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.