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.”
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.