Although Shelley is buried next to Keats, and Byron had a child, Allegra, with Shelley’s step-sister-in-law, Claire Clairmont, the real nexus between these writers was the now little read Leigh Hunt. I almost wish that Hay had written a biography of Hunt, although Young Romantics is a far sexier, more marketable title. Hunt was a poet, essayist and editor of The Examiner, a liberal, controversial newspaper. His attack on the Prince Regent earned him a two-year prison sentence, where his cell was festooned with flowers and the literati, including Byron, paid congenial visits. His incarceration made him a cause célèbre for radicals. He is now perhaps best known – Hay devotes but one footnote to this – as the model for the wilfully naive and repellently selfish Skimpole in Bleak House.
Hunt had a great gift for friendship and an even greater gift for sponging from his friends: when Byron sent money via Hunt to Mary Shelley to pay for her trip home after Shelley’s death, Hunt inexcusably kept it. In Hunt, the contradictions of the period, and the contradictions of Romanticism – otherworldly and cynical, frail and sincere – were made flesh.
As well as Hunt we have the unreliable keepers of the flame, such as Trelawny and Medwin. We have Shelley’s reckless behaviour – there is the mystery of Elena, who may have been his child with Clairmont or may have been an orphan he adopted to help his wife Mary “get over” losing their child in another moment of supreme lack of sympathy; and his infatuation with Teresa Viviani. Keats pretends to like Hunt. Byron is slighting to the Shelleys over their child-raising and detests Hunt’s children. It’s a more fractious and, frankly, dislikeable group than Hay sometimes seems willing to admit – Byron, for example, referred to Keats’s poetry as “mental masturbation”, a rebarbative quip that is omitted here. Shelley’s friend Horace Smith called him a “child-man” and a “moral Quixote”.
The group was obsessed with projecting a self-image. After 1824, by which time Keats, Byron and Shelley were all dead, the survivors redouble their efforts to idealise them. Perhaps most pernicious of all, the idea that a genius is exempt from workaday ethics and economics starts to ingrain itself; the caustic myth of artistic exceptionalism.
Indeed, more could be made of the Romantic aftermath. Mary Shelley, for example, fell for the forgeries of Major George de Luna Byron. Hay brilliantly evokes the heady days and the stormy nights of the group, and her readings of the intersections of their works (in particular, Shelley’s Julian And Maddalo and Hunt’s Foliage) lend depth to the book. In interpreting their actions and motives, she tends to follow the most sympathetic reading; an honourable course, although one increasingly bedeviled by a feeling of leniency.
Group biographies are difficult propositions, and on the strength of Hay’s debut, she has clearly established herself as a proponent of the genre to watch. Hopefully this will allow her the freedom to explore less well-known paths