By Lesley McDowell
“I have just got your amusing letter (no one writes such good letters as you do)…I have not the art of letter writing – You have it to an eminent degree.”
Mary Shelley was not attempting to ingratiate herself with her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, when she wrote these words to her towards the end of 1845. She was merely speaking the truth: Claire was a superb letter-writer. She was amusing, yes, but she was also frank, passionate and gossipy. Her letters are full of detail, but like any true writer, only of the necessary kind. Later in life she was tormented by a contradiction: the need to preserve and protect her identity, and the desire not to be “lost in oblivion.” Her letters and journals betray the former; but they also defy the latter.
Claire Clairmont was the archetypal Romantic woman, far more than her more famous step-sister, Mary Shelley. She was born, probably illegitimately, to a Mary Jane Deveraux, who happened to move to London close to the residence of one William Godwin, who was at that moment mourning the sudden death of his new wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, in childbirth. Godwin was also taking care of Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate daughter by a previous lover, Gilbert Imlay. A single father to two girls, he welcomed Mary Jane Deveraux eagerly and they set up house together. Mary Jane brought her daughter, Claire (then known as Jane), and her son Charles, to the relationship, and soon she and Godwin had a son together, William. In their household, no two children had the same
It was a radical, freethinking household, then, and Claire clung to those early principles for a good deal of her life. But she is mostly remembered now for the scandalous event she later tried to hide from biographers: her youthful affair with Lord Byron, and her daughter, Allegra, the result of that union. Full of girlish enthusiasm and excitement for the poet who was probably the most notable ‘celebrity’ of that age, her letters to him begin humbly, with a promise of frankness (“I have withheld nothing”), as she chases after him with such force that he calls her “a little fiend.” She was eighteen at the time, and probably hoping to emulate Mary’s passionate relationship with Shelley.
Claire plays the Romantic heroine to the hilt during this affair; one can easily imagine how a writer like Jane Austen would have ridiculed and used the situation in a novel. Because shortly before Byron left for the Continent, Claire slept with him for what was probably the first and only time; her letters thereafter are messages of unrequited love, sighing and pining, showing how little she really understood the man. Disillusionment was guaranteed.
For after her baby was born, she talked herself into handing her over to him, at only eighteen months old. In a letter dated January 12th, 1818, she did voice suspicions about Byron’s capability as a father for Allegra: “Suppose that in yielding her to your care I yield her to neglect and coldness? How am I assured that such will not be the case?” but she still did not understand that he despised intellectual women, and feminist women most of all, ending that letter, “I cannot bear that women should be outdone in virtue and knowledge by men.”
Subsequent biographers of Byron have mostly blamed Claire for the tragic outcome of Allegra’s handing-over; several have criticised her for her high-handed manner in dealing with a man so socially superior to her. Her attitude in her letters is direct as always and often insistent, concerned as she was for her absent child. But Claire also exemplified something else about the Romantic woman: she was a middle-class girl who had been properly educated. She wasn’t an aristocrat and she wasn’t a servant. She was a different being, a new kind of woman, and Byron hadn’t a clue how to handle her. He preferred to ignore her letters, or bait her, if she really annoyed him. It just made everything worse.
Claire’s pleas during this time are nothing short of heart-breaking and make for distressing reading. When the little girl finally died at the age of five on April 19th, 1822, in a convent where her father had placed her, Claire’s sorrow and anger go unrecorded either in her journals or letters, as though no words could express adequately how she felt. Less than three months later, in another tragedy, Shelley would be drowned and her whole world would change, her protector gone.
What is remarkable about her though, is how she picked herself up: by September 1824, she was in Moscow, preferring her “ice cave and bears” to a return to England. What followed were years of hardship and difficulty as she was employed in various Russian households as a governess. But her letters to Mary, back in England, or to Jane Williams, give a fascinating glimpse both into life in Russian households of the early nineteenth century, as well as into the role of the governess. “I feel at every moment like a person who has lost his way…I never know whether the most innocent of my actions, the most common will not produce a dispute a scene…In Russia this leads to nothing – they attack you, you defend yourself; a thousand names are called on each side; the quarrel ends – the Russians think no more about it and are ready to quarrel with you again for fretting over such trifles, because with them it is as habitual as the bread they eat….”
By 1841, though, her fortunes had changed and she was living in Paris, an independent woman, complaining about the lack of a social life (which soon became very busy). Claire’s journals show her mood swings more clearly than her letters, which also veer between melancholy and happiness – habitually she suffered depressive feelings a few days before her period, which she marked in her journal with an ‘X’. The journals also show when bad memories struck her, laying her low. In Moscow at the beginning of 1827, for example, she “weeps for Shelley and that impostor B.”
She never forgave Byron the loss of her daughter. After he died in 1824, biographies were produced by anyone who had even the slightest connection with him, and Claire, now clinging to a fragile respectability, was regularly terrified that the public would discover her connection with him. As the editor of her letters, Marion Kingston Stocking points out, “she lived in dread of appearing as a ‘Voluptuous Amour’ or a ‘Celebrated Character'”. She was an anomaly by the time the High Victorian period came along: an independent woman but not a rich one; unmarried, but the mother of a child. The values she had imbibed as a young girl in the Godwin household were not relevant or admired by the new age and by 1849, it seemed that she, too, had succumbed to a more conservative view of life. When her niece, Clara, married Alexander Knox after a scandalously speedy courtship of only a few days, she was appalled, and let the unfortunate couple know it.
In her old age, she became the imperious grand-dame of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, guarding her secrets and her past from would-be intruders. Except from Edward John Trelawny, her old friend from her days with the Shelleys and Byron, to whom she disclosed everything she could remember. He urged her to write her own life; she refused. Her recollections were unreliable by now though; she mistook dates, events, people. But her judgement was still astute; of Shelley, she wrote, “He was a wonderful Poet – perhaps in his transcendentalism, greater than any Poet that has ever lived – but when he laid aside his pen and ceased imagining and creating, he became purely and simply a man, generous, tender-hearted etc etc – but full of weaknesses that were not in keeping with his great intellect.”
Claire’s life ended with her hope that “my memory may not be lost in oblivion as my life has been.” Excised, often at her own request, either directly or through Mary, from biographical accounts of the lives of the Shelleys or Byron, she watched her own experiences disappear from view. But we should not forget them. For she was the ideal Romantic woman, as conjured up by Mary Wollstonecraft herself in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: “The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator, we must mix in the throng, and feel as men feel before we can judge of their feelings. If we mean, in short, to live in the world to grow wiser and better, and not merely to enjoy the good things in life, we must attain a knowledge of ourselves at the same time that we become acquainted with others…”
Rarely did any other Romantic figure “mix in the throng” and attain knowledge of herself through others, to the extent that Claire Clairmont did. For that, and for the marvellously revealing and candid letters and journals that she left behind, we should remember her.
Lesley McDowell is the author of two novels, The Picnic (2007) and Unfashioned Creatures (2013), as well as a work of non-fiction, Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers (2010). She reviews regularly for The Herald, The Scotsman and The Independent on Sunday, and has a PhD on the work of James Joyce. Her Twitter ID is @LesleyMcDowell1.
By Lesley McDowell