Sep 8, 2010

Passion by Jude Morgan

Passion by Jude Morgan

Let me sum up my reaction to Passion in one word: wow. I’ll begin with an aside, just because I think it’s relevant to tell you a little about my experience with this book. I wasn’t supposed to be blogging this week – I’m preparing to move away to start grad school very soon (which is why I’ve been ignoring everyone’s blogs lately—I’m so sorry! You know it’s no lack of love), and I had more or less decided that whatever I read between now and the time I move would go unreviewed. But then I found myself reading over 500 pages of Passion during a weekend away in Spain; hauling this monster of a trade paperback chunkster to a music festival because I couldn’t bring myself to put it down. And now that I’ve finished it, I’m afraid that I must tell you all about it: it possibly ties with Gaudy Night as my favourite read of the year so far.

Passion is a historical novel about the lives of four women who were involved with the second generation Romantic poets: Mary Shelley, who dispenses introductions; Augusta Leigh, Lord Byron’s half sister and lover; Lady Caroline Lamb, who shocked Regency London by taking the end of her affair with Byron so badly (and doing so very publicly); and Fanny Brawne, John Keat’s fiancé. Passion begins – appropriately, wonderfully – with a chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft, and then follows the lives of the aforementioned four women until the death of the last of the Romantics (Byron, at only 36), which marks the end of the most tumultuous phase of these women’s lives. If this makes it sound like the book only considers them in regards to the men who loved them, rest assured: nothing could be further from the truth. Passion is a much more complex novel than that.

Along with about five million bookworms everywhere, I have a fascination with the Romantic circle. In the case of Mary Shelley in specific, the fascination borders on the obsession, which has led me to seek out several fictional and non-fictional accounts of her life. Passion is a dream-book come true for me: nothing that I read before had satisfied me nearly as much as this.Jude Morgan’s imagination clearly follows the same path as mine – he wonders about all the same things I’ve always wondered about; he looks at these women’s lives and asks all the same questions I have always asked.

To explain this further I’m going to have to tell you why the Romantics have always interested me so much. It’s not because they were so deliciously scandalous, though they were that, nor because they’re the very embodiment of what are now classic Gothic tropes. It isn’t even their poetry per se. No; what interests me is the fact that they were among the first to consider ideas that we’re still debating and struggling with today – ideas that, two centuries later, I still find relevant for my life. They’re Mary Wollstonecraft and the beginning of feminism; there’s the very idea of democracy; there’s their belief that perhaps there were forms of experiencing relationships other than traditional marriage; there’s Shelley’s atheism, pacifism, vegetarianism; there’s Byron’s bisexuality; there’s the whole circle’s defiance of social conventions because they honestly believed that there might be other, happier ways of living their lives. And then there’s the inevitable question: at what cost?

A satisfying book about the Romantics must be, for me, one that takes these ideas seriously, even as it exposes the unforeseen consequences of moving them from the theoretical to the practical. Until I read Passion, I felt that most accounts of these people’s lives, both popular and academic, were either very Byronic and virile and romanticised (nevermind about the ex-wives drowning themselves, or the dead children, or the near fatal miscarriages); or else told from a female perspective, but very reproachful in tone and altogether dismissive of their uncommon living arrangements.

I felt this when reading Anne K. Mellor’s biography of Mary Shelley in particular, though I enjoyed it for the most part. I was obviously not around back then and can’t tell what these people were really like (but then again, neither can anyone else); still, it saddens to read books that adopt a tut-tut sort of approach – that instantly assume that, say, Shelley’s belief in free love was just a cover for his sexual promiscuity, and poor Mary was mislead and dragged into it kicking and screaming and would have obviously led a much more traditional life if she’d had a choice.

Perhaps she would have – but then again, as Morgan’s Mary Shelley realises at one point, perhaps she’d also have spent the rest of her life feeling empty and slightly bored. Perhaps she struggled with these things not because she was being “corrupted”, but because she herself was trying to reconcile abstract beliefs that were also her own and her actual life – her fear of losing Shelley, her grief over the children she lost, her discomfort over her stepsister’s constant presence, her awareness that something about her situation wasn’t quite fair.

I loved Passion because it’s a book that fully respects these women’s agency. This is a novel in which they’re allowed to want: they make their own choices; they’re not little girls who are seduced and abandoned or mislead. But none of this is to say that they don’t find themselves in incredibly unfair situations; that being women doesn’t make them powerless in many, many ways; that these experiments in living aren’t full of emotional costs, consequences and conundrums, all of which they felt much more acutely than the men because of the gender power imbalance. Jude Morgan’s Mary Shelley suffers because of these things, but she also wonders – how else could she have been happy?

