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Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and…

Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (2010)

by Daisy Hay

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The Romantics have been a huge part of my life; if it wasn’t for them I may never have become a reader. Problem is, I don’t know much about their lives so I have set out to learn more. Young Romantics by Daisy Hay tells the basic story of their lives, but with the subtitle The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives you can be sure it will be heavily focused on Mary and Claire.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont were fascinating people, however this seems to be the primary focus of more biographies. I was a little surprised when Daisy Hay spends so little time on that fateful time in Geneva that birthed Frankenstein but I assume that she deliberately glossed over that story assuming everyone was aware of it anyway.

Young Romantics did something I didn’t expect and that was spending a lot of time talking about the Hunt brothers. I knew they played a big part in literature at the time and that in context to the Romantics it is relevant information. However I never viewed them as Romantics and often over looked learning about them. This is a mistake on my behalf; the role the Hunts played in the Romantic Movement is an essential part in dealing with context. I might not consider them Romantics but they were there shaping the literary world along side them.

Having discovered a new interest in non-fiction I find myself wanting to read more biographies. While I have a great interest in the Romantics, I found that Young Romantics works to create a basic understanding of their lives. You get a quick overview of the lives of the Shelleys and the Hunts. Unfortunately there isn’t much to do with Lord Byron and even less to do with the others. I would have loved to read more about Keats but he only got a brief look in.

I plan to read more biographies about a range of different authors but I’m sure there will be plenty on the Romantics. I like Young Romantics for the broad strokes approach it took on the Romantics. I learnt a lot from this book but I’m sure people with a great knowledge would have been a little disappointed with it. I think if you have a passing interest in the Romantics this might be the perfect choice.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2014/05/21/young-romantics-by-daisy-hay/ ( )
  knowledge_lost | Dec 7, 2014 |
Was surprised how much I enjoyed the telling of the interwoven lives of the romantic poets Shelley, Byron, Keats along with Mary Shelley and the women in their lives. Fascinating insight into a very specific period - and whilst it was of a period, it is quite contemporary particularly how there lives and attitudes change from their idealist late teens' to 20's to their maturating 30's and so on. I think [[Daisy Hay]] has done a great job finding some common threads, in particular Leigh Hunt and Mary Shelley, to tie a potentially messy story into a coherent understanding of the life and times and influences of these influential artists. ( )
  tandah | May 1, 2014 |
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!

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=56 ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Jun 1, 2013 |
A breezy take on Shelly and his fascinating circle. The book is very entertaining when when recounting the events and personalities, peppered with a little gossipy speculation. It becomes tedious, however, when it strays into theories of creativity and relationships; there you glimpse the the books foundation of the doctoral thesis of a gifted writer, but not terribly original thinker. Still, it's a good beach read for the literary minded. ( )
  aaronbaron | Sep 25, 2011 |
I received Daisy Hay's Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation as a graduation gift, and I went into it with two hopes: one, that it would support my pet theory that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is in part written as a satire at the expense of the insufferable male poets in her life, and that reading about the Romantic poets would be more intriguing than reading Romantic poetry in 100-level English courses.

For the former, I was left more or less where I started. None of the letters and diaries concerning Mary Shelley contained any particular indication that the quietly subverted Romantic tropes in Frankenstein had anything to do with annoyance at Percy Shelley's, Lord Byron's, or anyone else's behavior, although I am perhaps more convinced that, if I were Mary Shelley, that is exactly why I would have put them in there.

As to the latter hope, I was not disappointed. Young Romantics tells a tangled story of a network of famous poets and their less-famous friends and family members, most of whom were very young, very brilliant, and very politically radical. The resulting drama makes their literary legacies—some of the most enduring in English writing—look positively boring in comparison.

