The Carnival closed last night...
February 19th 1817: Ash Wednesday, and the Carnival festivities in Venice have come to an end for another year.
Byron, newly-returned from a masked ball at Gran Teatro La Fenice, writes a short letter to his sister Augusta, apologising for his brevity thus,
I have been up all night at the masked ball of the Fenice – and am rather tired... it was a fine sight - the theatre illuminated – and all the world buffooning. – I had my box full of visitors – masks of all kinds – and afterwards (as is the custom) went down to promenade the pit – which was boarded over level with the stage.
A masked ball at La Fenice
After telling her that he has been to many similar occasions over the past six weeks (at that time the Venetian Carnival began on 26 December and ended only with the start of Lent: most modern Venetians find that the current two-week time-span is more than long enough) he jokes,
I went out now and then – but was less dissipated than you would expect.
As far as his sister is concerned, he leaves it at that, although he has given his friend Tom Moore a more detailed description of one of his Carnival adventures, when a gondolier delivered a letter from a young lady desiring to meet him to which he – contented in his current domestic set-up with his landlady/lover Marianna - sent a polite refusal, only for the young lady herself to walk into his apartment late that evening to be followed a few minutes later by Marianna herself. The young lady is her sister-in-law, and she recognised the family gondolier when he delivered the note!
... without a single word [she] seizes her sister-in-law by the hair, and bestows upon her some sixteen slaps, which would have made your ear ache only to hear their echo. I need not describe the screaming that ensued. I seized Marianna, who, after several vain efforts to get away in pursuit of the enemy, fairly went into fits in my arms...
... After about an hour in comes – who? Why, Signor S, her lord and husband, and finds me with his wife fainting upon the sofa... and the lady as pale as ashes without sense or motion. His first question was, “What is all this?”
What indeed? From such scenes as this Don Juan will be born.
Little wonder, then, that he confides to Tom Moore that the Carnival has knocked me up a little.
However, the result of his late nights and adventures is his most beautiful short poem, written as he looks back on the Carnival of 1817.
So, we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.
Scroll forward two hundred years: the Venetian Carnival, 2017.
A lovelier toy sweet nature never made
January 12th 1817. Although he will not know of it for some time, on this day Lord Byron becomes a father again, with the birth of Claire Clairmont’s daughter.
The child is born in Bath, the early nineteenth century resort for ladies who are “unwell” and needing “medical advice.” Mary Shelley is with her step-sister, and on the following day she writes to Byron with news of the birth of his second daughter, called Alba by the Shelleys.
This pet-name is a double pun: In Italian, Alba means dawn, and so is an apt name for someone just setting out in life. However, to anyone in the know it is also a clear pointer to the child’s father, since Byron, fond of bellowing out what he claims are Albanian songs, is known as Albé among the Shelleys.
Little Alba will be almost able to sit up by the time her father learns of her existence, since Mary’s letter takes some time to reach its destination, zig-zagging across Italy and finally catching up with Byron in Rome in May. Writing to his sister Augusta to share the news, he tells her,
... it seems that I have got another – a daughter... I am a little puzzled how to dispose of this new production (which is two or three months old though I did not receive the accounts till at Rome), but shall probably send for & place it in a Venetian convent - to become a good Catholic - & (it may be) a Nun – being a character much wanted in our family. – they tell me it is very pretty – with blue eyes and dark hair – and although I never was attached nor pretended attachment to the mother – still in case of the eternal war and alienation which i foresee about my legitimate daughter – Ada – it may be well to have something to repose a hope upon – I must love something in my old age.
They tell me it is very pretty: Allegra Biron
I must love something in my old age. I’ll leave the last word to Woody Allen.
If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.
...being the feast of St Stephen...
26th December 1816: the feast of Santo Stefano, or St Stephen, and also the first day of the six-week long Venetian carnival. And so Byron finds
...all kinds of conceits and divertissements on every canal of this aquatic city...
He spends the evening at the opera, at the magnificent Gran Teatro La Fenice, which commences its carnival season on that day with a brand-new opera commissioned from the prolific and very popular composer Stefano Pavesi, Le Daniadi Romani.
The private boxes at La Fenice
Byron has a splendid evening. During the opera’s obligatory ballet (a chance for the gentlemen in the audience to gaze at ladies’ legs) he is entertained by the hysterics of the principal danseuse, who
... went into convulsions because she was applauded on her first appearance – and the manager came forward to see if there was ‘ever a physician in the theatre’ – there was a Greek one in my Box whom I wished very much to volunteer his services – being sure that in this case these would have been the last convulsions which would have troubled the ballerina – but he would not.
He is also hugely diverted by the plot of the opera, which he recognises from his days studying classical literature at Harrow, since it is taken from Livy’s History of Rome:
...a hundred and fifty married ladies having poisoned a hundred and fifty husbands in the good old times... This is really & truly the subject of the Musical piece at the Fenice - & you can’t conceive what pretty things are sung and recitativoed… the conclusion was a Lady’s head about to be chopped off by a lictor – but (I am sorry to say) he left it on – and she got up and sang a trio with the two Consuls – the Senate in the background being chorus.
And, behaving like a typical Englishman abroad, he almost gets involved in a fight on his way out of the theatre:
The crowd was enormous – and in coming out – having a lady under my arm – I was obliged in making way to ‘beat a Venetian and traduce the state’ – being compelled to regale a person with an English punch in the guts... he did not ask for another, but with great signs of disapprobation and dismay appealed to his compatriots – who laughed at him.
All things considered, it has been an evening to remember.
“... I have fallen in love...”
25th November 1816, and Byron is writing to his publisher in London, John Murray, to tell him how quickly he has settled into Venetian life, and how comfortable he is in Venice. For one thing, the city keeps the sort of late hours which suit him,
... the theatres are not open till nine, he writes, and the society is proportionately late...
