Searching for Claire Clairmont by Marty Ambrose

Claire

Claire Clairmont.  Stepsister of Mary Shelley. Mistress of Lord Byron. Shadow figure in the Byron/Shelley circle.  I had always been mildly interested in her from a scholarly perspective but, also, somewhat influenced by Byron’s offhand comment in a letter about Claire as “that odd-headed girl”; and Mary Shelley’s thinly-disguised annoyance with her stepsister’s constant presence in her life with Shelley (often tinged with jealousy).  However, as a fiction writer, I came to be fascinated by her as the “almost famous” member of the quartet.  Ironically, Claire outlived all of them by many decades and had her much-later “revenge from the grave” when a fragment of her lost memoir was found by historian, Daisy Hay, in a New York public library in 2010.  Hay included it in her book, The Young Romantics, which is where I first read it, causing one of those epiphanies that changed the course of my life and my fiction-writing career. 

I knew Claire had been part of the famous literary “haunted summer” in Geneva during 1816 which produced, most notably, Byron’s “Prometheus” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  And even though Claire wrote a novel, The Idiot (lost over time), and penned superbly-crafted letters, she never achieved the brilliance or celebrity of the rest of the Byron/Shelley circle.  Mostly, she became known forbearing Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra, and being the “third-wheel” in the various Shelley family households in Italy.  And yet, after reading her memoir fragment, I wondered what it felt like to outlive the famous literati from her youth, sliding into the obscurity of old age without ever having told her own story.  Her portrait, with its slightly exotic look and half-hidden smile, seemed to suggest long-hidden secrets.  I decided then and there to write a historical novel about her.

Villa Diodati in Geneva where the “haunted
summer” of 1816 occurred

But I had to learn:  Who was she, really?

It turns out, quite a complicated and amazing woman in her own right—a proto-feminist who lived life on her own terms, as a writer, a governess, and a survivor.

She was born in 1798 as an illegitimate daughter of her mother, Mary Jane Vial and a man whom she called Charles Clairmont.  However, Claire’s true paternity was not known until 2010 when it was discovered her father was John Lethbridge, Baronet of Sandhill Park in Somerset; Claire never knew her true father’s identity.  Later, Claire’s mother married widower, William Godwin, a union that would bring Claire a stepsister, Mary Godwin, the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. 

From reading Claire’s letters and journals, I found the influence of the Godwin household provided opportunities for Claire to acquire an extraordinary education for a young woman of her era:  she spoke five languages (useful on her travels with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was often the only one who could communicate with locals), was widely read in literature and philosophy, and developed an exquisite singing voice.  Claire was surrounded by authors and poets her entire life, and her contribution was evidenced in her witty correspondence.  Even Mary Shelley appreciated her stepsister’s fascinating missives, when she wrote to her, “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.”

Not surprisingly, Claire is most known for her love affair with famous Romantic poet, Lord Byron but, true to her feminist nature, she was the aggressor in the relationship.  In the spring of 1816, she wrote him appealing letters, arranged for visits, then proposed a liaison, which he agreed to somewhat reluctantly since he was still smarting from the scandalous breakup of his marriage.  When Byron left England forever not long afterwards, Claire persuaded Mary and Percy to travel to Geneva to join him, thus initiating the events that would bring the famous quartet together for the “haunted summer.”  Many scholars have written about this literary confluence of events and personalities that came together during that summer with reverence and admiration. 

Lord Byron

But Claire provided another perspective.

Interestingly, her memoir fragment in the Hay biography gave me a new and somewhat negative perspective on the summer of 1816 as “Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love, I saw the two first poets of England [Byron and Shelley] . . . become monsters.”  Even worse, she adds their time there was a “perfect hell.”  It was a vehement contradiction of everything I had read about that magical interlude—primarily from the other members of the quartet.  Her alternate view seemed intriguing, to say the least, through her words and her perspective.  As Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelley began passing into legend during the nineteenth-century, the collections of their works, letter, and journals expanded; however, very little attention was paid to Claire’s literary productions.  Her story led me to a level of awareness about unheard voices:  they are sometimes the most powerful ones. 

Claire spent much of her later life as a governess, first in Vienna and, then, for five years in Russia.  They were years of financial hardship, but her letters to Mary, back in England, give an intriguing portrait of life in Russian households of the early nineteenth century, as well as the role of the governess.  As she says in one note, “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 scent . . . 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, she was living in Paris, as an independent woman, thanks to an annuity Percy Shelley left her, traveling back and forth frequently to England.  Eventually, by 1870, she settled in Florence with her niece, Paula, converted to Catholicism, and continued her correspondence with several old friends, including Edward Trelawny—one of the other last members of the Byron/Shelley circle.  Claire’s letters and journals show she sometimes experienced mood swings when she felt melancholy about the past but, mostly, she suggests a buoyant, adventurous attitude toward life. 

Certainly, Claire had a unique voice that most evident was in her letters, giving a portrait of the young, reckless woman who initiated an affair with Byron—the great love and torment of her life; the restless traveler/governess, eager for novel experiences; and, the older-but-wiser expatriate, living on her bittersweet memories in Italy.  And she was deeply conflicted about her daughter, Allegra, whose death she never quite accepted.  

After I wrote my trilogy about Claire, I found it difficult to let go of her, but all journeys come to an end, something she was only too aware of when wrote of her fear during her final days that her life would be “lost in oblivion.” 

I don’t think it will.

Sources:

“Claire Clairmont:  The Forgotten Sister.”  https://www.perrywolfcastle.com.

Gittings, Robert and Jo Manton.  Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys: 1798-1879.  London:  Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hay, Daisy.  The Young Romantics.  New York:  Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010.

McDowell, Lesley.  “Claire Clairmont:  On her Letters and Journals.”  Wordsworth Grasmere.  https://www.wordsworth.org.uk.

Marty Ambrose is the author of a historical mystery trilogy: Claire’s Last SecretA Shadowed Fate, and Forever Past, all set around the Byron/Shelley circle in nineteenth-century ItalyHer novels have been published by Severn House (U.K. and U.S.) and Thomas Schluck (Germany), earning starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, as well as a gold medal for historical fiction in the Florida Writers Association’s Literary Palm Award. Her work has been featured internationally in blogs, journals, and websites.

Marty teaches English at Florida Southwestern State College and has been a faculty member in the SNHU Creative Writing MFA program; she was a NISOD winner for faculty excellence, grant award recipient, and Master Teacher. She completed her M.Phil at the University of York (England) and teaches nineteenth-century British literature, composition, and fiction writing.

She is a member of The Byron Society, Historical Novel Society, Florida Writers Association, and Women’s Fiction Writers Association. 

Dear Readers,

If you have gotten this far, you have realized that Marty lives on Florida’s southwest coast which suffered near complete devastation from Hurricane Ian. Marty evacuated and is physically unharmed, but her home is a total loss. If you are so inclined, please keep her in your prayers. Thank you.

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