Ending this dual biography four years before the two great Romantic poets met—and then only briefly—British politician/author Gilmour (Riots, Risings, and Revolution, not reviewed) gives a well-meaning but unenlightening view of their youth.
Alternating chronological sections present the familiar facts of the poets’ early years, beginning with Byron’s isolated childhood in Scotland and his suffering at the hands of an alternately cruel and indulgent mother and a sexually predatory nurse. When Byron was ten, his father died, possibly a suicide; the boy inherited two large estates and the title of baron. Gilmour recounts how this sudden wealth and social standing drew people to Byron and allowed him to experiment at Harrow and Oxford with seducing girls and younger boys—a habit that would later lead to incest. Shelley’s childhood is less well documented, but the author speculates that his upper-class parents were cold and disapproving, helping to make him lonely and sullenly rebellious during his teenage years at Eton and Oxford. Both men failed to complete university: Byron dropped out in order to travel to Greece, where young men and women were equally available; Shelley, expelled after publishing a statement of his atheism, eloped with a 15-year-old innkeeper’s daughter, his first wife. Gilmour draws unconvincing parallels between the two poets’ sexual confusion and political radicalism, arguing that Romanticism blossomed from their emotional turmoil. But the excess of detail, most of it from secondary sources, and the author’s frequent hypothesizing about his subjects’ mental condition serve to blur the theme, which is weak to begin with. After all, Wordsworth and Coleridge were also tormented, and they too helped to create the Romantic canon. The author stops in 1812, the year Byron published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Shelley wrote Queen Mab. The most interesting moments by far in their foreshortened lives were still to come.
Perhaps for professors and Byronophiles—otherwise, one to skip. (Illustrations)