There will be very few of us who haven’t been there at some point in our lives: utterly engulfed in a passion that ruthlessly eradicates reason, rationality and sometimes even morality. To conjure up the memory of that feeling is easy; to put it adequately into words infinitely less so. On the cover of this book there’s a quote by Tracy Chevalier calling it her “book of the year”, excessive praise you might think for a novel that looks at first glance from the jacket and title as if it’s going to be a romping and perhaps sensationalistic period romance. I can tell you though, she’s not wrong. The main reason why? Because the incredibly talented Jude Morgan knows – and most importantly can convincingly describe – down to the last heartbeat what it’s like to be consumed and even obsessed by passion for another person.
“Passion” is based on real events, specifically the lives of four women who were at one time the partners or lovers of Byron, Shelley and Keats. Caroline Lamb was a very high status aristocrat who fell under Byron’s spell, and became emotionally and socially ruined as a result. The chalk to her cheese, Augusta Leigh, was unassuming and gentle-spirited, going through life almost unnoticed until her relationship with Byron turned her world upside down, the looming spectre of incest haunting her for evermore. Mary Shelley possessed a fiercely astute mind that captivated Shelley the poet, but even she ultimately failed to intellectualise the turbulent and unconventional relationship that she and the bohemian Shelley shared. Finally there was Fanny Brawne, whose love for John Keats was probably the least tainted of the four, but whose happiness (as I’m sure you know but spoiler alert anyway!) was cut short by the poet’s early death from consumption.
One of the reasons I adored this book so much was the fact that although, with the possible exception of Mary Shelley, the women in question were all far less well-known than the men they loved, this whole story is truly about them. We follow all four from their early childhood and watch as nature and nurture shape them into the adults they become; Byron, Shelley and Keats move in and out of their lives but it’s the lives of the female characters that frame the novel. The text jumps between first and third person narration (the first person used particularly effectively later in the book as Caroline’s mental state starts to unravel) but it’s always the women’s voices we hear.
And as I mentioned before, they are such authentic voices. Time and again throughout the novel there are perfect gems of sentences so pin-point accurate in their depiction of love, grief or heartbreak that you stop and think, this author has been here; he knows first-hand how this feels. I know as well there’s absolutely no reason a male writer shouldn’t be able to inhabit a female character’s head convincingly if he’s talented enough, but the skill with which he does so still took me by surprise as I can’t think of a male author I’ve read for a very long time who writes in this way.
Despite its focus on female characters though, the men who feature in the book are equally well-rounded and believable. In fact, the cast is pretty numerous, but everyone is drawn with immense care, and there are actually some cracking smaller characters who may only appear every now and then but who fill the novel with glorious colour. Jude Morgan, rather like Dickens, excels at creating characters which are both comical and loathsome at the same time. Mrs. Clairmont, Mary’s screeching, hollering and frequently hysterical stepmother was one of my particular favourites, as was Annabella, Byron’s wife, whose obsessively saintly attempts to save incestuous Augusta’s soul perch somewhere on a fine line between laughable and sinister.
It’s a very sad novel in some ways – to say the course of true love doesn’t run smooth for these women would be an understatement – but its sadness lies not so much in the momentous tragic events that pepper the story but rather in the sense that, as an ageing Coleridge puts it in the final chapter, “There is a great secret, and it is this: that human life is intolerable.”
Without wishing to end on too bleak a note, this is the kind of love story I like: the one which acknowledges that the vast majority of relationships don’t end happily, that one partner is often going to value a relationship more than the other, and that sometimes the people we want to be with we can never have. If you like your romance and your historical fiction treated with sharp intelligence then this is the book for you.