You Should Read this Book
Today is Julie Wilson’s birthday. Julie is one of my favourites from among our many benevolent futurehuman overlords. She’s a master of all things buzzwordy: Web 2.0, social networking, fooferah, whatnot. She’s also the co-creator of the Advent Book Blog, which I have been reading every day this month. It, like advent, is now complete for another year, but there’s lots of good reading to be found on its pages. I didn’t get my recommendation in on time, so I’ll offer it now, from home:
My Advent Book Blog recommendation was going to be Young Romantics by the UK literature professor turned author, Daisy Hay. It’s a social history, disguised as a series of linked autobiographies, that reads like an historical novel. Its major protagonists are the Shelleys (Percy and Mary) and the Byrons (Lord Byron, and Claire Cameron), with another few dozen satellite figures (Keats, eg) patrolling the perimeter of the story. It’s a giddily quick, completely engrossing piece of high-art soap opera. That “romantic idol” idea has done a real number on the romantics, especially those of generation number two. But I’ve always held out, despite a lack of evidence, that this group (Byron, Shelley, Keats, et al) would be much more interesting if presented as a linked archipelago than as the self-created “islands” the poetic mythology of the time pretended them to be. Hay’s book is that evidence.
The best thing about her story is how similar it sounds to many other creative origin stories. The young junta’s rebellious, post-Napoleonic War sojourn through France to Switzerland is clearly reminiscent to 21st century readers of the one taken by Ginsberg and Kerouac in the latter’s On the Road. Both journeys rode on the banner of newness, on the radical dismissal of the parental. The great whooping futility of the new is a cyclical, transitional thing. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful.
Hay finds a number of forgotten stories to shade the borders this under-researched friendship has been granted. Byron is less mad, bad, and dangerous than famously proclaimed. Shelley the male is less a Frankenstenian monster to Shelley the female. Keats, though something of a whiny putz, wasn’t quite as hated by his peers as has been assumed. This reevaluation takes nothing away from the mythology presented, however. The mythology is the take-away, and this is what Hay gets most correct. Watching the poets’ personal experience evolve consistent with their aesthetic maturation is a rewarding and challenging experience. The Shelley of Queen Mab, and the Shelley of Ozymandias, separated by a mere five years, would perhaps not have very much to say to one another. This is true of both the political animal, the line-crafter, and the storyteller. Such is the only narrative of a writing “career”, as I have so far felt it: The wildly productive foolishness of “there are no rules”, beaten into new shapes by the rules that are stubbornly, and primordially, there.
You can buy Young Romantics from its North American publisher, here.