There are more or less two central points to the social network that made up the Romantic group, giving the book two main narrative threads which sometimes interweave. The first thread follows journalist and free-speech activist Leigh Hunt, who kicks off the book with a two-year prison sentence for libel due to the political content of his newspaper, The Examiner. In prison and out of it, Hunt made himself and his rooms the epicenter of a salon of radicals, freethinkers, poets and journalists, as well as a rather large group of relatives including his wife Marianne, his botanist sister-in-law Bess, his brother John (co-owner of The Examiner and the only fiscally responsible person in the family), and an enormous brood of children.

The other main narrative thread follows Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, daughter of radical freethinker William Godwin and early feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, a radical anti-monarchist who was expelled from Oxford after writing a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism. Mary, as formidable a creative and intellectual force as her parents, would go on to be best known as the author of Frankenstein; Shelley, despite his political activism, would go on to become the poster boy for underweight, sentimental, tortured poetic genius. In Young Romantics, however, we get to know them as an idealistic young couple, prone to quarreling with their family members and making daring, ill-thought-out decisions, such as eloping to Italy without any money. The most frequently reoccurring characters in Percy and Mary's story include Mary's stepsister and Lord Byron's mistress, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron himself, and their illegitimate daughter. Daisy Hay guides us through their personal dramas and literary achievements as the group continually splits up and comes back together again, traveling from England to Italy and back several times. Poems, novels, letters and diaries are written prolifically; children are born, and die, or become the subjects of vicious custody battles. Other Romantic celebrities such as John Keats, Thomas Love Peacock, Charles and Mary Lamb, William Hazlitt, Benjamin Haydon, and Vincent Novello drift in and out of their circle and Leigh Hunt's.

Young Romantics is not just a set of biographic stories of the individual Romantic greats, just as the Romantic movement (or “Cockney school,” as it was called at the time) was more than just a number of individual people who all wrote in a similar style. The Romantic group was held together as a group—as a movement—by a set of commonly shared concerns and principles, many of which are precisely what disposed the Romantic writers' lives so uniquely to such vast amounts of drama. Hay never lets us lose sight of these principles, and the impact they had on even the most deeply personal aspects of the Romantics' lives. Many of them were driven by radical political concerns, particularly freedom of speech, which is part of what caused so many visionaries to congregate around Leigh Hunt's imprisonment and the various liberal publications to come out of the Hunts' press. The Shelley group also tried to live according to principles of free-love, an idealistic, anti-marriage lifestyle that managed to backfire spectacularly upon its practitioners. Before the advent of reliable birth control and under the early nineteenth century's deeply sexist marriage and property laws, free-love was so impracticable that many of the most vocal free-love advocates ended up married. Perhaps the most important common bond of the Romantics, however, was their exploration of the relationship between sociability and creativity. The biographic sketches in the book are full of scenes of geniuses editing and inspiring each other's work, holding writing competitions and penning long epistles to one another. Fictionalized versions of friends and family members feature heavily in the Romantic writers' works, to a degree that they not only became known and mocked for it, but that the reading public began to attribute the fictional aspects of Romantic works to the writer's lives. (This caused serious damage to Bess and Claire's reputations when Hunt and Shelley wrote poems exploring themes of incest.) Daisy Hay balances exploring friendship as a Romantic ideal and chronicling the frequently tense, conflict-ridden actual friendships in question with grace, clarity and thorough research.

This centrality of friendship to the Romantic school raised a new concern following the tragically premature deaths of many of the notable Romantics, particularly Percy Shelley and Lord Byron: the issue of legacy. The surviving members of the network, such as Leigh Hunt and Mary Shelley, spent years battling in writing over the legacies of their dead friends. Biographies, carefully edited posthumous anthologies, and newspaper reviews were the weapons of choice as Shelley, Hunt and even Claire Clairmont angled to cement certain visions of themselves and their social circle into the British imagination. Though most of the cast is dead, the last section in Young Romantics is particularly fascinating to a reader who is truly interested in history, since it does not merely report history as that which happened—it shows how the history of the Romantics, as we usually learn it, was actually made.

