PASSION: A Novel of the Romantic Poets

By Jude Morgan

St. Martin's. 536 pp. $24.95

This is a remarkable book. As the title suggests, it's about love and lust, but Passion concerns itself in almost greater measure with those romantic yearnings by which men and women live and for which they are willing to die. Women rather more than men, because the three poets in this novel -- Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats -- are mainly the subjects and objects of "passionate" attachment. Their complex erotic entanglements and interlinked ambitions make up the story line; it is a feast of language, a grab bag of delights.

Passion's omniscient narrator turn by turn inhabits the minds of a quartet of women: Lady Caroline Lamb, Augusta Leigh, Mary Shelley and Fanny Brawne. High-born and already married, the first is an incandescent scapegrace who wrote famously of Byron that he was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Augusta Leigh, the poet's half-sister, demonstrates the truth of that warning by becoming his quite literal beloved and outraging the society he professed to scorn. Mary Wollstonecraft, daughter of the great feminist and William Godwin, is nothing if not rational -- until Shelley enters her life. And Fanny Brawne, the youngest of the four, has attained a kind of immortality as the girl to whom Keats wrote and for whom he yearned.

Jude Morgan is a pseudonym for a writer living in Peterborough, England, and -- unless his tracks are covered rather more assiduously than need be -- male. He would appear to have written another work of historical fiction, The King's Touch, and is an expert on period voice and dress. Mad King George, the Duke of Wellington, the Emperor Napoleon and dandy Beau Brummel take brief bows and do so in appropriate clothing. The times of war, the times of peace, the shift from the Enlightenment to the Romantic period (Talleyrand, Tom Paine, Coleridge, Rousseau, Severn and Trelawny stand at the edge of the canvas as well), the look of England and the Continent, the language of journal entries and bedroom conversations and the strictures of propriety, the fierce scourge of consumption, the deaths of children and deaths in childbirth, the brandy consumed and suicides and bill collectors at the door -- all feel authoritative. When Caroline Lamb learns how to waltz, she does so in a verbal cadence that replicates the dance: "Listen: that rhythm. That rhythm. The WALTZ." When Byron's prospective bride assures herself of her own spotless motives, she does so in the stultifying discourse of hypocrisy: "But she must lower herself in her own opinion, if she were to ignore the evidences of a strong disinclination in her suitor to the domestic virtues, which accorded with a hostility to religion still more to be deplored, and which no revision of judgement could, she believed, ever render acceptable to her conscience, no matter what might be the contrary inclinations of her heart and mind."

Once or twice the novelist falters -- allowing rhetoric to take pride of place and permitting descriptive longeurs. This reader could have lived without a few of the more ostentatious devices -- little dramatic scenes, for example, where Lady Melbourne and an interlocutor make their pronouncements as if on stage. And Fanny Brawne proves a minor player here; she and John Keats constitute a weak third leg of the triangulated story line.

This has historical justification, however; she was never Keats's lover, and the swath they cut through society was a good deal less wide than that of Byron or Shelley. The club-footed Byron might well have limped along were it not for his exalted title, and Shelley -- with a baronetcy in his ancestry -- was forever wrangling with his family for social standing and cash. But "marriage to a Brawne is a downward step," Morgan writes. "Only a small step -- but the narrower these distinctions, the more they matter."

Such a phrase is expert stuff, a kind of inflection by context -- a way of being so wholly absorbed by matter that manner follows suit. And the temptation is to quote from Passion unstintingly, to cite image after image: "After the country, night-time London kept her awake: not so much the noises as the spoiling of quiet, like a scribble on a white wall." Or, "This is a coach, shuddering over cobbles and then roaring over flagstones . . . then climbing past Camden Town, where London falls away, where smoke from each chimney becomes a separate event."

The friendship of Byron and Shelley in Switzerland and Italy, the way Mary Shelley comes to write Frankenstein, the descent into madness of Caroline Lamb, the complex interactions of daughter and father, sister and half-sister, brother and half-sister: All these are described with panache. The portrait of Augusta Leigh is a triumph of sympathetic discretion; her love affair with her half-brother -- so inexplicable to society -- feels entirely persuasive.

What could have been mere melodramatic set-piece after set-piece, a bodice-ripper in pentameter, becomes an exploration of mind and emotion, art and heart. Whatever his true surname, this "Jude the Obscure" deserves to be widely acknowledged as a writer to be read. *

Nicholas Delbanco directs the Hopwood Awards Program at the University of Michigan. His most recent novel, "The Vagabonds," has just been released in paperback.