The Byron effect

Page 1

by Miranda Seymour
Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality.

Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron removed both herself and her baby daughter from the marital home on Piccadilly Terrace in January 1816. She never went back.

George Hayter painted Annabella Milbanke in 1812, just before she met Byron

Few couples can have proved themselves to be more hopelessly ill-suited than Miss Milbanke and Lord Byron; she so virtuous, he so wild; she so rational, he so mercurial; she so earnestly faithful, he so brutally promiscuous. But why, precisely, did she choose to leave him? Rumours of sodomy, incest and even a historic murder ( it was whispered that Byron, when young, had killed one of his servants) swirled around the gaming clubs and assembly rooms of the day. Lord Byron had been both cruel and inconstant as a husband: this was established beyond any doubt.

Annabella’s need to establish the reasons for a separation at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman, no matter how shocking the circumstances, to abandon her spouse, stopped short of accusing her husband – in public, at least – of incest. Many assumed that Byron went into exile in order to avoid further scandal, although his debts – the poet was being hounded by creditors and bailiffs – provide just as plausible a reason for his flight. Annabella’s accounts of Byron’s cruelty helped to persuade her lawyer, Stephen Lushington, to support the case for separation. To this day, it remains uncertain just how much Byron’s intimate relationship with Augusta Leigh, his half-sister, contributed to Lady Byron’s decision never to return to the house that she herself had invited Mrs Leigh to inhabit for months on end.

Byron’s moving ‘Fare Thee Well’ – it was published a month before his departure to the Continent – was widely read and admired. Its tender sentiments bore scant relation to Lord Byron’s actual feelings for his wife and child as he bade farewell to the country which had idolised him for four heady years – and by which he was now publicly chastised. George Cruickshank’s caricature of ‘Lord Iron’ waving his blithe adieux from a boat laden with buxom admirers came nearer to the truth about Byron’s feelings

Fare_Thee_Well

Cruickshank’s mischievous cartoon shows a far from heartbroken Lord Byron bidding farewell to England and his wife

Byron had already surrendered to the overtures of an eager young mistress (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, using quiet, clever Mary as her calling-card). For Lady Byron, singled out for attention by the uniqueness of her name, such reckless behaviour was beyond consideration.

The idea of flirting with another man, let alone sleeping with him, was anathema to Annabella, a young woman who never ceased to pine for the extraordinary husband whom she had chosen to renounce. Out of sight was never out of mind. My aim here is to demonstrate how powerfully, even after his death in 1824, Lord Byron would continue to influence and even appear to direct the lives of his wife – the couple never divorced – and their singular daughter.

Best known today for her uncannily prophetic description of the first universal computer, little Ada Byron was first defined to her contemporaries by the words with which an apparently grieving father addressed his unknown child in the 3rd Canto of Childe Harold:

Ada, sole child of my house and heart
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled
And then we parted, not as now we part,
But with a hope…. (1)

While her grief-stricken mother paid a secret visit to Byron’s ancestral home, recording in her diary for 1818 that she had almost fainted with emotion when she stood in his former rooms, young Ada remained remained endearingly unaware of just who Lord Byron might be.

Young Ada

Ada Byron’s life and spirit is wonderfully captured in this early portrait

Aged only seven when she was taken to see the Florida (the vessel in which her father’s embalmed corpse travelled back from Greece in 1824), Ada wrote about ‘Papa’s ship’ in a way that suggests she believed her late father to have been a naval captain. The mistake was understandable. The new Lord Byron, father to Ada’s favourite cousin George, had just set sail for the Sandwich Islands. Naval careers played a significant role in the history of the Byrons, a fact that she may well have learned from young George.

It’s probable that Ada’s first intimate acquaintanceship with her father came about through a painted image of Lord Byron in his glorious prime. Ada’s grandmother, Judith Noel, had celebrated her daughter’s marriage to the country’s best-known poet of the day by buying Thomas Phillips’ 1814 portrait of Byron, resplendent in the Albanian costume he had brought home from his travels in the Middle East. Following the separation, Lady Noel boxed the painting up and put it away in an attic. It was only after her mother’s death in 1822 that Annabella dared to bring the portrait downstairs and hang it in public view. Acutely conscious of the carping comments that would be made by sharp-tongued friends about such an act of homage, she concealed it behind a green velvet curtain.

