C.K. Stead

  • Letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont and Fanny Imlay Godwin edited by Marion Kingston Stocking
    Johns Hopkins, 704 pp, £45.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 8018 4633 1

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.

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