Friday, May 18, 2012

Tantalizing Glimpses -- A Regency Life

We are so often given small glimpses of lives as we research the Regency, or any other era. I've frequently wished that some person I discover had kept a diary, or someone had published a volume of her letters, or she had been famous enough to be noticed in a substantial way.

Amelia Curran is one such person. She knew, very well, many of the main players on the Regency stage, and we can only wonder what she thought of them. Amelia was born in 1775 in Dublin to Irish MP and barrister John Philpot Curran and his wife Sarah. She grew up in an atmosphere of culture, literature, and politics. She presumably enjoyed her meetings with the political notables of the era such as William Godwin and Aaron Burr, and may have acted as her father's hostess after her parents' divorce in 1795.

Variously described as witty and kind, mild and gentle, she nevertheless did not marry, but pursued an artistic bent.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
In 1810, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had come to Ireland in pursuit of justice against what he considered tyranny, and to further, informally, his radical education. Amelia was thirty-five, Shelley was eighteen. Despite the difference in their ages, they developed a friendship that was to last throughout Shelley's brief life. When in 1812 Shelley travelled Ireland campaigning against British injustice, Amelia was with him. Their paths crossed again and again with Shelley's peripatetic search for meaning and truth.

One can only speculate on Amelia's character. Harriet, Shelley's first wife, described her as a 'coquette'. Was this an unkindness by a jealous wife? Others said Amelia was 'amiable' and 'agreeable'. These are slim encomiums, and we have no idea what Amelia looked like. Certainly there was a strength of character in her that many Regency ladies did not possess or, at least, did not display. For Amelia Curran travelled to Italy, determined to further her artistic career. She studied art, and made, apparently, a slim living copying Old Masters and painting portraits. There was a large ex-patriate British community in Italy, among them Irish radicals such as George Tighe, John Taafe and Lady Mount Cashell. No doubt some of her commissions came from people from 'home'.

In 1818, she met the Shelleys in Rome. How accidental was this meeting? Had she travelled to Italy knowing that the Shelleys were expected there? Percy had by this time moved on to his second wife, Mary, who became a good friend of Amelia's. There seems to have been none of the jealousy that first wife Harriet experienced. Firmly attaching herself to the Shelleys' menage, Amelia was introduced to Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Claire Claremont.
Amelia was, in my opinion, an indifferent artist. The Atheneum magazine remarked on her 'childish incompetence'. Nevertheless, she was the only artist to paint Percy Bysshe Shelley in adulthood. That alone was enough to guarantee her a certain degree of celebrity. Amelia began her portrait of Shelley almost immediately upon their meeting in Rome. She herself considered it 'ill-done'; it has been suggested that it resembles one of Shelley's favourite paintings, by Guido Reni.

Claire Claremont
Amelia was one of the few artists to capture an image of Claire Claremont. Claire detested the portrait for which she sat in May 1818, but it was sent hang in England at Newstead Abbey. Amelia also painted the only portrait of Shelley's son, William. It is the most successful picture of the three portraits. Unfortunately, the child died shortly thereafter at age three. The Shelleys were devastated and the portrait was treasured.
William Shelley courtesy of New York Public Library

When Percy Bysshe Shelley died in a boating accident in 1822 at age twenty-nine, everything changed for Amelia Curran.

She moved to Naples, then on to Paris, eventually returning to Rome in 1824. Richard Robert Madden who knew her during her post-Shelley years described her as being "in bad health...[suffering] fits of melancholy", some of which lasted weeks. Was this a depressive illness which she had suffered all her life? Or was it something engendered by her loss of Shelley, who had been special to her?

Amelia Curran's life raises more questions than it answers and we'll never know the truth. Then, as now, many women lived 'lives of quiet desperation'. Amelia died in Rome in 1847 and even her memorial, in the church of St. Isidore, does her less than justice. Lord Cloncurry, a friend of long-standing, said of her,

"She was the most witty and agreeable woman I ever knew, full of talent and kindness; a musician, a painter, and a writer. I loved and respected her sincerely."

Despite those sentiments, he ordered her memorial to read:
Amelia Curran
was the most talented and virtuous daughter of
John Philpot Curran,
who fearlessly pleaded the cause of his country and his
oppressed fellow-citizens before corrupt judges
and hostile juries.
They were true patriots.

It was a memorial more about her father than about Amelia. How very sad...

'Til next time,


Next week, guest blogger Vicky Dreiling will be here talking about Mary Shelley. Vicky is the author of three Regency romances, and is a confirmed historical romance junkie and Anglophile. Frequent business trips to the UK allowed her to indulge her passion for all things Regency England. Bath, Stonehenge, and Spencer House are among her favorite places. She is, however, truly sorry for accidentally setting off a security alarm in Windsor Castle. That unfortunate incident led her British colleagues to nickname her “Trouble.” When she’s not writing, Vicky enjoys reading, films, concerts, and most of all, long lunches with friends. A native Texan, she holds degrees in English literature and marketing.



Anne Gallagher said...

Poor Amelia. A life of quiet desperation indeed. It is a shame that no letters or diary was found. Can you imagine what they would say?

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I do wonder what she thought of the 'famous' people that surrounded her. Were they ordinary to her? Did they make her feel impatient with their literary flights of fancy? Or was she overawed--a sort of groupie? Oh, the questions....