“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.
In March 1821, aware that the four-year-old Allegra was becoming spoiled and uncontrollable, and concerned for her safety as he became increasingly involved with the abortive Italian revolution (he was about to store arms and ammunition for the Carbonari in his house), Byron placed her as a boarder in the convent at Bagnacavallo, twelve miles from Ravenna. Claire herself was to die a devout Catholic. At this point, however, she shared both Shelley’s militant atheism and his belief that however beautiful Italy might be as a place, Italians—and especially Italian women—were ignorant, profligate, and degraded. Neither view appealed to Byron. Accused once by Shelley of being “little better than a Christian,” he liked Italians as well as Italy, was now living with a convent-educated countess from the Romagna, and hoped his illegitimate daughter would not only grow up believing in a Creator, but might eventually marry—with the dowry he could now provide—into a good Italian Catholic family.
Even Shelley discouraged Claire’s wild schemes to kidnap Allegra from Bagnacavallo. For almost everyone else, Byron’s course of action seemed reasonable. Then, on April 19, 1822, Allegra suddenly died of typhus. Byron was distraught; Claire, although she took the news with deceptive calm, never recovered. Gradually, she persuaded herself that he had sent Allegra to Bagnacavallo in order to kill her, that the child had suffered appalling torments, been forced to share all the austerities of the nuns, or even that she had never died at all but was still, fifty years later, incarcerated there—the little embalmed corpse Byron shipped back to England for burial at his beloved Harrow being that of a goat.
It is one of those awful stories in which everyone—and no one—is to blame. That indictment must include not only Claire and Byron themselves, but Shelley. Indeed, it is to Shelley above all that one must look in order to understand Claire’s behavior both with Byron and in her later years. Godwin’s daughter Mary had not been the only female inhabitant of 41 Skinner Street who fell in love with this impetuous young man when he breezed into their lives in 1812, promulgating radical notions about free love and the common possession of money and property. Godwin himself had once espoused just these ideas but—except for a lasting conviction that any friend or acquaintance with access to cash was morally obliged to give him some—he was now more conservative, especially where his own family was concerned. When he tried to prevent his sixteen-year-old daughter from forming a liaison with Shelley, who was already married, the lovers precipitately fled to France, accompanied, at the last moment, by Claire.
It is true that Mary’s stepsister could speak French, which she and Shelley could not. But Shelley also had an unfortunate predilection for threesomes. He had already tried (catastrophically) to arrange one that embraced his wife Harriet and “the sister of my soul,” the schoolmistress Elizabeth Hitchener. Then he encouraged his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg to make love to Harriet, assuming (wrongly) that she would acquiesce, and later, more successfully, pushed Hogg into a relationship with Mary. For Claire in 1814, a sexually inexperienced but passionate girl of sixteen traveling in troubling proximity to Mary’s lovemaking with a man she, too, found attractive (on at least one occasion the trio occupied the same bed in the inn), the arrangement proved to be disastrous. Not only did it obviously fuel her determination, a year and a half later, to get her hands on a poet—an even more famous one—of her own, but the threesome of 1814 turned out—as none of its constituents could have foreseen—to be long-lasting.
At Calais, to which Mrs. Godwin pursued her, Claire ignored her mother’s pleas to return to England. She paid for this when, a month and a half later, the little party ran out of money, and she found herself back in London but firmly shut out—like Shelley and Mary themselves—from Skinner Street. She had no choice but to continue to share their lives and lodgings, loyally wondering in her journal why the abandoned and once again pregnant Harriet Shelley was writing letters of remonstrance so “weak” and unreasonable. (Shelley’s first wife later killed herself.) Mary, by now, was pregnant too and spent much of her time in bed, feeling ill. Shelley and Claire, thrown closely together, went for long walks and sat up half the night talking, on occasion terrifying each other with the hallucinations to which both were subject and Mary was not. (It is one of the many ironies of the situation that Mary, who never saw breasts with eyes in them, or levitating pillows, should nevertheless be the one who frightened the world with Frankenstein.)
Marion Stocking, understandably protective of Claire, protests in her commentary that there is no real evidence, either at this or any later point, that Claire and Shelley had a sexual relationship. Readers of Claire’s letters, and of her journals, with all their strategically obliterated sentences, may well have their doubts. Such a union would in no way have been contrary to Shelley’s principles—or to Claire’s. Pythagoras, she noted in her journal for January 1820, rightly stresses the superiority of odd numbers over even ones, whose separability into two equal parts is the very symbol of division: “Let this rule be applied to marriage and we shall find the cause of its unhappy querulous state.”
