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The Fifth Wheel

I got to thinking about how Claire Clairmont often gets overlooked whenever we’re talking about the “Haunted Summer” of 1816, when Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori were, along with Claire, vacationing on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. It was there that the contest occurred wherein each of the participants were expected to concoct a ghost story, to see who could create the scariest. Polidori would go on to write THE VAMPYRE upon the inspirational foundation of that night, and Mary Shelley would of course go on to create FRANKENSTEIN. Claire Clairmont is the least well-known of the five, so I thought I’d attempt to remedy that.

Ms. Clairmont was the stepsister of Mary Shelley (the two grew up together), a close friend (and possible lover) of Percy Shelley, and the no-doubts-about-it lover of Lord Byron. She was also the mother of Byron’s daughter Clara Allegra, who unfortunately died in a convent (where Byron had placed her) at the age of five. Claire had helped facilitate Mary getting together with Percy Shelley, who left his wife and children for Mary. When the two ran off together in July of 1814, Claire went with them. It was Claire who convinced the Shelleys to join Byron in Switzerland that summer in 1816. Claire was pregnant with Byron’s child at the time.

Henry James wrote THE ASPERN PAPERS inspired by the letters Percy Shelley had written to Claire, letters she kept until her death at age 80 in 1879. Shelley also wrote the poem “To Constantia, Singing” about Claire.

“Constantia turn!
In thy dark eyes a power like light doth lie
Even though the sounds which were thy voice, which burn
Between thy lips, are laid to sleep:
Within thy breath, and on thy hair
Like odour, it is yet,
And from thy touch like fire doth leap.
Even while I write, my burning cheeks are wet
Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget!”

TheCheezman • December 23, 2019


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