A literary history reveals the sorrows of the Romantics.
Central to Romanticism was the cult of personality, the “ideology of the creative genius and its attendant fascination with the lives of individuals.” Among the most fascinating was Lord George Gordon Byron, who, by 1816, was the most famous poet in England, as much for the gossip he incited as for his sensuous poetry. As Stott (English/Univ. of Buffalo, SUNY; The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, 2009) argues in this impressive group biography, Byron assiduously created himself as a celebrity by “generating rumors about his atheism and sexual appetites, and by appearing dressed as a monk or in flamboyant Albanian robes, hosting orgiastic parties in which wine was drunk from a carved skull.” Women swooned over him, no one more persistently than Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley, who began her pursuit when she was 16. Claire, Mary and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron’s sometime friend and personal physician John Polidori make up the tragic cast of characters entangled with, and wounded by, the self-serving Byron. Despite this book’s sensational title, Stott focuses not on the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein nor The Vampyre, a tale by Polidori that Byron stole and published under his own name; the literary monsters who emerge from this story of selfishness and manipulation are Byron and Shelley. Although Byron deigned to sleep with Clairmont, he rejected her when she became pregnant, then insisted on sole custody of their daughter, refusing to allow Claire to see her. Shelley’s abandoned wife, Harriet, killed herself at 21; Mary’s half sister Fanny killed herself, as well, “unsettled” by Mary and Percy’s elopement. Polidori, a victim of Byron’s scorn and his own failed aspirations, committed suicide at the age of 25.
As Stott reveals in this engrossing history, lust, greed and the unquenchable thirst for fame were forces of evil that imbued the age of Romanticism with grief.