Passion is a book that takes the idealism of the Romantics absolutely seriously, even as it also explores its darker side. It doesn’t dismiss them as misguided or immoral people who were merely after easy sex, which has always struck me as simplistic and incredibly unfair. But at the same time, it acknowledges the male privilege that, for all their idealism, Shelley and Byron never did acknowledge. It has always upset me to see any relationship model that questions entitlement, possessiveness or the legitimacy jealously dismissed as a) a sexual free-for-all or b) an obvious product of the male psyche. Contrary to popular rumour (both then and now), this was not what the Romantics were all about. But their ideals were problematic, simply because there was always much more at stake for Harriet Shelley, for Mary Shelley, for Claire Clairmont, for Caroline Lamb or for Augusta Leigh than there ever was for the men they loved. It’s the power imbalance that makes the whole thing difficult; not the fact not wanting to get married is by definition a strictly male impulse. These difficulties are what Passion is all about. It’s a novel of questions, not of answers, and that has always been my favourite kind.

As Mary says at one point, these women wanted to be the subjects, not merely the objects of passion. They wanted to feel, to be alive, to make the most of their lives. Morgan’s novel fills the gaps of what couldn’t be expressed at the time both in regards to female sexuality and to countless other things. Though I’m not someone who has ever believed that love becomes boring once you have spent that initial passion, I could fully sympathise with Lady Caroline Lamb, with her penchant for theatrics, with her need for constant emotional tumult. You see, she had nothing else. It’s easy for me to prefer a more serene kind of romantic love when I live in a time and place that allows me other interests, several intellectual pursuits, all kinds of other passions and things to be enthusiastic about. That wasn’t really the case with them – and Caroline, a passionate and intense young woman turned into a scandalous society lady, feels this more acutely than anyone else.

The result of Morgan’s insightful and sympathetic portrayal of these women is a sort of regency Frankie-Landau Banks for adults: these aren’t merely silly girls who fall for men who are clearly bad news. No; they’re intelligent women who are for the most part aware of their own value, who know their own minds, but who want more — they want to be alive, and they want some of the excitement the men they love could have access to so easily, be it through poetry, through tours of Europe, though battles for the independence of Greece. Who can dismiss them for that?

Another thing Jude Morgan does brilliantly is bring the Regency period to life. I’ve always been a Victorian girl at heart, but Passion made me see the appeal of the early nineteenth century much more clearly than anything I’d read before. The novel perfectly contextualises all the emotional intensity the characters experience, and shifts back and forth between their individual lives and the bigger picture with absolute ease. We see the echoes of the French revolution; we see social tumult; we see the scandal that followed the appearance of the waltz; we see Napoleon’s second coming and the battle of Waterloo; we see political unrest; and so on. None of it is there simply to be there, or just so Morgan can show off his erudition. On the contrary; the historical background helps us make sense of these women’s lives and of the difficulties they faced – and that’s exactly what historical fiction should do.

Passion is an epic historical saga that is actually about much more than I made it out to be – but this post is already ridiculously long, so I’m going to wrap it up soon. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked up this book, but I know I didn’t expect it to be nearly as good as this. I’d imagined it to be lighter, somehow; perhaps fun in a salacious sort of way but not much more. Instead, I discovered an author who reminds me of Sarah Waters. Yes, Passion is that sophisticated, that insightful, that intense, that wonderfully written, that smart. It kept me in suspense and broke my heart even though I already knew everything that was going to happen, and it allowed me to step into the shoes of women with whom I feel a deep sense of kinship. How much more difficult these things that continue to trouble us today must have been for them.

Right now I’m experiencing the deep joy of discovering that a possible new favourite author actually has an extensive back catalogue – Morgan has a novel about the Brontë sisters called The Taste of Sorrow, and I can’t imagine anyone more capable of writing about them and getting it right. He also has several other historical novels set in the Regency period, and even a series of Regency mysteries published under the pen name Hannah March (and yes, I thought he was a she too until Violet told me differently). I absolutely can’t wait to read them all.