In common with most visitors, and the majority of the inhabitants, he has hired a private gondola to help him move around the city, which he finds – as do many of those who continue to come here two hundred years later – gloomy, decaying, and beautiful.
He has been out and about in Society, both at the home of the Austrian Governor, where he discussed Shakespeare with the Governor’s Lady, and at the palazzo of the famous Madame Albrizzi. He has already found his way into that lady’s affections by writing verses in honour of a sculpture of Helen of Troy by the great Venetian Antonio Canova, one of Madame’s most treasured possessions.
Canova's bust of Helen of Troy:
In this beloved marble view
Above the works and thoughts of Man,
What Nature could but would not do,
And Beauty and Canova can!
Beyond Imagination's power,
Beyond the Bard's defeated art,
With Immortality her dower,
Behold the Helen of the heart.
And, he laughingly tells Murray,
Talking of the “heart” reminds me that I have fallen in love – which except for falling in the Canal – (and that would be useless as I swim) is the best (or worst) thing I could do. - - I am therefore in love – fathomless love...
The object of his affections is his landlady, Marianna Segati, the twenty-two year old wife of a linen draper. Byron has moved into lodgings in Frezzeria, above Signor Segati’s shop, where he will stay for more than a year.
Frezzeria, where Byron lived from 1816 until 1818.
Unfortunately, no likenesses of Marianna survive, but Byron describes her as being very pretty, not too tall (perfect for a man who is conscious of his height), with dark curly hair and “large black oriental eyes.” She has a beautiful voice and Byron finds her quiet manner very calming. If we can believe Byron’s words to another friend, Tom Moore, Marianna is the one who initiated their relationship. Then again he always says that: poor soul, women pursue him across Europe.
Whatever the truth of the matter, as his turbulent year draws to a close, for now at least, he is content.
... a boatman cried out to us, “The Rialto!”
It is four o’clock on a cold, wet November afternoon, and Lord Byron is in Mestre, bad-tempered because of the weather and because he has just been offered a very poor dinner. He has spent the previous week trundling slowly across the nothern Italian plain from Milan, with overnight stops at Brescia, Desenzano del Garda (where the rain prevented him from paying a visit to Catullus’ Grotto at Sirmione), Verona (where he pocketed some loose fragments from Juliet’s alleged “tomb”) and Vicenza.
He has spent the day in his carriage, travelling alongside the Brenta Canal from Padua, and now there is nothing between him and Venice except a wide, grey expanse of rain-soaked lagoon. Now, in the gathering twilight, he steps into a gondola for the first time, to begin the slow journey to his destination.
As he and his companions – his friend John Hobhouse and his manservant William Fletcher – are rowed past Forte Marghera, a boat intercepts them to ask for their passports: the Austrian rulers of Veneto-Lombardia like to keep a very close eye on any foreign visitors in their territory. But apart from that, it takes an hour and a half’s steady rowing to bring them to the mouth of the Grand Canal when finally, peering through the windows of the felze, they see the lights of “... high houses and stone piers.”
Byron's party were rowed down the Grand Canal in a gondola
with a canopy, or felze, like this one.
Soon, as Hobhouse writes later in his diary,
“The echo of the oars told us we were under a bridge, and a boatman cried out to us, ‘The Rialto!’”
At last, stiff and damp from the confined and chilly gondola, they step ashore and enter their hotel, Albergo Gran Bretagna, where their English-speaking host invites them to sit down and take tea. “We thought ourselves,” Hobhouse will later recall, “very well-placed.”
The Hotel Gran Bretagna, now the headquarters of the municipality of Venice.
And so, Byron has finally arrived in the destination which has glittered like a fantastic jewel in his imagination ever since his childhood. New adventures are about to begin....
I loved her from boyhood -- she to me
Was as a fairy city of the heart,
Rising like water-columns from the sea,
Of joy the sojourn, and of wealth the mart;
And Otway, Radcliffe, Schiller, Shakespeare's art,
Had stamped her image in me, and even so,
Although I found her thus, we did not part,
Perchance even dearer in her day of woe,
Than when she was a boast, a marvel, and a show.
My dearest Augusta – You see I have got to Milan
It is mid-October 1816, and Byron and Hobhouse are settled in lodgings in Milan. Their journey from Switzerland to Italy has been remarkably straightforward, since they have crossed the Alps via the Simplon Pass, a feat of engineering created at the command of Napoleon in 1801. Finding the vertiginous Alpine passes too slow and arduous for his armies, he had ordered a road suitable for heavy artillery to be built across the Alps between Switzerland and Italy. The Napoleonic wars having finally ended in 1815, the pass is now open to non-military traffic.
The Simplon Pass
Having heard plenty of horror stories in Switzerland about the terrible bandits who infest the pass, Byron and Hobhouse are well-prepared, with armed guards and an - apparently – savage dog. They are both relieved and (perhaps) a little disappointed that the journey has passed with nothing worse than the coachman stopping to show them the exact spot where English travellers just like them were robbed only the other day.
And so, like the Grand Tourists of former days, the two fall upon Italy with relish, filling their days with sightseeing, trips to the theatre and social calls. They make several visits to the Ambrosian Library, and the ever-precise and orderly Hobhouse expresses his surprise that such a magnificent archive should have no catalogue. The custodian,
... excused this to me by saying, “If there had been a catalogue the French would have pilled [robbed] us of our books as they did of our pictures – they would have known what to take”
(A telling reminder that a substantial number of paintings in the Louvre originate in Milanese and Venetian collections!)
