The Clairmont Correspondence: Letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, Volume I (18081834), Volume II (18351879)
“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,/ And did he stop and speak to you?” Browning marveled in Men and Women, recalling a scrap of conversation he had overheard as a boy. Henry James, who could have seen Claire Clairmont plain, and at an even greater remove in time, missed the opportunity. In the 1908 preface to The Aspern Papers, he recorded his astonished discovery that, on several visits to Florence, he had “passed again and again, all unknowing,” the door of that house in the Via Romana where “sat above, within call and in her habit as she lived,” the woman who had been Mary Shelley’s stepsister, the daughter by an unknown father of William Godwin’s second wife, and mother, after her brief affair with Byron, of Allegra, his short-lived child.
Characteristically, James never regretted his failure to climb those stairs in the Via Romana and make direct contact with what he called “the Byronic Age.” In basing The Aspern Papers on his knowledge of Byron, Shelley, and Claire Clairmont (1798–1879), he found it more suitable for Claire herself to remain an evocative ghost—as the telltale allusion to Hamlet’s “My father, in his habit as he lived” suggests—not someone actually (and inhibitingly) encountered. Only as a suggestive wraith could this impoverished expatriate have inspired James’s searing fiction about predatory biographers, literary editors, and the survivors they victimize.
Although there was much in her past that she wanted to hide, Claire herself had worried less about violations of her privacy than about the possibility that she would be entirely forgotten after her death. “I have trodden life alone,” she wrote around 1829, “without a guide and without a companion and before I depart for ever I would willingly leave with another, what my tongue has never yet ventured to tell. I would willingly think that my memory may not be lost in oblivion as my life has been.” Like most of Claire’s statements about herself, this was exaggerated. As the enchantress celebrated in Shelley’s lyric, “To Constantia Singing,” and the destructive “Comet” of his Epipsychidion—
beautiful and fierce,
Who drew the heart of this frail Universe
Towards thine own; till, wrecked in that convulsion.
Alternating attraction and repul- sion,
Thine went astray, and that was rent in twain.
—she was assured of a certain immortality.
It is true, however, that until recently it has been difficult to see her as a person in her own right, rather than as a mere adjunct to the two great poets with whom her life was briefly shared. Even R. Glynn Grylls, who published the first life of Claire in 1939, felt obliged to subtitle it “Mother of Byron’s Allegra,” while Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, as late as 1992, took refuge in Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys, as though her name could mean little alone. Richard Holmes did become so enthralled while working on Shelley: The Pursuit (1974) that he was later accused …