Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation

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by Daisy Hay
     
 

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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The lives of the second generation of English Romantic writers—Leigh Hunt, Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats—are the stuff of melodramatic romance and legend: antiestablishment rebels; successions of wives, mistresses, and lovers; the struggle for recognition; exile; and early death. Following a broadly chronological movement, this debut by Hay shifts back and forth among the circles of friends and families of these writers, from the imprisonment of Hunt to the death of Shelley and its aftermath. While Hay breaks no new ground, Young Romantics is a vigorously written, well-informed, and popularizing page-turner. VERDICT The chief limitation of the book—a problem that hampers a number of recent literary biographies—is that it focuses on the human dimensions of the poets rather than the greatness of their poetry. It is accessible, however, and highly recommended for the general reader interested in the lives behind the poems but less so for the specialist.—T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah
Kirkus Reviews
A prosopography of Keats, Shelley, Byron and others. Successful biographers must balance density of detail with narrative flow. Cambridge-educated Hay adds the further challenge of documenting not one life, but those of several friends and acquaintances within the admittedly narrow social milieu of the so-called "Young Romantics." Her thesis concerns the impact of a close circle of friends upon the work that these young talents produced. True to the group's reputation, their lives involved enough wild abandon, steamy liaisons, elopements, intrigue, incest, love triangles, illegitimate children and passionate death to fill the pages of several novels. Though familiar and less-familiar characters move in and out of the chronological narrative, Hay spends the most time on the exploits of Shelley and Mary Godwin, whom the reckless poet whisked away in scandal while he was still married to another woman, and their entourage. This approach suggests that an artist's leisure-class coterie-particularly in the early 19th century, when sociability was discussed and pursued as an art in itself-influenced, nurtured and challenged his or her work in significant ways. The author devotes few pages to analyses of the individual works; instead, she weaves a complex background of what was going on when many of these works were written and how those personal events worked their way into the poetry. Some of Shelley's most beloved poems, for instance, weren't penned on a bleak promontory but during spirited sonnet contests with his quill-wielding cronies. Though marketed to a general readership, the book hardly seems suitable for anyone but avid readers of literary history or students of Romantic poetry. For that audience, though, Hay offers an engaging model for biographical study, enabling heretofore unacknowledged players in the drama of the Young Romantic poets' lives to have their say. Intelligent and intricate, though occasionally dull.
Ben Downing
…[Hay] is a skilled and sure-­footed chronicler. In firm, clear, often elegant prose, she narrates the main events in the lives of her subjects…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.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Long before the lost generation or '60s rock poets, there was a 19th-century movable feast of interlinked English poets and thinkers that was even more fascinating and combustible. Cambridge Ph.D. Hay, in her first book, delves with scholarly relish into the unorthodox lifestyles and fluid (including quasi-incestuous and incestuous) households of several key figures: vegetarians Percy and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; Mary Shelley's stepsister Jane, aka Claire Clairmont; Lord Byron; John Keats; and the little-read today but central revolutionary, Leigh Hunt. The key years are 1813 to 1822, effectively terminating with Shelley's drowning at sea not long after Keats's death from tuberculosis. New here is Claire's autobiographical fragment—archived in the New York Public Library—in which she rakes the libertarians Shelley and Byron, whose daughter she bore, over her emotional coals. Well handled is the so-called summer of Frankenstein, and how, over the nine years Hay chronicles, the boundaries of monogamy were pushed to the breaking point. Although Hay is passionate about her subject, her writing is unexceptional and monotone: she sticks to the descriptive rather than the analytic. 16 pages of b&w illus. (May 4)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374123758
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/27/2010
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
9.40(w) x 6.32(h) x 1.27(d)

Read an Excerpt

Young Romantics

The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation


By Daisy Hay

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Daisy Hay
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-12375-8



CHAPTER 1

Husbands


On 3 February, 1813, Leigh Hunt began a two year prison sentence at Surrey Gaol in Horsemonger Lane, London. His crime was libel; his victim the Prince Regent. It was, by any standards, a harsh punishment, but Leigh Hunt was determined to bear imprisonment and separation from his family with fortitude. 'I must feel like a brother, a father and a husband, but I can still act like a man', he wrote. 'I have friends above price; I have done my duty; I am an Englishman setting an example to my children and my country; and it would be hard, under all these circumstances, if I could not suffer any extremity rather than disgrace myself by effeminate lamentation or worse compromise.'

