Thursday, October 28, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation
by Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Last year, Romantically inclined readers had The Age of Wonders (Richard Holmes, Pantheon) and The Atmosphere of Heaven (Mike Jay, Yale) that drew connections between science and literature in the lives of several generations of early and mid-19th writers and scientists. This book by Daisy Hay concentrates on the relationships within the younger Romantics--particularly the Shelleys and Lord Byron--and includes some fascinating but often forgotten figures, such as Thomas Love Peacock and the editor and writer that brought many of these young English idealists together, Leigh Hunt.

Hay especially gives the women their due, including the wives and sisters who at times came out of the troubled shadows of the men. But her account of Mary Shelley's literary career sets some proportions aright, as Mary was more famous than Percy B. during his lifetime, owing to the popularity of Frankenstein. Much has been made of the literary revelations concerning Mary's sister Claire, and her relationship with the Shelleys and Lord Byron (by whom she had a daughter), thanks in large part to Hay's discovery of Claire's long-lost unpublished short memoir. I suppose this may have rocked the literary world, but what comes across in reading this book is Daisy Hay's careful fair-mindedness. She doesn't sensationalize anything, and not only provides different perspectives but evaluates them sensibly.

Her point of view on what makes the Romantic approach to literature different is striking. It was in many respects "an avowedly democratic project, since it suggested that anyone could be a poet, as long as he or she understood that poetic inspiration was present in the sights and relationships of ordinary life..." But her key point is that while the image of these poets--Shelley, Keats and Byron--is of the solitary soul, in fact for all of them (though Shelley in particular), their lives would "move between solitude and sociability, for the two opposing states to be suspended in productively balanced tension."

This book itself expresses a productively balanced tension, between judicious information and an absorbing narrative. Let me put it this way: I read most literary biographies in small chunks--a few pages, a chapter at a time--and am content to do so. But I got to a point in this book that I had to keep reading, absorbed in the story. I had to finish it.

If you're looking for a gift book for someone fascinated by this period and these figures, this is a very good bet.

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