Romantic remains

Thomas Jefferson Hogg in 1857

Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s 1813 novel, Memoirs of Prince Alexey Haimatoff, purports to be the reminiscences of a Russian of mysterious, probably royal, parentage.

Hogg (1792-1862) wrote on antiquity for both the Edinburgh Review and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but is mostly remembered today as Shelley’s first biographer. They had been friends at Oxford, from which they were both expelled in 1811 for co-writing a pamphlet arguing for atheism. Shelley later suspected Hogg of designs on his wife, Harriet, but by the time Haimatoff came out, appears to have forgiven him, and gave the book its sole review.

Haimatoff is clearly the work of a young man, dashed off in overwrought style. It is full of Romantic cliches – mysterious origins, a dark and dashing hero, dangerously sensuous or unfeasibly angelic women, doomed love, German castles, corpses in crypts, duels, Greek ruins, Ottoman harems, secret societies, strange ceremonies, slave markets, sword fights, and bouts of insanity. One sentence tells the temperature – “Gay hope was changed to wild despair, well nigh to moody madness”. Thomas Love Peacock had Haimatoff firmly in mind when writing Nightmare Abbey, his 1818 satire of the Romantic movement.

There are digressions about Aristotle, book learning versus native genius, happiness, mortality, and the alleged awfulness of the Catholic church and the Ottomans. The hero expounds on “universal liberty” in classical landscapes. Like Byron, Hogg was a Hellenophile and Turcophobe, and there is an epic swim in Haimatoff reminiscent of Byron’s crossing of the Hellespont. The plot is jerky and disconnected. Some characters are introduced with detailed descriptions, then killed off so abruptly the effect is almost comical.

Haimatoff is also unlikeable. Notwithstanding his fixation with ‘universal liberty’, he buys a sex slave in Constantinople, although he sets her free (but only because she is beautiful). His Whig principles do not prevent him ingratiating himself with a Tory whose daughter he desires. Shelley criticises Haimatoff’s libertinism – rather hypocritically, because he had himself just dumped Harriet for Mary.

However, Haimatoff can also be ardent, imaginative, and vigorous, with some memorable passages – “The sable honours of his head have perished; they once waved in the wind like the jetty pinions of the raven; the skull is only covered by the shrivelled skin, which the rook views wistfully, and calls to her young ones.”

Reading this recalls a moment when Romantic ideas were upturning everything Augustan and restrained, with still reverberating consequences. Greater writers would develop Hogg’s themes, but Haimatoff was an early ingredient in that revolutionary ferment. Shelley was right to see the book as “an unweeded garden where nightshade is interwoven with sweet jessamine, and the most delicate spices of the east peep over struggling stalks of rank and poisonous hemlock”.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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