Friday, January 28, 2011

The Original Desperate Housewife

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis (published 1856; republished by Penguin Group, 2010) 342 pages

I bow down before the master Flaubert...I had been thinking of Emma Bovary and her creator for some time now, thinking I should revisit the book. Fortuitously, last year, I was excited to learn of this new translation which was creating a great buzz in the literary world.

Flaubert was, perhaps, a scoundrel, a womanizer, a Mama’s boy, but, oh, how he understood the torment of forbidden desire, the rituals of love.

In the introduction, the translator Lydia Davis describes the book as depicting "the lives of its characters objectively, without idealizing, without romanticizing, and without intent to instruct or to draw a moral lesson". Flaubert's work was soon labeled "realist fiction", a description he disliked. His work was considered immoral by some, coarse and vulgar. He was even briefly taken to court on charges that the book was immoral. Certainly it was shocking.

This is a heart that understands passion. And lust. And greed. And many other emotions which may have frightened the bourgeois in the 1850s that Flaubert so despised and mocked in this novel.

Convent educated Emma Rouault is courted by Dr. Charles Bovary who has fallen in love with her, while treating her father, a prosperous farmer, for his broken leg. Well before he becomes a widower, he becomes entranced with Emma. Her black hair and pretty face, her delicate ways, her elegant, simple style. Bovary, saddled with an imperious older wife whose cold feet in the marital bed (what a perfect description of his distaste) repel him is easily tempted by Emma.

The detail is so sensuous and the language so carefully constructed here. It makes my heart flutter just to read of Charles' admiration for Emma under her pretty parasol before he asks her to marry him or Emma blowing flower petals to her husband as he rides away during the honeymoon period of their marriage…

Emma, who had been cosseted in a convent and raised on Walter Scott epics, has grand romantic dreams. She pines for her knight to ride up to the manor and take her away. Before she marries, she believes that what she lacks is a husband and married love. After she marries, she dreams of romance, wealth, and adventures that never transpire.

She considers her husband Charles to be coarse and foolish. He is admired for his decency and gentleness by all except Emma. But Charles desires only Emma: “The universe, for him, did not extend beyond the silly contour of her undershirt…” Charles who cannot follow the plot of Lucia di Lammermoor because the music distracts him from the recitatives.

An invitation to the home of the Marquis d’Andervilles (rewarding the good doctor for a medical service) only further inflames Emma’s passions. Emma is dazzled by the ladies’ gowns, the exquisite food, and the opulence of his chateau, the people whom she deems cultured, rich and elegantly mannered. A waltz, still considered a bit risqué for the time, with the Marquis, sends her into a swoon. Why should she, better dressed, prettier, more refined, not be able to share in all the riches that life has to offer?

A dashing Flaubert in his youth
When, by chance, Charles comes upon the Marquis’ cigarette case on the road before her home, she covets it like a religious relic, trying to conjure up the excitement of that lone night.

She becomes bored and excitable, yearning for more. “She wanted both to die and to live in Paris”. Her actions become inexplicable. She loses her taste for elegance and has fits of rage against the servants. She becomes slovenly. This chapter ends unexpectedly. We begin to suspect that Emma is perhaps slipping into madness. We soon learn, instead, that Emma is pregnant. Perhaps, the reader suspects, her anxieties are hormonal, not psychological.

Whenever I read this section I amazed how Flaubert has captured the desperation of the lonely housewife who feels herself to be cut off from the things she craves, the things she desires. She is the original desperate housewife. How did he access her desires - this spoiled, arrogant, misogynistic man of the world?

"I am in their skin," Flaubert said candidly and he sometimes found himself weeping while writing the novel. And it is quite engaging how fully he inhabits the fictional Emma’s mind.

