Claire Clairmont was, briefly, Byron’s mistress, and the mother of his child Allegra. But was she also Shelley’s lover? Did she become pregnant by him? Did she give birth to his child?
From the journals, edited by Marion Kingston Stocking and published in 1986, it seems clear that she was in love with Shelley at the age of 16. After the deaths of the two poets she never spoke well of Byron, nor ill of Shelley (though she rejected the ‘angelic’ myth). In her old age she took the name Constantia, which Shelley had given her in his poems, and asked that the shawl he had given her should be buried with her. Her passion for Byron, she said, burned out and left nothing but waste and ash; her love for Shelley, about which she said next to nothing, survived the Byron episode and persisted.
Flexibility about names suggests concealment of origins and uncertainty of identity. Jane Clairmont became Clare, then Claire, sometimes Clara, and added Constantia. Her mother married William Godwin twice in an afternoon, once as ‘Jane Clairmont, widow’, a second time as ‘Mary Vial, spinster’. She brought two children to the marriage, almost certainly by different fathers. Godwin brought Mary, his own daughter to Mary Wollstonecraft, and Fanny, who was Wollstonecraft’s by an earlier partner. When Godwin and Jane produced a child of their own, there were five siblings, none of whom had the same two parents. It was a household in which, Claire said, if you couldn’t run up an epic poem or a brilliantly original novel, you were ‘a despicable creature not worth acknowledging’. Literary figures came and went as often as the bailiffs. Claire remembered Coleridge reading ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’ to the parents while the children listened from behind the sofa.
But it was Claire’s step-sister Mary who had the intellectual pedigree Shelley found so compelling. Godwin had written Political Justice, and Wollstonecraft The Rights of Women – two of libertarian Shelley’s holy texts. What could their daughter be but brilliant and enlightened? Leaving his first wife, the unfortunate Harriet, he eloped with her in July 1814. He was just short of 22; she five years younger. Claire, 16, went with them.
Mary was indeed brilliant, intellectual, literary; she was also cool, sometimes sharp-tongued, and inclined to be depressive. Claire sang beautifully, was witty, energetic, high-spirited and given to tantrums. Some years later Shelley, his longings temporarily directed elsewhere, would characterise them as the ‘cold moon’ and the ‘fiery comet’.
For the sake of posterity, it must be supposed, Claire doctored her journal of that first venture abroad to remove anything that might suggest impropriety – alterations which can now be seen under infra-red light. Consequently, entries which, had they been left alone, might have signified nothing in particular, seem, because of the attempted erasures, to point to Claire’s growing attachment to Shelley. A typical example, the entry for 9 October 1814, originally read: ‘Mary goes to bed at eight – sit up with Shelley over the fire – get rather in a horrid mood – go to bed at eleven cannot sleep all night.’ With erasures and additions this becomes: ‘We go to bed at eight – get in rather a horrid mood – thinking about ghosts cannot sleep all night.’ In the entry for 14 October, after recording a quarrel with Shelley, she writes, and later (the editor tells us) ‘did her best to eliminate’: ‘can’t think what the deuce is the matter with me – “I weep yet never know why – I sigh yet feel no pain.” ’ From the entry of 16 October she later scores out: ‘Mary goes to bed – Shelley explains he thought I despised him – We talk till nearly one.’
From this time onward there were tensions between Mary and Claire, and between Shelley and Mary about Claire. It was always Mary who tried to be rid of her, to achieve ‘absentia Claireae’, Shelley who called her back. When he died in 1822 they were still together. In fact William Godwin believed that the three sisters, Mary, Claire and Fanny, were all in love with the poet, and even suggested that Fanny’s suicide (two months before Harriet, the abandoned wife, drowned herself) had been caused by Shelley’s ‘preference for her younger sister’.
This is the background to the most daring action of Claire’s life, her raid on Byron. Mary had bagged a poet; Claire would have one too – that way Mary’s cause for jealousy would be removed. Sixty years later, talking to Edward Silsbee, Claire still put those two elements together. Pale Mary had been jealous of her ‘bright colour’, of the attention Shelley paid her and the hours he spent walking with her. After her adventure with Byron, she told Silsbee rather glibly, ‘Mrs Shelley was no longer jealous.’