Surrey Gaol was nestled among the narrow streets of modern-day Southwark. It was one of the largest prisons in England and, like other county gaols, held a mixture of common criminals and debtors, who lived in and around the prison with their families. Its governor, Mr Ives, ran his establishment as a flourishing business, charging prisoners fees for ale, the services of prostitutes, the removal of chains, and even for release on acquittal by a court. Visitors formed an essential part of the prison economy, bringing the incarcerated food and money to pay fees as well as small home comforts – bedding, warm clothes – which made life inside more bearable.

A prisoner like twenty-eight year old Leigh Hunt offered the prospect of rich pickings for Ives and his staff. It was not uncommon for gentleman prisoners (largely white-collar criminals, guilty of offences such as libel, sedition and fraud) to serve out their sentences as guests of their gaoler, paying high rents to be accommodated in the master's house. Ives greeted his newest inmate with profuse expressions of pity and immediately offered him rooms in his own apartments. Hunt rejected this offer, on two grounds: he could not afford Ives's extortionate rent, and he objected to the gaoler's unctuous expressions of sympathy, which were as insincere as they were fulsome. As a result, he was allocated a cell previously occupied by Colonel Despard, an Anglo-Irish rebel found guilty of high treason, who had been executed on the roof of Surrey Gaol in 1803.

It was not a promising beginning to his sentence, and Hunt's first few days in gaol were dreadful. It was the sounds of prison life which distressed him the most: the noise of 'felons' chains, mixed with ... horrid execrations or despairing laughter' was worse than the sight of the felons themselves, and the scraping of cell keys turning in locks represented 'a malignant insult' to Hunt's 'love of liberty'. A prison guard took him to see a woman about to be hanged for murdering her illegitimate baby, and Hunt was appalled that the gallows on which the woman was to be executed were 'brought out within her hearing'. He was also revolted by the voyeuristic whisperings of the guard, and chastised him roundly for his behaviour. Ives and his staff soon learnt that Hunt was not a man to condone cruel or dismissive remarks about his fellow prisoners.

Hunt's brave talk boosted his morale but it did little for his health, which began to deteriorate under the strain of such an environment. Sympathetic members of the prison's board of magistrates agreed that, on health grounds, his bleak living conditions should be improved. His family were permitted to join him and two rooms were adapted for them in the old prison infirmary. The news that he was to be given a space of his own in which he could live with his wife and children spurred Hunt into action. The tradesmen who traipsed in and out of the prison selling their wares to its unfortunate inmates were joined by a team of decorators, who set about transforming the infirmary into accommodation fit for a gentleman.

Six weeks after the beginning of his sentence, Hunt was ready to receive visitors. His friends made their way through the dirty Southwark streets and the prison's dark corridors to find him settled in a riot of colour and comfort. He sat in splendidly appointed rooms, a fairy-tale king holding court in a bower of his own creation:

I papered the walls with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows were screened with Venetian blinds; and when my bookcases were set up with their busts, and flowers and a piano-forte made their appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room on that side of the water.


Friends and admirers flocked to see him, some out of curiosity, but many more out of genuine affection. His cell became an unlikely literary salon, and a refuge – for both the prisoner and his visitors – from the cares of the world. Tradesmen brought good food and wine; special dinners were ordered, and Hunt and his companions talked late into the night until Ives or his underlings came to escort them off the premises. Hunt spent the hours between visits reading, writing, and landscaping his garden, a small patch of outside space attached to the old infirmary, which he made private with green palings and a trellis. He created flowerbeds around its edges, in which he planted flowers and saplings, and had the centre of his garden covered with grass turf. Here he walked with his young nephews and his son and played at battledore and shuttlecock with Jeremy Bentham, one of his more sporty visitors.

* * *

Leigh Hunt's name does not excite much attention today. One of the reasons for this is that his best work was his most ephemeral: unlike his more famous friends he was not first and foremost a poet, but a campaigning journalist. He spent his youth cocooned in the bosom of his family, the adored, delicate youngest child of Isaac Hunt, a loyalist refugee from Philadelphia, and his wife Mary. His ancestors on his father's side were West Indian, and throughout his life his enemies would seize upon this, commenting in sly asides on his swarthy complexion, dark hair and thick lips. Isaac Hunt was a charismatic spendthrift, and some of Hunt's earliest memories were of the rooms at the King's Bench Prison where the family lived after Isaac was imprisoned for debt. He spent his schooldays at Christ's Hospital, then an unforgiving institution standing in the shadows of Newgate prison. In 1801, when Hunt was sixteen, his fond father arranged for the publication of his Juvenilia, funded by a group of eminent subscribers who supported Isaac because of his loyalist connections. It was most unusual to publish an author's Juvenilia before he had established himself as a significant literary voice, and the volume was a sign of Isaac's remarkable confidence in his son's abilities.

