Book review: Clairmont, by Lesley McDowell

Historically depicted as a scandalous figure for her affair with Byron, Claire Clairmont emerges as a brave and sympathetic heroine in Lesley McDowell’s novel of her life, writes Allan Massie

Claire Clairmont is best known as the stepsister of Mary Godwin Shelley and briefly the lover of Lord Byron. At the age of 18 she pursued Byron to Switzerland after he had exiled himself after the scandalous collapse of his marriage. She was determined to have “an affair with Genius”, and Byron, always weak with women, gave way, telling his half-sister Augusta that he could not turn down a woman who had crossed half of Europe in pursuit of him.

The affair was brief. Claire became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Allegra. Byron first refused to accept that he was the father, gave way at Shelley’s insistence, and took control of the infant, placed her in a convent, refused access to Claire. The child died of fever, aged three.

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Today his behaviour seems monstrous as so much of the past does, but he had some reason on his side, especially his conviction that the Shelley coterie were unsuited to the rearing of children. This was not unreasonable. Moreover he had some reason to dislike and distrust Claire.

Lesley McDowell, in this long and engrossing novel, is understandably on Claire’s side. For her she is a feminist heroine, an intelligent and strong-willed woman who went her own way throughout her long and chequered life. She lived to be 80 and the affair with Byron is only a small part of her story. McDowell sees her as a heroic figure, not without reason. She certainly had courage.

She spent most of her life on the Continent – a governess in St Petersburg, a music teacher in Vienna, an ornament of a Paris salon. She has lovers, but none of her affairs lasted. Perhaps she was too determined, too much of an egoist. Many soon found her a tiresome woman, but you can’t help admiring her.

She had a tenderness for small children – Byron was surely wrong in thinking she would be an unsuitable mother – but like so many egoists she found relationships difficult.

The most interesting of these as presented by McDowell was with her stepsister Mary, Shelley’s widow, best remembered now as the author of Frankenstein.

Clara Mary Jane Clairmont (1798 - 1879), known as Claire Clairmont, circa 1820. Painting by Emery Walker PIC: Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesClara Mary Jane Clairmont (1798 - 1879), known as Claire Clairmont, circa 1820. Painting by Emery Walker PIC: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Clara Mary Jane Clairmont (1798 - 1879), known as Claire Clairmont, circa 1820. Painting by Emery Walker PIC: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Returning to England after Shelley’s death, Mary was determined in her widowhood to be respectable, rearing her son Percy (who would inherit his grandfather’s baronetcy as a model English gentleman). Claire, strong-willed and often reckless, was never respectable. Moreover Mary distrusted Claire and was jealous of her affair with Shelley who left her a substantial sum, though it was years before she got hold of it.

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Claire, at least as presented by McDowell, comes out better from the edgy relationship than Mary. If Byron came to think of Claire as “a bitch” – a harsh but understandable judgement – Mary seems that too. Some of her behaviour to Claire was nasty. Claire indeed comes to believe that Mary is her enemy, jealous of what Shelley felt for her and “always wrong”.

McDowell has written a sympathetic, enjoyable and compelling novel. Initial dislike of her use of the present tense, rarely satisfactory as a narrative device, is soon forgotten as it is well enough done to have overcome my dislike of it. This is partly because the story moves forward and back in time in a series of scenes, rather than in a continuous narrative.

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Her sympathy for her heroine, surely a very tiresome woman in real life, is persuasive. Her Claire is as brave, and therefore in this respect admirable as she was surely irritating in real life.

She is repeatedly let down by others, not only men, and it is unlikely that she ever had enough self-knowledge to understand why she was so unfortunate, why she was always condemned to disappointment. But she had courage and this commands the reader’s respect.

McDowell also offers a rich picture of 19th-century Romanticism and her respect and admiration for her heroine is admirable. Claire’s life was disordered and often unhappy, the kind of life understandably usually judged a failure, and, though the failures were usually on account of her own difficult temper and egocentricity, she at last meets with kindness and admiration in this fine novel.