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Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation Hardcover – April 27, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Long before the lost generation or '60s rock poets, there was a 19th-century movable feast of interlinked English poets and thinkers that was even more fascinating and combustible. Cambridge Ph.D. Hay, in her first book, delves with scholarly relish into the unorthodox lifestyles and fluid (including quasi-incestuous and incestuous) households of several key figures: vegetarians Percy and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; Mary Shelley's stepsister Jane, aka Claire Clairmont; Lord Byron; John Keats; and the little-read today but central revolutionary, Leigh Hunt. The key years are 1813 to 1822, effectively terminating with Shelley's drowning at sea not long after Keats's death from tuberculosis. New here is Claire's autobiographical fragment—archived in the New York Public Library—in which she rakes the libertarians Shelley and Byron, whose daughter she bore, over her emotional coals. Well handled is the so-called summer of Frankenstein, and how, over the nine years Hay chronicles, the boundaries of monogamy were pushed to the breaking point. Although Hay is passionate about her subject, her writing is unexceptional and monotone: she sticks to the descriptive rather than the analytic. 16 pages of b&w illus. (May 4)
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“[Hay] is a skilled and surefooted chronicler. In firm, clear, often elegant prose, she narrates the main events in the lives of her subjects from 1813, when they began to coaslesce around Hunt in London, till 1822, when Shelley drowned near Livorno, Italy.” ―Ben Downing, The New York Times Book Review

“By assembling a great cast and exploring their high dramas, the author has given us a feast of a book.” ―Edna O'Brien

“The originality of this engrossing narrative comes from Daisy Hay's unusual focus on the passionate allegiances and literary influences between her characters. With great skill she weaves in and out of the lives of these poets, novelists, and philosophers, their husbands, wives, lovers, and children, exploring the dual nature of the creative impulse, its individuality, and the stimulus of kindred spirits. It is a most impressive achievement.” ―Michael Holroyd

“This erudite volume brings the second-generation Romantics entertainingly and vividly to life.” ―Duncan Wu

Young Romantics is an enthralling tale of love, betrayal, sacrifice, and friendship played out against a backdrop of political turbulence and intense literary creativity. And "Hay's account of the passionate and messy lives of her Romantics is vivid, picturesque, and finely told.” ―Richard Eder, The Boston Globe

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (April 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374123756
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374123758
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #553,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Alan A. Elsner VINE VOICE on July 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book retells the well-known story of the entangled lives of the poets Shelley, Byron and Keats from a slightly new perspective. By focusing on the social circles surrounding the campaigning journalist Leigh Hunt in which all three poets figured at one time or another, the author argues against the traditional view of the "solitary poet declaiming alone on the mountain top or sitting in solitary isolation pondering a bird's song."

On the contrary, insists Daisy Hay, this generation of romantic poets viewed poetry as a powerful political weapon. Far from working in isolation, they sharpened their intellects and forged their artistic identities through friendship, conversation and sociability. "They talked to each other, fought with each other, hated each other and fell in love. Their stories demonstrate that friendship is not always easy; that relationships with other people can simultaneously be a source of great strength and unknowable pain. But they also show that friendship can be the making of the main," Hay writes.

Hay's thesis is not completely convincing and she sometimes strains too hard to prove it. Still, she has produced an engaging group biography about a generation of fascinating men and women while supplying a useful corrective to the traditional view of their lives.

Leigh Hunt has faded into semi-obscurity because his journalistic work was by its nature ephemeral. But his relationship with Percy Bysse Shelley forms the fulcrum around which this book revolves. Byron was an early supporter of Leigh Hunt and later a failed business partner. He and Shelley were linked by their lovers and came together from time to time in Switzerland and Italy. Keats had a only a tenuous connection to their group.
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This is the story of Shelley, Keats and Byron, their relatives and friends. It starts with the great Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), notorious for writing an essay claiming that men and women are equal. Her first daughter, Fanny, could not find a respectable place in life and committed suicide. Wollstonecraft later married the philosopher Godwin, but died in childbirth giving birth to a second daughter, Mary, who at age 16 ran off to Europe with the poet Shelley, who was already married to Harriet, who later committed suicide. Godwin remarried and had another daughter, Claire. She became part of the Percy Shelley/Mary Godwin ménage, formed a romantic attachment with her brother-in-law, Shelley, possibly sexual, but unable to replace her half-sister in Shelley's affections, threw herself at the poet Byron, who was very rich and abnormally handsome. Byron accepted the offer of sex from the 18 year old Claire ("What would you do?"), and agreed to raise the resulting daughter, but then left his daughter to die of typhus in a Rome orphanage. He grew to detest Claire, who suffered greatly for her affair with Byron, and later in life vehemently renounced the "free love" which Wollstonecraft and Godwin had stood for.

There is more--the story of the journalist Leigh Hunt and the two years he spent in prison (he could not go out, but he could live in an apartment with his family, plenty of books and a piano), the story of Keats, who died young of tuberculosis in Rome, the story of Shelley's drowning off the coast of Italy and how it affected the other characters--but you can read it yourself. It is a long book, and every page is entertaining.
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This multiple person biography is an extensively researched and, hence, scholarly narration focusing on the relationships among Leigh Hunt, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and, to a lesser degree, John Keats. Her premise is that it was the relationships among these writers that helped to produce their individual works as opposed to what would have occurred if each had been writing without interacting with the others. This idea is workable for some literature such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but not always for other works. Therefore, I think Hay tries to force the premise at times. However the book is well written, and she brings to life all the major participants in and interesting and cohesive way.
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This book was given raves in the NY Times, which is why I bought it. It is not as enthralling a read as all that, in fact reads rather ploddingly, but is certainly a worthwhile source for the social interactions of this brilliant circle of men. Although Mary Shelley is included as the author of Frankenstein etc., it's the men who dictate terms in this circle, and the effect of their liberated views on the women is often devastating. They were among the first upper bohemians, they were extremely talented, and they ran the roost. There is food for thought here.
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While the Romantics have been Done to Death, praises rendered, blame assigned and so on, this book seeks to put them in context of their time and place and their relationships w/ one another. It begins w/ a Lesser Life (to paraphrase Diane Johnson's book) that of Leigh Hunt, a man older than the young Romantics, and his pivotal role in connecting this group. And the book ventures into other Lesser Lives that had profound effects upon the Romantics. Even if the story of rebellion, free love, great literature and major tragedies of this group are well known to the reader, this book offers a fresh, balanced and well written overview of intersecting fates, not all of which produced great literature. In fact, one individual who never published anything about these years and these people is rewarded here with the last word.

For the informed reader, this book presents a refreshing perspective. For the reader new to these lives, it's an invaluable introduction. That said, I do wish Ms. Hay had quoted more from the actual letters of these eloquent writers. She paraphrases continually, and while this may have been an editorial decision, the paraphrasing creates and maintains distance between the reader and the Romantics.

While the book effectively closes with the deaths of Shelley and Byron, the last chapter here about who owns the past was a fascinating exploration of those who lived on. As ever, who tells the story will dictate finally which story gets told. A wonderful, fascinating book, well written and a unique take on a story of great literature and sad lives.
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