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Review of 'Clairmont' by Lesley McDowell

I had never heard of Claire Clairmont before reading the blurb for this book, but obviously knew of the infamous trip to the Italian Lakes, that resulted in the telling of ghost stories and ultimately, the creation of Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'. Consequently, I was intrigued enough by the premise to request an ARC.

The book flips between different time periods and sometimes, I found this quite hard to follow, particularly at the beginning. However, as I got further into the narrative, some of this became clearer as I became more familiar with the lesser known characters and particularly as the relationship between Claire and Byron deteriorated.

Prior to reading this book, my knowledge of Byron and the Shelleys, outside of their work, is fairly limited and some of that knowledge came from the Horrible Histories 'Romantics' song.

Percy Bysse Shelley & Mary Shelley - had an affair and a child outside marriage. Later married. He died young in a drowning accident.

Lord Byron - serial womaniser, immortalised by Caroline Lamb as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'.

Of John Polidori M.D. (the other person present on the Lakes trip) I knew absolutely nothing.

As a result, I was looking forward to reading the book and discovering more about this fascinating group of people and particularly to seeing if Byron's reputation was one he lived up to. Claire herself is an interesting and contradictory character - utterly self-absorbed, but constantly seeking the approval of her step-sister, even whilst telling herself that she doesn't care what Mary thinks.

By the end of the book, the main impression I was left with, was how complicated and intertwined their lives all were. It seemed as though everyone was either sleeping with everyone else, or if they weren't, they wanted to! It certainly dispels the myth that prior to the twentieth century, sexual morality was such that sex outside of marriage was something to be hidden away and caused society to shun those involved. Whilst this was certainly something Claire worried about (perhaps because of her lower social standing?), it didn't seem to do Mary any harm. Yes, there were those who disapproved, but by and large, her relationship with Shelley seemed to be accepted.

Whilst I found the narrative structure confusing at times, I did enjoy the book and it's one I will be talking about for some time to come. What I loved about it, was that it takes yet another forgotten woman and brings her story to the fore. Claire Clairmont was a muse for both Shelley and Byron. I know their poetry, so why is it that I had never heard of the woman who inspired it? Too often this is the case and I love that we are now getting books which seek to remedy this.

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