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

Young Romantics by Daisy Hay
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bookshelves: 19th-century, brit-lit, examined-lives, history, grand-opera, great-and-terrible-men

This book is an expanded thesis. I am making that the first piece of information I give you because it explains why the material in it is presented in the way that it is. Hay wrote her thesis attempting to work against the idea that the major Romantic writers actually produced their best work in "Romantic isolation" as hermits or whatever the hell else they cared to pretend to pose at when they were moody or out of money, but in fact were a very sociable lot whose major inspirations often came from each other.

Although she begins her work with the set piece of Leigh Hunt and supposedly the work is focused on the group that is connected through him, she spends most of her time with Shelley. That makes sense. He's her best argument. Both Shelleys are. They spent much of their married life surrounded by friends and family, sometimes unavoidably so, but much of the time through their own design. She will get into telling stories about the creation of each work and its general reception, and an amusing anecdote or two about some escapade the boys got up to, and then she always comes back to reminding us that this stuff showed up in their work and they influenced each other mightily even on the briefest of meetings.

To her credit, she does not try to make relationships mean more than they did or last longer than evidence dictates (with some exceptions). It's always tempting to paint Shelley and Byron as eternally close, battling BFFs after the famous summer they spent together, because its more fun that way but in reality, Byron was always out of the social stratosphere of the Shelleys and kind of doing them a favor in hanging out with them. Lots of people think Shelley slept with Claire, Hay's pretty fair about giving the evidence as to whether or not that happened and if so how much it influenced him. I was less than thrilled with how much time we spent talking about incest (which is a subject on which there is shaky and ambiguous evidence all around), but to be fair, she presented several possible perspectives on the tangle they represented and she just wants them mostly as another example of a relationship, not a cheap thrill. And really, Shelley and Byron and Hunt apparently wrote about the issue enough and had odd enough living situations to be sort of weird and worth pointing out as a common thread.

But in any case you can be sure of her pointing out over and over to her thesis advisors how this or that relationship made its way into this or that poem and why. It's a strong thesis. But unfortunately, these peoples' stories are so wonderful that I don't want them interrupted to make points, however well made. It seems like a misuse of material.

The other standout thing I will remember about this book, which Hay did a great job of making painfully clear, is how much it sucked to be a woman who chose to be involved with this crowd. Even in the parents' generation that set it up. Three suicide attempts in this book, guys. Two of them successful (Mary Wollstonecraft and Shelley's first wife). Women are shunned and banned from their father's houses for taking up with these guys. Their children die (two of Mary's children die within a year!) or are taken away (Byron sucks. In case that was news to anyone). They take up these crazy ideas to please the boys or try to make the best of the choices they've made and only end up making themselves terribly sad. Their depression is thought a "fault" in them (Mary is prone to depressive spells and has an understandably long one after two of her children die, and therefore her relations with Shelley are kind of chilly. Especially after he gets the AWESOME idea-unconfirmed but Hay argues for it pretty persuasively- to try and adopt a random kid and give her to Mary to, you know, replace her two dead children. Because that's how that works. So when Shelley dies, they've grown a bit distant and she's held to be a bad, cold fish of a woman because of it.). Then, after these guys die, mostly for no damned good reason but their own stupidity or excess of spirits, they're left to fight over the ashes and pillory each other for their own survival or to run as far away as they can (Claire runs to Russia and buries herself there in obscurity for years). These intelligent, passionate women take up with these guys in their teens, and by their late twenties they've lived a whole life and it's over. It's heady, but oh my God, the grief it left behind. The women were the ones who touched me in this book. Lest anyone romanticize living in even freewheeling, free-thinking, well-educated, free-love experimenting society as a woman... read this book.

To be fair, Shelley was doing a pretty good job of growing up by the end of the book. He started in a pretty despicable place, but after he met Mary he did make an effort to change. Not enough, but far more than any of the other men we encounter in this book (except maybe Keats and he died too soon to know) would have cared to try.