Catalogue or no, Byron finds something which fascinates him deeply, and manages to fall a little in love. He is delighted by letters between Lucrezia Borgia, by then Duchess of Ferrara, and the Italian cardinal Pietro Bembo, “the prettiest love-letters in the world,” he calls them. And when he is shown a lock of Lucrezia’s hair, still golden after several centuries, he is so moved that:
... I took one single hair of it as a relic... I stick to the Pope’s daughter, and wish myself a cardinal.
The clouds above me to the white Alps tend....
It is September 29th 1816. Byron and Hobhouse have returned to Diodati from their ten-day tour of the Alps, a lengthy exploration in which they have travelled by a combination of open carriage, horseback and on foot. They have completed a circular tour which has taken them around Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) to Lausanne and across the mountains to Interlaken and the Jungfrau before heading north to Fribourg and finally back to their starting-point.
Byron - a lover of Nature in the abstract far more than nature close at hand – has enjoyed himself far more than he anticipated, telling his sister Augusta;
I have been very fortunate – fortunate in a companion (Mr H) fortunate in our prospects... – I was disposed to be pleased.
He has enjoyed Hobhouse’s company, and the opportunity to behave like a silly school-boy, laughing so much when his guide slips and falls during a steep descent that he falls down too; and finding great amusement in Hobhouse’s curses when he bangs his head against a door.
He has seen some pretty girls, one gave him flowers, four sang to him and some rowed him across a lake.
He has acquired a dog: Mutz, or Short-tail; purchased as a guard-dog but destined to end his life as a spoiled household pet in Venice and Ravenna, remarkable to his ability to steal joints of meat from under the cook’s nose.
And... He has looked at a great deal of panoramic scenery. He has tried to describe some of it in an Alpine Journal for his sister, but has rarely had more to say than
...high rocks – wooded to the top – river – new mountains – with fine Glaciers...
As he always says, if you want a description, read the guide-book.
But one mountainous panorama has impressed him, the Jungfrau:
Avalanches falling every five minutes nearly – as if God was pelting the Devil down from Heaven with snow balls... the clouds rose from the opposite valley curling up perpendicular precipices – like the foam of the Ocean of Hell during a Springtide
The Jungfrau seen from Interlaken
The Jungfrau and the Infernal imagery it conjures will stay in his mind, and provide inspiration for a tangled, Gothic nightmare in verse, but that is in the future. For now it is time to pack up, leave Switzerland behind, and set out
...on my way to Italy.
...Shatter’d nerves and quicken’d pulses...
Autumn - and Byron’s friend John Hobhouse – arrived in Geneva more or less simultaneously, bringing a blast of fresh air to Villa Diodati after many – maybe too many - evenings of ghost stories and metaphysical speculation.
Hobhouse was the sort of Englishman who believed that fresh air and exercise were a panacea for all ills. Having quickly assessed his friend’s mental state as “very low,” he decided that, since both he and Byron were in Switzerland, a walking tour of the Alps was the obvious thing to do: Hobhouse would see the scenery, and Byron would have new sights to see, new things to focus on: he would be, as we English say, “taken out of himself.”
Byron – always at ease in Hobhouse’s company – was happy to agree. But there was one resident of the Villa Diodati whose company Byron didn’t want on the walking tour; whose company, in fact, he never wanted again. That person was his doctor, John Polidori.
Doctor John Polidori.
Polidori had certainly been more hindrance than help during the time he had spent with Byron. Just two weeks after leaving England he was, according to Byron,
devilish ill – I do not know what with – nor does he.
When the Shelley party arrived in Geneva, Polidori – who despite his medical qualifications was still only twenty years old – developed a crush on Mary, a passion so extreme that he once challenged the friendly and pacific Shelley to a duel. On evenings when Shelley and Byron engaged in philosophical debates he would try to interrupt with flippant remarks and jokes, or insist that two great poets and the author of Frankenstein should listen to him read extracts from his play; a play which Byron described like this:
Dear Doctor, I have read your play,
Which is a good one in its way, -
Purges the eyes and moves the bowels,
And drenches handkerchiefs like towels
With tears, that, in a flux of grief,
Afford hysterical relief
To shatter’d nerves and quicken’d pulses,
Which your catastrophe convulses.
And when, out boating on Lake Geneva, Polidori was given a turn at the oars, he managed to strike Byron’s knee with such force that his employer groaned with discomfort. He saw no reason to apologise, simply remarking,
I am glad to see that you can suffer pain.
No wonder Byron wanted to see the last of him. And, since on a previous occasion when dismissal was threatened Polidori had attempted to take his own life, no wonder that he waited for Hobhouse’s robust English presence before making another attempt, on 16th September 1816.
Fortunately, this time Polidori seems to have realised that his time was up and, pocketing a handsome £70 severance pay, he left the villa.
So it was with a great weight off his mind that, the following day, Byron set out with Hobhouse on his walking tour...
And from the mountains where I now respire...
26th August 1816, and two of Byron’s closest friends, John Cam Hobhouse and Scrope Berdmore Davis, arrive at the Villa Diodati in Geneva. They find their friend in a somewhat melancholy mood; hardly surprising given his turbulent year so far. His mental state may be fragile, but he has lost a lot of weight since leaving England and is in good condition physically, thanks to his regime of swimming or rowing every day on Lake Geneva and of eating very little. According to Mary Shelley, Byron has been surviving on:
“a thin slice of bread, with tea, at breakfast – a light, vegetable dinner, with a bottle or two of seltzer water, tinged with vin de Grave [Bordeaux], and in the evening, a cup of green tea without milk or sugar.”
Byron's closest friend, John Cam Hobhouse.
Hobhouse takes one look at his friend and decides, in typical muscular English public school manner, that what he needs is fresh air and exercise. Whatever Byron may tell him of time spent on the Lake, in his opinion far too much time has been spent cooped up indoors indulging in metaphysical conversations with that:
“good-natured strange being, the son of one Sir Timothy Shelley.”
