by Jude Morgan
ISBN: 0755304020

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Passion
by Cindy MacKenzie

In this weighty page-turner of a novel, British author Jude Morgan plunges us into the tumultuous world of the Romantic Era. We learn of the great poets of the period-Keats, Byron, and Shelley-from the perspective of the four passionate, intelligent, and daring women who loved them. The novel's extensive cast of characters also includes a network of the intellectuals and artists of the period, from Coleridge and Joseph Severn to Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. Passion is indeed an appropriately descriptive title, for Morgan's compelling novel is an account of the upheavals in life and love experienced by these singular men and women, as well as an examination of their times, the chaotic and revolutionary era of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Following the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the Romantics were passionate about asserting their freedom of self-expression, daring simply "to be"-diverse and individual- despite the harsh opinions of their society. "Spontaneous" feeling and "divine" imagination were exalted; the traditional institutions of marriage and religion were questioned and even abandoned. Jude Morgan's historical fiction brings this turbulent period of history to life through the thoughts and feelings of her characters, as well as the vivid portrayals of the settings and events in which they take part.
Opening with the attempted suicide of Mary Wollestonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, and legendary author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the novel immediately establishes its female perspective. Mary's desperate act is a consequence of the despair she suffers after being betrayed in love. Saved by the restorative devotion of philosopher William Godwin, she enters into a marriage based on mutual respect and equality, which brings her to understand her place in her time: "A citizenness to her soul, she did not see the Revolutionary cause as something you could take up or put down at will. This was mankind's turning-point and we were all in it. Thank that dwindling Godhead (almost departed now from Mary's once-devout soul, where she had set up a shrine to Reason, . . . that she had been born in this time, the greatest time in all history. She embraced it- and it embraced her, Mary, the eternal governess, the scribbling bluestocking, had a part to play as Revolution rose and, sun-like, flooded the world's horizon." How she plays that part is determined largely by the lasting power of her treatise, its legacy, and by her child.
Stating that she and her gender wish "simply to be treated as rational human creatures, whose wants are neither denied nor indulged," Mary Godwin becomes an advocate of the revolution between genders. The reader is reminded of the pre-feminist conditions of women's lives in this period-their complete dependence upon the economic stability of the patriarchy represented by their fathers and husbands, and living in a society that forced them to accept unconventional, at times insufferable circumstances. Unwanted pregnancies were common, and the death of mother or child was often a part of birth, making grief a way of life. The mores of society of those days did not allow for a sympathetic viewpoint of a woman who could not succeed in her marriage. Nor was there a safety net' or any type of recourse for women whose pregnancy did not lead to marriage. Complete economic dependency meant dependency on a husband or family.
Jane Seymour, Mary Shelley's stepsister, has no choice but to become part of the Shelley entourage. According to Morgan's description of the group, Jane and Percy Blythe Shelley share an ambiguous relationship that suggests a kind of mnage a trois, a situation that causes Mary considerable discomfort if not anguish. Jane's unfortunate infatuation with the rake Lord Byron also leads to pregnancy and a complicated entanglement from which she finds it impossible to extricate herself. She admits with a degree of fatalistic resignation: "I was determined to have him: I wrecked my life for the chance of him. It seems hard, though. One action, one turn of a card, and all your days are shaped for ever." The same can be said of Lady Caroline Lamb's marriage. Her aristocratic husband, prone to acting on the basest instincts, drives her to an affair with Byron.
The structure of the novel operates on a layering of the lives of each of the women: Augusta Leigh, Lady Caroline Lamb, Fanny Brawne, and Mary Godwin (Shelley). Interspersed throughout are little dramas of the high society soires hosted by Lady Melbourne. These scripts' serve Morgan's purpose by providing the gossipy perspective of his main characters' scandalous behaviour. The opening is somewhat confusing due to the amount of information Morgan includes (he begins with lengthy descriptions of each woman's childhood) and the structure of his presentation. He obviously intends to prepare a well-furnished stage for his rendition of the lives of these legendary figures. This can be disorienting if a reader isn't careful to note the author's transitions from one character to the next, not to mention the shifts in time from one generation to the next. But once one is past this substantial setup for the story, it's impossible to put the book down. The layering technique, moreover, works well in illustrating how in time these initially separate lives inevitably, and somewhat ironically, converge. Part of the appeal of Morgan's "fictional" biography can be found in this aspect of the genre-the retrospective on the choices people make, the way those choices determine their relationships and how their lives unfold.
Morgan makes full use of the genre to present the factual events of each woman's life, injecting his tale with the nuances of emotion and conviction that motivated them. For instance, Morgan gives us Fanny Brawne, the playful coquette who captures Keats's heart so completely that he admits to her, "there are two things that make me feel most intensely. poetry and you." According to some biographies, Keats's friends questioned and feared her influence, pushing Keats to abandon his friends for the sake of his lover. In Morgan's sympathetic view, this lively young woman matures and comes into her own through her relationship with the highly sensitive and fragile genius. Even the incestuous relationship between Augusta Leigh and Byron undergoes a gentler telling because we come to understand the genuine affection between the two and the hopelessness of their efforts-marriage included-to break from each other. Most captivating of all is Morgan's account of Mary Shelley, as he transports the reader into the complex inner life of the writer/wife/mother whose passionate yet tortured existence with the famous poet creates extreme challenges.
Shelley becomes jealous of Byron's success. Referred to by the critics as "that obscure atheist that nobody reads," he yearns for recognition, and is often oblivious of the hardships that he causes his family to endure. Moving them from house to house, tending inappropriately to the concerns of Jane Seymour, he forces Mary to bundle up the children and to travel in order to situate himself advantageously, closer to those who could give his literary career a boost, and this leads to the tragic death of his daughter. Mary's responsibilities include the children, her aged father who is dependent on them financially, and Jane. And in spite of all that, she enters her imagination and produces her gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein, "the story expanding around her, taking up all the room."
Morgan's research of this period and the people who inhabited it is astounding. But even this marvelous achievement is outdone by his imaginative ingress into his characters' very spirits, creating a story that is both original and unforgettable.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us