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The life of Clara Mary Jane "Claire" Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley and lover of Lord Byron, began unpromisingly. As has recently been discovered, Claire's mother, Mary Jane Vial Clairmont, spent time in debtor's prison, possibly with an infant Claire, her slightly elder brother, or both. Marrying her neighbor, the philosopher and radical William Godwin, did not improve her financial situation, due to his constant state of panicked indebtedness. Meanwhile, for much of Claire's childhood, Godwin considered his own daughter Mary, motherless at eleven days old, the only intellectually promising child in the family.
This difficult beginning, combined with Claire's legendary free-spiritedness and her tragic history with Byron and the Shelley family, have long made her an intriguing figure to creative writers, critics, and fans of British Romanticism. She wrote little intended for the public and published only one short story, the anonymous tale "The Pole," but read voraciously, even by the standards of her circle. Her feistiest, most transgressive private correspondence also reveals her a serious book geek. For instance, in a letter to Byron, she declared herself open to an open relationship by calling herself a member of the Shelleyan "tribe of Otaheite philosophers," probably alluding to the writings of scientist, explorer, and Royal Society president Sir Joseph Banks's alleged encounters in the South Seas.
It's therefore wonderful that Marty Ambrose, sometime a scholar of Romanticism, has written the first novel in a new mystery series featuring Claire as the main character and amateur sleuth. In CLAIRE'S LAST SECRET: A Claire Clairmont Historical Mystery, released during this bicentenary year of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, an elderly Claire living in Italy with her niece and great-niece (as the historical Claire did) learns from an enigmatic visitor, the writer William Michael Rossetti, that her child Allegra Byron, whom Byron and the Shelleys had told her had died in an Italian convent at the age of five—is in fact alive. This news shatters Claire's world, but also offers her a chance to put it back together—if she can find out if Rossetti is telling the truth, why her friends and family lied to her, and where Allegra is.
What results is an intriguing romp through British Romanticism's disturbing history, that culminates with a cliffhanger guaranteed to make the next book in the series fly off the shelves. However, like Claire's own life, it gets off to a bumpy start. Elderly Claire, hoarding Romantic manuscripts that prove a poet's love for her is the antagonist of Henry James's novel The Aspern Papers, which renames her and consolidates the poets Byron and Shelley into the stereotypical cranky doomed genius Jeffrey Aspern. For readers of The Aspern Papers, CLAIRE'S LAST SECRET will be nicely revisionist, but also somewhat repetitive. For readers of the historical Claire, this Claire's voice doesn't have the richness of the original, nor the array of allusions to her reading, but that may change as the series develops. Some references seem anachronistic. For instance, Claire mentions "Victorian tourists," but the term "Victorian" wasn't coined until after Victoria died in 1901 and Claire died in 1879. She claims that Byron "did love me, in his own way," contrary to nearly everything he wrote about her.
That said, CLAIRE'S LAST SECRET's original premise—that Allegra Byron, illegitimate daughter of Claire and Byron, did not die in a convent at age five, that she lived to grow up, that a Victorian era with such a person navigating it might be imaginable—is certainly worth exploring. Everyone who has ever read a word Claire wrote mourns this child. Victorian poets compared her with Byron's legitimate daughter Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and lamented that one should be celebrated by their hypocritical society while the other remained a shameful secret even in death. It will be a thrill to follow Ambrose's Claire as she tries to find her daughter and the truth, and to meet this counterfactual grown-up Allegra. Consequently, this reviewer is really looking forward to the next Claire Clairmont Mystery.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, August 2018
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