In any case, it is time for the Shelleys to set off on their journey back to England. Byron is sorry to lose Percy and Mary, for both of whom he has developed a genuine regard; however he refuses to say farewell to Claire, irritated by her hysterical attention-seeking behaviour.
Shelley takes with him a parcel of poetry, to be delivered to Byron’s publisher, John Murray: the haunting Prisoner of Chillon and a third Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, recounting his European travels thus far.
Perhaps it is the knowledge that Claire is returning to England;
“to become a Mamma incog[nito] - and whom I pray the Gods to keep there,”
which fills his mind with thoughts of his other child, his daughter Ada, but Byron's letters at this time are full of references to Ada and requests for news of her progress (she is now eight months old. She was only three weeks old when her father saw her for the last time). Canto III of Childe Harold also ends with a painful howl of love to his distant daughter:
The Child of Love – though born in bitterness,
And nurtured in Convulsion – of thy Sire
These were the elements – and thine no less.
As yet such are around thee – but thy fire
Shall be more tempered, and thy hope far higher.
Sweet be thy cradled slumbers! O’er the sea,
And from the mountains where I now respire,
Fain would I waft such blessing upon thee,
As, with a sigh, I deem thou might’st have been to me.
Even I regain’d my freedom with a sigh.
It is the middle of June 1816. Thanks to a slight improvement in the weather, Byron and Shelley make plans to sail around Lake Geneva, stopping off at points of interest.
It isn’t entirely a pleasure-cruise, since Shelley seizes the chance to break the news of Byron’s impending fatherhood: Claire – with whom Byron can no longer bear to be in the same room, since her silly attention-seeking grates on his nerves – is pregnant. In what is probably a reflection of Byron’s state of mind after hearing this news, the weather breaks again, and the boat is caught in a severe storm. Byron, always a strong swimmer who enjoys a challenge, prepares to dive overboard. Not so Shelley, who calmly awaits whatever is in store, “feeling a multitude of sensations, among which terror entered... though but subordinately.”
Fortunately – on this occasion – the boat comes safely into harbour and the pair continue their tour, visiting the Castle of Chillon.
The Castle of Chillon
Guided tours are available, and Shelley takes a keen interest, noting the height of the roof and the depth of the lake. Byron, like a bored child on a school visit, wanders moodily off and carves his name into a pillar. Yet the castle strikes a chord, especially the story of its most famous prisoner, Francois de Bonivard, a Protestant reformer imprisoned for heresy in the sixteenth century.
A few days later, stuck in a hotel due to more heavy rain on 27th and 28th June, Byron writes a meditative and beautiful poem, The Prisoner of Chillon, narrated by Bonivard himself. Imprisoned with his two brothers, each chained to a pillar, he is forced to witness their steady decline and death:
My brothers – both had ceased to breath:
I took the hand which lay so still,
Alas! My own was full as chill;
I had not strength to stir, or strive,
But felt that I was still alive –
A frantic feeling, when we know
That what we love shall ne’er be so.
I know not why
I could not die,
I had no earthly hope but faith,
And that forbade a selfish death.
Byron captures the prisoner’s isolation, passing from loneliness to acceptance; his feeling of sensory overload when he finally catches a glimpse of the outside world again,
A small green isle, it seemed no more,
Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,
But in it there were three tall trees,
And o’er it blew the mountain breeze,
And by it there were waters flowing,
And on it there were young flowers growing...
And even, when he is finally released, a sense of regret, being torn from a “second home,” where “my very chains and I grew friends,” Byron thus describes sensations which have been confirmed by modern psychiatric studies of prisoners and hostages kept in solitary confinement.
Freed from their brief hotel imprisonment by better weather, Byron and Shelley are now able to sail back around the Lake to Diodati where Byron can now begin to ponder on Claire’s news and wonder whether he can ever be truly free.
"Byron" - pillar, Chillon dungeon
"Byron" - pillar, Chillon dungeon
It was a dark and stormy night...
You may think that this summer so far is grim and wet, but it has nothing on the summer of 1816: grey skies, constant rain, temperatures so unseasonally low that crops failed to ripen. The weather throughout 1816 was so bad that it was nicknamed (with a distinct lack of imagination but great truthfulness) The Year Without A Summer.
No-one in Europe at that time was aware that this appalling weather was the result of ash-clouds in the upper atmosphere caused by a volcanic eruption in the Pacific Ocean. I can clearly remember the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980, and the grim British summer that followed. Looking back on the year without a summer after two hundred years, it’s most striking and unexpected result was its effect on English literature.
Storm clouds gather over Lake Geneva
Five young people have met in Geneva, and the shocking weather, with thunder rumbling around the hills and lighting flashing over the Lake, is keeping them indoors. Finding a book of ghost-stories on the bookshelves of the villa which one of them is renting, and where all five are spending a lot of time, they spend an evening reading them aloud. The following evening, they decide to invent their own ghost-stories. Two of the group challenge each other to finish the task of writing their stories down, to be published in a single volume.
So it was that, on 14th June 1816, eighteen year-old Mary Shelley started to write Frankenstein. Her challenger, Lord Byron, began to write down his own story, which concerned a vampire, but he soon lost interest, declaring that he had no talent for writing prose. Unknown to Byron, the story was taken up by his doctor/travelling-companion, John Polidori, who published The Vampyre three years later with a barely-disguised Byron as its anti-hero, Lord Ruthven.
And so the two main pillars of modern horror fiction came into being on the same evening, as the electric storms fizzed around the Lake: the Creature re-animated by electricity and the suave, world-weary sophisticated Vampire. They seep into our consciousness through media headlines - where would the tabloids be if they couldn’t scream about Frankenstein food or Frankenstein babies as short-hand for GM crops and stem-cell research?