Byron, a noble lord and already famous, was about as accessible as a modern rock star. Everything would depend, first, on what she wrote to him (the letters survive), and, if she got past the first barrier, what impression she was able to make. That she persisted and succeeded is a measure of her audacity, cleverness and allure. But she was 17, this was her first sexual experience, and Byron was a man women found it easy to love. Claire’s insincere expressions of love, ‘made with a beating heart’, caught up with her. Fiction became fact. The ‘little fiend’ as Byron called her would soon be writing: ‘Do you know I cannot talk to you when I see you; I am so awkward, and only feel inclined to take a little stool and sit at your feet.’ Claire’s letters to Byron after they became lovers are sincere and eloquent. They are honest, diplomatic, realistic, but with a painful undertone of hope. There were a few happy months in Geneva together with Mary and Shelley; but when Claire became pregnant Byron acknowledged paternity (‘she has had a good deal of that same with me’) and refused to see her again.
Although for a long time Claire’s letters to him (he doesn’t reply) continue to express love and friendship, and to be moderate in making demands, one can see the slow waning of passion, and in its place (she would soon have the child to consider) intelligent calculation mixed with the beginnings of rebellion. Even in a letter written before the hope and the passion have died (September 1816), and in which she tells him, ‘I love you more and more every day,’ she can write that Kinnaird ‘told Shelley lady Byron usually called your Wife was in good health and on a visit to Mrs Leigh’. Since Claire knew quite well (he had told her) of Byron’s incestuous passion for his half-sister Augusta Leigh, that sentence is surely a nicely-judged double blow. A few pages on she writes: ‘Don’t look cross at this letter because perhaps by the same post you expected one from Mrs Leigh and have not got it. That is not my fault dearest. I am not the postman.’ It is this cleverness of Claire’s, so appealing to Shelley, which Byron found intolerable. Shelley’s women were intellectual companions: Byron’s were (in)conveniences.
By the time Allegra was one year old in January 1818 Claire was living in Marlow with Shelley and Mary and their two children William and Clara. Shelley had completed his longest poem, Laon and Cythna, there; Mary had completed Frankenstein, which was just published; Claire, whose Italian singing teacher described her voice as ‘a string of pearls’, had been accompanying herself on a grand piano Shelley had ‘bought’ (he hadn’t paid for it) for her; and they were preparing to return to the Continent. It was at Marlow that Shelley wrote ‘To Constantia Singing’, a poem which, like Byron’s ‘There be none of Beauty’s daughters’, is a tribute to Claire’s singing and (unlike Byron’s) a signal of his own deep feeling for her. Shelley published it under a pseudonym, and Mary never read it until after his death.
There had been an agreement in Geneva that Byron would take Allegra when she was old enough to be parted from her mother. ‘I felt,’ Claire wrote in old age, ‘that I ought not for the sake of gratifying my own affections deprive her of a brilliant position in life.’ But now Claire was beset with anxieties. Byron had written proposing that a nurse should bring the child to him. Claire wrote back:
Do you think I would trust her with such a person. She is all my treasure – the little creature occupies all my thoughts, all my time and feelings ... You might as well have asked a miser to trust his gold for a sea voyage in a leaky vessel. Besides various ceaseless misgivings that I entertain of you. Suppose that in yielding her to your care I yield her to neglect and coldness? How am I assured that such will not be the case? ... I so fear she will be unhappy. I am so anxious ... Poor little angel! in your great house, left perhaps to servants while you are drowning sense and feeling in wine and striving all you can to ruin the natural goodness of your nature who will there be to watch her.
Claire, now 19, had achieved detachment. She dared to criticise. In the same letter she reproached Byron for things he had said of her, reported back, ‘which mark an utter want of discrimination in you’:
Indeed I ought to be better. Alone I study Plutarch’s lives wherein I find nothing but excitements to virtue and abstinence: with Mary and Shelley the scene changes but from the contemplation of the virtues of the dead to those of the living. I have no Hobhouse [Byron’s friend] by my side to dispirit me with an easy and impudent declaration of ‘the villainy of all mankind’ which I can construe into nothing but an attempt to cover his conscious unworthiness. I must be the veriest wretch if I were wicked placed in such a situation as I am. I have Faults. I am timid from vanity; my temper is inconstant and volage. I want dignity I do not like our Mary sail my steady course like a ship under a gentle and favorable wind. But at thirty I shall be better and every year I hope to gain in value.