Emma bears a daughter whom she names Berthe and whom she quickly farms out to a wet nurse in the country (a not uncommon occurrence for a woman of Emma’s class). Charles’ mother acidly asserts that Emma reads too many novels and isn’t occupied with enough work. Charles tiptoes around Emma thinking her too delicate, too fine at times, for her life as a doctor’s wife. He seeks a change for Emma and himself. They move to Yonville (a fictitious town) and he takes up the practice of a doctor who has just passed away in the area.
Jennifer Jones as
Madame Bovary (1949)
Everything changes for Emma in Yonville. She meets Leon, a young, aspiring law clerk, living an equally lonely existence in the village. They are silently drawn to each other but the more she is attracted to Leon the more Emma withdraws and so, consequently, becomes irresistible and inaccessible to Leon. Emma watches in silent despair as he decides to leave for Paris – partially because it is painful for him to remain near Emma and partially because he suffers from the same ennui as Emma.

But soon a new love interest is on the horizon…Rodolphe Boulanger, an aristocrat with a wandering eye and unscrupulous morals, who has decided to seduce Emma just for the fun of it. Bored, resentful, ambitious, she is ripe for the picking...How artfully Flaubert juxtaposes Rodolphe's honeyed whispered seduction of Emma with the declaration of the prizes awarded at the Agricultural Fair for the best manure!

Ensnared by her love of luxury, Emma becomes indebted to Lheureux, the dry good merchant, who soon determines Emma's secret when he threatens to take back an unpaid for riding crop. Emma can't pay for the articles that she has purchased on credit from Lheureux. Her alarm suggests to Lheureux that the riding crop is not for Charles but some unknown lover (he is correct).

Unfortunately for Charles he becomes convinced by the local provincials that he must try and assist young Hippolyte, a stable boy with a club foot. His experiments on the boy prove disastrous and the boy must eventually have his foot and calf amputated after much suffering. This tragedy only furthers Emma's disdain for Charles. "Everything about him irritated her now..." as everything in his, and her life, is refracted through the prism of Emma's unhappiness.

Hippolyte's tragedy had, at first, seemed a strange inclusion in Emma's narrative, the first few times I read it especially as it is juxtaposed between Emma's relationship with Rodolphe and the return of Leon to Emma's life. But it seems an apt metaphor upon further reading. The medical procedure on the boy seems the solution to a difficult situation (as does the affair with Rodolphe for Emma) but the experiment then leads to greater catastrophe and eventual disaster for the boy in the same way that the relationship with Rodolphe leads to entanglement with Leon and even more dire circumstances for Emma.

Rodolphe inevitably disappoints Emma to whom he has promised a life abroad with her child. He is so snake-like in casting her off that the reader immediately empathizes with the deluded Emma even though she has behaved shamefully towards Charles. Emma briefly contemplates suicide when she read Rodolphe's letter, collapses and lapses into a brain fever which lasts for some months nursed by the faithful Charles.
Isabelle Huppert as Madame Bovary (1991)
She recovers slowly. She turns to religion, charity work, determined to overcome the passions of her heart. Slowly she resumes her old life.

A neighbour begins to extol the virtues of music and theatre to Charles so he feels compelled to bring Emma to a production of Lucia di Lammermoor in Rouen. Quite by accident they encounter Leon who is completing his law studies and joins them in their booth. Now emboldened by his success with the local grisettes, he is determined to seduce Emma.

He hits upon a perfect ruse. When he mentions that an acclaimed singer will be performing the next night Charles insists that Emma remain in Rouen to hear him although Charles must leave that very night.

Leon calls upon Emma at her hotel the next day and professes his love. She demurs but promises that they will meet the next day at the Cathedral. She composes a letter that night telling him why they must desist from meeting but decides to hand him the note in person the next day.

At the Cathedral, the verger tries to tempt Emma and Leon with the beauties and history of the church while Leon attempts to lure Emma away. Emma's feigned interest in religious faith (represented by the visit to the Cathedral) collides with Leon's more corporeal desires. In frustration, he hurriedly calls for a cab while she tepidly resists.

Here ensues, in my estimation, the most erotic passage in modern Western literature (Part III, Chapter 1 - see for yourself!). Leon pulls Emma into the cab and urges the rider on, anywhere as long as they move. We see nothing of what happens in the covered coach. The cab drives on and on through Rouen and whenever the driver slows down we only hear Leon's voice, cursing the driver and compelling him onward attracting the attention of curious onlookers. The driver beats the horses onwards mercilessly. At the end of the ride, the only thing we see of Emma is:
...a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.
When Emma returns to Yonville we are introduced to two disturbing incidents both signaling ominous future events. Emma's father-in-law has died during her absence and when she searches for Charles at the pharmacist's we find Homais reprimanding his assistant for innocently being in contact with a jar of arsenic in the pharmacy. Both seemingly innocuous events hint at more ominous events to come.

