History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 December 2006

Romance and the Romantics: The Case of Claire

Have you then any objection to the following plan? On Thursday Evening we may go out of town together by some stage or mail about the distance of 10 or 12 miles. There we shall be free & unknown; we can return early the following morning. I have arranged everything here . . .
Claire Clairmont wrote these words to Lord Byron in 1816, when she was a seventeen-year-old virgin of no social standing. You can see from the one amateur portrait that exists of her (and which she hated) that she was pretty but certainly not beautiful.

How was she capable of penning so cool, terse, and practical-minded a sexual proposition to Britain’s most famous celebrity? We can’t know. But when the romance community discussion turns to what a Regency heroine would or wouldn’t do, my mind always returns to Claire – who wasn’t actually named Claire.

Her given name was Clara Mary Jane; her family called her Jane. Claire was her own – to my mind – touchingly awkward effort at self-invention. For she’d grown up in a unique, eccentric, intellectual family where (as she put it years later) “if you cannot write an epic poem or a novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on its head, you are a despicable creature not worth acknowledging.”

Her stepfather was the vastly learned radical philosopher William Godwin. Though well known in earlier, less reactionary, decades, by 1816 Godwin was the obscure, strapped-for-cash proprietor of The Juvenile Library, a children’s bookseller and publisher.

Godwin had been married to the great feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft; Wollstonecraft had died soon after giving birth to a daughter, Mary – who would later write the uniquely, astonishingly original novel Frankenstein. In 1801, Godwin married a neighbor, a Mrs. Mary Jane Clairmont – perhaps a widow but probably not, with two small children of her own, Charles and Jane-who-would-become-Claire.

And just in case you think “blended families” are an invention of our time, try parsing this one: William Godwin and his second wife raised five children, none of whom had the same mother and father. Besides Mary Godwin and Charles and Claire Clairmont, the household included Fanny – Mary Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate first child by her earlier lover Gilbert Imlay – and finally the son Godwin and Mrs. Clairmont Godwin had together, another William.

By 1816 Mary Godwin was the lover of the young poet Percy Shelley (who, by the way, had a wife and children of his own; Harriet Shelley was to drown herself in the Serpentine River the following year.) It was Claire who introduced Shelley to Byron.

And although the planned Thursday Night assignation didn’t take place, other meetings did. Claire bore Byron a daughter named Allegra. Self-exiled in Italy, Byron took the child to raise (well, he was Lord Byron, after all; Claire was a penniless nobody). Everyone thought it a satisfactory arrangement until Byron (who was, to put it mildly, ambivalent about unconventional, educated women) sent Allegra to a convent to be educated – quite against Claire’s principles. Claire’s efforts to get her daughter back break my heart. Allegra contracted typhus or malaria and died when she was five years old.

I’m fascinated by the confused, passionate, tragically selfish and wildly overreaching stories of people who tried to live beyond the political and moral conventions of their time and who helped invent the big, difficult ideas that still vex and challenge us. As a child of the 60s, I often find myself wondering about risky, self-created lifestyles, their consequences and their aftermath.

In any case I’d love to figure out a way to bring aspects of these lives into erotic historical romance. And every so often I try, but so far, I must admit, to no avail. We often write historical romance heroines (and heroes, too) who flirt with the most advanced and dangerous ideas of their time but who find snug security by the end of the novel. I’ve wanted to bring the romantic poets and particularly the women of their circle into romance for some time, but never know how to bring them "home" again. Shelley and Byron linger about the fringes of The Slightest Provocation as evidence of earlier attempts.

But I’m sure someone out there could do better. Perhaps taking inspiration from Claire, who’s often dismissed as an annoying Monica Lewinsky type of hanger-on, but who picked herself up from her grieving to live a remarkably independent life. She traveled, supported herself as a teacher and governess in France, Austria, Russia, Italy, and England, spoke many languages, read widely and had many friends.

Her life post-Byron was long, hard, very interesting and in some ways more admirable (at least to me) than that of her brilliant stepsister, Mary Shelley, who spent much of her widowhood trying to whitewash her radical, atheistical husband’s reputation in order to secure a baronetcy for her markedly stuffy and unpoetic son Percy Florence. Claire never married – partly because she clung to the “ten minutes of happiness” she’d felt with Byron, but partly because she maintained the radical anti-marriage sentiments of her youth.

So OK, you tell me. Which unconventional historical lives would you like to see brought into romance fiction? Which ones do you think are simply too big and sui generis to fit into a conventional plot arc? Which romances do you think have worked magic with stubborn, selfish, actual historical personages – or reasonable facsimiles?

And isn’t it odd that the era romance readers and writers call the Regency is known among academics as the romantic period?


Blogger Unknown said...

Real life simply doesn’t tend to end well, but there are some amazing stories out there. I love Charles Fox and Mrs. Armistead. And I’m fascinated by the convolutions of the Devonshire-set:

Fifth Duke and his wife Georgiana.

