Monday 29 March 2010

The Revenge for Love

Now here is a scholarly scoop to die for! Daisy Hay, a Cambridge graduate, has discovered a manuscript, part of a memoir by Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelly’s step-sister, while researching for a book on Mary, Percy, her husband, and Lord Byron. In this, Claire, looking back from old age, condemns both Byron and Shelly as “monsters of lying, cruelty and treachery.” She accuses both poets of ruining lives in pursuit of “free love” and “evil passions.”

This document, which Hay found tucked away in the New York Public Library’s Pforzheimer Collection, one of the most important Shelly-related archives in the world, is being hailed by historians as a major discovery. The memoir was know to exist but was assumed to have been lost. It’s important because it gives a quite different interpretation of Claire’s attitude towards the poets, a quite different attitude towards Byron in particular.

She had every reason to be bitter. Love may have been ‘free’ for Byron but it carried a price for Claire. It’s true enough that it was she who set out to seduce the famous poet, who became infatuated with her temporarily in 1816. But he soon tired of her, treating her with callous disregard thereafter. They had a child, Allegra. But after the relationship ended Byron even refused to allow Claire access to her daughter, openly questioning if the ‘brat’ was his. Having no regard for Claire he clearly had less regard for the ‘brat’, sending her off to a convent, where she died aged five.

Claire’s anger at the egoism, selfishness and moral baseness surrounding the whole Byron milieu is well captured in her blazing manuscript;

Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love, I saw the two first poets of England…become monsters. …what evil passion free love assured, what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life into a destroying scourge…the worshipers of free love not only preyed upon one another but also on themselves turning their existence into a perfect hell.

My, how the sparks just leap off the page! It’s as well to remember, though, not just the past history of Claire and Byron, but that this three-page memoir was written by an old lady in her seventies who had converted to Catholicism. Distance in attitude, distance in morality and distance of judgement have all come to play. Even so, the rawness of her grief, of her anguish, has clearly not been soothed by the balm of time.

The extracts I have read in the Sunday press are at their angriest in the depiction of Byron, whom she describes as “a human tyger [sic] slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women.” Shelly is condemned rather in the abstract, almost if his guilt is one of mere association with the monster. Anyway, the full fragment is set to be published in Young Romantics, Hay’s forthcoming book.


  1. There was controversy surrounding the death and burial of Little Allegra herself, I found she is commemorated in Old St Pancras Churchyard when I visited last summer. Her name, inscribed on t'other side of the tombstone commemorating her maternal grandfather William Godwin.