Leon and Emma begin a series of trysts in Rouen - the air is filled with the smell of "absinthe, cigars and oysters" - where Emma goes under the pretext of getting piano lessons which Charles encourages. She disappears for two or three days at a time. Their meetings are passionate and intense. Emma becomes for Leon "the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every drama, the vague she of every volume of poetry".

But eventually she tires of Leon and he tires of Emma. Once when he disappoints Emma, tarrying with a surprise visit by Monsieur Homais, she comes to the realization that she no longer loves him as she once did. Their relationship has become as pedestrian as any marriage might be. Here Flaubert warns the reader, "We should not touch our idols; their gilding will remain on our hands."

Once, returning from a rendezvous, Emma encounters a beggar swathed in rags, whose bloodied, empty eye sockets ooze pus. To her horror, the man clings to her coach begging for money and singing. For me, this horrifying sight presages the hideous dwarf who appears in the unfortunate Anna's dream in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1873) almost twenty years later.

Emma continues to rack up ruinous debts with Lheureux, the dry good merchant, which Charles has no knowledge of while Leon attempts to distance himself from Emma at the urging of his mother and employer.

When Emma is finally compelled by the bailiff to pay her debt of 8,000 francs or risk seizure of all of their possessions, she frantically searches for financial assistance and even, in desperation, approaches Rodolphe who cannot or will not assist her.

In a frenzy, she runs to the pharmacist's abode then seizes and swallows some arsenic. Her final days are painful and graphically portrayed. Flaubert so identified with Emma during her last days that he often found himself to be physically ill. Emma's slow demise exhibits all the contradictions of her troubled nature: sudden religious fervor (passionately kissing the crucifix that she demands be brought to her), lingering vanity (a request to see herself in a hand mirror), guilt and shame at her past actions as if she is expecting some sort of retribution (represented by her horror at hearing the voice of the blind beggar singing through the window)...

Flaubert is not above delivering a blow to the reader's tender sensibilities as he or she is lulled into a gentle image of Emma's final visage before burial. As she is dressed in white for her funeral the women who are dressing her comment on how beautiful she looks, how life-like. The corpse's mouth suddenly leaks a black vomit nearly destroying the beatific image presented. It's as if Flaubert is saying, "Do not be fooled by her beauty, do not romanticize her; here lies a truly desperate and ugly creature."

Charles falls to ruin, at first emulating his wife's exorbitant habits then allowing himself to dissipate when he finds Emma's secret letters from Rodolphe and Leon. Everyone around Charles prospers as if to mock him for his goodness. His practice is ruined and his patients neglected, servants desert him, Berthe runs about in torn clothes, his debts overwhelm him.

Rodolphe, although uneasy in his suspicions that Charles knows, is impervious to troubles. Leon marries well. Felicité, Emma's servant, runs off with most of Emma's wardrobe. Lheureux seizes most of Charles' possessions because of the debt. The pharmacist Monsieur Homais, the inadvertent purveyor of Emma's death by arsenic, receives his much desired Legion of Honor. When Charles dies, his daughter Berthe is sent to live with a distant aunt who, as she is poor, must send the girl to work in a cotton mill.

I am uncertain that there is no moral tone here. It is quite clear that Emma's infidelity has lead to death and ruination for the family.

If this was not Flaubert's prescription for preserving one's fidelity, I don't know what is. It's as if he is mocking us...the bourgeois, the hypocritical, the devious, the morally bankrupt, all triumph except for Emma (and Charles) who must pay the price for all of them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The shock of the...annoying

Many of us Descant volunteers and Co-Editors were at the Rivoli once upon a time to hear our fearless leader Karen Mulhallen read her poetry and show photographs from her trip to Sable Island at The Box Salon, a multi-media, multi-artist forum presented by the inimitable Louise Bak. Karen was preceded by two presenters. I came in just as the performance artist was plying her trade (I won’t name her, my intention is not to ridicule her here but merely to pose a number of questions).

