Did Shelley have sex with Claire Clairmont? I first heard this central question debated with great solemnity at a meeting of the Byron Society in Albemarle Street way back in 1978. I went with three fellow Shelleyans, Geoffrey Matthews, Claire Tomalin and Judith Chernaik, to hear Marion Stocking talk about Claire. Marion Stocking's beautifully-edited Journals of Claire Clairmont had just come out, and she knew more about Claire than all the brains of the Byron Society put together. This did not stop those brains from working away at the Central Question - the sexual relations of Shelley and Claire. The Byron-worshippers were torn between those who were quite certain that anyone who had had sex with Byron (as Claire unquestionably had) could never settle for anything inferior, and those who regarded Claire as an impudent trollop who had dared to seduce the great genius, and then pester him about the consequences. On and on the debate rumbled, until Beatrice Haas, then in her late seventies, rose to rebuke the academics. 'If I had been with Shelley at Byron's villa at Este in the spring of 1818,' she said, 'I jolly well would have slept with him.'
LRB 20 August 1992 | PDF Download