‘What Exile from himself can flee?’: Byron and the price of exile

by Andrew McConnell Stott.
For one who identified so strongly with the bitterness and imagery of exile – of being marked out, cast out, and left to wander – Lord Byron did not flinch when it came to sending people away. Take Frank Boyce, a servant he had taken up to Cambridge in 1806, only to have him transported to New South Wales after he was discovered rifling through his master’s drawers. Although few would suffer a fate quite so judicially literal, Byron cut many more in the course of his life, including his wife, his lovers, and fellow poets.

Byron loved the drama of banishment, enjoying the license it gave him to stand outside the crowd, draw lines, and pass judgment. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the misty summer of 1816 as he paused in Geneva after turning his back on a disastrous marriage. Exile was not only his subject there, but an identity he explored in his letters, his journals, and poetry, especially the third canto of his many-horizoned, Childe Harold. Even still, there were those who saw it as mere posturing, an opportunity for this ‘huge sulky dandy’ (as Thomas Carlyle would call him), to indulge in his own fantasy. He ‘Childe Harolded himself,’ said Sir Walter Scott, ‘and outlawed himself, into too great a resemblance with the pictures of his imagination’.

But while Byron would profit personally and professionally from his exile, seeing the income from his works rise in proportion to his notoriety, there were others that summer who would discover that being banished by Byron made for a very different kind of life.

John Polidori, Byron’s young and petulant physician, found himself so far outshone by his famous patient that it eclipsed his own identity, making him ‘like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible.’ Expelled from service for bad behaviour, life after Byron was a colourless struggle, marked with petty humiliations like the scandal of The Vampyre, and concluding with death by prussic acid.

Far from finding that agency in her exile, Claire Clairmont, the besotted teenager who had followed Byron in the company of her half-sister Mary and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, found that the experience of banishment would last a lifetime.

Claire was banished not once, but three times. Her first predated Byron, when in 1814, having eloped to Switzerland with the Shelleys, she followed them back to London. Holed up like the final devotees of a fugitive cult, Claire, Mary, and Shelley spent their time reading, visiting lawyers, and getting on each other’s nerves. It was especially difficult for Mary, who had lost a child and was expecting another, and was less committed to Claire’s vision of the three of them forming an ‘association of philosophical people.’

Assuring Shelley that their happiness depended on Claire being sent away, Mary persuaded him to arrange lodgings for her in the remote Devon village of Lynmouth. For almost nine months, Claire brooded over her mistreatment, and complained of being ‘driven from all I loved’ to sit ‘companionless upon that unfrequented sea-shore, mentally exclaiming, a life of sixteen years is already too much for me to bear’.

It was Lynmouth that first drove her to Byron. While there, Claire imagined a future in which she was no longer an afterthought but a peer with a poet of her own – indeed, the most famous poet of them all. ‘You have been for the last year the object upon which every solitary moment led me to muse,’ she wrote to Byron in the early months of 1816. Within weeks they were lovers.

In Geneva, it became clear that not only was Lord Byron mortified at the thought of being pursued by this ‘odd-headed girl’, but that Claire was also carrying his child. Unable to shift the blame onto Shelley, he insisted on returning her to England where she was confined in Bath until the birth of her daughter, at first called Alba, but eventually baptized Clara Allegra. It being necessary to keep Allegra’s birth secret from her family, Claire found once again that she did not fit in. Her third exile began soon afterwards. Having sent Allegra to live with her father in Venice at the age of 15 months, Claire was counseled to break away from Shelley and her half-sister and eek out an independent life. As a young woman without the protection of a husband, this meant honing the skills essential to becoming a governess – languages, piano, and a sense of when to keep her politics to herself.

While the Shelleys lived in Pisa, Claire moved to Florence. Denied access to her daughter by Byron, she recorded intense dreams in which Allegra had walked to see her, or was dying. Sadly, these proved prescient visions, for at the age of four, Allegra caught a fever and died in the remote convent in which Byron had sent her to be schooled.

Byron had the privilege of defining the terms of his own exile, but for Claire, her repeated banishment pushed her up against the reality of what it meant to be a woman alone. From Shelley’s death in 1822 until her return to Britain in 1846, she lived an itinerant life, travelling across Europe as a governess to the rich, never marrying or having another child, but raising dozens of other people’s. Although she lived to nearly 90, it was the “happy passion” of 1816 that would define her life forever. “It was fleeting,” she said, and “only lasted ten minutes but these ten minutes have discomposed the rest of my life; The passion God knows for what cause, from no fault of mine however disappeared leaving no trace whatever behind it except my heart wasted and ruined as if it had been scorched by a thousand lightnings.”
Andy Stott
Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.  His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.