Saturday, June 23, 2012

Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets

Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets, by Jude Morgan, blew me away it was so good.  It's a bit of a ruse to say that it's a novel of the Romantic poets as it really is more of a novel of the women behind the Romantic poets, but that is by no means a criticism of the book.

The Romantic poets whose stories are told from the perspective of the women in their lives are Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

With regards to Byron, the leading ladies are the infamous Lady Caroline Lamb and Byron's half-sister, Augusta Leigh, who became as notorious as Lady Caroline when it became known that Byron was the father of at least one of her children, and his wife, Annabella Millbanke.  The latter is portrayed as the only real villain in the novel, which is a refreshingly contrary view to the usual one in which she is portrayed as victim.  Lady Caroline's voice was particularly striking--always first person, usually manic, often sad.  I got the feeling she was truly born in the wrong century.  She would have been a powerhouse in the 1990s!

Lady Caroline Lamb

With regards to Shelley, the novel begins with Mary Wollstonecraft, who died after giving birth to the woman who would become Shelley's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (aka Mary Shelley).  Mary Shelley's step-sister, Jane/Claire Claremont is also a featured player in the Shelley domestic drama as she lived with the Shelleys almost continuously during their marriage, and she and Shelley had a closer than comfort relationship.

Mary Shelley

Finally, anyone who has seen Bright Star will thrill to know that Fanny Brawne is the sole lady around whom Keats rotates, and theirs is a truly heart-breaking story.  Although the Brawne/Keats story is but a fraction of the novel, with the bulk going to Byron (always the attention hog) and Shelley, I loved this part of the story the most.  Partly because I've loved Keats for decades and partly because their story is so poignant.

Fanny Brawne
Although I am a big fan of historical fiction, it is a rare historical fiction author who can really capture the tone, style, feeling, and sense of a timeframe and a real historical personage and make them sound true and real and not just a 21st century person in period dress.  Jude Morgan is an absolute master of the genre and I cannot praise him enough for making Byron, Shelley, Keats, Caroline, Augusta, Mary, Jane/Claire, and Fanny come to life in this novel.

What I particularly loved about this novel is that Morgan shows fully developed people, warts and all--no sugar coating here, no pandering to genius, but at the same time no denigration of the genius that clearly shone forth in the three poets and Mary Shelley.  They display the most human failings--all the seven deadly sins are there in abudance--but you can see how those failings are but a side-show to the literary work they do take seriously.

It was also very interesting to read a view of Regency England that varies so much from the Austenian world I'm used to.  For the most part, there really wasn't a place in England for Byron and Shelley considering how they wanted to live their lives. 

This book made me renew my pledge to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein this year as well as find a good bio of Mary.  I particularly liked the relationship between Mary and Byron--she might have been the one woman who didn't try to seduce him and vice versa and they seemed to really understand each other's genius to a degree that I didn't see between any of the other characters, including Mary and Shelley.  Interestingly, we never really see or hear Shelley and Byron talking to each other without one or more of their women present, nor do we see either interacting at all with Keats.  This is the story of the women, not their famous men. 

The other Jude Morgan novel that looks particularly good is The Taste of Sorrow, about the Brontes. I have yet to read a fictionalized version of the Brontes that I like so I'm hopeful given what he was able to do with Passion.

1 comment:

  1. I have The Taste of Sorrow, still not read,because the one I want to start with is Passion! Which I can't find anywhere, and I've been looking for a couple of years. I think it's time for the Book Depository. Your review reminds me that I do need to read this.

    If you want to read a fiction book about the Romantic poets, and it is out of your comfort zone, then The Stress of Her Regard by Tim POwers has the all the Romatic poets and Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont as part of the characters. I have to write my review soon, I just finished reading it again after many years, and I really enjoyed it. In Power's book Byron and Shelley play the main part, along with another protagonist who we see the poets through. It's interesting and original and I liked it.