Clairmont, Clara Mary Jane (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CLAIRMONT, CLARA MARY JANE (1798–1879), celebrated in connection with Byron and Shelley, was born 27 April 1798. Mr. Clairmont, her father, apparently died about the time of her birth, and in December 1801 her mother (Mary Jane) became William Godwin's second wife. The girl was thus brought up under Godwin's roof, chiefly by her mother; Godwin confessed 'a feeling of incompetence for the education of daughters.' She was afterwards at school at Walham Green. In 1814 she accompanied Mary Godwin in her elopement with Shelley. Mrs. Godwin pursuea her to Calais, but Claire, as she shortly afterwards began to call herself, refused to return, and accompanied the fugitives throughout their continental excursion. This escapade was the source of most of the calumnies directed against Shelley, to which subsequent events gave additional plausibility. On her return she resided some months with Shelley and Mary in their London lodgings; afterwards went to Lynmouth, and eventually returned to Godwin's house. Early in 1816 she introduced herself to Byron, on the plea of desiring an engagement at Drury Lane [see Btbon, Gbobgb Gordon]. She was then nearly twenty-two, an olive-complexioned brunette, lively, and handsome. The acquaintance resulted in an intimacy which it has been absurdly sought to connect with Byron's separation from his wife. It can hardly be doubted that she forced herself upon him, and was no exception to the general truth of his assertion, 'I can safely say that I never seduced any woman.' He shortly departed for Switzerland, and it was mainly by her persuasion that the Shelleys, as yet unsuspicious of the connection, were induced to follow him thither. Shelley may probably have learned the state of the case on or about 2 Aug., when Mary Shelley enters in her diary, 'Shelley and Claire go up to Diodati; I do not, for Lord Byron does not seem to wish it.' Byron's complacency, indeed, was by no means equal to Claire's vanity; and a total estrangement must have ensued before the parties quitted Geneva. Claire's daughter, Allegra, was born 12 Jan. 1817, at Bath, where she was residing with the Shelleys. She continued to live with them, and accompanied them on their departure for Italy in March 1818, a step partly prompted by Byron's demand for his daughter, whom he offered to acknowledge and educate. At the last moment, Shelley strongly advised Claire against this surrender, which was repugnant to her own feelings, but which she thought required by Allegra's interests. B3rron had promised that the child should never be separated from both parents, and for nearly three years she lived under his roof, but in March 1821, finding her beyond the control of servants, he thought himself justified in placing her temporarily in the convent of Bagna-Cavallo, twelve miles from Ravenna, paying double for her maintenance to insure her proper care, and inquiring as to the possibility of removing her to Switzerland. Claire, justly distrustful of the management of Italian convents, offered energetic remonstrances, which Byron overruled with unfeeling harshness. The coldness between the two had deepened into a bitter antipathy, of which Allegra became the victim. During all this period Claire, except when living with Mary Wollstonecraft's old pupil Lady Mountcashell, had continued with the Shelleys, and her equivocal situation had given rise to a fresh set of calumnies, fabricated by a discharged servant, of which Byron stooped to avail himself as an excuse for thwarting Claire's wishes. She was forming wild schemes for carrying Allegra off from the convent, when, on 19 April 1822, the hapless child died of typhoid fever. Byron's grief was mingled with remorse; Claire's was at first intense, but ere Shelley's death in the following July she had become, according to him, 'vivacious and talkative.' After this catastrophe she repaired to her brother at Vienna, and soon afterwards went as governess to Russia, where she met with many discomforts, graphically described in letters to Mrs. Shelley. About 1830 she was again in Italy, teaching the descendants of Lady Mountcashell. She subsequently lived at Paris, and finally at Florence, where he died 19 March 1879. Her latter years were made comfortable by a legacy from Shelley, though much of it was lost by an unfortunate investment. She had become a Roman catholic, and 'contemplated writing a book to illustrate, from the lives of Shelley and Byron, the dangers and evils resulting from erroneous opinions on the subject of the relations between the sexes.' She left a favourable impression upon her Florentine acquaintance, who describe her as handsome to the last, kindly in disposition and agreeable in manner, but eccentric and given to romancing. Her errors and misfortunes, indeed, chiefly sprang from her determination to be a heroine of romance at any cost. She transgressed the laws of society without the excuse of either passion or conviction, but with the resolution to obtain by her adventures the celebrity which she could not obtain by her abilities. She was, however, clever, well informed, wrote excellent letters, and would have been an attractive person but for her continual discontent and repining. Shelley's letters to her, first published by Professor Dowden, are generally couched in a very affectionate strain, and he seems to have set real value upon her sympathy.

[Dowden's Life of Shelley; Shelley's other biographers and his correspondence, passim; Kegan Paul's Life of Godwin, vol. ii.; Moore's Life and Letters of Lord Byron; private information.]

R. G.