There are other indications, too: not merely irresponsible gossip about Shelley’s “league of incest” with Godwin’s two “daughters,” but the more serious (and still unexplained) allegation that Elena Adelaide, the Neapolitan child falsely registered by Shelley in February 1819 as his and Mary’s, was in fact his and Claire’s. When he asked Mary to write a letter refuting that claim, he scrupulously side-stepped the issue of whether Claire had ever been his mistress: people could believe as they chose. Certainly Byron (who credited the Neapolitan scandal) toyed with the idea that even Allegra might be Shelley’s child. “Do not think,” Shelley wrote Claire in December 1821, “that my affection & anxiety for you ever cease, or that I ever love you less although that love has been & still must be a source of disquietude to me.” For the poet of Epipsychidion, the dark-haired Comet with the lovely singing voice, magnetic and beautiful though she was, spelled cosmic disaster.
Over the years, Mary found the continuing presence of her stepsister hard to bear. As early as March 1815, she feared that getting Claire out of the house was “hopeless,” but was still pleading in December 1816 for “absentia Clariae” with an exasperation resembling Byron’s. Circumstances, however, dictated that apart from a brief and solitary sojourn in Devon in 1815, and another intermittent one between late 1820 and June 1822, when the Shelleys’ friend Lady Mount Cashell insisted, for the good of everyone concerned, that she take herself off to Florence as a governess, Claire lived with them from 1814 until July 1822, when Shelley’s death permanently fractured the circle. “Heighho,” Claire wrote in 1820, “the Clare & the Ma/Find something to fight about every day.” In later years, the two women did correspond frequently and even came to stay with each other. Claire was helpful and supportive when it became necessary to recover and burn compromising letters Mary had written to the handsome and unscrupulous Italian exile, Gatteschi. But although Mary was inclined (in her own words) to be rather “tousy-mousy for women,” and certainly fell a little in love herself with Jane Williams, Shelley’s last erotic obsession, Claire always made her uncomfortable. “We were never friends,” Mary wrote in 1836. “Now, I would not go to Paradise, with her for a companion—she poisoned my life when young…. I respect her now much—& pity her deeply—but years ago my idea of Heaven was a world without Claire.”
The “respect” and “pity” that Mary eventually came to feel for Claire sprang from an awareness of just how bleak her stepsister’s situation was after Shelley’s death: not only childless but companionless, forced until 1841, when she finally secured a small annuity from Shelley’s estate, to shift about as a governess with different families in Vienna, Russia, Italy, and England. “None can know like me,” she wrote bitterly, “what it is to mount daily a stranger’s stairs and to feel with every step that a solitary room and faces filled with strange indifference await us.” Anne Brontë’s governess heroine Agnes Grey and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre have an easier time than Claire did, and for her there was no compensating Mr. Weston or Mr. Rochester at the end. It is true that she makes the most of her misery. A typical letter to Jane Williams, written between June 20 and 21, 1825, from Islavsky, her employers’ country estate near Moscow, complains that
I cannot tell you the horrid slavery I suffer…. I have lessons from eight in the morning till two; then we dine; then lessons till five—then we walk; then at nine tea or supper, and then to bed—It is impossible to describe the paralytic effect such a life has on the mind—One is so worn out with repeating to the most indocile, stupid children the same thing for months and months together, that…all I try, is to get into a corner to endeavour to recover….
Claire’s journal, however, for these two days records that besides giving lessons she managed to read Marmontel, bathe outdoors in the garden, hear the intelligent young German tutor in the household read Shelley’s Revolt of Islam, walk after dinner and “laugh very much in the Pavillion opposite the island,” sing a duet from Figaro, and spend “half the day” on her correspondence. When little Dunia, her principal charge, died of scarlet fever early that autumn, Claire—whose grief for Allegra reawoke—mourned her as “the lovely child, smiling & brilliant as a star.”
