Some books are more influential than others and a novel that inspires me to read two works of non-fiction before I crack open its spine (metaphorically speaking that is), is obviously pretty influential or, at least, very eagerly anticipated. I shall reveal its identity later in this post but in the meantime, let’s talk about the non-fiction.
Introducing Romanticism: A Graphic Guide demonstrates the depth and breadth of the movement. Not exactly a polar opposite of Enlightenment, more of a critique of its excessive rationalism, Romanticism (with a capital R) was, simply stated, much much more than sloppy love poetry. Now there’s a statement guaranteed to incense Romantic experts, some of whom castigate this book for superficiality (on Amazon). But for me, not versed in the period at all, it was highly informative and entertaining and, this came as quite a surprise, it helped me sort out some of the issues I was having with Hugo’s Les Miserables. It gave me an understanding of the context and explained the importance of some of those historical passages that I felt were just so long-winded and redundant. (I’ll stick by the first judgement but not the second.). The book covers art, music and literature and science (!) and, there are so many strands, threads, pathways that I want to follow in my reading that I herewith declare 2013 My Year of Romantic Discovery.
Knowing where the first stage of this theme read was heading, I then picked up Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. This winner of the Rose May Crawshey prize says it all in the subtitle The Shelleys, Byron and other Tangled Lives. And how! Scarcely believable that such lives were being led in the early 19th century. Who needs today’s gossip mags? Shelley, Byron, both mad, bad and dangerous to know. Neither of them men for me although, cue gratuitous portrait of Shelley to the right, what a dish! Easy to see why the two half-sisters Mary and Claire were willing to run off with him in their teenage years (and thus ruin their lives …) Then there is the tragedy of Keats and the ongoing saga of Leigh Hunt, arguably the man whose literary journals established Shelley’s and Byron’s fame. It could be argued that with such a colourful cast of characters, this biography couldn’t fail to be interesting. However, Hay’s use of engaging prose and parallel narratives makes this an absolutely rivetting read.
Young Romantics was source material for Lynn Shepherd’s A Treacherous Likeness. So was there any danger in revisiting the same material immediately thereafter?. Not at all. In fact, you could say that reading the biography first made me more aware of the novelist’s skill such as the seamless interweaving of Mary Shelley’s letters, the creation of a few fictional examples, and the transformation of real and unexplained mysteries in the Shelleys’ lives into pivotal plot elements. I really enjoyed Shepherd’s use of novelistic licence to portray the human emotions – the envies, rivalries and, indeed, hatred between the two half-sisters who competed for Shelley for many years and the cost both women paid for adhering to Shelley’s philosophy of free love. It made me wonder whether Mary Shelley (as she eventually became) and Claire Clairmont were brave or simply stupid when they stepped into the carriage that took them away to what must have been an exhilarating but painful adventure with Shelley. Where Hay reports that Mary suffered from black moods in the months previous to Shelley’s death (and what woman wouldn’t having been dragged around Italy and losing 3 small children before reaching her mid-twenties), Shepherd can show the impact of such events on the woman in a much more empathetic and dramatic way. So too, Claire, the sister who played second fiddle to Mary for so many years and who had to hand over her daughter to Byron’s “care” despite being cast off so shabbily and heartlessly cast off by him. Her ensuing bitterness all too understandable as well as the desire for revenge which fuels the events in A Treacherous Likeness.
it must be remembered that this is historical crime fiction and so the insinuations and explanations surrounding some of the darker events in the Shelley’s lives such as the death of Shelley’s first wife and the death of their first child are most probably untrue. Exaggerated hypotheses required to satisfy the tropes of Shepherd’s chosen genre but nonetheless entirely probable taking into account modern psychological theories. Shepherd’s use of an omniscient modern narrator allows her to do exactly that, although I can imagine that admirers of the Shelleys will be outraged by some of the conclusions. Not to mention the scandalous doubts cast upon the authorship of Frankenstein!
All in all the start of My Year of Romantic Discovery has been fascinating and has spawned a wealth of ideas for further reading. Here are just
3 5. Staying with the English Romantics for the time being.
1) Read the poetry. The Penquin Book of Romantic Poetry looks like a good place to start.
2) Re-read Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as an examination of the conflicts between rationalism and romanticism.
3) Read Jude Morgan’s Passion.
4) Read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and 5) The Last Man which will serve as a neat segue into German Romanticism. (You knew that was coming … And in due course I will reveal how so.)
Feel free to make further suggestions in comments. I am hooked.