The artist did a number of things including assuming vaguely marital poses with a fake sword, having her photograph taken repeatedly, screening a video of her climbing into bed with assorted friends and comrades and nimbly dancing around the stage. At one point, she wrapped a red scarf around her head covering her eyes, toddled off stage and groped her way to the seated audience.

She held a bottle of some sort of coloured fluid in her hand, spritzed it on the hands of audience members and then (did I imagine this?) proceeded to lick it off their hands. All I could think of was … oh boy, wait till she hits Andrew Coyne’s table who, from my vantage point, at the back of the room was situated at a table slightly to my right (he acquitted himself admirably considering the circumstances). But that was not the pinnacle of the performance.

Finley doing her thing...
Perhaps I have already established myself here as an artistic Luddite, preferring too much the old to the new, the classic to the modern. Maybe I am the inevitable and unenviable product of innumerable generations of cynical Sicilian peasants but I was completely unmoved or intrigued by the view of the artist cutting her own pubic hair and sprinkling it on stage. Apparently with my slightly late arrival I also missed some similar activity involving ice cubes (luckily for me). It all seemed so Karen Finley twenty five years ago with Ms. Finley relieving herself on stage in an impotent rage or covering herself in chocolate…

George Orwell famously said “You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense. No ordinary man could be such a fool.” He was speaking in a political context but it sometimes comes to mind when viewing unconventional forms of art.

I will be the first to admit that I resist what I don’t understand and am quick to dismiss it as such. I wasn’t shocked so much by the performance (okay perhaps mildly alarmed when I thought she was coming my way with that mysterious fluid). But I did feel annoyed. I guess it was the childish, mental equivalent of strutting around a gallery pointing to the modern art and saying in a huff “Huh, I could do that!” That sentiment has always disturbed me because I think it’s borne of ignorance and lack of insight.

I am not proud of my cynicism or my resistance to new ways of presenting “art” if that is what this is. But I also don’t think there can be appreciation or understanding without education of some sort – an education that I must take on myself in order to interpret what I see (and don’t see) in a work of art, annoying or otherwise.

Initially published in an altered format on March 2nd, 2007 at

Friday, January 14, 2011

Buona notte

Tonight I was feeling lucky.

I had a very disturbing dream last night that my doctor had handed me some bad news (I had been awaiting the results of a medical test). Instead today he told he was not concerned and not to worry. I had been having morbid thoughts about what the news might be and felt liberated by the teasing/slight rude manner in which he customarily handles my health anxieties when I called.

I felt lucky, like I had escaped something and relieved I had other less worrying things to concern myself with tonight.

As I am leaving for Out of the Cold, J tells me that she saw the "Professor" on the subway. He is a tall, quiet, sober looking man who sometimes comes to the church for a meal on Fridays nights so I was thinking that he might show up. He did.

Last time I volunteered I took a job ladling out food to the servers who serve the guests. I was tired that day and I enjoyed that role but I think I enjoy the actual serving better. The people are, for the most part, very sweet, very appreciative. And I like to be busy when I'm there.

I got a pleasant surprise tonight. G., the shift supervisor, took me aside and asked me if I would consider being a shift supervisor in the near future. I was quite pleased but shocked that she thought I could do that role and expressed reservations. She asked, "Why not?" We were interrupted but it left me with something to ponder during my shift.

The group usually starts with Grace as most people appear to be religiously motivated in their volunteering. I just bow my pagan head and say nothing as Grace is said.

I see several regulars enter: The Professor, the Reader, the young man who said I looked like his sister and who sometimes speaks snippets of Italian to me, a young South American guy with these very cool dreads who seems very out of place - kind of like maybe he is on some kind of adventure here in North America.

My friend D. is washing dishes and her daughter S. is serving - an exhausting job that she does straight for two hours. Other new friends, R. and C., are serving.

Full house tonight and I am, luckily, stationed at table one which is closest to the food being served - the table is full with eight people seated, all men except for one older woman. We start with a cabbage soup with ham and white beans which seems popular. When I put my hand on the Reader's back to ask if I can clear his plate he jumps very nervously and says he was not expecting that.