Albanian

Byron’s Albanian costume was cannily suited to his growing fame as the author of Eastern romances

It’s remarkable that biographers of the Byron family have never speculated whether Ada, a bold, inquiring and fiercely independent little girl, might have dared to twitch the green curtain aside. Ada, we are gravely informed, remained ignorant of her father’s appearance until the famous portrait was bestowed upon her for a wedding present in 1835. That idea is not only improbable, but incredible.

No mention of the Byron portrait appears in the diary of Ada’s first governess, but the careful detail with which Miss Lamont reported upon her wilful, charming charge shows how conscious this young Irishwoman was of Ada’s heritage. We think of Ada as Lady Lovelace, a farsighted predicter of the universal computer. To her contemporaries, and to herself, Ada was always defined first and last by her position as Lord Byron’s daughter.

Aged fourteen, Ada caught measles. That illness was followed by – but seemingly unconnected to – a severe form of paralysis which turned a vigorous little girl who had been planning to build a flying machine into a bed-bound and often tearful invalid. Towards the end of this sad period – it lasted for over two years – Lady Byron, to whom all new volumes of her husband’s poetry were sent from Murray’s at her own request – introduced Ada to her father’s poetry. The poems she chose included the ‘Fare Thee Well’ which Byron’s widow now regarded as a genuine expression of the dignified grief with which her spouse had accepted the terms of separation.

Ada, at a very young age, learned that mysterious forces had put an end to her parents’ happiness. Later, she was taught to identify her own good-natured but chaotic aunt, Augusta Leigh, as the destroying angel of her mother’s marriage – and as her enduring enemy. It’s likely that Lady Byron also passed along to her daughter the advice that she would later give to her grandson about Lord Byron: admire the poetry; distrust the personality.

The first sign that Miss Byron not only admired her father but planned to emulate him came in 1833, when she attempted to elope from her mother’s home in Ealing. The abrupt dismissal of William Turner, a young man who had been recruited to teach her shorthand – for taking lecture notes – is suggestive. Years later, Ada boasted that her intimacy with this young man had stopped just short of full penetration. A report in the New York Times upon the disgraceful character of Lord Byron’s daughter doubtless spurred Annabella’s eagerness to find naughty Ada a suitable mate and settle her into a respectable marriage.

The choice of Lord King as the ideal husband – it’s clear that both Lady Byron and Ada’s tutor, Mary Somerville, advocated the match – provides clear evidence of the degree to which Lord Byron’s ghost hovered above their lives. William King was wild about Byron. Employed in the Ionian Islands by an obliging relative until 1833, young William had himself painted in a pose and local costume which so conscientiously echoed his idol’s that Ada would always refer to it as William’s ‘Albanian’ dress.

In Albanian dress

Lord King prided himself upon looking Byronic

Returning to England in 1833, following the death of his father, William named the fields of his Surrey estate after Byron’s poems: Chillon, Lara, Corsair and even ‘Ali’. For such a Byron worshipper, Ada herself was the ultimate trophy. They married in 1835. Several years later, the proudly upgraded William, Earl of Lovelace (Annabella had secured the title for a beloved son-in-law through her close family connection to Victoria’s adored Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne) inscribed a mighty beam in his new Surrey house with a new family motto: Crede Byron.

Examples of this enduring obsession with the dead poet abound. Invited to bestow names upon Ada’s firstborn son and daughter, Lady Byron asked that they should be called Byron and Annabella. (The anxiety with which these two children were watched, reported upon and kept apart suggests that both their mother and grandmother feared a repetition of Byron’s relationship with Augusta Leigh.) In Ada’s new home, the great Thomas Phillips’ portrait of her father was given a place of honour, alongside one of her mother (painted in the year she first met Byron) and another of herself, painted in the first year of her marriage and designed – the commissioner was Annabella – to show off Ada’s most strikingly Byronic feature, a forceful, jutting jaw. It takes no great stretch of imagination to see William’s extravagant Somerset home, Ashley Combe, built by him on the actual cliffside where the young Coleridge had imagined Kubla Khan’s palace to arise, as a further homage to Byron. William and Ada were fully aware that it was Ada’s father who had provided the funds for the poem’s first publication.

The most powerful indication of the attachment Ada felt to her father came in 1850, when she and her husband paid their first visit to Newstead Abbey.

Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey as it looked when Byron first saw it

Annabella herself had paid an anonymous visit to the Abbey back in 1818. She was disconcerted when Ada declared that she herself had now fallen in love with ‘the old place and all my wicked forebears’. Before she left Newstead, Ada secured a promise from the Abey’s devoted new owner, Thomas Wyldman, that he would allow her body a resting place within the family vault, at her father’s side. Plans were discussed with Lady Byron – they were never executed – to buy the Abbey back.

Two years later, in 1852, Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer. She was thirty-six, the age at which the father she never knew had ended his own hectic career. She was buried, as she had asked, beside her father. Annabella consoled herself with a private shrine to her daughter, erected in the churchyard of her own family estate at Kirkby Mallory in Northamptonshire. The fact that she never visited it is apparent from the fact that the tablet’s engraver has mistaken the year of Ada’s birth.

Annabella’s own devotion to her husband’s memory is most movingly apparent in the way that she channelled her enormous fortune into causes of which she believed Lord Byron would have approved. Byron had spoken up for the rebel weavers of Nottinghamshire when they smashed the new frames that threatened to extinguish their livelihood. Generous help was extended to the indigent frameworkers on Lady Byron’s own large estate. Byron had supported the Greeks in their fight for independence. Annabella saw to it that a large tract of land in Greece was purchased from a Turkish owner and benevolently run on her behalf by a member of her family whom she had taken under her wing. According to Florence Nightingale, one of Lady Byron’s most ardent admirers, she quietly continued to pay her husband’s debts and to meet his obligations, long after his death.

More controversially, Annabella took under her wing Medora Leigh, the troubled young woman whom she believed to be the secret love-child of her husband and his manipulative older half-sister.

Medora Leigh

Medora Leigh was believed by herself, her aunt Annabella and by Byron himself to be the poet’s own child

Medora, who would die obscurely in France in 1849 at the age of 35, was the chief culprit in convincing an all-too willing Annabella that it was Augusta Leigh who had finally persuaded Byron to hate his wife, even resorting to the forging of letters during his life in exile. ‘She-monster!’ was loyal Ada’s indignant description of Mrs Leigh. Annabella did not challenge the description.

It was Annabella’s growing belief that Augusta Leigh had both seduced her husband and destroyed her marriage that led to the most ignoble episode of Lady Byron’s long life. In 1851, the ageing and indigent Augusta Leigh was summoned to an interview at which she was interrogated and found wanting. (She had failed to supply Lady Byron with the desired confession of her sins.) The fact that Annabella sent a last healing message of affection to Augusta’s deathbed later that same year does not exonerate her from the charge of having betrayed Lord Byron’s most urgent request, that she should always care for his beloved but feckless sister.

An unexpected twist of fate gave Augusta the last laugh. In 1860,  respectful panegyrics were offered at Lady Byron’s death. (She was hailed by Harriet Martineau as a dedicated reformer whose death would be lamented ‘wherever our language is spoken’.) In 1868, Byron’s last mistress published a book in which Theresa Guiccioli, Marquise de Boissy condemned Lady Byron as a cold, unloving wife who had destroyed the reputations of both Byron and his innocent sister by her refusal to provide a public reason for leaving her husband.

The book was first published in Paris. In Britain, the press devoured it with glee. In Blackwood’s, The Athenaeum and The Quarterly Review, Lady Byron was now denounced as a calculating, cold-blooded fiend. What a hypocrite stood here! Lady Byron was a woman (so Blackwood‘s declared with uninhibited relish), whom the saintly Marquise had shown to be unfit to touch the tainted hem of even the most depraved member of her sex.

And Augusta Leigh? Most improbably, Augusta was transformed by a flurried sweep of Victorian pens into a perfect angel of the hearth, a loving sister and maligned madonna, a gentle wife around whom a brood of devoted children knelt to lisp their evening prayers. Lord Byron, much to the gratification of his media-savvy publishers, was meanwhile recast as a misunderstood paragon. Teetotal by preference, a model of chivalry, kindness and forbearance, Lord Byron was declared by one ardent admirer to represent above all, the spirit and manners of a thoroughgoing British gentleman.