Lady Elizabeth Foster, their live in companion (his mistress and future wife, Georgiana’s best friend).

A host of children, legitimate and otherwise, including a niece, who develops into the now infamous Lady Caro Lamb (another tragic Bryon devotee).

The scandal of the Duke refusing to acknowledge Georgiana’s illegitimate daughter, and sending her away to be raised by her father’s family, while at the same time doting upon his own bastard by Lady Foster (upon whom he bestowed a dowry three-times that of what he gave to his two legitimate daughters).

The fact that one of their daughters (Harriet, wasn’t it?) married her aunt’s lover and proceeded to raise her illegitimate cousins as though they were her own children.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I'm thinking of doing it. The picture in my avatar is of Belle da Costa Greene, a black woman who passed for white and became one of the most influential women in of the Belle Epoque as J.P. Morgan's librarian. I'm fascinated by her--what would it be like to erase your actual identity for another because you would be considered inferior if the truth was revealed?

Greene's father was the first black man to recieve a Masters(or PhD) from Harvard and was very much alive when Belle dropped his last name from her own and passed. She never married, but she indulged in a long-time affair with Bernard Berenson. The emotional and mental pressures that had to have constantly gone through her mind while ruling art society makes me endlessly curious and I feel challenged to harness that situation to try and understand the emotions behind the facade. Was she completely happy? Was she ever afraid of being found out? What did she think of other black people? Etc, etc.

Another one is the marriage of Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill. It was a love match, but Randolph contracted syphillis and never touched Jennie again. He went stark raving mad as a result and she took him on a world-round tour as he was dying, but despite her loyalty, her love had dried. I've always felt pity for the both of them: brillance gone wrong. A love-match that ended due to outside circumstances. Could they have ever fallen back in love? I wonder.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love the happy Fox-Armistead story too, Kalen. As for the Devonshires and their offspring, I love Emily Eden commenting upon "...such countless illegitimates among them, such a tribe of Children of the Mist."

And I'm fascinated by Bella de la Costa Greene, Camilla. What a story -- (and I love the Morgan Library anyway).

And just a bit from one of the most tragic lives of all (tragic for us to have lost what she would have thought and written). This image from Lyndall Gordon's biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, VINDICATION, of Mary walking home (alone! at night! across Blackfriars bridge to the south side of it!) from dinners at her publisher Joseph Johnson's:

Oil-lamps appeared every two hundred yards or so, but between lay a considerable stretch of darkness.... So this independent young woman wrapped in her cloak slips into darkness, taking her way to the next lamp, her step on the bridge fading in the direction of George Street.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, Belle sounds amazing. Good luck with the novel!!!

I've always been interested in the idea of "passing" (I'm half Native American, but totally pass as white, and my full-blood great-grandparents and grandfather passed as Italian during the depression).

11:12 AM  
Blogger Moira said...

I love the famed Duchess of Devonshire who was the center of political discussins during the late 1700s, she was best friends with her husbands mistress, and some believe she and the mistress were lovers as well. These people were brilliant and lived life hard and on the edge often being recriminated for barely being on the cusp of the "right and good". OMG... Wait, I'm writing this and I glance left to Kalen's post and she's blogging about the same woman!

I think the problem is when you don't conform, life is often harder, things don't work out. Society will get you in the end, so their really isn't a happy ending. These people lived wild lives, but seemed desperate in them as if they were searching for a happiness that they would never find. Still, I admire them for their boldness and determination to live life on their own terms.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The women surrounding Prinny fascinate me -- Queen Caroline -- was she really that totally obnoxious or simply out of favor with the ton? Any minute know I will read the bio of her that has been patiently waiting.

Their daughter, Princess Charlotte, of the short and tragic life. I do not think we fully appreciate how devastating her death was to the regent and the country.

And, of course, Mrs. Fitzherbert. Did she really think her marriage to Prinny would be allowed?

These three fill the "too big" slot for me mostly by their association with the regent and because at least two of them made choices I would never have considered.

5:54 AM  
Blogger RK Sterling said...

Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire. :)

I just discovered your blog - wonderful work! :)

4:28 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Emilie du Chatelet, absolutely. Thanks, Kate, for that one.

9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing, everyone!

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AMEN! That is the best post on Shelley and circle by a romance writer that I have ever read.

Claire is at the center of one of my novels, and you are absolutely right that Mary Shelley spent the rest of her life trying to get a title that her husband would have gladly given away and tried to do so!

I always thought Claire got a bum rap. Byron was a jerk. Brilliant, handsome, when he looked in the mirror, he always saw the ugly foot.

One last note, Claire did not want to give Allegra to Byron, not really, and then spent the rest of the time trying to get her back, which in turn affected the entire Shelley Circle, all to tragedy.

Me, I blame Byron. LAUGHING!

12:02 PM  

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