The modern heirs of Lord Ruthven are all around us, in Goth bands like Bauhaus and The Cure, or in fiction and film such as Interview With A Vampire and the Twilight oeuvre.
We owe it all to that dark and stormy night...
Pete Murphy of Bauhaus
Getting out, Lord Byron met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her sister, and Percy Shelley.
It is evening, May 27th 1816, and two young men have been rowing on Lake Geneva. As they reach the shore, they meet three other young people: the five are to spend much of the summer together.
Nothing unusual there: young people have always enjoyed each others’ company. These five, however, are pretty special. The two young men in the boat are Lord Byron and his “travelling physician” Doctor John Polidori. The three walking on the shore are Percy Shelley, his partner Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont.
The shore of Lake Geneva.
Two of the young people already know each other intimately: Claire and Byron were lovers for a short time in London, in the spring. Now she is effectively stalking him across Europe – he writes to his sister of “a foolish girl who would come after me.”
Byron and Mary have also met briefly in London, and it is interesting that in his journal (quoted at the top of the page) Doctor Polidori mentions her first, using her full name: Mary is only eighteen, but she is the child of famous parents. Her father is the political philosopher William Godwin, her mother – who died ten days after Mary’s birth – was the celebrated feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Polidori mentions Shelley last, almost as an aside: he is little-known to the reading public in England at this time, but his radical political and religious views makes it more comfortable for him to spend time out of the country.
Byron’s heart no doubt sinks at the sight of Claire, and soon he will be doing all in his power to avoid her company, although he enjoys the company of both Percy and Mary: soon they will be spending a great deal of time together, and the fruits of their friendship will be remarkable...
And Harold stands upon this place of skulls,
The grave of France, the deadly Waterloo!
May 4th 1816: having left London in style in his Napoleonic carriage Byron continues his melancholy theme of exile and loss with a visit to the battlefield of Waterloo.
There may well be very little dramatic licence in his description, near the beginning of Childe Harold Canto II of the battlefield as a place of skulls, since it was still less than a year since the battle had been fought. The field was still scattered with broken helmets and swords. Indeed, Byron collected an assortment of cap badges and other memorabilia and sent them to his publisher, John Murray.
Byron's Waterloo memorabilia, exhibited in London last year.
He was already in low spirits: the visit to the battlefield made them lower. This was by no means the first time he’d followed in Wellington’s wake – in 1809, during the Peninsular Campaign, he had ridden across the field of Talavera within days of the battle, seeing bodies
... feed the crow on Talavera’s plain
He was certainly no fan of the allies who had sent his hero into final exile, telling John Murray I detest the cause and the victors; and when he came to transfer his thoughts about Waterloo into verse in Childe Harold, his meditations were all for Napoleon – and no doubt himself, brought low and exiled.
Oh, more or less than man – in high or low,
Battling with nations, flying from the field;
Now making monarchs’ necks thy footstool, now
More than thy meanest soldier taught to yield
Sear’d in heart, and lone, and blighted
On 23rd April 1816, Byron left London for the last time. In a grand dramatic gesture he had ordered a huge travelling-coach modelled on one that had belonged to his hero Napoleon. You sent Napoleon to distant and lonely exile last year; now look at me, forced to do the same!
Napoleon's travelling carriage.
London Society, pretending to have turned its back on its prodigal son, was still watching him closely. He had written a final poem to his estranged wife, Fare thee well!, a desperate cry from the heart.
Fare thee well! and if forever,
Still for ever, fare thee well:
Even though unforgiving, never
‘Gainst thee shall my heart rebel....
Fare thee well! Thus disunited,
Torn from every nearer tie,
Sear’d in heart, and lone, and blighted,
More than this I scarce can die.
Foolishly, he had circulated copies to close friends. A “friend” had made sure that the poem was published in a newspaper, and now the entire press was cheerfully publishing lurid old gossip and hearsay.
No sooner had his heavy coach trundled out of London than the bailiffs took possession of all that remained in Piccadilly Terrace. Byron’s English life was at an end.
On 25th April Byron set sail from Dover, accompanied by a Swiss courier, his valet William Fletcher (who was leaving behind a wife and two sons rather than abandon the man he had cared for since Byron was eighteen) and his doctor, Dr Polidori: specially hired for the journey, and already keeping a journal with an eye to publication. Thus we owe to Dr Polidori the knowledge that, exactly two hundred years ago today, on 26th April 1816, Byron arrived at the Hotel Cour Imperiale in Ostend, where he
...fell like a thunderbolt on the chambermaid.
I thank you truly...
April 8th 1816. Byron has almost completed his preparations for leaving England. The terms of the legal separation from his wife have been agreed, signed and sealed. His beloved books have been sold at auction, raising £723 (add a couple of zeroes for a rough modern equivalent) and now he is effectively camping out in a bare and spartan Piccadilly Terrace with his friend John Hobhouse. Hobhouse has moved in to keep an eye on his friend due to concerns about his mental health.
The Society gossips have been having a field-day; the separation of Lord and Lady Byron has kept tongues wagging and malice flowing. Byron’s refusal to make any criticism of his wife, coupled with her determination to make sure her side of the story is spread as widely as possible, means that he has become something of a social pariah so that – as his earliest biographer puts it,
... it required no small degree of courage, even among that class who are supposed to be the most tolerant of domestic irregularities, to invite him into their society.
In fact, there seems to be only one lady with a great enough degree of courage, Lady Jersey. A leader of fashion and with friends in high places (her mother-in-law was once one of the Prince Regent’s many mistresses) she is well-known for her kindness. And so she signals her support for Byron by giving a farewell party in his honour on Monday April 8th, 1816.
The Countess of Jersey.
Byron attends the party in the company of both Hobhouse and his sister Augusta. Most of the guests, no doubt having gone along only to sniff out more gossip, take the opportunity to snub him. However, both Lady Jersey herself and one other guest, Miss Mercer Elphinstone, go out of their way to offer him warmth and friendship.
