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Book Review – Clairmont by Lesley McDowall

Lesley McDowell has written a powerful novel, one which leaves you wanting more: more about these writers, but also more from Lesley McDowell.

There are few literary groups where the real lives of the writers garner as much interest as the work itself, and perhaps the most famous, or infamous, are the Young Romantics, who followed on from the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake to popularise Romanticism as an artistic movement. While there were numerous writers and artists who also fell under that cultural umbrella, Lesley McDowell’s novel Clairmont focuses on the lives and loves of arguably the most famous – Lord Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley. This time the tale is told from the point of view of the titular Claire Clairmont, Mary’s teenage stepsister, who had a complex relationship with all three.

The novel opens with the group gathered together on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816. Although this is ostensibly a group of friends as well as contemporaries, it is clear from the start that the milk of human kindness has turned sour, as they indulge in, and seemingly excuse, the most odious and controlling behaviour. Already accredited with varying degrees of fame, the three take their troubles and frustration out on those nearest to them, including Claire herself, or ‘Clairy’ as they patronisingly refer to her.

Byron in particular, (referred to as ‘Albe’ by the group), is revealed to be not so much ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ as Lady Caroline Lamb would describe him, but someone whose masculinity is matched by his toxicity. But this is not his story. By having Claire Clairmont as the central character we get to better understand the group as a whole, and McDowell manages to dig deep into the insecurities and paranoia which beset them. Lies, bullying, emotional blackmail, and very real violence – rarely has the term ‘romantic’ seemed less appropriate. You may think you know the story of that infamous summer at Lake Geneva (one so intense and eerie it inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) but Clairmont doesn’t only fill in gaps: it shows the ripples that would reach throughout the rest of these individuals’ lives.

Lesley McDowell has written a powerful novel, one which leaves you wanting more: more about these writers, but also more from Lesley McDowell.


Clairmont is out now, published by Wildfire

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