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.

They have not much to add to the familiar part of the story – Claire’s life with the Shelleys until the poet’s death, at the age of 29, in 1822. It is in their account of Claire’s long, tough life after Shelley’s death – nearly sixty years – that she emerges at last in the clear light of what Shelley called her ‘alternating attraction and repulsion’. Though she never lost touch with them, she moved away from the other members of the Shelley circle, Mary, Jane Williams, whose husband had drowned with Shelley, Jefferson Hogg, Trelawney, Hunt. Her work as governess and teacher took her to Tsarist Russia into the employ of a nobleman who would rather have perished than know he had taken into his home a companion of that vile atheist Shelley and even viler free-lover Byron. Claire kept her past quiet, and stuck to her work. She did not, however, abandon the ideas she had discussed with Shelley. They emerge again and again not so much in the Journals, which are sparse, but in her letters, whose richness, variety and humour are expertly deployed in this exhilarating book.

The strict Russian bourgeoisie could never understand why Claire was such a good teacher for their children. The reason was that she utterly rejected conventional ideas about education. Writing to Mary about her Russian employers, she said: ‘They educate a child by making the external work upon the internal, which is, in fact, nothing but an education fit for monkeys, and is a mere system of imitation. I want the internal to work upon the external, that is to say that my pupil should be left at liberty as much as possible, and that her own reason should be the prompter of her action.’ Reading this in the week that the Education Secretary John Patten presents his ideas for British education in the next twenty years, I feel bound to offer him a new title for his White Paper: ‘An Education Fit for Monkeys’.

By assiduous and cheerful practice of her principles, Claire worked miracles with the ‘brawling, squabbling’ brats of her employers, most of them incurably infected by the tyranny of serfdom. ‘I have not attained two or three people of my own way of thinking,’ she complained in one letter, but in others she let her radical mockery loose on her unsuspecting employers: ‘One thing is certain that Mr B is a Malthusian ... He groans over the chestnut trees loaded with nourishing fruit and sighs over the fields of Indian corn and the hedges full of blackberries, thinking how easily the poor will get food and how that facility will set them on marrying ... I believe he sees in every blossom that blows, in every blade of grass that sprouts, a new born babe.’

In the same mood, she wrote to Mary of a sparkling evening with a French couple: ‘Our conversation at table was very amusing. We agreed to found a state upon the Turkish model, only that the tables should be turned and the men shut up in harems and kept by the women.’ She was a women’s liberationist of the Shelleyan school, looking forward to a world, as John Gittings and Jo Manton put it, of ‘universal sexual freedom, with a personal revenge for the humiliations of Byron’s contempt’. Writing to Mary in a desperate plea to stop her from ‘resting on her laurels’, she argued: ‘there has not been nor ever will be one so calculated as yourself to raise our sex ... if you would but know your value and exert your powers you could give the men a most immense drubbing.’

The tone of letters like this flatly contradicts the conventional image of the two half-sisters petulantly and jealously bickering their way through their long relationship. Mary is a constant witness to her intense irritation with Claire:

Heigh ho, the Claire and the May
Find something to fight about every day

she wrote in her diary while Shelley was still alive. Several times in the long years after his death, she expressed in different ways her dream: ‘My idea of heaven is a world without Claire.’ But Robert Gittings and Jo Manton have set the record straight here as well. Mary may often have been irritated by Claire. Few who knew her were not. But Mary was devoted to her half-sister, and in Claire’s long periods of absence yearned for news of her. ‘When I think of your life,’ Mary wrote, ‘how, left to your own resources, you courageously took your fate upon yourself, supported yourself for years, refusing to be a burthen to anyone, making dear and valued friends wherever you went through your own merit – I feel sure you ought to meet with some reward.’ Claire for her part remained intensely loyal to Mary, and though Jane Williams and Trelawney later let slip some of the truth about the fading passions in Mary’s marriage to Shelley, especially after the two children had died, Claire held her tongue. In spite of many temptations, she never split on her sister.

The real difference between the two women was not so much personal as political. Even before Shelley died, Mary had lost a lot of the revolutionary passion she shared with him in that frantic, whispered love affair in the Charterhouse Gardens or over Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras churchyard. Her reforming zeal shines out brightly from Frankenstein – though her doubts and worries are clear too. (What happens, she wondered, when brilliant young upper-class men like Shelley and Byron turn their minds to revolution, and then, just as the ‘people monster’ is unleashed, abandon it?) With Shelley’s death the last lingering flicker of revolutionary hope went out of Mary. Her novels, which she wrote to earn money to off-set the meanness of the everlasting miser Sir Timothy Shelley, are almost impossible to read. She cut out sections of Shelley’s atheism from the first collected edition, though she repented later, and did admit in her notes that all his life Shelley ‘eagerly ranged himself on the people’s side’. For herself, as she wrote to Trelawney: ‘I have no wish to ally myself to the Radicals – they are full of repulsion to me.’ Mary went firmly down the well-worn path which leads so many middle-aged people to conformity and reaction.