Favourite bits:
Caroline makes up stories. They pop into her head unbidden. Sometimes they have fairies in them, and witches and goblins: sometimes stranger things. ‘A sugar loaf as big as a house, and on the top there lived a mouse, with whiskers on his chin, and he made such a din when he fell into the well and broke his nose and tore his hose so he ate his toes…’
‘It doesn’t make sense, Caro,’ complains Frederick. ‘Tell the one about the soldier. This one’s silly. How can he eat his toes?’
‘With a knife and fork.’
‘It doesn’t make sense.’
But Caroline is used to that. Many things in her world do not make sense. She has seen Papa shouting at Mama, and his fingers fiercely gripping her arm just as they grip the reigns of a half-broken horse. In a world that made these, that would be as bad as her temper. But it’s not, apparently; and she is not even to mention that she saw it. Indeed, it did not happen at all. Which makes no sense.

Well, here is a thought for you. Now let me see if I can take you over the fence of this one. You’ll agree that there are times in your life that are happier than others—yes? And so out of all of those there must be one time that is the happiest—yes?—just as among some trees that are taller than others, there must be one that is the tallest of all even if only be an inch—yes? Thus there must be one period of time in your life that is, taken all in all, the happiest, the truest, the most fulfilled, the best. So.
What if that time has already been and gone?
And you know it?
No, no – I’m quite well – I just fancied I heard my grandmother’s ghost at last. Saying that in her day they did not think of such things.
Well for them, perhaps. Part of me does long to lace up my feelings in that narrow bodice and tread that old narrow path. But I think it’s closed off to us now, whether we like it or not.
Do I think my best time has gone? Why – how could I go on living, if so?

The trouble is this. What Mary is drawing towards, what she is impelled to, is something that does not really suit her. Thought she always feels strongly, the mind is the ruler. This mind is accustomed to seeing all around a question. It has the gift of analysis, which is also, perhaps, a curse: while appreciating the beauty of a rose it will also be estimating the length of time before the rose withers. But still she trusts it as a watchmaker trusts the steadiness of his hand.
And her mind cannot approve the dubious shape of the future to which passion is driving her. The shape is shadowy, awkward, chaotic. It is revolution: and that mind has too much logic to believe that revolution can be accomplished without blood.
Still, it is a mind with a sharp edge, impatient of prevarication: let your yea be yea. Thus, for Mary Godwin the most momentous decision of her life is completely out of character, except for the fact that she makes it.

Augusta, having extracted and opened the volume somehow, unconsciously, snapped it shut. No letter from him lately. She drained her glass and confronted her reflection.
‘Is that all we are, then? Women – are we just there as inspiration? Muse? Subject of a poem? Object, really.’ She said it out loud, quite without meaning to, and the effect was as if she posed the question to the woman in the mirror. The woman has a strong, sensual, fleshy face: a wicked face, Annabella would say, and she would be quite right.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. Thanks so much for reviewing this! It is not something I would have searched for, but it sounds like I would enjoy it.

    Good luck with your move and all the arrangements, how busy you must be!

  2. Great review! I heard about this book before, but had forgotten all about it. Normally, I'm not a fan of poetry or anything related to poetry, but your review makes this book sound so brilliant, that I just have to read it for myself.

    I really hope you have a brilliant start at grad school!

  3. Loved your review! I want this. It sounds like just the type of book I love to read.

  4. I read this book years ago after having seen a phenomenal review in EW. It was TOTALLY outside my comfort zone, but it blew my mind. It opened up a whole new world to me, as I knew nothing about these poets. Wonderful review! You totally did it justice.

  5. I love Sandy's comment...because this book sounds totally outside my comfort zone and I know nothing about these poets, and yet after reading your review, I can definitely see this book just totally blowing me away too. Yes, I've still got the fear in me...but this one sounds like one I *need* to set that fear aside for.

  6. I have never heard of this book, but your passion for Passion has me reaching for my Amazon account. The fact that Victorian life is brought so clearly to you has me desperate to read it.

  7. I can tell you have a passion for this book! I just read Out of the Shadows which gave me a little introduction to Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft and have been curious about them ever since.

  8. I used to subscribe to a journal from the now defunct Gothic Society with stories and articles about the Romantic period and tried to read everything about Byron and Shelley. I'd heard of Morgan's book on the Bronte's but not this one. Your review has convinced me that I need to read this (and not just because you mentioned Sarah Waters!) It's wonderful when you come across a book that moves you that much.

  9. I love hearing you sound so passionate (no pun intended) about this book. It sounds really fascinating, though at the same time I worry that I wouldn't make it through the book myself. I'm always scared when it comes to this sort of book!

  10. This sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to check it out sometime.

    And... you have been bitten by a book blogger zombie! Head over to to find out what it's all about :D

  11. Your reviews always inspire and astound me. Thank you.
    I wish you a wonderful move and start to your next adventure.

