October 25, 2010

Young Romantics
A Guest Review by the Vicar of VHS

Keys to understanding Frankenstein are found in understanding its author, Mary Shelley: Her influences, her life, her entourage, and the era she lived in. Many answers can be found in the new and highly touted group biography, Young Romantics, by British scholar Daisy Hay.

I’m delighted to welcome a fellow blogger, the virtual Vicar of VHS, one-half of the dastardly duo perpetrating the maddening Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies blog, as an unlikely but strangely fitting Guest Reviewer. You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that The Vicar — he stubbornly refuses to answer to any other name — is a published author and poet! Lord Byron, The Vicar informs me, is his favorite Romantic poet, and Lord Fauntleroy his role model. “One day” he says, “I hope to pose for an oil portrait in Arabesque costume.

Here is The Vicar of VHS’ review of Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation, by Daisy Hay.

There is certainly no shortage of biographies devoted to the key figures in the Romantic movement of English poetry. The short, tragic life of John Keats, the proto-rock star adventures of Lord Byron, and the tumultuous relationship of Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley have been the subject of countless published histories since their deaths, and continue to fascinate aspiring scholars and casual readers alike. In fact, so much has been written about each of the group's members that it might seem there's nothing new to be said. To take on any one of these monumental figures in print is to risk merely treading a well-worn trail and repeating all the anecdotes that have long since passed into common knowledge and literary legend.

However, author Daisy Hay manages a fresh approach in her first book, Young Romantics. Her book is the story not of any one Romantic figure, but of all of them--or rather, of the by-turns cohesive and shifting social circle of which they were a part. In doing so, Hay paints a fascinating picture of these often larger-than-life personalities, and also the way those personalities and events interacted to shape what she calls "English Poetry's Greatest Generation."

Hay takes as her focus publisher and author Leigh Hunt, a figure little-remembered outside scholarly circles, but who was instrumental in the publication and rise to fame of many of the Romantic era's greatest poets. Often imprisoned for debt and libel, Hunt was nonetheless able to maintain a salon where he received frequent visits from the literary giants of the age (thanks to influential friends and the nature of life for an aristocrat in debtors' prison at the time). As Keats, Byron, the Shelleys, and others pass in and out of Hunt's circle, Hay sketches the events that occasioned their meetings, friendships, and sometimes tumultuous fallings-out. In doing so she succeeds in giving the reader not only the essential information about each poet and writer's career, but in creating an immersive portrait of the time and place in which they worked, and the important relationships that shaped their lives and in some cases nearly destroyed their reputations.

Of particular interest to readers of Frankensteinia is Hays' detailed treatment of the relationship between Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The author traces the couple's relationship from its very beginnings, hitting such touchstones as Shelley's expulsion from Oxford University for atheism, his legendary (and perhaps apocryphal) courtship of the teenaged Mary on the site of her famous mother's tomb, and of course the fabled summer at the Villa Diodati with Byron, Polidori, and Mary's half-sister Claire Clairmont. The composition of Frankenstein, its publication and popularity, and its importance to Mary's financial well-being in later life (after Percy Shelley's tragic death by drowning left her and her children destitute) are all compellingly detailed, as are the tragedies of Mary's lost children and Claire's protracted struggles with Byron over their illegitimate daughter. Hay explains the scandals caused by themes of free love and incest that pervaded not only Shelley and Byron's work but also that of Hunt and others, and how public perception of the group was shaped (sometimes justly) by them.

The book contains a wealth of information for anyone interested in Romantic poetry generally and the Shelleys in partcular. Included in photo plates are many famous portraits of Mary Shelley, the famous painting "The Funeral of Shelley" by Louis Fournier (with entertaining commentary on the painting's accuracy, or lack thereof), and manuscript pages from Frankenstein in Mary's own hand, with marginalia by Percy Shelley showing a deft editorial hand. I was surprised to find one of the more memorable-to-me lines from the book, wherein Frankenstein laments that at university "I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth," was apparently suggested by Percy, as can be seen on the page.

Hays' treatment of the triumphs and tribulations of the other figures of the Romantic movement are just as entertaining and informative. Part biography, part history, and part soap opera, The Young Romantics might not have the focus and depth of some scholarly works, but is definitely more fun. If you're interested in Frankenstein, Romantic poetry, or just literature generally, I can highly recommend it.

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay (2010, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Daisy Hay’s website
A video interview with Daisy Hay
A 3-part podcast from Blackwell Online

The Vicar of VHS’ Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies blog.

The Funeral of Shelley

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