A lively account of the social circles of Shelley, Keats and co impresses Kathryn Hughes

The “young” in the title of Daisy Hay’s first book could refer to two things. First, there’s the fact that it is concerned with the second generation of romantics – Shelley, Byron and Keats rather than those gnarly old patriarchs Wordsworth and Coleridge. Second, it may simply be a way of reminding us that none of these people actually lived very long. Keats was dead at 25, Shelley at 29 and Byron at 36. Only the appalling Trelawny, that hanger-on par excellence, lingered to an unfeasible 88, which just goes to show that sometimes life really isn’t fair.

A more accurate title might have been Sociable Romantics. For Hay’s central project is to rewrite the still-popular idea of the romantics as solitary figures, forever perched on a crag or wandering through a forest, with only their genius and some birdsong for company. This second generation, she reminds us, was a much more companionable crew. Instead of removing themselves from the common herd to commune with their exquisite selves, they revelled in congenial company. Group friendship, sustained by musical evenings, shared accommodation and written communication (lots of letters, obviously, but also poems to and about one another), was what drove their art and sustained their often fragile individual identities.

The big daddy of the group was Leigh Hunt, whose reputation has been on the up recently, following an excellent biography by Anthony Holden. Hunt may have been a dreadful sponger – Dickens got his disingenuous leeching down perfectly when he turned him into Harold Skimpole in Bleak House – but he was also a genuinely radical activist who made things happen. Hunt’s house in Hampstead’s Vale of Health became a kind of unofficial HQ for all the cleverest young men of the day.

The fact that critical commentators referred to this group as “the cockney school” confirms that these were people more concerned with clever chat and purposeful noise than going for long solitary walks in the country. Here you might find Shelley twitting the painter Haydon about his ponderous Christianity, or Keats and Hazlitt arguing the toss on monarchy, or Charles Lamb and the musician Vincent Novello swapping dreadful puns. Periodically, everyone rounded on their host who, despite a core of principled kindness, remained a man you longed to slap.

With so many big egos pulsating, it was only natural that this group would split into different constellations, picking up new members and shedding others along the way. One of the main satellites was the famous summer community at the Villa Diodati where, in 1816, Shelley, his mistress Mary, her step-sister Claire Clairmont, their new best friend Byron, and the really rather dull Dr John Polidori went boating during the day and spent the evenings playing the early 19th-century equivalent of parlour games. It was out of this feverish atmosphere – made all the more hectic by the fact that Polidori was clumsily in love with Mary while Claire was desperately pursuing Byron – that Frankenstein was conceived.

Or was it? This particular genesis myth – the one about Byron challenging them all to write ghost stories and Mary not sure if she could come up with anything – was set out in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein and has become almost as famous as the book itself. In fact, several generations of scholars have unpicked Mary’s narrative of creativity and found a much more diffuse, provisional and contingent set of circumstances in play. For one thing, Shelley’s handwriting can be found on nearly every page of the manuscript, making him the editor, if not the actual co-author, of the book. Then there’s the fact that, while responding to Byron’s specific challenge, Mary was also digging deep into her own intellectual heritage. As the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, she was steeped in early 19th-century debates about science, God and morality, so that, when she put pen to paper, she was writing the age rather than her own adolescent fantasies (she was still only 18) about scary monsters in cupboards.

This, for Hay, is the crucial point. Strip away the old myths about solitary romantic genius creating timeless works of art, and what you find is a busy network of creative people doing what they have always done: inheriting and stealing ideas, buffing them up to a shine, and then forgetting exactly where they came from. This isn’t necessarily a glamorous story, but it comes closer to the way these things mostly get done – in a hurry, accidentally, and with several people’s sticky fingerprints on the finished product.

Of course, it all sounds more fun than it probably felt at the time. Groups don’t simply bring loving support but also competition, humiliating dependence and, most painful of all, a lingering suspicion that everyone else has arranged to meet up without you. One of the saddest anecdotes in Hay’s wide-ranging narrative concerns Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft’s elder daughter. Fanny’s half-sister and step-sister, Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont, spent most of their young lives racketing around Europe competing to see who could get the best boyfriend. In netting Shelley, Mary got herself the heir to a baronetcy, but Claire retaliated by temporarily nabbing Byron, who was a proper peer. Fanny, meanwhile, was obliged to stay at home with her increasingly crotchety step-father, Godwin, and write worried letters about money. In the end, this feeling of being left out got too much for poor Fanny, who went off to Swansea and killed herself in a hotel room with a hefty dose of laudanum. She was just 22.

None of these stories is new, although they are all rich enough to bear countless retellings. Rather, Hay’s real skill lies in taking the founding myths of the second romantic generation and plaiting them into new configurations, allowing fresh emphases to emerge in the process. So instead of dashing stories about handsome poets and their pretty women, she gives us an account that is both more generous in its scope and more quotidian in its focus. Art matters to these young people, of course it does, but so do the cost of baby shoes, the love-hate that binds sisters, and the all-important question of who is coming to dinner.

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