This was the fine clear spirit which Byron, in his unworthy and self-serving exchanges with his fawning friend Hoppner, would describe as Claire’s ‘insolence’.
Shelley and his household now left England for the last time. In April they were in Milan and Claire was persuaded the time had come for Allegra to be sent, in the company of her own nurse, Elise, to live with her father in Venice. Claire’s letters to Byron at this time, full of grief, anxiety and attempts to win his sympathy and compliance, are the most painful she wrote. If, as Elise asserted, Claire was the mother of the child born in Naples in December 1818 and christened Elena Adelaide Shelley, then the conception would have occurred at this time. It was in the December of the child’s birth that Shelley wrote his ‘Stanzas in Dejection near Naples’; and it was in Naples, according to Trelawny, that he attempted suicide.
On this vexed question these volumes, though they don’t settle it finally, do offer new evidence. Shelley’s references to his ‘Neapolitan charge’ in letters of 1819, and to her death in 1820, were puzzling until 1936 when Newman Ivey White discovered in Naples the registrations of the birth of Elena Adelaide (Shelley and Mary given as parents), and of her death there in 1820. She had been left in Naples in the care of foster parents. Since the child was not in fact Mary’s, and since Shelley had kept certain correspondence about her secret from his wife, it seemed reasonable to conclude that Elise’s claim that Claire and Shelley had been lovers, and that Claire had given birth to a child in Naples, must be true. These assertions had previously been dismissed because they were part of an attempt by Elise’s husband to blackmail Shelley. Now, however, they could be seen to be based on an actual birth; and the question which all along had lain there unconsidered had to be asked: how do you blackmail someone on the basis of sheer invention?
In his two-volume life of Shelley (1947) White concluded that Elena could not have been Claire’s. How, he asked, could Claire, so deeply attached to one child and still grieving at the necessity of giving her up, have been persuaded to leave another behind? The child, he decided (the evidence is lengthy and complicated), must have been adopted by Shelley without Mary’s knowledge, to replace their daughter Clara who had died the previous year. Mary had rejected Elena, and she had been left with foster-parents, though still legally Shelley’s responsibility.
There were terrible weaknesses in this argument, as there are, however, in recent alternatives to it. In his Shelley: The Pursuit (1974) Richard Holmes decided that both Claire and Elise had been pregnant by Shelley, that Claire’s pregnancy had aborted, and Elena was Elise’s baby. Claire Tomalin, in Shelley and His World (1980) argued more reasonably that the child was Claire’s; and in a recent review of these letters she seems inclined to stick to that. Returning to the question in Footsteps (1985), Holmes concluded once again that Claire was pregnant and aborted in Naples, but now accepted White’s argument that Elena must have been an adopted foundling.
A new element in the editing of these Clairmont letters is that Professor Stocking has been able to consult and, where relevant, to work into her excellent annotations, notes taken by the American Shelleyan, Edward Silsbee, whose insinuation of himself into the elderly Claire’s household in Florence in the 1870s became source and subject for Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. Shelley, Claire told Silsbee, ‘got into a scrape’ (a phrase she used elsewhere in the letters to indicate a pregnancy outside wedlock) with a married woman who followed him to Naples. Pressed by Silsbee for more information Claire refused, saying she was sworn to silence; but Professor Stocking puts this hint together with others to conclude, entirely plausibly, that Elena Adelaide was the child of Shelley and an Englishwoman, Adelaide Constance Campbell. This is very probably the hard fact behind the romantic and soft-focus tale Shelley told both Medwin and Byron about an English noblewoman, an admirer of his work, who fell in love with him and followed him around Europe. In Shelley’s version, which he seems to have intended to turn into a poem, she reached Naples and died. In reality, having reached him somewhere else, she followed him to Naples bearing his child.
It seems most probable that Shelley and Claire were lovers, but it is unprovable, and nothing in these letters will finally dispose of the question. When scandal threatened, Shelley wrote to Mary asking her to assure Mrs Hoppner that Elise’s story about the abandoned child was untrue. Elise, he wrote, ‘has persuaded the Hoppners ... that Clare was my mistress – that is very well and so far there is nothing new: all the world has heard as much and people may believe or not as they think good.’ Is this casualness based on confidence that Mary knows the rumour to be false, or knows it to be true? Either seems possible.
