Shelley, Keats, and Byron are three of the world’s finest poets, and their work is steeped in the history and landscape of Britain. Reflect on the land that inspired their finest works, and then turn to the world of the Brontë sisters in the north and Charles Dickens in the south, whose novels evoke not only the land but also the people of the 19th century.
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Poets of Britain: Percy Shelley
The climax of British literary romanticism comes with Shelley, Keats, and Bryon. They tried to live at the highest emotional pitch, wrote brilliant poetry, and attracted ardent disciples. They cultivated the idea of the outstanding individual who lives at odds with society, and rebelled against the utilitarianism of the industrial revolution as it developed around them.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s second wife Mary, best remembered today as the author of Frankenstein, was the daughter of a radical writer, William Godwin, and of a pioneering feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. They met secretly at Mary’s mother’s grave in the churchyard of St. Pancras and, according to tradition, consummated their love there.
St. Pancras’ churchyard is now a park, full of unusual monuments in addition to the Wollstonecraft grave. The monument to architect Sir John Soane, for example, was used as the design basis for English red telephone boxes—a design made by Giles Gilbert Scott in 1924. Thomas Hardy worked in the graveyard when he was an architect in London: The “Hardy Tree” grows out of a cluster of old gravestones that were gathered in a tight ring, because part of the land had been taken over by the new Midland Railway. Angela Burdett-Coutts, London’s leading 19th-century philanthropist, set up a great sundial there to commemorate other half-forgotten figures, such as one of the sons of Johann Sebastian Bach and the pro-British son of Benjamin Franklin.
The Memorial to Shelley at University College, Oxford, shows that the passage of time can heal old wounds. It was unveiled at a grand ceremony in 1893 and consists of a large, white alabaster statue on a plinth, showing Shelley’s body, drowned, as it might have looked when it washed up on the beach. It is supported by four winged lions, or gryphons, while a grieving maiden sits beneath. The sculptor, Edward Onslow Ford, was commissioned by Shelley’s daughter-in-law.
Poets of Britain: John Keats
John Keats was three years younger than Shelley and lived an even shorter life, dying of tuberculosis, in Rome, aged only 25.
Tradition has him writing under a mulberry tree, which is still growing in the garden at Keats’s House. When he moved in, to live with his friend Charles Brown, the house was brand-new, part of the northward growth of London during the Napoleonic Wars. The house itself, restored to its probable appearance in the Regency era, is now a museum of Keats’s life and work.
At Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, you can just about make out the marker to Keats and Shelley, which was installed over the Shakespeare Memorial in 1954. In 2007, the sculptor Stuart Williamson made a statue of Keats for Guy’s Hospital. It’s slightly unusual that he should be honored in the place he decided to abandon when he gave up medicine in favor of poetry. The poet laureate Andrew Motion—a biographer of Keats—unveiled it, and overcame the paradox by noting in his speech that Apollo is the god of both medicine and poetry.
Poets of Britain: Lord Byron
Lord Byron’s family seat, Newstead Abbey, is a stately home in Nottinghamshire, but in his day it had reached its nadir. Newstead today is well preserved, thanks to extensive work by his successors. The old monastic cloisters are now an enclosed garden with peacocks. The monastic refectory has been repaired since the days when Byron and his friends practiced their marksmanship there with pistols, and most of the other rooms are decorated in mid-Victorian style.
Byron’s grave is in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. A memorial tablet was embedded in the church floor by the King of Greece in 1881 and a marker nearby indicates that the poet is buried in the crypt beneath. One side chapel of the church is a kind of shrine to Byron, including a statue of him in Armenian dress; a gold bas relief; and display boards about his work and that of his daughter, Ada Lovelace.
Outside the church, there’s a marble monument to Byron in the shape of a book. Across the street, you’ll find a statue of the poet in a niche over the entrance to a commercial building. For more than a century, the British establishment refused to admit such a scandalous fellow as Byron to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Only in 1969 did they relent, such that he’s now represented there by a modest stone marker.
Novelists of Britain: Charles Dickens
Dickens’s birthplace, in Portsmouth on the south coast, is now a museum. It’s a respectable Georgian house, offering no premonitions of the financial woes that were to come. The London house from which he published his first three novels is also a museum. It is 48, Doughty Street in Holborn, not the biggest of his London homes but the only one to survive more or less intact. He was there from 1837 to 1839, in his late twenties, married to Catherine Hogarth and father of three young children.
Twenty years later Dickens bought a country house, Gad’s Hill, in Higham, Kent, close to his childhood home, and made it a country retreat. It’s now a school, not open to visitors, though you can see the outside. It was here that Hans Christian Andersen, who idolized Dickens, came from Denmark to stay for two weeks but then wouldn’t leave, much to the family’s annoyance.
A French actor who admired Dickens gave him a kit to build a Swiss chalet in the back yard. He tried but failed hopelessly to assemble it himself, then hired a carpenter who did it for him. It was sited across the street from Gad’s Hill, with a brick passageway under the street, and became his writing room. The chalet, rather frail, has been moved, and now stands in the grounds of Eastgate House, in nearby Rochester. Eastgate, a city museum, is a logical third stop for Dickens pilgrims, even though he never lived there.
Novelists of Britain: The Brontë Sisters
What kind of family nurtures three good novelists all at once? It’s never been done before or since. The Brontë home, Haworth Parsonage, stands at the top of a steep hill above the Worth Valley in Yorkshire, on the edge of the moors but not far from the textile towns of Keighley and Halifax. So great is the Brontës’ fame by now that the whole district has been turned into a heritage site.
The hilltop site is gaunt, especially in winter. Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte’s biographer, wrote: “The wind goes piping and wailing and sobbing ‘round the square, unsheltered house in a very strange unearthly way.” The house itself is not particularly grand, making little distinction between the family’s and the servants’ spaces. In the dining room is the table on which Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were written. In the museum annex are preserved many of the Brontës’ childhood projects, including stories written in tiny notebooks, with minuscule print, microscopic pictures, maps, and diagrams.
The Brontës’ influence on subsequent writers was profound. If English literary romanticism began in the aristocratic south of England, it matured here, among writers from less exalted social classes, in the wild moorland country of the north.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture
Suggested Online Reading About Britain’s Authors
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
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