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?