I jolly well would have

Paul Foot

  • Claire clairmont and the Shelleys by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton
    Oxford, 281 pp, £20.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 19 818594 4
  • Mab’s Daughters by Judith Chernaik
    Pan, 229 pp, £5.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 330 32379 2

Did Shelley have sex with Claire Clairmont? I first heard this central question debated with great solemnity at a meeting of the Byron Society in Albemarle Street way back in 1978. I went with three fellow Shelleyans, Geoffrey Matthews, Claire Tomalin and Judith Chernaik, to hear Marion Stocking talk about Claire. Marion Stocking’s beautifully-edited Journals of Claire Clairmont had just come out, and she knew more about Claire than all the brains of the Byron Society put together. This did not stop those brains from working away at the Central Question – the sexual relations of Shelley and Claire. The Byron-worshippers were torn between those who were quite certain that anyone who had had sex with Byron (as Claire unquestionably had) could never settle for anything inferior, and those who regarded Claire as an impudent trollop who had dared to seduce the great genius, and then pester him about the consequences. On and on the debate rumbled, until Beatrice Haas, then in her late seventies, rose to rebuke the academics. ‘If I had been with Shelley at Byron’s villa at Este in the spring of 1818,’ she said, ‘I jolly well would have slept with him.’

That seemed to be the end of the matter, but not quite. Marion Stocking summed up with a plea for an assessment of Claire Clairmont, not as lover or hanger-on but in her own right. Not that Stocking ducked the Central Question. She ended by reading (or rather reciting, for she plainly knew the whole poem by heart) ‘To Constantia Singing’, which Shelley wrote to Claire in 1817. She read it with such affection and verve that it seemed to me she had crossed the Atlantic for no other purpose.

Whether or not Shelley had sex with Claire, he certainly thought about it and yearned for it.

My heart is quivering like a flame:
As morning dew that in the sun dies,
I am dissolved in these consuming ecstasies

he wrote in ‘To Constantia’. Judith Chernaik’s novel is a series of fictional diary entries for 1816 and 1817 by four women – Mary and Fanny, the daughters of Mary Wollstonecraft; Claire, their step-sister; and Harriet, Shelley’s first wife, who drowned herself in 1816. In an entry (entirely fictional, it must be stressed) dated 9 October 1817, she solves the Central Question in a meeting between Claire and Shelley in the woods near where they were living at Marlow. They fondle each other a little, and then ‘he spread his cape on the fallen leaves, and when we lay together it seemed very natural and inevitable. We were entirely private and what passed between us had nothing to do with anyone else, it was between the two of us only, and I felt loving and content.’ That is probably as close to the truth as it is possible to get, not least because it clears the way for the discovery of Claire Clairmont as a real person rather than a plaything of the poets.

Byron and Shelley have suffered grievously from their detractors, but far worse from their worshippers. The awful Jane St John, who married Shelley’s son and established for her dead father-in-law a ghastly shrine at Bascombe, solved the ‘Claire problem’ by writing her out of the record. This almost permanent friend, sister and companion of Shelley and Mary during their eight years together, vanishes into the hot air of Jane Shelley’s preposterous ‘biography’, The Shelley Memorials (1859).

In the slightly more honest but no less absurd Shelley-worship of the late 19th century, Claire is recognised, but only irritably, as an infuriating wallflower, eavesdropping on the glorious beauty of Shelley’s marriage to Mary. Richard Holmes’s unsurpassable biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, written in the ‘golden years’ of the early Seventies, was the first to rescue Claire from the patronage of the Shelley-worshippers and to introduce her as a political thinker, who not only learnt from Shelley but taught him a few things as well. This rescue was carried on by Marion Stocking, and has now been triumphantly completed by John Gittings and Jo Manton.

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