Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets
1st Edition: November 2005
Passion was recommended by Priya Parmar of The Plum BeanProject; Priya's historical novel Exit the Actress will be published in February, so I thought she might know something about historical novels. I must admit to a weakness for fiction that features characters based on real writers and artists--I just love immersing myself in the worlds of writers and artists of the past. I have read most of the available biographies of favorite writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Charlotte Bronte. Therefore, I suppose I was predisposed to fall in love with this book, which I did. That said, I encourage readers to fall in love with Passion, and then go on to fall in love with the poems of Shelley, Keats, and Byron, and then fall in love with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a work of genius in itself.
What I think is most remarkable about Passion is the way that Jude Morgan interweaves the stories of Romantic poets Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats, and the women whose lives became inextricably connected to the lives of the poets. The novel begins with the attempted suicide of a pregnant Mary Wollstonecraft, and this suicide attempt reverberates throughout the novel, as does the death by drowning of several other characters. Morgan (a pseudonym for Tim Wilson) shifts back and forth between the lives of his female characters, based on novelist Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft; Augusta Byron, half-sister of poet Lord Byron; Lady Caroline Lamb, a married woman who had a notorious affair with Byron; and Fanny Brawne, who loved and was secretly engaged to John Keats. The research for this novel must have been a labor of love, and Morgan has incorporated it seamlessly. This is one of the delights of good historical fiction: the reader absorbs a daunting amount of historical information in the palatable and entertaining form of a fictional narrative.
Morgan successfully creates distinct, believable characters based on real historical figures. That he does this so well is a testament to his skills as both researcher and writer. At several points as I read this novel it struck me that it would be immeasurably simpler to invent wholly fictional characters and situations than to imagine and invent a novel such as this, based on real persons and events. This speaks to the passion that must have driven Morgan on, and this novel is filled with sympathy and compassion for the characters, regardless of their sometimes dreadful behavior.
And their behavior is sometimes dreadful; Byron, after all, was gluttonous and polymorphously perverse in his love affairs. His affairs with men, married women, and most scandalously, his half-sister Augusta could make him appear monstrously unsympathetic. Mary Shelley, as a teenager, ran off with the married poet Percy Shelley, whose wife committed suicide by drowning. And Shelley himself does come across as a brilliant cad. The sweetest love affair is that between Fanny Brawne and John Keats, and the reader waits until nearly the end of the book for that sweetness. In between is much passion and pain, and men and women behaving badly--but also very well. Morgan succeeds in giving each character a distinctive voice and point of view, which adds to the effect of verisimilitude. Morgan has publicly stated that this is his favorite novel; he has written several, including two novels about the Bronte family. Charlotte and Emily and The Taste of Sorrow are also on my giant "To Be Read" pile for the summer, and I look forward to immersing myself in Bronte world very soon.
If Passion has a shortcoming, I would say it is in the novel's focus on the romantic rather than the artistic worlds of the characters, particularly the women. Morgan does give the reader a peek at the germination of Mary Shelley's great novel Frankenstein, but the relationship between the personal life of Mary Shelley, with her losses and griefs, her maternity and maternal loss, and the genesis of the work of genius that is Frankenstein could perhaps have been more fully explored. And Caroline Lamb's work as a novelist is mentioned only briefly,and in the context of her romantic revenge on Byron for discarding her. These are minor shortcomings in a major achievement though, and I would highly recommend Passion to anyone who enjoys historical novels, or those interested in the romantic lives of the Romantic poets.
For those who find their interest piqued by Passion, here are a couple of interesting links:
Two rare interviews with Jude Morgan, one at HistoricalNovels.info and one at dovegreyreader scribbles
The letters of John Keats at englishhistory.net
Photographs of the home of John Keats
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