of "Frankenstein."

Morgan opens with the attempted suicide of Mary Wollstonecraft, protofeminist and author. And Wollstonecraft, with her radical idealism and defiance of society, serves as matriarch to all, not just her famous daughter. After Wollstonecraft dies as a result of childbirth, the novel catalogs the childhood of the four women.

Some readers may find the early pages slow (Bring on Bryon!), but the wealth of detail and Morgan's amazing ability to re-create what these women might have thought and felt are worth savoring. The novel is meticulously researched, but scholarship never outweighs storytelling.

Morgan uses a variety of narrative techniques to fit the mood of the tale, from first-person accounts where the character speaks directly to the reader to sections that read like scenes from a play. With Byron's wife, Annabella Milbanke (of whose sanctimony the poet quips, "She would make Cromwell look like a backsliding voluptuary"), he borrows Jane Austen's acerbic quill: "In all there was about her a quality of quiet self- containment that could not fail to elicit admiration, even where it did not inspire affection. …

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