Love’s Pestilence

From The New York Times:

Downing-t_CA0-popup Since 1998, the New York Public Library has housed a manuscript so blistering that researchers are probably required to don oven mitts before handling it. Consisting of a long-overlooked autobiographical fragment by Claire Clairmont, who was Mary Shelley’s stepsister, Lord Byron’s lover and the inspiration for Henry James’s “Aspern Papers,” it has the declared intention of showing what “evil passion” sprang from the pursuit of free love by Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love,” Clairmont states, “I saw the two first poets of England . . . become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery — under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women.” Her indictment, which Daisy Hay says is now being published for the first time, comes only at the end of “Young Romantics” yet sends a blast of scorching fury back across the entire book. For Clairmont’s charges, however hyperbolic, have about them a degree of truth. Not just for her but for Mary Shelley and other women, participating in the communal, proto-1960s life of “English poetry’s greatest generation,” as Hay’s subtitle puts it, was ultimately less thrilling than damaging. This, at least, is the dominant impression I took away from “Young Romantics,” even if it isn’t Hay’s thesis or even drift.

More here.