Physical lovers or not, what becomes clear, I think, is a sort of submarine constancy in Claire’s love for Shelley, and a corresponding jealousy of Mary, which doesn’t rule out sisterly loyalty and intellectual respect. She rejoices in Mary’s success with Frankenstein, even though it makes clearer to her the failure of her own attempts as a writer. Through the later part of their lives, after Shelley’s death, she is constantly anxious about Mary’s health and welfare. When Mary visits her in Paris in 1844 she writes: ‘I cried all the day after your departure ... my house felt so terrible without you.’ A year later she writes: ‘You are so much worth seeing. When you are in a humour to reveal all the vastness of your intellect, one observation of your’s, one thought is worth travelling all over Europe to hear.’
Yet she also constantly, perhaps consciously, torments Mary. Knowing her propensity for anxiety (‘knowing how you hate melancholy’), she writes longer and longer accounts of her miseries as a governess in Russia, half-blaming her sister for her situation, even asking: ‘Cannot you do anything to get me out of it?’ Her health is always failing, or worse. She is forever announcing – thirty and forty years before it happened – that she will soon be dead.
Claire was always the adjutant. In a late letter (1871) to Trelawny she remembers how, when Shelley was courting Mary, ‘They always sent me to talk [walk?] at some distance from them, alleging that they wished to talk on philosophical subjects and that I did not like or know anything about those ... I did not hear what they talked about.’ ‘Claire is timid,’ Mary wrote to Mrs Hoppner, ‘she always showed respect, even for me – poor dear girl!’
I think Claire recognised something noble in Mary, and in Shelley and Mary together, which she revered and knew she was too unbridled to emulate. On the other hand, as time went by Shelley could confide in her things which would have disturbed Mary; and this, rather than their being lovers, might possibly account for Shelley’s secret letters to her, and hers to him addressed Poste Restante to ‘Mr Jones’. She was an ally, the keeper of his secrets. She was more resilient than Mary, accompanying him on his rambles (he was a prodigious walker and small-boat adventurer), a less daunting presence, an easier and more amusing companion. But she was not his wife and the mother of his children; and I think the finest thread of sibling malice in the letters to Mary is the one which subtly represents as a vice, or a hypocrisy, or an intellectual dereliction, those roles of which Claire was, in fact, deeply envious.
She has been celebrated as a liberal and feminist. No doubt those inherited convictions were genuinely held; and in isolation a small number of her ringing statements of principle can give the impression that she was right up there in the vanguard. But in the full context of the letters to Mary, in which they occur, they take on a different colour, seeming more like another means of scoring off her sister – as if she is claiming that she, and not Mary, is the true ‘daughter’ of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, the real ‘wife’ of Shelley. Even Mary’s role as a mother (one child, Percy, survived) is represented as inferior to her own, and in a way tormenting to Mary because it evokes so deliberately the spirit of Wollstonecraft:
A legitimate child is to its mother nothing but a task that was imposed upon her, a labour extorted from her by a sense of her helplessness to resist her imperious Master; she sees in its face the dismal Necessity to which it owed its birth. You might as well expect a negro to have a passionate attachment to the sugar he raises upon the ground of his Planter. An illegitimate child on the contrary calls forth the maternal feelings in full force; it is the offspring of freedom and love, of Beauty and Strength in their most exalted aspect, when the beastly world is banished far and two hearts beat with mutual and unselfish devotion.
And then, in the same letter, thus far amiable and disinterested in tone if not in substance, she all at once whacks Mary hard, blaming her (that is what Mary would have understood her to mean) for the fact that Allegra was handed over to Byron, and to her death. Claire is writing of Mary’s assurances that under Shelley’s will she stands to inherit £12,000 when Sir Timothy Shelley (‘the great unmentionable’, she calls him) dies. She says she has about this advice ‘the most cruel doubts’.
