After having finished Jude Morgan’s novel Passion, I feel emotionally spent. What a rollercoaster ride this aptly named novel has taken me on.
The novel begins as Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, attempts to commit suicide by drowning herself. It’s a story that’s been well known to me since college when I first encountered Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I was entranced by the story because I latched on to a curious detail: Wollstonecraft, mistreated by man in a world that didn’t appreciate her intellect, was bouyed by her skirts—the symbol of her femininity saved her, and later, it would take her away as she died following her daughter Mary’s childbirth. The rest of the novel unfolds as the lives of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats are told through the voices of the women who loved them: Lady Caroline Lamb, Augusta Byron Leigh, Mary Shelley, and Fanny Brawne. At times the stories entwine as the women move in the same circles, and ultimately, each is left behind as the man she loved dies before her. How each woman resolves the issue of forging an identity separate from her lover is alluded to in the epilogue, but largely left unwritten.
If ever a book were written just for me, this book would be it. I have been devoted to the Romantic poets since high school. Jude Morgan not only manages to bring the poets and their lovers alive, but he also manages to do so with painstaking research and attention to historical detail. I was transported to another time where I knew and loved all of these people. Much of Morgan’s research has come from primary sources—letters, memoirs, diaries, and the like, for much of it reads exactly like the accounts from which they were drawn, but somehow sketched out in sharper relief. My favorite characters were probably Byron, Caroline Lamb, and Fanny Brawne, but truthfully, I enjoyed meeting everyone (although I kind of hated Claire Clairmont, which may have been Morgan’s intention). I felt wrung out with sadness as each of the poets died—the inevitable conclusion I knew would happen, but that I was still inexplicably unprepared for.
If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that it felt a little too unwieldy at times. Morgan never manages to lose control of the story, however, and even switching narrators and voices is no trouble. The reader can follow Morgan down each path. Keats’s story suffers the most in this large tale, while Byron and Shelley loom large on the page. Perhaps that is also a deeper message one can glean from the story—it was also thus, no? Towards the end of the book, Fanny Brawne reflects on Keats’s pronouncement that she is like a fire:
Oh, I would much rather be the fire. Think of the other elements: earth is rather too plain and sluggish, and I hope I have too much sense to be forever floating about in the air, and water has something too cool about it for my temper, which is, I know, a little too much on the lively side. (459)
It seemed as if all the women were described in that paragraph. I saw Augusta Leigh as like the earth, not “plain and sluggish,” necessarily, but the bedrock, the only solid thing in Byron’s life. Earthy would be a great adjective to describe her. And if Brawne sees someone “floating about in the air” as having little sense, then air is Caro Lamb, who threw her dignity, happiness, and family away for a mad obsession for Byron. Mary Shelley, then, is water, cool, collected, sometimes too passionless for Shelley, who often compared her to the moon in his poetry—not to mention that life-claiming water seemed to be a recurring theme of Mary Shelley’s life.
What a wonderful book. I would give it infinity stars if I could. I never mark my books (no trouble highlighting a Kindle and taking notes, but somehow I feel I’m defacing my books if I write in them), but I found I had to mark passages and talk back to this story, at least a little. I certainly can’t think of too many other books I’ve read that have had me doing as much research and reading about its subjects as this one. A new favorite. The title is perfect in all senses of the word, but don’t let the cover scare you off—it’s pretty, but makes the book seem too frivolous and light. Mary Shelley seems to capture the essence of this book in one sentence: “How can you love someone so much, and not understand them at all?” (383).
I read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I’ve read four now. Eleven more to go.
The story of the writing of Frankenstein and some of the literal Byronic hero qualify this book as my first read for the Gothic Reading Challenge. Nineteen to go on that challenge. I must have been crazy.
I’m going to have to puzzle over where to put this on the Where Are You Reading Challenge because these guys went all over Europe. I guess England.