The romantic poets as soap opera stars

Byron, Keats, Shelley, and their loves come alive in this well-crafted novel.

The Romantic poets - Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley - bear more than a passing resemblance to modern celebrities (and not just due to some scandalous behavior): Every aspect of their lives has been so picked over that writing about them can seem as stale as a month-old Enquirer.

British writer Jude Morgan overcomes this difficulty handily in his absorbing new book, Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets.

Instead of the head-on approach, Morgan instead explores the lives of four of the women who loved the poets (Byron, of course, gets more than his fair share): the high-strung Lady Caroline Lamb, who has an affair with Byron; sparkling Fanny Brawne, who was engaged to Keats before his untimely death; generous, sunny Augusta Leigh, half-sister and lover of Byron; and Mary Shelley, Percy's teen bride and author of "Frankenstein."

Morgan opens with the attempted suicide of Mary Wollstonecraft, protofeminist and author. And Wollstonecraft, with her radical idealism and defiance of society, serves as matriarch to all, not just her famous daughter. After Wollstonecraft dies as a result of childbirth, the novel catalogs the childhood of the four women.

Some readers may find the early pages slow (Bring on Bryon!), but the wealth of detail and Morgan's amazing ability to re-create what these women might have thought and felt are worth savoring. The novel is meticulously researched, but scholarship never outweighs storytelling.

Morgan uses a variety of narrative techniques to fit the mood of the tale, from first-person accounts where the character speaks directly to the reader to sections that read like scenes from a play. With Byron's wife, Annabella Milbanke (of whose sanctimony the poet quips, "She would make Cromwell look like a backsliding voluptuary"), he borrows Jane Austen's acerbic quill: "In all there was about her a quality of quiet self- containment that could not fail to elicit admiration, even where it did not inspire affection." (There is an even more obvious homage to Austen later, when Annabella notes, "[S]he must admit it as a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man not in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.")

After the poets make their grand entrance, the novel encompasses enough love affairs and tragedy for a dozen bodice-rippers, without ever losing its clear-eyed intelligence. Mary's story is particularly heartbreaking.

The men might have the fame, but they never quite come to life in the same way as the women, particularly Augusta and Mary. Shelley, despite his espousal of free love, somehow seems a prig. Byron and Keats get plenty of clever witticisms (a running gag has both men making fun of Wordsworth) but sometimes their genius feels stated rather than observed.

But these are minor quibbles. For lovers of literature, "Passion" more than lives up to its title.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Later, after Hunt had gone, [Fanny] ... found [Keats] going over his manuscripts with a distant, puzzled expression, as if they were someone else's. "It's all unfinished," he said, without glancing up.

"I remember you once saying to me," she said, sitting down by him, "that if the day came when you looked over your work and found it perfect, you would know you were no poet."

"Did I say that?"

"Perhaps not, but it is a very good thing to say."

- Excerpt from "Passion"

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