The difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, Stephen King says, is that genre fiction is about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Literary fiction, however, is about extraordinary people in ordinary situations. This is a definition I like because it is both how I read and how I write. But what happens when extraordinary people live through extraordinary times? One result is Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets by Jude Morgan.
Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Jude Morgan introduces us to the Romantic poets, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats as seen through the eyes of the women who loved them, and weaves a seductive, intriguing narrative that incorporates fact with rumor and imagination all set in a frame of the times in which they lived and the society they took such great joy in defying.
The story opens with the life of the early feminist Mary Woolstoncraft who was the mother of Mary Godwin, the second wife of Shelley and the author of “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus”. Morgan takes his time developing the society and the historical context in which Mary Godwin, and her young step-sister Jane (she later changed her name to Claire Clairmont), who became one of Byron's lovers, were born and lived. We are also introduced to Augusta Leigh, Lord Byron's older half-sister, Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's most notorious mistress, and Fanny Brawne, who would fall in love with Keats in the last years of his brief life.
The story is told through multiple, shifting perspectives and, I'll confess, it becomes a little difficult to know whose eyes we are seeing through at times but once I adjusted to this device, it was easy enough to be aware of it and adjust along with the narrative. Great detail is paid not only to the politics of the era but also the social customs and the philosophical ideals of the various characters. There are times when this becomes a bit much but far more times when it is absolutely fascinating. Gradually, Morgan builds a complex tapestry of connections and inter-connections that, much to my amazement, makes sense of the clash of temperaments and emotional entanglements in which this wildly disparate group of people lived.
Lord Byron was, unsurprisingly, the most colorful character – in the story as he was, doubtless, in life. His affairs with women like Caroline Lamb and Claire Clairmont caused him no end of aggravation and his brief marriage to Annabella were tempestuous but, in Morgan's story anyway, the one great love of his life is his half-sister Augusta, the married mother of seven children, who never found anything but love and compassion for her notorious brother.
From the minute Mary Godwin meets the dreamy, idealistic, liberal Shelley she loves everything about him. His generosity of spirit and commitment to absolute freedom both attracts and frustrates her especially when her step-sister turns to him when her affair with Byron comes to crashing end. Through their life together in England and then in Italy, Mary adores Shelley and tries to emulate his ideals but, especially after the deaths of two of their children and a miscarriage, she blames herself for not being evolved enough for his idealism.
John Keats, whose very brief life does not leave a lot of room for story, appears late in the over 500 pages of the book but his love for Fanny Brawne, and hers fo him, is sweet, poignant and tragic.
Though all the particulars of the lives of these people can be easily obtained just by going to Wikipedia, Jude Morgan has brought them all vibrantly to life filled with emotions, thoughts and struggles to which contemporary readers can easily relate. This is an extraordinary book – a bit long in places and occasionally hard to follow – but well worth the effort.
Thanks for reading.