Charting the stormy passage of these remarkable people in In Byron’s Wake, I hope that a fair sense of their strengths and weaknesses has been achieved. But the fact that Lady Byron is today still viewed by many as a repressed and vindictive prude, while the charismatic and lovably fallible Ada Lovelace is celebrated only for her remarkably prophetic account of Babbage’s unbuilt machine flags up the enduring problem. Gaining a true estimate of these women’s achievements requires as much of us, their judges, as it did of them. In a timeworn phrase, it’s still too early to tell.

(1) The 3rd canto was written in 1816, en route from Dover to the house on Lake Geneva at which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived, while Byron’s adoring mistress (Claire Clairmont was the instigator of the Shelleys’ own journey out to Switzerland) also discovered that she was pregnant. Cynics might question the depth of Lord Byron’s yearnings for his own daughter. He had counted upon a son.

Miranda Seymour is a novelist, biographer and critic.  She has been a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she lives both in London and at her family’s ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, Thrumpton Hall. Miranda
Miranda  has written an acclaimed biography of Mary Shelley, and a prize-winning memoir, My Father’s House. Her latest work is In Byron’s Wake, a study of Annabella Milbanke and her daughter Ada Lovelace. 

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'Becoming Manfred': Tchaikovsky and Byron

Page 1

by David Perkins
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s festival overture, The Year 1812, (popularly known as the 1812 Overture), is probably one of his most famous works. Tchaikovsky didn’t think much of it as it was a commission piece to open the All-Russian Arts and Industry Exhibition. “It is impossible to set about without repugnance music that is destined for the glorification of something that delights me not at all,” he grumbled. To his patron he wrote, “The Overture will be very loud and noisy…I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and consequently it will probably be lacking in artistic merit.” The Year 1812, much to Tchaikovsky’s chagrin, was a great success—and continues to be. But it also demonstrates his uncanny facility as a musical craftsman, able to create music that stirs human emotions, even if his heart was not in it.

Tchaikovsky in 1884

Tchaikovsky in 1884


His letters and his diaries reveal that the works he was most proud of were those pieces that deeply engaged his emotions, which evoked those “warm and loving feelings.” This was true when it came to literature as well. He was a voracious reader: philosophy, poetry, novels, and plays. Fluent in many languages, he adored Pushkin, Dickens, Schiller, Dante, and Shakespeare; and even once considered writing an opera based on George Eliot’s Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story. In literature and in music it was imperative that something should stir his soul.
It is by the symphony, however, that composers are often measured, and Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies place him among the world’s greatest. His first symphony, Winter Daydreams (or Winter Reveries), and his sixth symphony, the Pathétique, have made their way into being ranked among the 50 Greatest Symphonies  according to Tom Service, music critic for The Guardian. No one has ever claimed that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are devoid of emotion. His first symphony was a brave act for a young composer in Russia. It wreaked havoc on his health, as he attempted to reconcile his unique Russian vision to the form while yet striving to be true to his academic conservatory training. His second and third symphonies developed his skills and expanded that vision. His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are regarded as masterpieces of the Romantic genre.
 
Manfred
There is an outlier among those numbered symphonies, however. His bewitching and magnificent Manfred Symphony, based on Lord Byron’s poem, was created between his Symphony No. 4, which arguably propelled him into the pantheon of great symphonists, and his Symphony No. 5, which confirmed that standing.
The idea for a symphony based on Byron’s poem was initially proposed to him in 1882 by his friend and fellow composer Mily Balakirev. Tchaikovsky was not inspired by the detailed outline Balakirev proposed, saying it left him “cold,” and furthermore “when the heart and imagination are not warmed, it is hardly worth setting about composing.” He also admitted that the shadow of Schumann’s Manfred, which he admired greatly, might be an undue influence. The matter rested for two years until they met again in Saint Petersburg. Balakirev had been of tremendous inspiration, help, and influence to Tchaikovsky in the composition and revision of the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, and Tchaikovsky trusted his musical judgment. It would seem, up until this point, that Tchaikovsky had not actually read Byron’s poem and had only encountered the idea of it through Schumann and through Balakirev’s outlines but he was at last convinced to reconsider it, and promised to purchase a copy to read as “I will soon be in the Alpine mountains, where the conditions for successfully portraying Manfred in music will be very good, were it not for the fact that I am going to visit a friend who is gravely ill.”
Bierstadt Albert Staubbach Falls Switzerland 1865