The man to his right says gently to him, "Feels nice to have a woman touch you, eh?" That pretty much breaks my heart. That man is very sweet, very gentle and tries to clear his own table settings which he doesn't have to do.

The musical group starts up - and seriously - it's like a parody of a Salvation Army band playing some dispirited religious tune with a number of older people singing very sad, very old songs, out of tune. The music always irks me. Why does anyone affiliated with OOTC  assume the assembled group wants to hear these morose tunes?

I am more comfortable with the clientele now and can chat a bit more freely which puts people at ease a bit I think. I serve the Salisbury steak with gravy, roast potatoes and beans and carrots family style which means in large bowls placed with ladles on the table. The food goes quickly (except for the veg) as expected.

The Reader quizzes me with a quote from an old movie - do I recognize it, he asks? No, but he seems pleased when I remember who was in it.

The two women on security look a bit formidable but when I compliment one on her hair, she breaks into a lovely smile and her whole face changes. Should trouble arise there are several Dixon Hall staff who are meant to handle any issues. Apparently, this is a very rare occurrence. As I said, people are, for the most part, very polite, very appreciative.

Half the table leaves early leaving only four for dessert - a very delish looking apple pie with vanilla ice cream. When I ask one older man in a toque how he liked the pie he says, "It was great but too small!" So I sneak him an extra piece.

As I clean up, the South American boy with the cool dreads calls me over and tries to tell me's about (I think) most people in this city being filled with an angry spirit. Meaning me? I hope not, I feel oddly calm and positive when I am there.

We clean up in teams, I am assigned tables one through four, a very sweet faced teenager helps me - we wipe the tablecloths, disinfect them, fold them, put the tables away, put the mattresses out for the overnight guests. I am tired but not unhappy. This little pagan is blessed, absolutely blessed. And I am smiling as I leave.

"Buona notte!" my young friend says to me in Italian as I am leaving. It is indeed.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Letting it snow

Shoveling the snow off the sidewalk last night I was thinking of an incident a few years ago (don't feel too sorry for me, I rarely do it. R does most of the heavy lifting around the house). I was trying to park our car in the driveway during a snowstorm. It was awkward because I couldn't park the car on the street and I couldn't get into the driveway so I was hurriedly trying to clear the driveway while the car was sort of blocking the one way street.

A young man, shovel in hand, came by and offered to help me. Let's call him John. When I hesitated he said, "Don't worry I'm not asking for money. I just want to help." Nice smile, friendly manner, not threatening. I said, "Great, thank you." So we quickly cleared the driveway and I was able to park the car.

When we finished he said, "If you need me to clear the snow tomorrow I can come by and do it for ten dollars. I live around the corner with my aunt. Just give me a call." He handed me his number.

So thinking I was saving myself and the husband some backbreaking work I called John the next day. This was not agreeable to R who thought this was his responsibility and can be a bit obstinate about what he sees as his husbandly role around the house. But I argued that I thought this guy could use the cash and besides he had performed a kindness by helping me out. R grudgingly agreed.

I called the number that John gave me. A woman answered but the youngish quality of her voice did not suggest an elderly aunt and the efficient way in which she processed my message seemed out of character for a family member. Perhaps it was a boarding house or halfway house of some kind I thought. And I felt uneasy that he might have felt the need to lie about this in order to secure this tiny bit of work.

John showed up that day and did a great job again. I gratefully paid him. The next day, unasked, he showed up again. I wasn't home and he told R that I had requested that he return (there was little snow that day so it seemed odd to R that I would do that). But R paid him, a trifle suspiciously. But he did not get a great feeling about this man and I find that R has unerring instincts about people so that gave me a bit of pause.

The next day John showed up again. This time, I answered the door. John was ready to shovel again even though it was light snow. I had to say no. There was really nothing to do. I told him that I would call him if I needed his help.

