Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

 

In December, 1826, Claire Clairmont wrote to Jane Williams Hogg,

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 those ten minutes have discomposed the rest of my life. The passion, God knows for what cause…disappeared, leaving no trace whatever behind it, except my heart wasted and ruined as if it had been scorched by a thousand lightnings.

The happy passion to which Claire refers was her love for George Gordon, Lord Byron, whom she had sought out in 1816. Byron at first rebuffed her epistolary courtship, then agreed on a night together outside London “by way of novelty,” as he remarked. He was never as taken with Claire as she was with him; to Byron she was “that odd-headed girl—who introduced herself to me.” As he wrote to Douglas Kinnaird, “I never loved nor pretended to love her, but a man is a man, and if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours, there is but one way.…” The authors suggest that Byron wrote the lyric “There Be None of Beauty’s Daughters” to Claire before she became his mistress, but others have been suggested as the inspiration for that poem. While Byron repeatedly insisted that he was not in love with Claire, she worshiped him: “I do not expect you to love me; I am not worthy of your love. I feel you are superior,” she wrote to him. The liaison resulted in the birth of a daughter on January 12, 1817. Claire wanted to call the girl Alba, perhaps playing on the initials of Lord Byron, but in this matter, as in all others concerning the child, Byron had his way; she was christened Clara Allegra Byron.

Before Allegra’s birth, Claire had agreed to surrender the child to Byron, who had promised to keep the girl with him. Allegra spent her first year with her mother in England, however, while Byron remained on the Continent. Despite her separation from the man she still loved, this year was happy for Claire. Gittings and Manton include a number of Claire’s letters that demonstrate her joy. Writing to Byron of Allegra, Claire noted,

she is so fond of me that I hold her in my arms till I am nearly falling on purpose to delight her. We sleep together and if you knew the extreme happiness I feel when she nestles close to me, in listening to our regular breathing together, I could tear my flesh in twenty thousand different directions to ensure her good.

The surrender of her daughter to Byron in Venice left Claire distraught; “[T]he chill of Death fell upon my heart,” she wrote.

Byron was less faithful to his part of the bargain, placing Allegra in the convent of Bagnacavallo. The action was doubly distressing to Claire because it removed Allegra from both her parents and also meant that the girl would receive a Catholic education, an idea abhorrent to the then-atheistic Claire. On April 20, 1822, Allegra died of typhoid. Byron sent the body back to England for burial at Harrow but never told Claire the site of the grave, which remained unknown to her for fifty years.

In 1822, Claire lost not only her daughter but also her closest friend, when Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in the Bay of Spezia on July 8. Claire had met the poet a decade earlier, when she was still Jane—she changed her name in 1814. When Shelley fled England with Mary Godwin in July, 1814, Claire accompanied the lovers to serve as translator. Later that year, Shelley began teaching Claire Greek. Whether she ever inspired Byron to poetic expression, she certainly did Shelley. “To Constantia Singing” responds to her extensive musical talents, and in “Epipsychidion” she is the comet, “beautiful and fierce.” The authors do not believe that Claire and Shelley were lovers, but rumors at the time and subsequent speculation have suggested that they were. When Byron learned of Claire’s pregnancy, Byron wondered whether he was the father.

Shelley was kinder to Claire than was Byron, leaving her a legacy of twelve thousand pounds in his will, the sum to be paid upon the death of Timothy Shelley, the poet’s long-lived father. Shelley also paid for her music lessons. Claire’s presence in the Shelley household must have been trying for her half-sister. On July 4, 1820, Claire wrote in her journal, “Heigh-ho the Claire & the Ma [that is, Mary Shelley]/ Find something to fight about every day.” Later that year, Claire moved into the home of Professor Antonio Bojti of Florence, to assume the first of many posts as governess. As partial payment for room and board, she was to teach English to...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)