Bierstadt Albert Staubbach Falls, Switzerland 1865


 
The “friend” was actually more than a friend; he was an important pivotal person in Tchaikovsky’s emotional life, the talented young violinist, Iosef (Joseph) Kotek. Kotek had studied music theory and composition under Tchaikovsky, and following graduation had become resident violinist in the household of the extremely wealthy widow, the now famous Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who ultimately became Tchaikovsky’s patron. Kotek, who also adored Tchaikovsky’s music, was instrumental in acquainting her to Tchaikovsky’s music. Beyond that, Tchaikovsky consulted Kotek’s expertise on the violin and they worked together often on various works (Tchaikovsky dedicated his Valse-Scherzo, Op.34 for violin and orchestra to him). Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto was brought into being at the suggestion of and collaboration with Kotek. Tchaikovsky considered dedicating the concerto to him—but demurred, as he was afraid it would stir up gossip. Gossip, because their noticeably very close relationship might have been interpreted as not entirely professional—which it wasn’t. For a time, he was deeply infatuated, and as he confessed only to his brothers, “I am in love, as I haven’t been for a long time…I love him endlessly…” and “I love him very, very much. He is kind and has a tender heart.” This love it seems was never physical, their age differences making the idea disgusting to Tchaikovsky, but the emotion was deep and genuine—and Tchaikovsky, with the text of Manfred in hand, went to Davos, Switzerland among the snow-capped Alpine peaks to see Kotek, who was dying from tuberculosis.
Iosef Kotek and Tchaikovsky, 1877

Iosef Kotek and Tchaikovsky, 1877


 
In the third volume of David Brown’s massive biographical Tchaikovsky tetralogy, he somewhat coyly remarks, “Something occurred to revive the Manfred project. Exactly what we will probably never know, though we may guess.” It would seem simple, however. Tchaikovsky took “great pleasure in the wild landscape” during this visit, as he reported, and it was at Davos in the company of Kotek where he read Manfred in full. This encounter with his hopelessly ill and cherished friend; the eerie, harsh magnificence of the scenery; and the rueful torment of Byron’s Manfred over the death of Astarte, all moved Tchaikovsky to begin to shape the symphony in his mind. The idea of a tortured hero, longing for oblivion and consumed by lost love and an unnamable sin, had taken hold and flowered in the thin air of Davos, and in the rich soil of Tchaikovsky’s emotional imagination.
Davos Platz 1880

Davos Platz 1880


 
On his return to Russia and in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, he said, “In April I began to make sketches for a program symphony on the theme of Byron’s Manfred…I am so captivated… [It] requires tremendous effort and labour from me as it is a most complicated and serious assignment.” And later on in the process, Manfred “happens to have such a tragic character that occasionally I become somewhat of a Manfred myself…I am having to squeeze every last drop of effort from myself…[I] am using up all my strength and as a result, I am absolutely exhausted. Never before have I expended such labour and exertion as on the symphony I am now writing.”

“And loved each other as we should not love…”

Manfred, Act I, Scene 2

Two other earlier programmatic works by Tchaikovsky influenced by literature should be noted here—along with the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet, there is his other famous orchestral fantasia, Francesca da Rimini, based on Canto V of the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Both of these works, along with Manfred, are intensely emotional—is there any other love theme in music more famous than that found in Romeo and Juliet? And love is the subject of all three, but it is, more to the point, forbidden love, proscribed love, that intensifies the anguish, that magnifies the tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet were separated by the warring families, Francesca and Paolo’s love forbidden by Francesca’s marriage to Paolo’s brother. It is also notable that Romeo and Juliet was composed around the time that another former love of Tchaikovsky, Eduard Zak (Sach), a former student, committed suicide. It is plain that the incestuous love hinted at in Manfred, paralleled by Byron’s own similar shocking scandal, is yet another form of that “forbidden” love, “as we should not love.” These elements all sound not only notes of pain and sorrow, but notes of great soaring beauty as well.
Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini are shorter works, fantasies in one movement, but Manfred is a full-fledged symphony—and not only that, but Tchaikovsky’s largest purely orchestral work, calling for a prodigious and virtuosic orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is epic in scope, exploring the heights and the depths of the theme of tragic love—and yet another form of love that in society, “dare not speak its name.”
Although it was Balakirev’s persistence and his detailed outlines that drew Tchaikovsky to the work, it was Byron’s poem itself and the circumstances under which it was read that propelled Tchaikovsky into undertaking the symphony, and Tchaikovsky developed his own scheme for the work (later apologizing to Balakirev for taking his own path). He followed his heart into the work, and wrote to his friend, the Russian soprano Emiliya Pavlovskaya, “I had been for a long time planning to write a symphony on the subject of Manfred…and became so carried away, as often happens, that I could not stop. The symphony has come out enormous, serious, and difficult; it is absorbing all my time and sometimes wearying in the extreme, but an inner voice tells me that I am not labouring in vain and that this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.”