Would I had had them twelve years ago, I should have acted quite otherwise; but then I was young, and I had not got rid of my respect for your judgment. I thought you odd – how odd – but I thought nothing could equal your wisdom – on certain points I still think you very wise, in metaphysics, in making horrid catastrophes in a book, in writing prose that is the beau ideal of prose; but not in judgment of worldly matters – you have about as much as a poet that is drunk with inspiration.
But the subtlest wound inflicted on Mary is hidden in a letter of March 1836. Mary has discovered that their friend Jane Williams has spoken ill of her, and Claire is telling her she must forget it, not let it spoil their friendship:
How can you expect dear Mary, not to be traduced by your friends? What mortal can you point out, either alive or dead, that was so privileged. Neither genius, nor goodness, the two principal exciters of love, can preserve from this evil. Accept of friendship all that it has of sweet and bury the rest in oblivion.
So far so good; but now she goes on:
I had once a friend whom I loved entirely and who certainly loved me much; yet immense were the lies he told of me: I regret this not – he was great and above all pure-minded and I love him still as if he had never spoken ill of me: to be sure he told me himself in his calm voice and with the gentlest looks that it was absolutely necessary he should traduce me and that he expected I should submit without a murmur to it – and I do with the greatest cheerfulness. So much frankness and honour would redeem any calumny let it take what root it may – and besides one feels ennobled in being the victim of necessity.
The ‘great and above all pure-minded’ friend cannot be Byron about whom, after the death of Allegra, Claire only ever spoke with hatred and contempt. Professor Stocking’s note says that she has not been able to identify this person. But who could it have been except Shelley? And that, surely, was what Claire intended Mary to understand – that he had never told the truth about their relationship, and that, because he had been honest with her about the need for misinformation and deception, it was a dishonesty she could accept.
There is an incoherent journal entry of 1828 which perfectly catches the conflict of Claire’s feelings for her step-sister, describing first Mary’s beautiful hair, acknowledging ‘the surpassing beauty of her mind’, then blaming her for compromising the Shelleyan ideal, and finally depicting her as one who watched ‘the spectacle of a child led to the scaffold’ and afterwards shook hands with the executioner. What she must mean, once again, is that Mary was to blame for the fact that Allegra was sent to Byron, her ‘executioner’. ‘I never saw her afterwards,’ she goes on, ‘without feeling as if the sickening motion of the Deathworm had replaced the usual flow of blood in my veins.’ In the same passage Shelley, with ‘his ardent mouth, his exalted being, his simplicity and enthusiasm’, is exempt from blame.
‘She poisoned my life,’ Mary wrote in an uncharacteristic outburst to Trelawny. ‘I would not go to Paradise with her as a companion ... Years ago my idea of Heaven was a world without Claire – of course these feelings are altered – but she still has the faculty of making me more uncomfortable than any human being – a faculty she, unconsciously perhaps, never fails to exert when I see her.’
Together, in a space of three years, the two women saw the deaths of their three adored children, William, Clara and Allegra, and then of Shelley. Claire grew up in Mary’s shadow. Her attempt to escape from it led to Byron, and disaster. The separation from Allegra and her death caused a bitterness that Claire never shook off. Her enduring love for Shelley probably caused her rejection of other suitors and lovers – Peacock, Trelawny, Henry Reveley and the obscure German composer and poet Herman Gambs, who published his poetry under the pseudonym of his ‘muse’, C. Clairmont.
She was extremely well-read, a good linguist, a fine musician, a brilliant and enlightened teacher, a witty letter writer. A Russian admirer described her as ‘English in her pride and dignity but Italian in her liveliness and ardour’. As an elderly woman she could still charm her male visitors while appearing to her nieces and nephew bossy, suspicious and a pain in the neck.
She is at her best in these letters when she is in a mood to entertain. ‘All the life that is left in the house is now concentrated in Nerina, and I am sure she cannot complain of a dearth of sensations for she takes good care to feel with every thing around her and if the chair does but knock against the table she shudders and quakes for both and runs into her own study to write it down in her journal.’ That is very like Katherine Mansfield. But her best and most amusing letters are not dependent on a quick wit; rather, on a slow winding of herself up into comedy over several accelerating pages, as perhaps she wound herself up into her towering black humours and despairs. Comedy was a kind of relief from a life that could seem at times so terrible she said more than once her greatest fear was that it might persist after death.