Miss Mercer Elphinstone
This is itself is grist to the gossip mill, so that ten years later, by which time Miss Elphinstone is the wife of the French Ambassador to Berlin, William Hazlitt and his friend James Northcote are still talking about
... a little red-haired girl, who, when countesses and ladies of fashion were leaving the room where he was in crowds (to cut him after his quarrel with his wife), stopped short near a table against which he was leaning, gave him a familiar nod, and said, "You should have married me and then this would not have happened to you!
Byron pretends to be unaffected by his reception at Lady Jersey’s party, though the atmosphere can doubtless be cut with a knife. However, once safely back home he entertains himself by writing viciously funny character-assassinations of his fellow-guests, and by writing to thank Miss Elphinstone for her kindness and
... wishing you a much happier destiny – not than mine is – for that is nothing – but than mine ever could have been.
His reception at Lady Jersey’s has given him final confirmation, if any were needed, that it is time to shake the dust of England from his shoes, and in two weeks he will leave London for the last time.
I place my happiness in your hands...
In March 1816, with his marriage in tatters and his possessions disappearing by the day as they were auctioned to pay his debts, Lord Byron received a letter from a young lady.
Nothing unusual in that: ever since that morning in 1812 when he had woken to find himself famous, Byron had been on the receiving end of a considerable amount of fan mail from young ladies. Some sent declarations of undying love. Others asked for an autograph or a lock of hair; sending him their own hair, and verses they’d written, as keepsakes. A few of the braver ones offered to meet. Although he kept all of the letters, Byron usually made no effort to reply.
This letter, however, wasted no time beating around the bush. It came from a young lady who knew exactly what she wanted:
I place my happiness in your hands… If a woman, whose reputation has yet remained unstained, if without either guardian or husband to control she should throw herself on your mercy, if with a beating heart she should confess the love she has borne you many years …could you betray her?
A second letter soon followed, with an even plainer proposition:
Lord Byron is requested to state whether seven o’clock this Evening will be convenient to him to receive a lady to communicate with him on business of peculiar importance. She desires to be admitted alone and with the utmost privacy.
The lady who wished to be admitted alone and with the utmost privacy was Claire Clairmont; the eighteen year-old stepsister of Mary Godwin. Mary had caused a scandal the previous year when she had left home to live with the married poet Percy Shelley. Claire was now out to catch a poet of her own.
Claire and Mary had read Byron’s poems to each other ever since the first Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published when they were impressionable fourteen year-olds: they had particularly enjoyed Lara, a jolly tale of murder and revenge with that type of brooding, melancholy hero who was a Byron speciality, the kind that readers so often elided with their creator:
Coldness of mien, and carelessness of praise;
A high demeanour, and a glance that took
Their thoughts from others by a single look;
And that sarcastic levity of tongue,
The stinging of a heart the world hath stung...
On that first evening of utmost privacy, Claire told a tale of wanting to become an actress: perhaps Byron could help her? He duly wrote a letter of introduction to his friends at the Drury Lane theatre. Claire was soon back – no, perhaps the career of a lady author would suit her better: could he offer any advice?
Persistence eventually paid off, and Claire was successful in her business of peculiar importance: she and Byron became lovers. The relationship lasted for a matter of weeks: Byron set out on his European journey in April. By the time he left London, Claire was pregnant.
Your offer is liberal in the extreme...
February 1816. Wife and child gone. Bailiffs in the house. His precious library of books seized, to be sold on behalf of his debtors.
Byron was – as might be expected – in extremely low spirits at this time. And so his friends began to rally round and offer help.
His closest male friend, John Hobhouse, offered moral support. He visited Byron frequently – often several times in a single day - wrote to Annabella on Byron’s behalf, listened to his friend’s often confused outpourings about his marriage.
His publisher, John Murray, made a more practical offer of help. He was about to publish two new poems by his best-selling author, The Siege of Corinth and Parisina. He made a very generous offer: rather than pay a steady trickle of royalties over the years, he would buy the copyright of both poems, with a lump sum of £1,050. It is difficult to calculate a precise equivalent, but this would be at least £100,000 in today’s money: far more than any modern poet would ever dream of earning for two pieces.
The Siege of Corinth and Parisina.
This large sum would have been tremendously helpful to Byron in clearing at least part of his enormous backlog of debt. It would have got him out of immediate trouble and taken the bailiffs out of his kitchen, but would by no means have cleared everything: in 1818, when he was finally in a position to satisfy all of his creditors, it took £34,000 – around £3 million today – to pay all of his debts.
However Byron, always the gentleman, refused Murray’s offer. Partly this was because an aristocratic author could not be seen to make money from his writing. That would have carried a very unwelcome aura of “trade.” Partly it was because – as Byron freely admitted in his letter to Murray – neither poem was very good. They were, he said,
...compositions which I do not feel at all equal to my own notions of what they should be...
Parisina: a glance at the opening stanza should be enough to make any reader agree with Byron’s own estimation of this piece.
Murray published the poems on 13th February 1816. They sold remarkably well, passing through at least three editions in that year alone. The verses were what was expected from Byron at that time: tales of war, doomed love and violent death. Each featured the type of tortured hero whom the reading public were happy to confuse with the creator, in much the same way that a modern celebrity can be conflated with their most famous film or TV role. And no doubt the growing whiff of scandal (the gossip columns were full of stories about Lord B..... and the departure of Lady B......) helped to boost sales quite nicely.
...tried to prove her loving lord was mad,
But as he had some lucid intermissions,
She next decided he was only bad...