“My letters,” Claire informed Mary in 1835, “are stuffed full of opinions as an egg of meat. I jabber away as if I were talking to myself and had no fear of shocking the principles of any listener; I roam right and left, catch an idea from the North, tack it on to one from the South, join the East and the West in a jarring conclusion, mix the sun and moon together if it suits me, and all this with the swiftness of the wind.” The best of Claire’s letters are indeed like this. In the same one to Jane Williams moaning about her slavery, she is wonderfully funny about the nocturnal habits of Russian households, with their strange aversion to sleeping twice in the same place, so that beds were perpetually “roving up and down all the rooms; be it drawing room or cabinet, it is all one to them. The morning is a curious picture—You meet a hundred beds (that is to say, mattresses, pillows, sheets & c) born upon so many heads, and returning like sheep to the fold, to their respective rooms.” When governess to an English family living partly in Italy she became predictably appreciative, for the first time, of Italians and intensely critical of her fellow countrymen:
the men groan for beef-stakes and nothing can persuade them the english diet is too heavy for this warm country; they seek out the butcher’s shops and instruct the butchers how to cut up their meat into immense large masses which they carry home triumphantly…. Then they find that there is no vessel large enough to cook it in and then the english mistress breaks into sighs and lamentations at the effeminate nature of Italian saucepans and weeps bitter tears for those divine ones she has left in England. Do not think this an exaggeration—some such tragi-comedy goes on in every english family. I heard an Italian cook say the other day—when I have made a plum pudding for my padrona inglese I have laboured as much as if I had partoritoed un bambino….
Claire is also capable, if not as often as one could wish, of mocking her own persistent sense of misery and doom. “I have made up my mind to die of it,” she wrote Mary when cholera reached Florence. The reason she would not put the legacy she finally received from Shelley’s estate into English funds was that after three months “there would be a national bankruptcy: and all England ruined because a person born under an evil star had vested a trifle in her funds.” She considered buying land instead but expected no profit from it:
oh no I am morally convinced the farm I buy with the house on it will be shot up in the air by a subterranean volcano—or carried away by a torrent or be turned into a lake any thing in short so that my possession shall disappear from the face of the earth. What is the use of my killing myself with a journey and going through incredible fatigue to have my land turned into a sky rocket or a water-spout.
In the end, she put some money into leasing an opera box at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket—just before it was crushed by Covent Garden—and then, in 1871, into a farm in the Austrian empire, where she quickly discovered she could neither make a profit nor even live. Substantially poorer, she fled back to Florence where, eight years later, she was to die.
Despite an amazing collection of ailments, both imaginary and real (her letters over the years record, among other physical afflictions, migraine, deafness, giddiness, infected glands, an irritated womb, palpitations of the heart, “inflation” of the stomach, indigestion, anemia, nervous disorder, apoplexy, and “dissolution of Nature in every respect”), Claire outlived almost all of her immediate family and friends. With Mary Shelley, who died in 1851, she had quarreled irrevocably some years before. “Parents,” Claire advised Mary in 1845, when their children come to “the falling in love age… ought to be forced to read Shakespear all day long till the children are married.” Then they would not be surprised or censorious if their offspring behaved like Romeo and Juliet, or like Rosalind, who “takes man’s attire to wander after a Youth in a wood.”
Unfortunately, in 1849, when Clari Clairmont, the daughter of her brother Charles Clairmont, eloped with Alexander Knox, Claire forgot her own wise counsel. Knox and her niece had met, and run off together, while staying with Mary and her son and daughter-in-law, and Claire chose to blame Mary bitterly for what, in fact, was a perfectly satisfactory marriage. Only Jane Williams (now Mrs. Thomas Jefferson Hogg) and Edward Trelawny, who had once desperately wanted to marry Claire, survived her among the former members of the Shelley circle—Trelawny in spite of stubborn resistance to all her injunctions to equip himself with thick worsted stockings against the winter chill. For a man who had maintained life for weeks, after an assassination attempt, in a cave on Mt. Parnassus, despite two bullets in his body and a shattered jaw, the precaution might understandably seem a little comic.
Although Trelawny begged her to write memoirs, Claire refused. She felt too old. She did send him a good deal of material for his own books about Shelley and Byron, much of it distorted by years of hating Byron, and by what was now a wholly uncritical worship of Shelley. But writing to Trelawny was not really enough. Unlike Mary, who produced a number of novels after Frankenstein, Claire had published virtually nothing, a lifelong humiliation for someone brought up in the Godwin family where, as she sometimes complained, not to turn out a succession of epics, novels, or philosophical and social treatises marked one as inferior. Byron had poured scorn in 1816 upon The Ideot, her attempt to write a novel about an unconventional woman, which she then destroyed. (Claire was later and justly proud that, despite considerable risk to herself from uniformly conservative employers, “I think I can with certainty affirm all the pupils I have ever had will be violent defenders of the Rights of Women.”) Persistent but disordered attempts to produce a kind of anti-Don Juan, attacking Byron’s character and morals, came to nothing. She was unable, probably because of the vehemence of her feelings, to produce any equivalent to Glenarvon (1816), the “Byron” novel written by another of his discarded mistresses. Lady Caroline Lamb. She might well have feared that her journals, let alone her widely scattered correspondence, would not survive. Then, in 1872, there arrived in Florence a retired sea captain from Salem, Massachusetts, named Edward Silsbee. A passionate admirer of Shelley’s poetry (he had memorized great swathes of it during night watches in the Atlantic), he was also an indefatigable listener to whom Claire could unburden herself of her life history, day after day, without being obliged to tell the whole truth.