  12. Wow, a historical-fiction about the Romantics women? I'm sold. Added to my TBR list.

  13. In another review for... another book (I wish I could remember the title!), you talked about how even though these women are interested in the movement their men are interested in, it costs more- but it was only a chapter, so I'm delighted to see a whole book on that theme. Comparing him to Sarah Waters is so much delicious icing on the proverbial cake. This is going on my reading list now.

  14. Had I been recommended this book by anyone else, I probably would have passed on it, but your passionate and thorough review makes me fell like this is something that I really need to read. There are a host of reasons that you mention that make it seem like this book would be a great fit for me, and I want to thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I am going off to see how I can get myself a copy soon!

  15. I think I just wrote a comment and it disappeared -- just to say good luck with your move and all the best for your grad program!


  16. You know, this post has me convinced that I definitely need to track down this book asap. It sounds incredible. But it has also convinced me that I need to read more from that period and about it!

  17. Wow, sounds fantastic. I'll keep an eye for it.

  18. This sounds fantastic! Can I just say that I was confused when I saw the title and first name of the author...for some reason my head was thinking Jude Deveraux and that you were reviewing romance!

    I don't know much about this time period (I always feel like there's so much I don't know!) but I love a really good historical fiction. (they just seem so hard to find) Thanks for sharing about this one with us. I also want to check out the Bronte one.

  19. I love what you have to say here about the complexity of idealism that doesn't acknowledge its own privilege, and I heartily agree that one needs to strike some kind of balance between dismissing and idealizing that kind of complex situation. Your points about how the Romantics began grappling with modern-seeming issues is also so interesting...I must admit that I have a hard time taking a lot of their work seriously, not because of their lifestyles or personal quirks, but because the actual literature they produced is a bit overblown and/or saccharine for my taste (I'm thinking particularly of Wordsworth poems like "The Ruined Cottage" and "The Thorn," and Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," not to mention all the Aeolian harps and pining maidens that feature.) I tend to be less keen on crashing cataracts and pining away from a broken heart, and more about subtlety. But at the same time I know they were incredibly influential and that many of my favorite ideas were originally Romantic. This novel sounds like a fascinating examination of their relationships and their time - thanks for the post! And good luck on your upcoming move & starting school. :-)

  20. I am not really fond of historical novels, but your review has definitely persuaded me to give Passion a try - it sounds like an incredible read.

  21. This novel has sat on my shelves for years, but you're the one who has made me want to read it, itchingly. Thanks for the exuberant response: it's contagious.

  22. I definitely want to read this now; thanks for making me add this to my already-long to-read list :-).

    This summer I've been reading "Sophie's World" bu Jostein Gaarder -- it's a novel and it covers all parts and eras of philosophy. The Romantics are discussed and. looking at that section again, the book says there are Aristotelian and Neoplatonic overtones in what the Romantics were thinking. It's a substantial book also, but I've been enjoying learning a lot about philosophy in this way!

  23. I cannot afford to ignore a book that you praise so highly!

  24. I never would have learned about this book if you hadn't reviewed it, so thank you for taking time away from moving prep!

    I love love love the Romantics (almost a much as I love the Pre-Raphs ;] ). I'm sure one of my literature mentors will love to hear about this book too.

    Just wondering... have you ever read Mary Shelley's travel narratives? Particularly the Six Weeks' Tour? I found it kind of zany but charming.

  25. Well damn Ana, I just can't come to your blog without adding a book to the wish list. :) Thanks for the suggestion; this sounds excellent.

  26. Sounds wonderful! I have her The Taste of Sorrow in my bookshelf waiting for its turn.
    Have you read Federico Andahazi's The Merciful Women? It is also about Byron and the Shelleys + the first vampire novel writer Polidori.


  27. ZOMG, I MUST READ THIS BOOK!!! Wow to the cover, wow to the plot, wow to your review. :)

  28. Wow, I need to learn much more about the romantics ASAP! I've clearly been missing out.

  29. OK, Ana. This is not something I'd usually read and the size is intimidating, but er... I think I'd give it a shot. I like the sound of it. I read Sandy's comment and I have very high regards for both your taste in books. Yes, I'm taking the plunge.

  30. Oh boy- am I glad you broke your promise to review this one: it sounds amazing! :)
    I think it’s going to be my next “night-stand-book” being the hopeless romantic that I am! Thanks for the wonderful review Ana.

