Focusing on the women in the lives of the romantic poets--Byron, Shelley, and Keats--rather than on the poets themselves, Jude Morgan recreates the years from 1812 - 1824, during which time Mary Godwin, Augusta Leigh, Caroline Lamb, Claire Clairmont, and Fanny Brawne fall in love, encourage the poets in some of their finest work, and ultimately, learn to cope with the poets' premature deaths. Mary Godwin, daughter of journalist/philosopher William Godwin and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, is the linchpin of this biographical novel. Falling in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley at age sixteen, Mary defies convention by running away to the continent with Shelley when his wife refuses to grant him a divorce.
In contrast to Shelley, Lord Byron has many lovers. Augusta Leigh, his half-sister and the wife of George Leigh, is terrified that her feelings for Byron will become public. Caroline Lamb, married to William Lamb, conducts a long affair with him, pursuing him even after he marries her cousin, Annabella Milbanke (mother of his daughter Ada). Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Godwin Shelley, becomes his lover in Italy and the mother of another daughter, Allegra.
The story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats does not unfold until almost the end of the novel. As Keats seems not to have much direct connection with Byron and Shelley here, and as Fanny is far more conventional in personality than any of the other women, the addition of this story line feels somewhat disconnected and is not integrated into most of the action.
Author Jude Morgan recreates conversations and fleshes out the daily lives of these characters, creating scenes that are often dramatic and sometimes moving. His careful attention to detail and immense research create a full picture of the attitudes of the times, and the context in which these women lived. With five female characters, however, he sometimes changes focus unexpectedly, and the reader must pay careful attention to detail to figure out who is who in the changing scenes. Occasionally even the point of view changes unexpectedly--from the third person to first person.
For those interested in the romantic poets, Morgan's novel offers many new insights and fascinating glimpses of early nineteenth century life, as romanticism emerges from the neoclassicism of the past. He assumes, however, that the reader will bring some knowledge of the poets and their works to the novel, spending little time discussing the works themselves, and concentrating on relationships instead. Mary Shelley, Augusta Leigh, Caroline Lamb, and Claire Clairmont, all early feminists, flout convention and sacrifice all for love, often behaving more romantically than the poets. Carefully researched, Passion offers fascinating information within an uneven narrative structure. n Mary Whipple