This was starting to irk me a bit - we went from him performing a kindness towards me, to getting a bit of money for a small job, to showing up unasked and lying about what I had asked him to do. I didn't feel comfortable having him do it anymore. So when he called the next time (I guess he sensed that he couldn't just show up at the door) I told him that my husband was going to handle it from now on. He did not sound pleased.

I felt guilty about turning him away but I also don't like to be played when I am trying to act like a human being (you have no idea how hard it is for me to be one). Then again, obviously this guy needed the money or he wouldn't be playing these silly games over ten bucks here and ten bucks there.

The next day, oddly enough, our shovel, which sits on the front porch unmolested all winter, went missing. That's never been an issue before (being careful what we left out there).

I was looking out the window and wondering where John was. It started to snow. Somewhere out there John was helping a damsel in distress and smiling that winning smile. And I thought, just a bit sadly, turning from the window, "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

19th c. Teenage Dreams...

Let's go all the way tonight
No regrets, just love
We can dance until we die
You and I, we'll be young forever
Teenage Dream, Katy Perry  

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) 384 pages

"Tangled" is such an understatement for the personal and literary relations between these charismatic, irresponsible, sometimes beautiful, impossible people.

What was the Romantic movement? Very very briefly, it was an artistic and political movement which "validated strong emotion as an authentic source of the aesthetic experience". It prized "intuition and emotion over Enlightenment rationalism".

There was a time when the antics of the Romantic poets and political radicals of early 19th c. England would have sent me into a rapture of historical and intellectual envy. Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851), John Keats (1795-1821), Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)... Groundbreaking social and political theories, amorous, complicated adventures with multiples partners.

It is inevitable folks, once you have kids, and they become teenagers and could potentially engage in all this free lovin', free thinkin' stuff - you start to reassess the feasibility of it all, the implications and consequences, which I grant you, is much less fun than embracing all that free lovin' and free thinkin'. This is so much more than the onset of middle age and middle spread but a re-evaluation of a way of thinking for me.

The academic Daisy Hay vividly recreates the lives of the amorous and political activities of these revolutionaries of England's Romantic period. We see not only their passions and sometimes bold and adventurous designs for living in a new age but the consequences of their rule breaking mores. Hay's writing represents the best of academic writing - it is lively, informative and not larded with dense academic jargon. She captures their foibles and passions compassionately.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Consider the English Romantic poet/aristocrat Shelley (radical advocate of free love, atheism, Christianity, and - ahem - vegetarianism) who, leaving behind Harriet Westbrook, a pregnant wife with a child, runs off to France with the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (herself the spawn of the radicals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin), and her step-sister Jane Clairmont in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars in 1814.

You make me
Feel like I'm living a
Teenage dream
The way you turn me on
I can't sleep
Let's run away and
Don't ever look back
Don't ever look back

With no money and nowhere to go, Shelley must resort to begging for funds, even from his wife Harriet who understandably is reluctant to supplement his newly liberated lifestyle with the two sisters. In despair, Harriet, who had been constantly beseeching him to come home, drowns herself two years later.

The threesome are so poor and so disorganized that they often travel by uncovered boat or walk great distances to achieve their destinations and eventually return to England but the girls are disowned by that other great radical thinker William Godwin (the father of Mary) who refuses to recognize the legitimacy of their unusual arrangement and take back his step-daughter Jane.

Shelley was described by an admirer as one who "dared to threaten the world with the horrid and diabolical progress of telling mankind to open its eye". Shelley attempted to persuade Mary (now pregnant with his child) to engage in a sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, one of Shelley's best friends with whom he co-wrote The Necessity of Atheism at Oxford University College and for which he was expelled.

Mary Shelley (nee Wollstonecraft Godwin)
Mary, lonely, confined to her bed with a problematic pregnancy and fearful of the fate that her own mother faced when she died in childbirth, flirts timidly with the idea. Although it appears that what she most wanted was more attention from Shelley who was gallivanting about the country appeasing creditors and promoting his own literary works with the assistance of Mary's step-sister Jane.

Did this suggestion from Shelley free Shelley up for further attention towards step-sister Jane (now renaming herself the more romantic name "Claire"?) or was he "merely" aggressively promulgating his notions of free love - spreading the love so to speak?

