Passion Jude Morgan
Quality - Used
Condition - Fair
The lives of the Romantic poets are so myth-strewn they have long lost touch with reality. In focusing on the women who tangled with Keats, Shelley and Byron, Jude Morgan has found a relatively lightly trodden path to the hearts and minds of these monstrous prodigies. His novel begins, appropriately, with the attempted suicide of the symbolic mother of them all, Mary Wollstonecraft, who is later to die after giving birth to Mary Shelley.
So far so dramatic, with France in revolutionary turmoil to add to the fun, but patience is stretched to its limits as the childhoods of Shelley, Fanny Brawne, Augusta Leigh and Caroline Lamb are chronicled, against a fragmented whistle-stop tour of the period's history. To get to the heart of a tale indecently blessed with melodrama, the reader has to trust that delectable excitements lie beyond this quiet prelude.
They do, and our heroines' love-lives are soon blossoming. Augusta meets her half-brother, Lord Byron, then throws in her lot with the ineffectual George Leigh. The unhinged Caroline marries William Lamb, then clocks Byron, who has "travelled to places where fabulous indolent sultans and viziers loll in their harems, and bandits descend from authentic sierras".
Byron and Caroline's passionate affair ends, whereupon the poor Lady Lamb takes to stalking the man who is now happily consorting with his half-sister. Mary shocks her father, the radical William Godwin, by eloping with the married Shelley and setting up a peripatetic ménage with her stepsister ("Shelley believed that love, like wealth, should be shared"). The trio decamps to Switzerland, with Byron and his physician Dr Polidori, and ghost stories and world-famous literature duly ensue. Keats enters the picture, and the tragedies escalate.
Once Passion gathers pace, it becomes unputdownable. Stunningly well researched, its multi-stranded epic qualities can't fail to hook and seduce. Morgan's greatest strength lies in his effortless ability to empathise with his female protagonists. In fact, his women far outpace his male characters, the inevitable problem of giving voice to some of the greatest writers in the English language resulting in dialogue that can but wanly echo the lyricism that expressed itself even in casual epistolary form.
Biographical veracity is arguably necessary, but in a novel such as Passion, which treads a fine line between light historical romance and a more serious intellectual investigation, liberties are there for the taking.