Annabella Byron was not by any stretch of the imagination a sympathetic woman. She was the adored and pampered only child of elderly parents, and had grown up expecting to have her own way in everything. The result? A firm belief that her opinion was not only always right but was the only one that mattered. Brought up as an Evangelical Christian a long way, both physically and mentally, from the urban environments which Byron preferred, she was hardly an ideal partner for a man who questioned everything, who was teasing and whimsical when his mental health was on an even keel, but who could quickly be plunged into black, despairing moods.
Seaham Hall, County Durham: Annabella’s childhood home, and where her marriage to Byron took place. He would be wryly amused to find that the address is now “Lord Byron’s Walk” and that it offers wedding packages!
Annabella made it plain that she did not enjoy London society, yet when Byron began to go out alone she made her displeasure even plainer. She disapproved strongly of the theatre, and of her husband’s involvement with the Drury Lane Committee.
As the couple’s financial difficulties grew ever worse, and Byron, in despair, turned to drink, she decided that her life was in danger. When the only family member who showed any concern, Byron’s sister Augusta, moved in to care for him, Annabella became convinced that, not only did Byron love his sister more than he loved her, their relationship must be incestuous.
She kept a journal, where his faults were noted,
And opened certain trunks of books and letters,
All of which might, if occasion served, be quoted...
In January 1816, back home with her adoring parents, Annabella shared her unhappiness with them. Her mother instantly set out for London, consulting a leading lawyer and Byron’s physician. The physician stated that Byron was not mad; the lawyer advised a legal separation. On 2nd February 1816, Byron received a letter by private messenger, informing him that his marriage was over. Byron wrote a dignified reply to Annabella’s father, and a confused, despairing letter to his wife; but Annabella stuck to her assumed moral high ground,
And saw his agonies with such sublimity,
That all the world exclaim’d, “What magnanimity!”
This statue of Byron and Annabella, intended to show them dancing away from each other in opposite directions, was unveiled in Seaham last week. (The sculptor obviously wasn’t aware that, conscious of his lame leg, Byron never danced!)
Fare Thee Well!
As promised, here is the first in my series of blogs about 1816: the year in which Byron travelled to Venice.
1816 didn’t get off to a bright start for Byron, despite the birth of his daughter, Augusta Ada, who had arrived towards the end of the old year, on 10th December 1815. By the time January arrived, his marriage was in tatters.
If ever two people should never have married each other, those two people were George Gordon, Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. If Annabella is to be believed, the marriage –which had taken place in January 1815 - started to collapse from the moment they set out on their honeymoon.
Marriage led to huge expenses, including an enormous rent for the imposing marital residence in Piccadilly Terrace. When these new expenses were added to the mountain of existing debts from his bachelor days, his creditors had had enough. As word spread of Byron’s marriage “to an heiress” they began to close in.
Annabella Milbanke, Byron's wife.
The problem was that Annabella Milbanke was just that: an heiress, not yet an inheritor: an (admittedly elderly) uncle and her mother were the barriers to her own path to a fortune. Her marriage settlement barely paid the rent on Piccadilly Terrace, and soon the creditors were threatening foreclosure. By November 1815 there was a resident bailiff in the kitchen.
Byron’s mental health, ever-fragile, now collapsed. He was drinking far too much, and prowled the house at night, or took pot-shots at his growing collection of empty bottles. These were hardly ideal living conditions for a woman about to give birth, and they were made far worse by poisonous tittle-tattle fed to Annabella Byron by her companion Mrs Clermont.
So, when Byron, at the end of his tether and truly desperate (only the fact that he had taken his seat in the House of Lords and was an active parliamentarian was preventing his arrest for debt) suggested that, as a temporary money-saving measure he should go and live cheaply abroad and she should live for a time with her parents, Annabella didn’t ask for explanations or reassurance: she immediately convinced herself that her husband no longer loved her and their marriage was over.
Annabella’s mother had sent an invitation for both Lord and Lady Byron and the baby to pay a visit to the new grandparents at their home at Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire (the modern Mallory Park motor-racing circuit). And so Annabella made her plans. On 15th January 1816, Lady Byron left her husband in Piccadilly Terrace, pretending that she was paying a short visit to her parents.
Byron was never to see his wife or his daughter again.
Happy New Year 1816...
1816 - exactly two hundred years ago this year - was a significant year for Lord Byron.
His marriage, contracted just one short year earlier, on 2nd January 1815, crumbled into dust.
His wife left him, taking his one month-old daughter with her: he would never see either of them again.
He was bankrupt, with bailiffs sitting in the kitchen of his home at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, London.
And so he decided to leave England and resume his travels.
April found him in Belgium, whilst he spent the summer on Lake Geneva.
In the autumn he set out for Italy.
On 10th November 1816 Lord Byron arrived in Venice......
The Byron - Venice blog plans to follow Milord as he travels across Europe. Along his route there will be eccentric doctors, Romantic poets, countless ladies, chambermaids and draper's wives. Byron will visit Waterloo less than a year after the Battle; he will host an evening in Geneva leading to the creation of horror's two most celebrated characters; he will - inevitably - fall in love.
We hope you will join us on our journey: Happy New Year!
I have got a new friend, the finest in the world...
Walking through Venice the other day, I saw this wonderful sight next to the place that sells presepio figures at San Giovanni Crisostomo. Being the sort of person I am, I immediately thought of Byron.
Byron loved animals. It’s well-known that when he lived at Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice, the courtyard was home to a rag-tag menagerie including a peacock, a very vicious monkey, a raven and a fox. Where he picked them up is anyone’s guess, although they did have a habit of attacking guests.
Dogs, however, were his favourite. Wherever he was in the world he was never happy until he had a dog: Boatswain at Newstead (his tomb with an elaborate epitaph can still be seen in the grounds), Mutz in Venice, Lyon in Greece. I love this sketch of Byron – one of the last images of him before his death – with Lyon at Missolonghi. Man and dog look lovingly at each other.