But yes. Clearly excellently researched, with passion and that excellent dryly humorous British academic writing I love appearing here and there. Hay made something a bit different from material that has been poured over and worked over for two hundred years. An impressive feat in and of itself that deserves a look if you're at all interested in this era.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 1, 2012 – Shelved
December 1, 2012 – Shelved as: examined-lives
December 1, 2012 – Shelved as: 19th-century
December 1, 2012 – Shelved as: brit-lit
December 1, 2012 – Shelved as: history
December 1, 2012 – Shelved as: grand-opera
December 1, 2012 – Shelved as: great-and-terrible-men
December 1, 2012 – Finished Reading
December 4, 2012 –
page 60
15.0% "So far, what I have learned from this book is that young Percy Shelley was The Worst. I'll get back to you on the rest."
December 4, 2012 –
page 95
23.75% ""Meanwhile, the goings-on at Diodati were a fertile topic for gossip and speculation. The local hotelier did a brisk trade in sailing trips on the lake during which shocked English visitors could inspect the washing drying outside Byron's villa for evidence of female inhabitants- telescopes were thoughtfully included in the ticket price.""
December 10, 2012 –
page 200
50.0% "The ladies in this book, be they babies or full grown women, do not fare particularly well. I just... wow."
December 16, 2012 –
page 240
60.0% "Sometimes it makes me smile when good historians forget themselves and slip into using the cant and writing rhythms of the period they've immersed themselves in. There's something about this particular period of European history that seems to make a lot of people do it. A compliment to the historical figures involved, I guess."

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Dec 30, 2012 03:42PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly I mean, I like his writing as much as the next girl. And I will be fair enough to say that although he treats Claire like crap, there was some silliness on her side as well, particularly in her initial decisions to get involved with him. He's a man of his time and especially his class. It's understandable, but that doesn't mean it isn't awful and disappointing to read about. Even those excuses aren't enough to excuse the regular hypocrisy between what he wrote and what he did and his crazy selfishness, especially with regard to women and those in need around him.

message 2: by knig (new)

knig It does sound 'tangled'. I can't decide if more so than the lives of the Bloomsbury Set a little later on, who really overegg the pudding in that respect. Love your review. I've just started a book about that era as well, which touches upon some of these female characters Ladies Of The Grand Tourin a roundabout way. (e.g. Shelley being a fixture of salon culture, etc).

Kelly Thanks, Knig. I don't know too much about the Bloomsbury entanglements except some of Virginia Woolf's, but I can believe that they were tightly wound as well. The British aristocracy/literati do often in general feel this way! It's a small island/upper class. I hope you enjoy the book you're reading!

Liberty, I still haven't quite decided about how I feel about his volunteering for the Greece action. Sometimes I feel like it was a delusional attempt to live out legendary stories, which is sympathetic to me to a certain degree, sometimes I feel like it was an adventure to impress his lover, sometimes to have something to do, sometimes I think maybe there was something genuine there, but then again if he was so concerned about liberty why didn't he do anything about it at home where there were a lot of repressive laws in place at the time? I don't know. I think most likely it was probably a combination of all these things. But in the end you're probably right that self-centered is a better way to put it.

Kelly That's probably a better response. I think I'd need to do a lot more reading than I'm sure I want to to really make an informed decision anyway.

Kelly That's true! Expert friends are so useful! Watch, it will probably turn out that Byron was a secret ethical prince or something.

message 6: by karen (new)

karen no, but i think he really did have good intentions w/r/t greece. and he didn't even get to fight so much as it, despite his still-crippling debt. i think he still felt very much the spirit of the adventurer, despite his physical restrictions, and as a man in exile, i think his intentions were good. if that's what we are asking? but yeah, a total cad...

Kelly I would buy that he did it in the "spirit of adventure," at least in part. You can be a very self-centered adventurer! Many generations of English colonialism prove that! I guess what we were debating is whether he was a true believer in the cause of liberty or whatever, but I guess I don't know what that really means anyway. Everybody's always got a few motivations to help them put themselves in that position, right?

message 8: by karen (new)

karen sorry, i did not get a notification about this comment. i think that he really did support the cause; he was getting on in years, you know, for his lifestyle, and i think he wanted to do something that would have an impact, a legacy. i could probably find info on this, but right now i am wicked late for work.

message 9: by Jonfaith (new)

Jonfaith well, goddamn

Kelly Thank you? I think?

message 11: by Jonfaith (new)

Jonfaith Indeed

Kelly Ok! Then: Thank you! Exclamation point emphasis! :)

message 13: by Jonfaith (new)

Jonfaith When a review delivers a kick in my ass I’m ecstatic but usually terse and inscrutable in a mumbling manner.

Kelly I hear you. I do this, but in IRL actual convos. :)

message 15: by Ray (new)

Ray LaManna It looks like Hay has written a rather readable study of this important Romantic era.

Kelly For the most part, yeah! Other than the thesis-y stuff. :)

Martha Wasn’t it Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter Fanny Imlay who committed suicide? Mary Wollstonecraft died of a fever.

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