Claire Clairmont was the stepsister of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and she played a larger role in the society of Romantic writers than she’s often given credit for; but that’s not what she’s pissed off about.
If she had lived in the twenty-first century, Claire would have been that girl in high school — you know the one — who wanted so desperately to fit in that she’d follow anyone anywhere. That girl who clutched at the same guy (either the quarterback or the renegade hipster, choose your own cliché) for so long that he eventually noticed her, slept with her, and didn’t give her another thought until she turned up pregnant. That girl whom you felt kind of sorry for, even though there was always something a bit calculated behind her giggle.
But Claire would have also been that woman at the ten-year class reunion whom you don’t recognize because she’s more interested now in career than in trendy clothing, spending her time observing and reflecting rather than fawning and following. This new Claire Clairmont is kind and likable; she probably even complimented your unnaturally white teeth (because as the commercials tell us, if you’re going to a reunion you had better panic about the shade of your tooth enamel).
But alas — our new and wise friend Claire did not live in the twenty-first century but in nineteenth-century England (similar to now, but with far less attention to one’s teeth). That might be one thing that Clairmont is pissed off about, but there are more.
Clairmont’s mother married Mary Shelley’s father when each of their daughters was about four years old. Mary Shelley disliked her stepmother, and the feeling was mutual. (When your mother dies as a result of your birth and happens to be the incomparable Mary Wollstonecraft, she leaves some hard-to-fill shoes behind.) Claire admired her stepfather (William Godwin, himself an important writer and thinker of the time) and grew to worship Mary Shelley’s deceased biological mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, as did the entire family (except the new wife, and can you blame her?), including Mary Shelley’s eventual husband, the poet Percy Shelley.
Are you sketching this family tree on a napkin or something? It’s hard to keep track, I know.
When Mary Shelley (then Godwin) was sixteen years old, she ran off with 21-year-old Percy Shelley, who was wealthy but not yet famous, and was, inconveniently, already married. Claire went along, of course, because who wouldn’t want to be a third wheel in their stepsister’s forbidden relationship? Mary, Percy, and Claire lived together for the most part until Percy’s death, only about nine years later. (Picture a sort of hippie commune, but with starched clothing and better manners.)
Finally, we come to the part that gets Claire Clairmont pretty pissed off.
In their travels around Europe, Mary, Percy, and Claire spent considerable time with Lord Byron, then a well-known poet about ten years older than Claire. One of Byron’s many former lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, famously described him as “mad — bad — and dangerous to know,” which of course made him irresistible to every woman (and many men) who came anywhere near him.
This is where Claire becomes that high school girl I described, basically throwing herself at Byron until he sleeps with her and quickly forgets her. But Claire is pregnant, and Byron wants nothing to do with her. Claire persists in writing to Byron, begging him to take her back, even saying she would accept his other lovers (one of whom might have been his own half-sister). The common story at this point is that Claire begged Byron to take their daughter because he could better provide for her than Claire could, and that Byron finally agreed on the condition that Claire stop pummeling him with pleading letters. I wonder if this isn’t only part of the story, and if Byron took the baby more willingly than has been reported, intending it as punishment for Claire.
Poor Claire. She found footing in her life when Allegra was born; finally, Claire had a purpose, and something of her very own. She doted on her baby girl and suffered bitterly when, at about eighteen months old, Allegra was taken from her and sent back to Lord Byron. Claire’s only solace was that she was able to send the baby’s nurse along, so Allegra had someone familiar with her and would presumably be better cared for than she would if it were left entirely to Byron.
Byron had no particular interest in Allegra, sending her away to school at the first opportunity. Claire was rarely granted an opportunity to see her daughter, and in fact hadn’t seen her for two years when Allegra died at only five years old. Claire never forgave Byron, who continued to ignore her. It wasn’t until 1869, forty-seven years after her only child died, that Claire even learned where the little girl had been buried.
Never has a woman had better reason to be pretty pissed off. As you might imagine, the removal and eventual death of her daughter changed Claire profoundly. She had found her calling as a mother, and when Allegra was taken from her, turned her attention to anyone near her who needed some sort of mothering. Claire spent much of the rest of her life as a governess, and children she worked with said they felt safe, loved, and well-educated in Claire’s care.
I don’t know if there’s a tidy moral here, but let me give it a try so we don’t part ways feeling extremely bummed out. You know that girl who annoyed you in high school? Seek her out at the next reunion. I’m guessing that her teeth will be a normal shade of white and that she’ll have an important story to tell.
For more information on Claire Clairmont, please read:
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon
Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives, by Daisy Hay
Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys, by Robert Gittings