Anyway, this has taken us a long way from a bear in a Santa hat. In 1805 Byron, seventeen years old, became a student at Trinity College Cambridge. Like all young gentlemen he expected all the comforts of home whilst "studying." He had his valet, he had his horses. And so of course he expected to have his dog. Alas, the college authorities were sorry to inform My Lord that dogs were forbidden.
A glance at the regulations soon revealed that, although dogs were specifically banned, there was no mention of a variety of other animals. So, when he saw a man in the street with a tame bear (it was probably a dancing bear, a fairly common sight in the 18th and 19th centuries) he bought it and took it to his rooms. Job done: he had put one over on authority, found a pet and made himself the centre of attention.
Byron clearly thought that a bear able to follow instructions was more intelligent than college authorities who wrote easily-broken rules, since he wrote to a friend,
I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.
And so, from Lord Byron and his bear, Happy Christmas!
Lady Byron is much obliged by your enquiries and both she and the little girl are going on as well as possible....
... Byron wrote in a letter dated December 1815. Two hundred years ago today, 10th December 1815, Byron’s daughter Ada was born. Barely five weeks later the child was taken away by her mother, ostensibly on a visit to Lady Byron’s parents; but neither Byron’s wife nor his daughter ever came back to him. After this he was forced to rely on scraps of information and the occasional memento – a sketch, a lock of hair – grudgingly relayed by his wife via his sister.
Ada was only a few months past her eighth birthday when her father died in April 1823. She can’t be said to have had a happy childhood since Lady Byron, grimly determined that the daughter should not take after the father, subjected her to a cold and unemotional upbringing. The child’s nurse-maids were changed on a regular basis, to prevent Ada developing an attachment to any of them, and she was taught of “the importance of pleasing mamma by doing her duty,” locked in a dark cupboard for any misbehaviour. She was even forbidden, by a clause in her grandmother’s will, from seeing this famous portrait of her father until she reached the age of twenty-one.
Lord Byron in Albanian costume, Thomas Phillips.
On the surface, it seemed to work. Married at the age of nineteen to a man chosen by her mother for being upright, dutiful and nothing like her father, Ada was a mathematical genius. At the age of eighteen she was introduced to the engineer Charles Babbage, and worked with him designing programs for his Difference Engine, a calculating machine which is considered to have been the forerunner of modern computers. Ada is widely regarded as the author of the first computer program, and today both a computer language and a prize for women in science and technology are named in her honour.
Ada's "Diagram for the computation of Bernoulli numbers" - the first algorithm?
But despite her efforts, Ada’s mother didn't succeed in obliterating her Byron inheritance. Just as her father had done, Ada suffered from poor mental health throughout her life. She seems to have experienced acute post-natal depression after the birth of her eldest child (whom she named Byron). She became addicted to gambling, and used her mathematical skills to try to create a model scheme for winning on the horses which, inevitably, left her thousands of pounds in debt.
Ada died in 1854 aged only 36: the same age her father had been when he died. Her final wish was to be buried in the Byron family vault in Hucknall, Nottingham, with her father.
The final portrait of Ada, painted in 1853 by Henry Phillips. Although very ill and in great pain, Ada insisted on sitting for the picture, since the artist's father had painted Byron in Albanian costume.
A fan-letter to Byron
I recently had the great pleasure of spending four days with a wonderful group of people who were here in Venice on a Readers’ Tour of our city and its literary associations, organised by my dear friend Anna Dreda, the proprietor of Wenlock Books.
We visited Shakespeare’s Venice, around Rialto and in the Ghetto, Byron and Ruskin’s Venice, and said a passing hello to Casanova, Henry James and Ezra Pound, among others. Anna wrote about it on her own excellent blog, which you can find here: http://www.wenlockbooks.co.uk/blog/2015/10/27/readers-tour-of-venice-day-one
On our final evening together, we enjoyed an evening of food, wine and poetry, with poems old and new about Venice, Italy, water. One member of our group, Eve, read a poem which I was very cross with myself for not having come across before, since it was by John Keats, addressed to Byron.
Keats wrote the sonnet in 1814, when he was only nineteen years old. It’s very much a fan-letter from an aspiring poet to one who had already woken one morning and found himself famous. Not Keats’ best work, obviously – which of us is ready to produce our best at only nineteen? - but interesting all the same.
Byron in 1814 was producing the sort of verses that almost seem to have been written with teenagers in mind, his “nobody loves me, nobody understands me” period, of Childe Harold, who “was sore sick at heart”... “and none did love him,” and The Giaour, a cheerful tale of sex and murder. These themes are echoed in Keats’ sonnet, where he speaks of the “sweetly sad” melody, and “the tale of pleasing woe.”
Sadly, Keats’ hero-worship was short-lived, and he came to believe that Byron’s success as a poet was down to his wealth and social status whereas he, John Keats remained unknown and in poverty. And Byron had a low opinion of Keats’ work (“mental masturbation,” he called it, believing that Keats continually repeated the same ideas in his verses).
But who hasn’t had to face up to the fact that our idols have feet of clay? Here are young Johnny Keats’ lines before he had to admit that Byron was less than perfect. They’re perfectly matched by a photograph from another of our Readers’ Group, Catharine, showing Byron’s Palazzo Mocenigo by moonlight:
To Byron by John Keats
Byron! how sweetly sad thy melody!
Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
As if soft Pity, with unusual stress,
Had touch'd her plaintive lute, and thou, being by,
Hadst caught the tones, nor suffer'd them to die.
O'ershadowing sorrow doth not make thee less
Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
With a bright halo, shining beamily,
As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are ting'd with a resplendent glow,
Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
And like fair veins in sable marble flow;
Still warble, dying swan! still tell the tale,
The enchanting tale, the tale of pleasing woe.