Periodically he falls in love with another muse in his circle: not only his sister-in-law Claire, but the teenage Emilia Viviani for whom he wrote Epipsychidion; and Jane Williams - the unattainable common-law wife of Edward Williams, a colleague.

Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, achieved fame (or notoriety) when he was imprisoned for two years for an attack on the Prince Regent's behavior in his newspaper. He became a hero amongst the radicals and the Romantic poets of his time. Rumors of inappropriate relations dogged Leigh Hunt upon his release from prison. While married to Marianne, his sister-in-law Bess Kent came to hold a special place in his life often acting as an agent with publishers and an intimate companion at literary affairs.

The publication of The Story of Rimini, which details the "close" relations between brother-in-law Paulo and sister-in-law Francesca seemed to seal his fate and he was attacked for lightly cloaking his own alleged relationship with Bess which he vehemently denied. This forced Bess to separate from the Hunts and live in different lodgings to stifle the rumors.

My heart stops
When you look at me
Just one touch
Now baby I believe
This is real
So take a chance
And don't ever look back
Don't ever look back.

Claire had followed Byron to Geneva and then Italy; the Shelleys, anxious to know Byron, followed suit. There ensued a fruitful period of literary productivity for all - most notably the third canto of Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the conception of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier (1889);
pictured in the centre are, from left,
Edward John Trelawny, Leigh Hunt and Byron.
Mary Shelley is pictured to the extreme left of the frame, kneeling
Byron eventually laid claim to the child Alba (then renamed Allegra by Byron) and insisted that the child be brought to live with him and his mistress, the aristocratic Teresa. He soon placed the child in a convent, refusing to allow her mother to see Allegra who eventually died of typhus at the age of five.

In a few short years the band of idealists exiled to Italy are soon wrecked by tragedy and misfortune. Mary goes on to lose three of four children before they reach the age of five. Shelley drowns in a sailing mishap with Edward Williams and Mary must struggle with Shelley's father for financial assistance and is forced to leave Italy; Byron succumbs to a fever in Greece and his death is likely hastened by doses of purgatives and laudanum by inept doctors. Leigh Hunt faces both poverty, the illness of his wife Marianne and a growing brood of unsupervised children shuffled from one city to the next in search of stability and subject to the reluctant largess of wealthier friends like Byron.

They are young, in some instance wealthy or supported by wealthy friends and they are free of the prejudices of the day. Fueled by idealism, hormones (remember Mary was sixteen and Shelley was twenty one) and radical politics, they rebelled against a hypocritical and repressive society.

Claire Clairmont
But it is the women, not surprisingly, who bear the brunt of the tragedies which result from the liberal sexual and marital arrangements. Monogamy and fidelity to one's partner may seem like a ridiculously impossible ideal, and possibly it is, but what are the alternatives - moral anarchy and chaos? As Hay reports:
All three women [Mary Shelley, Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont and Bess Kent, Leigh Hunt's sister-in-law] had learned the reality of free love in the 1810s when their unorthodox living arrangements, and the ideals of Shelley and Hunt, had variously exposed their public scrutiny and, in the case of Mary and Claire, their bodies to illegitimate pregnancy...Now that the men of the group were dead, or living abroad, the women were left behind to count the cost of youthful idealism: damaged reputations, limited earning capacity and exclusion from polite society. 
Claire, one of the very few of the circle to reach old age was very aware of the repercussions and had spoken frequently of producing a personal memoir. She never did complete it but did record snippets of her thoughts about that time both in her diaries and in conversations she had with Edward Silsbee, a retired sea captain who venerated Shelley and which he recorded for her in notebooks (now preserved in the New York Public Library). In these peregrinations she came to believe that:
If I commit this sad tale to paper and finally to the public, it is with the intention of demonstrating from actual facts, what evil passion free love assured, what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge...the worshippers of free love not only preyed upon one another, but preyed equally upon their own individual selves turning their existence into a perfect hell. 
For unrestricted sexual conduct without responsibility is the fantasy of youth, of teenage fantasy. Coupled with great wealth (as with Byron) and/or radical political philosophy (Shelley, Leigh Hunt) there is always a price to pay and it's usually the female who pays the bill.