John Martin Manfred and the Witch of the Alps. 1837. The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

John Martin Manfred and the Witch of the Alps. 1837. The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester


 
Manfred’s three acts are divided into four movements, and Tchaikovsky interpreted the poem not in a strict incident-by-incident fashion, but as an emotional landscape as he also did with Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini. Some have indeed called it more of a tone poem in four movements rather than a symphony, although all the characteristic building blocks of a symphony are in full force, filtered through Tchaikovsky’s own unique compositional skills. The critic John Warrack called it “one of the great programme symphonies of the nineteenth century.” One can see Tchaikovsky’s translation of Byron’s poem in the four prefaces he wrote for each movement:

I. Lento lugubure:
Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fatal questions of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers terrible spiritual yearnings. He has delved into the occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved by him, gnaws at his heart, and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred’s despair.

II. Vivace con spirito:
The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of a waterfall.

III. Andante con moto:
Pastorale. A picture of the simple, free and peaceful life of the mountain folk.

IV. Allegro con fuoco:
The subterranean palace of Arimanes. An infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the midst of a bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the spirit of Astarte, who pardons him. Death of Manfred.

One need not have read Manfred to enjoy the symphony—musically the symphony stands on its own—however, knowledge of the poem enhances it immeasurably. The listener enters the landscape of despair at the very first notes of the first movement, the initial melody of the bass clarinet and three bassoons are joined by sorrowful, descending viola and cello. Immediately, the heart is engaged in Manfred’s anguish. It is a movement haunted by gloom and portrays not only Manfred’s travail, but his strength as well as he struggles onward with the burden of his pain, visited by the recurring, spectral, and lovely memory of Astarte.
 
Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake ballet precedes Manfred by a decade; his ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are in the future, but the second movement of the symphony is in the best tradition of all three, full of all the magical touches endemic to his ballet skills, lightening the mood with its charming, eldritch sorcery as the Alpine Fairy (Byron’s “Witch”) makes her kaleidoscope appearance beneath the rainbow of a waterfall—and unable to relieve Manfred’s agony, disappears finally in a high skittering flurry of violins and harp.
The Alpine scenery is the setting for the third movement, as Manfred seeks respite in the beauty of his surroundings and from the free and simple life of the environment’s habitants, “My soul would drink those echoes,” and

Oh, that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony
A bodiless enjoyment—born and dying
With the blest tone which made me!

His desire is in vain, as once again, the memory of Astarte returns along with the ferocity of his tortured passion, and discovering he will find no solace here, the initially pleasant pastoral themes fade as an echo into a melancholy retreat.
Many critics, including Tchaikovsky himself, have erroneously stated that the last movement is the weakest. Multiple hearings in the light of Byron’s poem belie that assessment. The longest of the four movements—as long as Romeo and Juliet, almost as long as Francesca da Rimini—it covers many elements and has much to say as it conjures up not only an orgiastic bacchanal in the palace of Arimanes, it directs itself to the universal themes of forgiveness, transfiguration, mortality, and death. And here, again, Tchaikovsky devotes himself not to the letter of the poem, but its spirit, the landscape of Manfred’s soul. Tchaikovsky portrays the evil palace of Arimanes in a dark, feverishly driving and ultimately raucous (but delicious) fugue. Manfred appears and appeals again to Astarte, her achingly sweet theme finally promises him deliverance from the agony of his tortured mortality in soaring strings and double harp.

