This book basically had me about two pages in, and that was just the preface! I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although in a slightly different way than I anticipated. The subject is fascinating and the book itself is incredibly well-written, which is a significant compliment considering the vast web of people Hay has to keep straight for her readers. Considering the amazing aesthetic and political battles these people fought, I can't quite believe there haven't been a gazillion movies, plays, and miniseries made out of just parts of their lives, let alone the arc of 20 years or so.
What is especially interesting to me is that it raises the question--can you admire a person's work (of art) even if you know the person himself is a completely horribly person? You'll have to sort that out for yourself, as I still am. Specific to this book, I was... what's the word? disconcerted? by the utter disregard with which the men treat the women in their lives. Yes, yes, an old trope.
But this utter disregard is coupled with the legal system of this era which considers children property of the father. Thus, certain fathers abandon their wives and children--who thus have no rights and no way to support themselves financially whatsoever--and then years later show up demanding to "take" the children, children who don't even actually KNOW their father (Shelley). Or a father ignores the birth of his illegitimate child until the child is two years old, ORDERS the mother to bring the two-year-old child to him in another country, jokes about grooming the child to be his lover, and then dumps the child in a convent despite the mother pleading to take the child back with her if he doesn't actually plan to raise her (Byron).
All of that is bad enough, but could be ascribed to the legal and cultural "system" at the time, but on top of that, one reason this circle of writers was so reviled by their society (and thus left England for Italy) is because they specifically wrote about the wonders of incest. Yes, you read that right. Leigh Hunt and PB Shelley both wrote works of literature specifially supporting incest, and both Hunt and Shelley had "inappropriate" relationships with their sisters-in-law(s). Byron fathered a child by his own half-sister. And so on. (Even Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote a book that featured a destructive incestual relationship before the manuscript was heavily revised by her publisher).
Finally, I was also "disconcerted" by the fates of three of the central women of this circle, two of whom committed suicide and a third who attempted it. Yet this circle of writers is still revered today as individualists, iconoclasts and icons, adventurers, poets, artists, political movers-and-shakers, and so on and so on. But they certainly left a wake of fatal destruction behind them. Thus, I am immediately commencing to read Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle. More to come!