Passion by Jude Morgan
Passion went on my reading list entirely due to Ana’s luminous review in September—an exploration of the female Romantics in a way that recognizes their agency and their unfair situations sounded amazing. But I had a bit of difficulty trying to get my hands on a copy while at school—the library in town didn’t have it and neither did my school library (which sometimes saves the day, but not here.) But my library at home had it, so I picked it up at the end of my winter holidays.
Passion’s American edition is subtitled as “a novel of the Romantic poets”, which is true, but the focus here is on four women involved with the Romantic poets—Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, a “gilded urchin” (48) whose short, torrid affair with Lord Byron affects her life, Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister and, scandalously, lover, and Fanny Brawne, Keats’s fiancé. The book begins with the childhoods of these women and ends with the death of Lord Byron, inspecting and exploring their sides of a story often romanticized, often vilified, and often dominated by the male poets.
Morgan’s writing is very stylized and beautiful; after I finished the book, in fact, my library copy was rife with Post-It notes simply for some of the beautiful language he uses. (This, of course, also leads to dozens of terms I had to look up, which ought to be useful if I ever write anything set in Regency England.) Its stylized nature allows for some of the leaps Morgan takes; Lady Melbourne, the formidable mother-in-law of the wild Caroline, often appears in scenes rendered as play scripts. And, while the majority of the novel is written in third-person limited perspective, Caroline and Fanny often appear in passages written in first person, addressed to an unknown person who may or may not be the reader. (It’s hinted that Caroline’s unknown visitor has known her her whole life; I thought, for a moment, we might discover it was one of the other women, but alas!) While I like this kind of writing when it’s done well (and Morgan does it well), it does make the novel feel a bit long—yes, the subject matter is so fascinating you want to race ahead, but the language is so lovingly complex you want to stop and pick it apart. That contradictory feeling makes the novel’s pace feel a little tedious.
Each of the women are distinct and lovingly rendered as real human beings; Morgan does well to start in their childhoods, allowing us to sympathize and understand these women as they change throughout their lives. Mary is a reserved woman whose face doesn’t betray her wild imagination. As Shelley and Mary’s marriage falls apart, she often takes to wondering what her life would be like had she been conventional and not run off with a married atheist who seems to support open marriages; though it occasionally looks tempting, she concludes she would be bored out of her skull. Caroline is a passionate woman who wants so very badly; as the novel puts it, “to want is to live” (323), a conclusion she arrives at after visiting the wreckage of Waterloo. Fanny is pert, witty, and removed from the other women—while the others manuever in the same social circles, Fanny only really comes into prominence towards the end of the novel. But my favorite character was Augusta, an extraordinarily calm and peaceful woman with a knack for living with contradictions and paradoxes—such as, for instance, sleeping with your brother. I don’t know why I like characters with little to no imagination (Augusta is explicitly stated to have difficulty imagining things), but there’s just something so wonderfully serene to them that I love.
Obviously, the historical context plays a great role in Passion; there’s a fantastic passage where a young Mary, returning home from abroad, is contrasted with the first fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. The novel actually starts off with an incredible and sizable prologue from the perspective of Mary Wollstonecraft, focusing on her attempted suicide and the birth of Mary. Wollstonecraft, perhaps, is the only woman to enjoy an equal (for the time period, of course) relationship with a man in this novel, and it’s a little heartbreaking to watch the hopeful, sweet William Godwin turn into the patronizing, strict, and greedy father of Mary, who watches this transformation with equal heartbreak. Wollstonecraft’s example is one Mary explicitly has difficulty living up to (someone cattily tells her Shelley is only interested in her as Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s daughter), as well as the other women; and perhaps because it’s an example passed down to Mary through her father, these women can’t live up to the false women in the heads of their men. (Shelley often finds a woman to idealize that is not his wife, and there’s an odd sense of conflating reality with fiction when Augusta names the child she has by her brother Medora, after one of his heroines.) In both a historical and feminist context, Passion is amazingly rich.
Bottom line: Passion is a beautifully written and stylized work on an interesting topic relatively unexplored with this sort of clear-eyed agency—the lives of the women of the Romantic poets. Morgan renders the four different women he focuses on as distinctive and lovingly rendered human beings, seeking their own agency in a world where social convention states that women have no agency and in a movement whose gender politics can be hypocritical. A worthy read.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Morgan, Jude. Passion. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 2005. Print.