It seems someone has discovered a fragment of a manuscript by Claire Clairmont – Mary Shelley’s stepsister who had an affair with Byron and possibly one with P.B Shelley as well. In the manuscript, she calls them both “monsters”, and depicts them as pretty amoral where relationships were concerned (see linked article for quotes). Byron sounds particularly vile by her account.
I am rather irrationally a Byron fangirl. I think he’s underrated as a poet, had by far the most interesting life of the Romantics, and as ineffectual as he may have been in the event, I’ve always liked that he would have gone to war for Greece (did the Greeks welcome his help though? I’ve never seen evidence either way). Plus he was nice looking.
But I’ve never been under any delusions about his private life. Nothing I’ve ever read about him has even appeared to hint that he was anything other than an asshole to his women (I know less about any romantic relationships with men). Likewise Shelley, who I’m not as fond of, has always been presented to me as rather a tool, though occasionally a stupendous poet.
So I’m a little baffled at that Observer column I’ve linked to above. What “moral reputation” does this demolish? Why do the commentators on the piece seem so genuinely surprised? Have I been living in a parallel universe all these years where everyone knows these things? [I recently read an article by a book reviewer who expressed surprise that Tolkien and Lewis had been friends. This did remind me that what I consider "common knowledge" is frequently only common in certain circles. But surely Byron and Shelley are pretty mainstream?]
I’m also fascinated by how invested Dalya Alberge and all the people she quotes seem to be in discrediting Clairmont – both article and comments have “bitches, man” all over them. Alberge describes Clairmont as “an embittered old woman” (“embittered” is hardly surprising, and I suspect “old” is standing in here for undesirable). Professor Kelvin Everest and Sir Michael Holroyd both hurriedly remind you-the-reader that Claire threw herself at Byron. I’m not sure whether we’re expected to read this as meaning that she asked for it, or that she was desperate and therefore ought to be grateful to him for his attentions to her.
But my favourite thing about that article so far is this comment from someone who wants to remind us that Byron was really, really hot, omg and remained hot even after he was dead. Also, political correctness! is destroying the reputation! of really hot poets!
And that’s terrible.