After Juvenilia, however, Hunt showed little sign of living up to his early promise, and he drifted aimlessly. His listless progress through late adolescence was marred by some of the curious contradictions in his character. Simultaneously self-confidently precocious and unsure of his own abilities, strong-willed and emotionally fragile, egotistical and selfless, he seemed almost overawed by his own potential. Eventually, his elder brother John, worried that his brilliant sibling was in danger of succumbing to their father's lackadaisical and irresponsible habits, took a hand in his future. John Hunt was nine years older than Leigh and the contrast in their characters was marked. He was hard-working, diligent, morally upright and an incisive judge of character. A highly responsible man himself, he bitterly resented Isaac's failures and the strain financial uncertainty placed on his delicate mother. He combined deeply held principles with business acumen and in 1808, when he was thirty-two and Leigh twenty-three, he spotted a gap in the politically polarised periodical market for an independent weekly newspaper. He had started newspapers before, to which Leigh had contributed on a part-time basis, but now John suggested a permanent partnership in which he would act as printer and Leigh as editor.

The resulting newspaper, The Examiner, bound the brothers together for almost two decades. Leigh shared his brother's principled devotion to political independence and to the cause of parliamentary reform and they worked well together, John providing the clear-headed common sense which ensured the newspaper was ready for printing by its Saturday deadline and Leigh the sparkling editorial comment columns which made its reputation. Leigh did not, however, share his austere elder brother's work ethic, and the carefree way he managed his own financial affairs was a source of considerable strain on their relationship. So too was Leigh's marriage in 1809 to Mary Anne Kent, which placed additional pressure on The Examiner's resources. Leigh had met Mary Anne (known also as Marian and, ultimately, as Marianne) in 1802 when, as a directionless eighteen year old, he was introduced to the Kent family by a mutual friend who knew that Marianne's younger sister, Elizabeth, was eager to meet him. Elizabeth was only eleven in 1802, but she was bright beyond her years, had read and admired an essay by Hunt in the Monthly Preceptor and was keen to emulate his literary activities. Hunt was kind to the little girl, probably because he was attracted to her elder sister.

Hunt's courtship of Marianne was long and stormy, and dominated the adolescent years of both sisters. But by 1813, the year of his imprisonment, Hunt and Marianne were safely married and the parents of two small sons. Their household was chaotic, in marked contrast to that of John and his wife Sally. Leigh and Marianne moved in and out of London, between a series of rented cottages and apartments, scraping money together as they went along. John found his new sister-in-law's haphazard housekeeping exasperating, but his resistance to the marriage stemmed from more serious concerns. He feared for The Examiner's future under the management of a domestically distracted editor, and doubted that the journal could support an additional family. He may also have worried that the presence of a flighty, disorganised, emotional wife would exacerbate Leigh's character flaws, and that Marianne would only make his brother more unreliable. She did not, however, have the detrimental effect on her husband's industriousness that John anticipated, and within two years of its foundation, The Examiner had become one of the most influential newspapers of the day.

From their motto ('Party is the Madness of the Many for the Gain of a Few') to their refusal to accept advertisements, the Hunt brothers proclaimed their independence at every turn. The paper's political position was liberal; its tone anti-establishment. It blamed the manifold weaknesses of government on the incompetence of those permitted to govern, on the unchecked problems facing the nation and, above all, on endemic corruption. In the first year of its life, the Hunt brothers' crusade against corruption brought them both widespread respect and a charge for libel when they made reference to a story circulating in London that the Duke of York's mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, had been selling military commissions. This libel charge only collapsed when the truth of the accusation against the Duke was laid bare by the scurrilous and extremely funny evidence given at the bar of the House of Commons by Mary Anne Clarke herself. Between 1808 and 1812 the Hunts faced two further libel actions. The first, levelled against an article on the 'headless state' of the government, was withdrawn just as the trial started. The second charge was more serious, and related to an article which condemned the practice of military flogging, comparing it unfavourably to the disciplinary methods used by Napoleon. On this occasion the Hunts were only acquitted thanks to the brilliance of their trial lawyer.