Young Romantics is an example of the best sort of non-fiction: meticulously well-researched, full of quirky historical tidbits and telling a story strange and dramatic enough to be fiction. Hay's writing is clear and well-organized, and seamlessly weaves in ample accounts of the subjects' lives in their own words. Though the book contains very little in the way of literary criticism, the links she establishes between the poets' lives and their works has me eyeing the collections of Romantic poetry I've had sitting around untouched for years, and that is no small feat.

It must be admitted that I may, however, merely wind up rereading Frankenstein. ( )
4 vote thecynicalromantic | Mar 6, 2011 |
Showing 5 of 5
The epigraph to Young Romantics is taken from something Keats wrote of his circle in 1817: "The web of our Life is of mingled yarn." It is the author's great achievement to have so deftly unpicked the glorious knot formed by these jumbled and many hued fibres, and by doing so, to have revealed their true colours, blazing and afresh.
added by peterbrown | editThe Observer, Rachel Cooke (Apr 25, 2010)
But it’s as a biographer pure and simple that Hay ­shines. Despite being almost as youthful as her subjects — she only recently received her doctorate from Cambridge, and “Young Romantics” is her first book — she is a skilled and sure-­footed chronicler. In firm, clear, often elegant prose, she narrates the main events in the lives of her subjects from 1813, when they began to coalesce around Hunt in London, till 1822, when Shelley drowned near Livorno, Italy. She also more briefly considers the aftermath of that tragedy; Byron’s death in Greece in 1824; the later lives of the remaining figures; and, finally, the struggle over the legacies of Shelley and Byron waged by Hunt and other memoirists. Moving swiftly and purposefully, her story has no longueurs whatsoever, nor even a single lurching transition; it represents a triumph of artful selection and synthesis. If you want to read a single book of modest length on the lives (less so the work) of the later Romantics, this might very well be the one.
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'The web of our Life is of mingled yarn' - John Keats to Benjamin Bailey, 8 October 1817.
In memory of Anne Mackenzie-Stuart | and for Matthew
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374123756, Hardcover)

Young Romantics tells the story of the interlinked lives of the young English Romantic poets from an entirely fresh perspective—celebrating their extreme youth and outsize yearning for friendship as well as their individuality and political radicalism.

 The book focuses on the network of writers and readers who gathered around Percy Bysshe Shelley and the campaigning journalist Leigh Hunt. They included Lord Byron, John Keats, and Mary Shelley, as well as a host of fascinating lesser-known figures: Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress, Claire Clairmont; Hunt’s botanist sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent; the musician Vincent Novello; the painters Benjamin Haydon and Joseph Severn; and writers such as Charles and Mary Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, and William Hazlitt. They were characterized by talent, idealism, and youthful ardor, and these qualities shaped and informed their politically oppositional stances—as did their chaotic family arrangements, which often left the young women, despite their talents, facing the consequences of the men’s philosophies.

In Young Romantics, Daisy Hay follows the group’s exploits, from its inception in Hunt’s prison cell in 1813 to its disintegration after Shelley’s premature death in 1822. It is an enthralling tale of love, betrayal, sacrifice, and friendship, all of which were played out against a background of political turbulence and intense literary creativity.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:28 -0400)

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Focuses on the network of writers and readers who gathered around Percy Bysshe Shelley and the campaigning journalist Leigh Hunt. They included Lord Byron, John Keats, and Mary Shelley, as well as a host of lesser-known figures: Mary Shelley's stepsister and Byron's mistress, Claire Clairmont; Hunt's botanist sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent; the musician Vincent Novello; the painters Benjamin Haydon and Joseph Severn; and writers such as Charles and Mary Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, and William Hazlitt. They were characterized by talent, idealism, and youthful ardor, and these qualities shaped and informed their politically oppositional stances--as did their chaotic family arrangements, which often left the young women, despite their talents, facing the consequences of the men's philosophies.… (more)

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