Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives

Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives - Daisy Hay Incest! Suicide! Adultery! Child Abandonment! Ménage à trois! Revolution! Free love! Atheism! Vegetarianism! Counter-culture! So, an account of the 1960s? Try 1810s. As the subtitle proclaims, this is about "the Shelleys, Byron, and other tangled lives"--including Keats: "a story of exceptional men and women, who were made by their relationships with one another." You might know that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was friends with the equally renowned poet Lord Byron and husband to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. You may even know the famous story of the novel's genesis in a challenge that each should write a ghost story. Mary was nineteen then--she was sixteen when she ran away with Shelley--while he was still married to his first wife, who was pregnant at the time. Mary's stepsister Claire ran away with them, and would later give birth to Byron's illegitimate daughter. The coterie were advocates of "free love," which Claire in old age would condemn as a "perfect hell." I have to admit, although far from socially conservative, I'm no fan of "free love" and the wreckage it leaves in its wake, and this book gives plenty of fodder to confirm my opinion. Neither Shelley nor Byron come off well in this group biography, even if Shelley had the excuse of youthful idealism, and seemed more thoughtless than intentionally cruel. They were all so young though. When this account opens, Mary was fifteen, Shelley twenty and Byron only twenty-four. Shelley wouldn't reach thirty. Keats, who is my favorite of the poets that appears here died at an even more obscenely young age--twenty-five. Not that Keats figures much here--I garnered more of his story from the introduction to my book of his poems than from this book. But the Shelleys are central, and with many of their letters and diaries surviving, Hay is able to paint a very intimate portrait that is psychologically nuanced and astute, and sheds light on the men's work. Keats may be a favorite, but I was underwhelmed by most of what I've read by Percy Shelley, and have read little of Lord Byron. It's to the book's credit it left me wanting to give Shelley another chance, and Lord Byron a try. I might count myself lucky after reading this book not to be in their circle or that of anyone like them, but they certainly left a rich literary legacy. And this is more than a gossipy account of their scandalous "turbulent communal existence"--it grounds them in the intellectual and political ferment of their times. But, well, can't help but leave you with a link to this comic strip that captured the central relationship in the book well :-) Enjoy!