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Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys, 1798-1879.

This book is a joy to read, but one picks it up with sadness for it is the last work to come from the pen of Robert Gittings, a man who made a long and distinguished contribution to literary biography. His books on Keats, Hardy and Dorothy Wordsworth should long remain standard works for anyone who values English literature. His wife, Jo Manton, herself a well known biographer, is the co-author of this book.

Claire Clairmont is clearly not in the same league as the other figures about whom Robert Gittings has written. The few people who know her name today, normally only have a dim recollection of her being involved with Shelley or Byron in some scandal. Yet it is often these less important figures, that provide the best insight into the past. Even the diligent scholarship of the Gittings has been unable to discover much about Claire Clairmont's birth. She herself was not sure where or when she was born or the identity of her father. When she was about three years of age, she became part of the Godwin family as her mother married the radical writer and novelist, William Godwin. Claire thus became a half-sister of Mary who eventually married Shelley.

The Gittings throw new light on Claire's relationship with Shelley. Eventually she had a brief affair with Byron producing that tragic child, Allegra. Byron's heartless treatment of Claire Clairmont followed his normal pattern of vicious cruelty and vivid self-justification. This book further confirms the Duke of Wellington's view that Byron was |a rum fellow'. He kept Claire from seeing her child. Claire's early years in England and her life in Italy as part of the revolutionary circle surrounding Shelley are well told. The reader cannot help seeing the parallels between Claire Clairmont and many young disillusioned radicals of our own time.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this fine biography is the account of Claire's peripatetic wanderings after the |Romantic' dream of bliss in Italy came to an end. The Gittings follow her throughout Europe where she bravely attempted to fashion a life for herself by tutoring. The authors have done much research - even into the records of the Viennese police - to show how she survived in Austria and Russia. To read this book is to be taken on a tour of Romantic Europe. They conclude that Claire Clairmont was |rash, hasty, but of deep and generous feelings, a true Romantic'.

Claire Clairmont herself rightly felt that she had not achieved all that her considerable gifts promised. She hoped that |my memory may not be lost in oblivion as my life has been'. Her life has now been rescued from oblivion and her memory made secure in this excellent and highly enjoyable biography.
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Author:Mullen, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:458
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