Clara Maria Constantina Jane Clairmont (Stocking 13), commonly known as Claire Clairmont, was a stepsister to Mary Shelley, partner of Lord Byron, and mother of his child, Allegra.
Clairmont believed herself to be born 27 April 1798 and she died 19 March 1879.
Though no records of her birth or baptism exist, Clairmont believed herself to have been born 27 April 1798 (Stocking 13). Historians speculate that she was most likely illegitimate, and she herself appeared to believe this to be true as well (14). She was known as Jane throughout most of her young life, but later preferred to be called Claire. Clairmont’s mother, Mary Jane Vial Clairmont, also had a son, Charles Gaulis Clairmont, born in Bristol on 4 June 1795. Clairmont’s mother moved the family in 1801 to Somers Town, a district in central London; William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father, was their neighbor. Clairmont’s mother married Godwin only a few months after meeting him when Claire Clairmont was three years old. Added to the household were Godwin’s daughter, four-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft, and Godwin’s stepdaughter, seven-year-old Fanny Imlay. On 28 March 1803, the Godwins had a son, William.
Godwin’s journals indicate that family life was hectic but fulfilling, with “great family excursions” (Stocking 16), often attending dinners and the theatre, where Clairmont gained an early ambition to be an actress (Gittings 5). She was “well known in the family for jokes and fun” (8). In the autumn of 1812, Claire left for boarding school in London at Walham Green where she attended “off and on for about two years” (Stocking 19). In October of 1812, Claire came home from boarding school and accompanied her family to dinner with Timothy and Mary Catherine Shelley, including their son, Percy. These meetings became commonplace between the two families (Stocking 19). By this time, Clairmont and Mary Wollstonecraft had read his letters and knew of his “unusual and daring ideas” (Gittings 10) By July 1814, a serious relationship had emerged between Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, and she and Claire fled with him, where Shelley and Mary eloped on July 28 (12). The three left England shortly, and though her mother followed them and begged her to return home, Clairmont felt she would never come back: she wrote in her journal, “As we left Dover & England’s white cliffs were retiring I said to myself I shall never see these more” (Stocking 21).
Clairmont became a common part of the Shelley household, and it was during this time that she was able to meet and pursue Lord Byron, recently separated from his wife, in 1816 (71).
Relationship with Lord Byron
In 1816, Claire spent some time away from the Shelley household, living in London on Shelley’s funding because she “wanted to avoid the drudgery and the sacrifice of freedom involved in the life of a governess or a companion” (Stocking 69). Her desire was to live like Mary: as the wife of a poet. Clairmont began her conquest of Lord Byron by writing him letters, as many young ladies did with famous poets. Though at first Byron seemed uninterested, Clairmont persisted in writing him highly emotional letters. After Byron’s separation from his wife was final, he traveled to Geneva, Switzerland. At the age of 18, Clairmont, accompanied by the Shelleys and their young son William, followed Byron to Geneva in May 1816 and remained through the summer (Stocking 71). During this time, Clairmont realized she was pregnant but also reluctantly comprehended that Byron was not in love with her; “there is never any evidence that their feelings are on an equal footing. She remained for him ‘that odd-headed girl – who introduced herself to me’” (Gittings 28). Clairmont and the Shelleys returned to England in September, and she continued to write to Byron often, though her prose sounded much like the “productions of a teenage girl” (Stocking 72), showing that she had “no real notion of the kind of man she was writing to” (73). Though Clairmont and the Shelleys remained good friends, they also had the unfortunate duty to “make clear to the deluded girl the truth that she was loath to face – that she was not to expect letters or visits from Byron” (74).
On 12 January 1817, Clairmont gave birth to a baby girl. The child was first “called Alba (an echo of Byron’s nickname Albe), then Clara, then Allegra” (Stocking 76). The child was baptized on 9 March 1818 (Gittings 40). Percy Shelley often wrote to Byron about the child (37). While Clairmont was “deeply happy with her child” (Stocking 78), their residence with the Shelleys posed a threat to Shelley’s reputation; they told others that “the little girl was ‘a child of a friend in London’” (Gittings 37). Thus, it was decided that Allegra should live with her father in Venice. In the Spring of 1818, the Shelleys and Clairmont traveled to Milan with Allegra. She was then taken to Venice by a Swiss nurse, Elise, who notified Clairmont of their safety by letter (42). The parting was very difficult for Clairmont, who wrote nothing in her journals at the time but years later wrote of the pain she experienced. She persuaded Percy Shelley to accompany her to Venice in August 1818, but arrived to find that Allegra was not with her father, who was reportedly “having a riotous time with various Venetian mistresses” (43). Clairmont was only able to see her daughter a few times after leaving her with Byron. His past behavior with Allegra would prove prophetic, as in 1822, Clairmont discovered that Allegra had been left in a convent while Byron traveled. Clairmont wrote to him on 18 February 1822, “I assure you I can no longer resist the internal inexplicable feeling which haunts me that I shall never see her anymore” (66). While Clairmont conspired to take Allegra from the convent, Mary warned her of this plan and her desire to involve Shelley, fearing a inevitable duel with Byron (67). Clairmont gave up this plan and unfortunately was correct in her feelings about Allegra: she was informed in April 1822 that Allegra had died in the convent, apparently of typhoid (69). She was buried at Harrow Church upon Byron’s request, but because of her illegitimate status, the grave was unmarked.
After Allegra’s death, Clairmont traveled across Europe often, including to Austria, Russia, and Italy. She periodically served as a governess or housekeeper in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Dresden, Tuscany, and other parts of Europe. Clairmont remained in contact with Mary Shelley until Shelley’s death in 1851 (Gittings 214). Clairmont lived out the last of her life in Florence, Italy and died 19 March 1879 (245) at age eighty.
In Popular Culture
Clairmont’s journals were published for public consumption in 1968 by the Harvard University Press, edited by Marion Kingston Stocking.
Fictional portrayals of Clairmont have commonly appeared in films focusing on the life of Mary Shelley. Clairmont is played by Amanda Murray in the 1972 UK TV movie Shelley. She was portrayed by Myriam Cyr in the 1986 film Gothic. Clairmont was played by Elizabeth Hurley in 1988’s Rowing With the Wind, an award-winning Spanish film which describes voyages taken by Mary Shelley and her circle. Clairmont was also portrayed by Amy Phillips in the 2003 TV Movie Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster, a dramatized telling of the life of Mary Shelley released in the UK.
- Clairmont, Claire. The Journals of Claire Clairmont. Ed. Marion Kingston Stocking. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968. Print.
- Gittings, Robert, and Jo Manton. Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys: 1798-1879. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.
Contributor: Leighann Dicks