Claire was quite the opposite. Again and again in her letters and journals there are flashes of the revolutionary convictions she shared with Shelley. Of Russia she prophesied with startling accuracy: ‘Through the straw-berry picking and the mushroom expeditions, the sledge drives by moonlight and the rides to drink milk at the estate saw mills, those who had ears might have heard the clang of hammer and sickle.’ Nor was she hoodwinked or hypnotised, as Mary was, by the apparent security and comforts of middle-class Early Victorian England. She saw, understood and supported what was happening down below. While Mary and her friends fled London or signed up for the yeomanry at the climax of the Chartist agitation, Claire stayed in the city, willing the Chartists on, She wrote to Mary about the adored young Queen Victoria: ‘The Queen’s offer of £50 to all who convict others of fomenting rebellion is a most immoral proclamation and a downright premium to calumny, malice and all uncharitableness.’ Perhaps she remembered the scorching pamphlet written by Shelley at Marlow in which he contrasted the death of English liberty in the execution of the leaders of the 1817 Pentridge uprising with the death of a brainless young princess. The latter had been mourned in every church in the kingdom; no one had noticed the death of liberty.

Though she could not restrain all her radical opinions in her letters to Mary, Claire well understood the political gulf between them, and sought not to exaggerate it. She was, however, for these reasons, adamant that Mary should not write a life of Shelley, which she constantly threatened to do. ‘Do not think of writing the memoirs,’ she wrote anxiously, using Mary’s ill-health as an excuse. The real reason, as John Gittings and Jo Manton suggest, was her anxiety to protect Shelley’s political convictions.

Sadly for all who share those convictions, Claire herself never wrote her own book about Shelley and Byron. Her rage against Byron went on and on into her old age. Byron-worshippers of all ages have sprung to his defence against Claire, pleading that ‘the world he lived in’ left him no alternative but to pluck his daughter from her mother’s arms and parcel her off to a convent. This is nonsense. As Shelley advised at the time, there was a perfectly obvious alternative – to leave the little girl with Claire, who was far better equipped to bring her up than any convent.

Claire’s fury against Byron is utterly just, though it would hardly have assisted her in her judgment of his poetry or his politics. Her reflections on Shelley, however, would have been invaluable. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this book is the way Shelley keeps rising up out of the past to haunt, make love and converse with Claire all over again. A summer storm in Russia brought back the melancholy of the ghastly villa at Lerici where they were all living when Shelley was drowned. When she read Medwin’s rotten pot-boiler about his cousin, or when she heard what Jane Shelley was planning, she mourned: ‘It is cruel to think how Shelley’s merit was lost upon the world.’

In Florence, where she finally settled, Claire could not rid herself of ‘this genius extinct, the greatest ever known, and the noble system he would have established therewith fallen for many ages to the dust’. This may read like sentimental hero-worship or calf-love. But it came from a genuine understanding of the poet, and what drove him on.

The point is clearly illustrated in Judith Chernaik’s novel. She imagines an argument between Claire and her suitor, Thomas Love Peacock, whose conservatism did not affect his admiration for Shelley. Peacock makes a powerful point:

Shelley has never even attended a meeting of a Hampden Club; it did not occur to him to go to Spa Fields for the great meetings last year, though he was in London at the time He is a dreamer, not a revolutionary ... Our poet prefers reading about society to entering it, He is a scholar of revolution, not an agitator.

Claire replies:

I do not agree with you at all. I think he is utterly reckless of himself, and plunges into dangerous activity without giving any thought to the consequences. The only reason he does not go to the Northern mill towns is that he knows he would be the worst Luddite of them all; he would probably shoot the factory owners on sight. He is actually a very good shot.

Claire was not quite right. Shelley did flinch from action, and he was (who wouldn’t be?) terrified of prosecution and imprisonment. But her version is much nearer the truth than Peacock’s.

‘Thou, too, O Comet, beautiful and fierce’ was how Shelley addressed Claire in ‘Epipsychidion’: it was the combination of qualities in her which most attracted him, and contributed most to the contempt with which she has been treated by generations of (mainly masculine) Shelley-worshippers. Many have testified to Claire’s beauty, or rather her sexual attraction. Shelley had written about that at length in ‘To Constantia’. No doubt he was turned on by her looks, as every other man she met seems to have been. But the quality which attracted him above all was her ferocity. Others saw this as plain bad temper, intolerable in women. Shelley thrived on it. Claire would not accept an answer unless she agreed with it. She would answer him back, contradict him, argue with him. Ferocity was a quality he admired in others and wanted him himself.

                  Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My Spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Ferocity and impetuosity were his ideals. Claire brilliantly sustained them, not just when Shelley was around to help, but in herself in poverty and loneliness and humiliating employment for more than half a century after his death.

Shelley-worshippers will not. I think, like either of these books. They expose their idol too much as a red and an atheist, with a weakness for beautiful women with the same strong views. Shelleyans of the revolutionary variety, however, will enjoy them very much indeed.