LOVE'S CHILDREN by Judith Chernaik


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A stunningly imaginative re-creation of a year in the lives of four women drawn to the poet Shelley by his ideals, his looks, and his passionate zeal to reform the world, from Chernaik (Double Fault, 1975; The Daughter, 1979). There are initially four voices: Mary Godwin; her stepsister Clare Clairmont, the mother of Byron's daughter Allegra; Fanny, the elder daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft; and Harriet Westbrook, Shelley's first wife. In alternating chapters, using journal entries and letters, these women describe a year--1816-17--in which the Shelley entourage, congenitally restless, moves back to England after the seminal time with Byron in Italy, lives outside London, and at the end prepares to return to Italy. The women, with the exception of Clare, a self-centered survivor, are unhappy, two tragically so. Shelley himself is beset by legal difficulties, as well as depressed by the contemporary political situation. Melancholic Fanny learns who her father actually was and how her own mother attempted suicide. Longing to live with Shelley's group but forced to seek work, she soon commits suicide. Harriet, Shelley's estranged wife, is pregnant again and, despairing of a reconciliation, also commits suicide. Disciplined and resourceful Mary Godwin, pregnant with her second child, begins and completes her novel, Frankenstein, officially marries Shelley once Harriet is dead, but is jealous of Clare, who has seduced Shelley. And Clare yearns for Byron. No wonder Matthew Arnold could only comment, ""What a set!"" Chernaik takes the dry historical record and gives it life in an epistolary novel of remarkable vitality and intelligence. A notable accomplishment.

Pub Date: April 9th, 1992
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Knopf