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An Affair to Remember

The Clairmont Correspondence: Letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, Volume I (1808–1834), Volume II (1835–1879)

edited by Marion Kingston Stocking
Johns Hopkins University Press, 704 (two volumes) pp., $65.00

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 of having fallen in love with Claire, and he returned to her in Footsteps (1985). Marion Kingston Stocking, however, her editor over more than half a century, is the person who has truly made it possible to see this remarkable—and often exasperating—woman “plain.”

Stocking herself, now Emeritus Professor of English at Beloit College, Wisconsin, first became interested in Claire in 1944, while a graduate student at Duke University. The Journals of Claire Clairmont, completed with the assistance of her husband, David MacKenzie Stocking, in 1968, allowed Claire for the first time to speak for herself. Stocking was still content then to push the author, as usual, to one side. “The primary interest of her journals,” she conceded in the preface, “is the light they shed on the Shelley family from the time of the poet’s elopement with Mary Godwin in 1814 until his death in 1822.” Now, twenty-seven years later (and with some help from the feminist movement), her edition of The Clairmont Correspondence makes a different kind of statement. It incorporates 229 largely unpublished letters, a few written by Claire’s brother Charles Clairmont, and a poignant seven by Mary Wollstonecraft’s other daughter, Fanny Imlay Godwin, in the year she committed suicide. Most, however, are by Claire herself—“the best letter writer,” Mary Shelley thought, “that ever charmed their friends”—and they allow Shelley’s “Comet,” at last, to flash across the center of a densely populated stage.

Claire’s six surviving journals begin in August 1814 when (bizarrely, and with unfortunate consequences) she accompanied Shelley and Mary when they eloped together to the Continent. They end, with significant gaps along the way, in early February 1827, just before Claire left Russia, after almost four years spent alone there as a governess. To the distress of her family and friends, Claire had written very few letters during time in Russia. Then, for the rest of her long life, she became a voluminous correspondent, while apparently abandoning her journal.

That she did foresee publication, in some form, of the journals she already had seems clear. She went through them carefully, crossing out sentences and destroying whole sections she wanted no one to see. Mary Shelley’s journals, after Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia, do for a time unlock the writer’s heart—and underlying remorse at her recent emotional and sexual estrangement from her husband. More usually, they are impersonal, at times little more than a daily inventory of books read. Claire’s have their reticences, too: “At noon-day” was all she could bring herself to set down on June 7, 1819, when the Shelleys’ three-year-old son, affectionately known as “Willmouse,” suddenly died in Rome, after a brief illness, or “Oh Bother” on June 12, 1820, when Paolo Foggi, the Shelleys’ dismissed servant, launched a serious blackmail attempt against them that probably touched Claire as well. They tend, however, to the private, and sometimes, the indiscreet. Conspicuously and tantalizingly absent, in consequence, is the journal one suspects she must have kept for at least some of 1816–1817, the period which includes her brief liaison with Byron and the birth of Allegra, their child. This, however, is effectively where her letters begin.

Among many other things that Claire did not know about her glamorous lover was that he never threw out any written communication. Later, when she had come to hate him as intensely as she once had loved, she would have been aghast to know that every letter she sent—some a little crushed, as though only habit had restrained him from hurling them into the fire—would be found among Byron’s papers. Printed now for the first time in their entirety, they make painful reading. And, in the earlier ones, before the struggle begins over access to their child, it is hard not to feel at least as sorry for Byron as for Claire. He had been intensely vulnerable in the spring of 1816, when—on various pretexts and (until she finally gained admittance) under different names—she began her relentless pursuit.

In desperate financial straits, with bailiffs in the house, obliged to part even with his library, and unable to pacify creditors through any successful (but humiliating) sale of his family estates, Byron was about to leave England, driven out, as he felt, by the widespread scandal caused by his wife’s insistence upon a legal separation. All attempts to discover just why Lady Byron had so abruptly returned to her parents, taking her infant daughter Ada with her, met with silence. Byron is likely, however, to have feared allegations about his incestuous relationship with Augusta, his married half sister, or (even more dangerous in England at the time) about his own bisexuality. Even if they had been better suited to each other than they were, it was scarcely a propitious moment for the seventeen-year-old Claire to embark on a campaign of what would now be called sexual harassment.

In later years, although she refashioned the late Lord Byron as a satanic monster, the depraved and cold-blooded murderer of their child, Claire never accused him of having pretended to love, or even like her. She tried hard in old age to conceal the intensity with which she laid siege to him. But her letters of 1816 betray her. What they reveal, all too eloquently, is a combination of masochism and rock-hard determination: refusals to believe the servants who told her Byron had gone out of town, dogged perseverance in his entrance hall, reiterated assurances that “I will go the instant you bid me” (if only he would see her one more time), pleas not to be addressed as “little fiend,” or shown the door with “Now pray go”—“Now, will you go!” “You rather dislike me,” one letter admits, while in another this Lady of Shalott tells her reluctant Lancelot that “were I to float by your window drowned all you would say would be ‘Ah voilà.”’ She registers his coldness toward her as amply as the physical beauty with which she is obsessed (“the wild originality of your countenance”), together with a stubborn refusal of “familiarity” all his “gentleness & kindness” was unable to disguise.

In the end, she wore him down. “I should like to know who has been carried off—except poor dear me—I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan war,” Byron complained in 1819, when denying rumors that he had recently abducted an Italian girl from her convent. He must have been thinking (among other women) of Claire. In response to her specific, written request, he at last took her to bed on April 20, 1816. Any idea he had that this would buy him peace was sadly mistaken. Less than a month later, she turned up, uninvited, at his hotel in Geneva, in the company (once again) of Shelley and Mary Godwin. Claire was entirely responsible for the fact that, to the lasting benefit of both, the two men met. Before the end of June, however, she knew that she was pregnant. Although certainly inconvenient—necessitating a return to England, concealment from the Godwins, and a temporary pretense that the child somehow belonged to the Shelley ménage, with Claire functioning as its “aunt”—the discovery did not distress her. Allegra, she obviously hoped, would be the means of attaching Byron to her permanently.

In fact, after she left Switzerland, she never saw him again. Before Allegra’s birth, and for a while afterward, she deluged him with letters: usually lengthy, plaintive, and tactless. Byron cannot have appreciated her criticisms of his oldest male friends, or her nagging inquiries about the amount of wine he consumed. Her references to Ada, his daughter by Lady Byron, and suggestion that “if it were not impossible I would this instant set out to catch a little glimpse of the dear little creature” must have made his blood run cold. He replied to none of them, communicating only through Shelley about assuming custody of Allegra, something to which Claire had reluctantly agreed. He was cruel, but he knew what Claire was capable of, and he refused to be trapped. Allegra was sent to Byron in Venice at the end of April 1818. Toward the end of the year, he allowed her two months with her mother at Este, while himself remaining in Venice. After that, he stubbornly retained possession of the little girl while Claire moved restlessly from one Italian town to another in the company of the Shelleys—both of whose young children (as Byron noted) died during the period. The man she had once addressed as “My dearest darling Albé” had by now metamorphosed (in her journal at least) into “my damn’d brute,” but worse was to follow.

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