  31. Oh boy- am I glad you broke your promise to review this one: it sounds amazing! :)
    I think it’s going to be my next “night-stand-book” being the hopeless romantic that I am! Thanks for the wonderful review Ana.

  32. Femke: Thank you so much for the good wishes! And I'm glad to have brought this book to your attention :)

    Susi: First of all, welcome back :D I'm glad to have reminded you of this book - and worry not, there's plenty to love here even for non-poetry fans.

    Mrs B: Thank you! I do think this is right up your alley :)

    Sandy: I'm so glad to hear you loved it too! You should help me convince everyone to read it ;)

    Debi: Yes, it *would* blow you away! I think the kind of sensibility behind it would really speak to you, just like it did to me.

    Vivienne: It's hand downs one of the best historical novels I've read, and you know I love me some historical fiction!

    Kathy: I need to look up Out of the Shadows! Any book featuring Mary Shelley & Mary Wollstonecraft is a book I'm interested in.

    Sakura: It really is wonderful! Morgan brings the period to live so vividly.

    Amanda: lol, I guess the pun is inevitable :P I think you'd get through it fine - it doesn't feel nearly as long as it actually is!

    Alessandra: Book blogger zombie, eh? Will check it out asap :P

    Care: Aww, thank YOU, dear Care!

    Amanda: I know! What more needs to be said, right? :P

    Clare: I think that might have been Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians, about writers and artists in the early 20th century (including the Bloomsbury Group). It's indeed a fascinating theme, and Morgan handles it so well!

    Zibilee: This is perfect for you, yes! I'm honoured that you trust me enough not to give it a miss - I don't think you'll regret it!

    Marieke: Thank you so much!

  33. Ms Nymeth -

    Thank you for this review, and for your thoughts buried in the middle of it. honestly the ambiguity of idealism is one of those things that bothers me about the mainstream AND radicals. I think it's inevitable to an extent: if you love a new idea, that threatens the status quo, living that idea inevitably becomes a sort of wars, and you end up strategizing how to win, instead of examining what you're winning. Big new ideas NEED to be examined, but they can't, because one noisy side can do nothing but shout against it, and the other shout for it. Because if either side equivocated, and acknowledged that there are arguments on both sides, or that there are things that haven't been thought out yet, they're exhibiting weakness, and will either be attacked on the front they've opened, or disregarded as irrelevant by their own friends. It's the same thing you see in most of the culture wars today. :/

  34. OMG, this book has been sitting on my shelf for YEARS waiting for me to read it. Actually, I read The King's Touch by Morgan when I was studying in London years ago and since then, every time I see a book by her on sale, I buy it. But then, er, I don't read them. I have several but they just sit there... CLEARLY have to remedy that! I think you'd probably like the one called Symphony, too.

  35. A Taste of Sorrow is quite brilliant and sent me out to re-read all the Bronte books again but I think that some of your commenters should be aware that Jude Morgan is male!
    Good luck at library school!

  36. Oh, oh this post, I love this post and plan to go back and read it again in the morning when trying to catch up on my feedreader burnout has gone away (so many blogs). This book was not quite the love fest for me that it was for you - I really could have done without the Caroline Lamb bit, but probably that's because she's the Romantic lady I knew nothing about. But Mary's storyline was A mazing and you've illuminated such a great approach to reconciling her independent spirit with the pretty depressing situation she found herself in when they go abroad. And Augusta and her solid husband had such a complex storyline, as she's so in love with Byron (grrr)but also terribly committed to her family life, while also very able to see its flaws. Just fabulous. Oh and Claire - we love her, we hate her, we kind of have no idea how to approach her by the end because she's just as messed up as everyone in this book.

    If you're in the mood for something light I can't recommend (yes I thought he was a woman too)regency romance 'Indiscretion' enough. The heroine is very keen on eating and very wry. So excited to read the Bronte book which is waiting in a draw right now.

  37. I have always wondered these same things about these people - and have never been really satisfied by the biographies I've read - I totally agree about the irritatingness of the dismissive (and perhaps embarrassed) "tut-tut" approach. I have added this to my list - thanks for taking the time to review it! Good luck with your move, and keep me posted about grad school!

  38. I can't find Passion yet, but I did just come across the Bronte book by Morgan, The Taste of Sorrow, which I bought immediately. I really want to read Passion too! Lovely review, Nymeth, and I especially like your reasons for why you like the Romantics so much. I like them because they were the first to explore God in Nature, to move away from rationalism to understand and explore the unseen in nature, but always felt.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.