The libel cases against The Examiner greatly strained the Hunts' resources but the publicity engendered by legal action also brought the newspaper fame and new readers. Those who picked it up for the first time soon discovered that it was far more than a weekly political gazette. It included theatre reviews, columns on the fine arts, comment on contemporary manners, sketches of leading parliamentarians, and an impressive array of original poetry and literary reviews. It also carried verbatim reports of parliamentary proceedings, national and international intelligence, agricultural, law and police reports, a column on happenings at Court and current fashions, as well as an intriguing summary of 'Accidents and Offences', which described, in magnificent detail, some of the week's more bizarre domestic and local skirmishes. Nonetheless, its centrepiece was the political editorial contributed each week by Leigh Hunt. His columns chronicled the rise and fall of Napoleon, the progress of the British armies from the Spanish Peninsula to the Field of Waterloo, the scandals that enveloped the royal family and the government, the suffering of the labouring poor in the post-war years, and the long battle for parliamentary reform waged by a wide spectrum of reformers and radicals. Hunt kept up a constant attack on the government, his position moving from belligerence to despair.

At the beginning of 1811, King George III was finally declared mentally incapable to rule, and the Prince of Wales was appointed Prince Regent. The Examiner, like other reform-minded publications, greeted the prospect of a Regency with cautious enthusiasm, but by February 1811 Hunt was dolefully reporting that the Regent was little more than 'a mere signing and responding puppet' who had failed to dismiss the tired Tory administration of Spencer Perceval and Lord Liverpool, bestowed sinecures on his friends, and held extravagant parties in a manner quite unsuited to his role as head of state. The Examiner's anger against the Regent finally erupted in an editorial in March 1812. Reading reports of the Prince's activities in sycophantic journals, Hunt announced, one would never guess 'that this delightful, blissful, wise, pleasurable, honourable, virtuous, true and immortal PRINCE, was a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity!'

A fourth libel writ was promptly issued against The Examiner by an outraged Attorney General. The Hunts had survived three previous libel actions and this time the trial judge, Lord Ellenborough, was taking no chances. The jury was hand-picked and 'packed' with men sympathetic to the Crown, and the result was never in doubt. Both Hunt brothers were sent to prison, Leigh to Surrey Gaol and John to Coldbath Fields in North London.

Lord Liverpool and members of his government may well have assumed that The Examiner was unlikely to survive the incarceration of its editor and printer. If so, they were destined to be disappointed. Instead of isolation, the Hunt brothers' sentence brought them new, powerful supporters and determined, congenial and interesting friends. In 1813 the circle which gathered around Leigh in prison included some important figures in English arts and letters. His regular callers included William Hazlitt, a painter and journalist beginning to make a name for himself as an essayist and literary commentator; Charles and Mary Lamb, the brother-and-sister co-authors of Tales from Shakespeare; and Charles Cowden Clarke, son of a well-known Dissenting schoolmaster. He was also visited regularly by Thomas Barnes, a Christ's Hospital friend, the classical scholar Thomas Mitchell and Sir John Swinburne, whose nephew, Algernon, would scandalise Victorian society with the publication of his erotic libertarian poems. Henry Brougham, the lawyer who had unsuccessfully defended the Hunt brothers at their trial, was another frequent visitor, as was the painter Benjamin Haydon, an impetuous, religious, slightly wild-eyed twenty-seven year old. Haydon understood better than most how painful it was for Hunt to be cut off from London's theatres and exhibitions, and he arranged to have his great historical painting on the Judgement of Solomon transported to Surrey Gaol for Hunt to admire. He was, in 1813, among the most passionately loyal of Hunt's supporters, noting in his diary that 'Hunt's Society is always delightful – I don't know a purer, a more virtuous character, or a more witty, funny, amusing, enlivening man.' Haydon visited Hunt throughout his time in gaol, wrote him long letters during his absences from London, and was a constant source of support and encouragement.

With the aid of such friends, the Hunts managed to keep The Examiner going so that it appeared every week of their two year sentence. Though John Hunt was accorded less freedom and his visitors were more restricted, a constant stream of Examiner employees scuttled back and forth between the newspaper's offices, John's cell at Coldbath Fields and Surrey Gaol, collecting editorials and instructions. And the group that began to form around Leigh Hunt acquired a life of its own in the pages of the newspaper. Thomas Barnes contributed a column on 'Parliamentary Criticism', and assumed responsibility for Hunt's theatre column. Charles Lamb wrote the early editions of 'Table Talk', a collaborative meditation on society and manners which appeared regularly from 1813. In 1814 William Hazlitt published the first of his regular contributions to the newspaper, in the shape of an article on Shakespeare and 'Posthumous Fame'. Benjamin Haydon supplied articles under the pseudonym 'E.S.'.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Young Romantics by Daisy Hay. Copyright © 2010 Daisy Hay. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Daisy Hay recently completed a doctorate in English literature at Cambridge. She lives in London. Young Romantics is her first book.

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