The Aspern Papers owes its existence to Silsbee. Henry James was ignorant of Claire’s presence in Florence until 1887, eight years after her death, when he returned to the city. It was then that he learned how Silsbee paid intermittent court to the elderly Claire Clairmont from 1872 onward, even installing himself for a time as her lodger, in the hope of laying hands on whatever Shelley manuscripts she possessed. When Claire died in 1879, Silsbee rushed back from America to claim the precious papers, only to discover—according to James’s informant—that Pauline Clairmont, a spinster in her mid-fifties who had been her aunt’s companion for some nine years, was now demanding marriage as the price for handing them over. Silsbee, James was told, was still running (“court encore“).
The true story was rather different and would almost certainly have repelled James. Claire, unlike her fictional equivalent, the withdrawn and secretive Juliana Bordereau of The Aspern Papers, had been happy to discuss and indeed to sell her Shelley relics—but for an amount of cash Silsbee could not raise. He managed to obtain a single Shelley notebook, perhaps as a gift, while hoping to make a better bargain after Claire’s death. Whether or not Pauline did finally offer him all the papers, but in a package that included herself, remains unclear. She had certainly for a time been Silsbee’s mistress in Florence, and she already had an illegitimate child by another American. Personally disappointed she may have been, but the documents themselves were not destroyed, as they are in James’s novella. Purchased from Claire’s estate by the English editor and collector Henry Buxton Forman, they eventually found their way into great libraries and the hands of professional scholars. Silsbee was defeated. Yet, as Marion Stocking discovered late in 1991, when she found seven small memorandum books among family papers in Salem, each containing notes on his conversations in the 1870s with Claire Clairmont, Silsbee had left the Via Romana carrying much more than that single Shelley notebook.
The discovery of the Salem hoard, when Stocking was on the verge of sending The Clairmont Correspondence to the publisher, must have seemed like her reward for a lifetime’s work, but also something of a blow. It cannot have been easy for her to decide what to do with all this new material. Her final choice, to incorporate some of the most interesting but general of Silsbee’s jottings in a special appendix, distributing much of the rest wherever seemed most appropriate in the commentary, was certainly right. There can be no doubt, however, of the need now for Stocking to produce a separate edition of Silsbee’s memoranda. Only then will it be possible to look at this final account Claire offered of her life in the order in which she related it. Judging from the excerpts copiously scattered through the commentary, this desultory oral autobiography offers a combination of obfuscation and truth, many new facts or hints (about the “Neapolitan mystery,” for instance), mixed with further evidence of what Claire knew or did not know about Byron and the Shelleys, and what she chose to invent.
Claire was remembering her brief relationship with Byron when she counseled Jane Williams in December 1826
always to have an unhappy attachment; because with it you can veer about like a weather-cock to every point of life. What would I not give to have an unhappy passion, for then one has… something to expect, but a happy passion like death has finis written in such large characters in its face there is no hoping for any possibility of a change. You will allow me to talk upon this subject for I am unhappily the victim of a happy passion; I had one like all things perfect in its kind, it was fleeting and mine only lasted ten minutes but these ten minutes have discomposed the rest of my life; the passion God knows for what cause, from no fault of mine however disappeared leaving no trace whatever behind it except my heart wasted and ruined as if it had been scorched by a thousand lightnings.
That, in its combination of self-pity and strength, emotional exaggeration and wry humor, is quintessential Claire. What one is tempted to call “The Silsbee Papers,” that final oral record, may or may not appear. It matters, however, that The Clairmont Correspondence, as well as illuminating the lives of Byron and the Shelley circle, now establishes Claire herself—a figure quite as arresting, and considerably more tragic, than James’s Juliana Bordereau—as a woman worth attention in her own right.
April 4, 1996