Tis over—my dull eyes can fix thee not;
But all things swim around me, and the earth
Heaves as it were beneath me. Fare thee well—

Manfred’s dying moments are signified by announcing tympani, the full orchestra rising beneath him, lifting and delivering his battered spirit toward transcendence and transfiguration—and release, the moment of Manfred’s death, proclaimed with immense and powerful, towering chords in the organ, followed by a solemn orchestral postlude, a dying fall into peace.
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The Manfred Symphony is a sublime tribute to Byron’s hero—filled with passion and insight and emotional daring, indeed one of the greatest program symphonies of the nineteenth, or any other century. Tchaikovsky was initially very satisfied, and then, as was all too often his wont, it fell out of his favour, and he declared that he would destroy it all save the first movement. Tchaikovsky was always his own harshest critic and all too often wrong in his severe self-assessments—but the symphony has thankfully survived. For many long years the Manfred Symphony was rarely performed—part of those reasons being its length and difficulty. In the last few decades however, it has been rediscovered by conductors and orchestras to the delight of audiences worldwide. Enjoy it if you have the opportunity—but to fully savour this resplendent musical achievement, begin by rereading Manfred and follow the footsteps of Byron’s tragic hero as he wanders the Alps in search of the lovely, lost Astarte.
Iosef Kotek died, alone, in Davos shortly after Tchaikovsky finished composing Manfred. A year and a half later, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “Kotek’s letters. Tears.”

Tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos, 1890s

Tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos, 1890s


 
Sources
“Tchaikovsky Research.” Edited by Brett Langston, Tchaikovsky Research, www.tchaikovsky-research.net/.
Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Books/Macmillan, 1991).
Warrack, John. Tchaikovsky (London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).
Kearney, Leslie. Tchaikovsky and His World (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 1998).
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Years of Wandering, 1878-1885, Volume III (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986).
 
David M. Perkins is an amateur Tchaikovsky scholar, and a retired book David M. Perkinspublishing executive, formerly with Oxford University Press (USA), the University of Illinois Press, and Georgetown University Press. He has had many hundreds of book reviews, some various articles, essays, and poetry published hither and yon; and he is owned by a blue-point Siamese cat named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (“Mr. Petes”).

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

What the Victorians made of Romanticism

Page 1

by Tom Mole
 
My new book What the Victorians Made of Romanticism offers a new way of understanding the reception history of Romantic writers and their works in Victorian Britain. Other scholars have told this story before, of course. But they have mostly focussed on the ways in which Romantic writers influenced their Victorian successors. They tell us about how Alfred Tennyson responded to Byron, or how Matthew Arnold responded to Wordsworth. I’m interested in a different kind of story. The story I tell is about the material artefacts and cultural practices that remediated Romantic writers and their works amid shifting understandings of history, memory, and media. I pay attention to the things Victorians made – including illustrated books, anthologies, statues, postcards and memorial plaques – as well as to what they did with Romantic writers – citing and reciting them, including them in sermons, placing busts of them on their mantelpieces, and a host of other practices. These artefacts and practices made sure that the Romantics were renovated for new generations of readers – and non-readers – while recruiting them to address new cultural concerns in the process.
Mole 6
For a while, it seemed that the Romantics would not be remembered at all. Many early-Victorian commentators worried that the writing of the recent past no longer compelled readers’ interest, and that it would soon be forgotten. The predictions began polemically. Blackwood’s Magazine claimed in 1820 that John Keats had ruined his talent by imitating Leigh Hunt, and that ‘he must be content to share his fate, and be like him forgotten’, and Coleridge wrote in 1825 that he ‘dare[d] predict, that in less than a century’ Byron’s and Scott’s poems would ‘lie on the same Shelf of Oblivion’. But predictions soon became warnings. The Quarterly Review asserted that Scott was ‘in danger of passing – we cannot conceive why – out of the knowledge of the rising generation’, and Thomas Carlyle cautioned in 1829 that ‘Byron … with all his wild siren charming, already begins to be disregarded and forgotten’.
Byron Grasmere
 
Before long, the warnings became simple statements of fact. Orestes Brownson asserted in 1841 that Shelley was ‘seldom spoken of and much more seldom read’. The Graphic cattily remarked in 1873 that Hemans was ‘almost as much neglected now, as she was overrated formerly’. Stopford Brooke declared simply in 1893 that Byron was ‘not much read now’. If anyone read the Romantics, some claimed, it was only those people who scarcely counted, like adolescents or the uneducated. Selections of Wordsworth’s poetry ‘chiefly for the use of schools and young persons’ appeared from as early as 1831, while in 1848 Readings for the Young from the Works of Sir Walter Scott inaugurated a tradition of excerpting or retelling Scott’s works for children. Walter Bagehot wrote that ‘a stray schoolboy may still be detected in a wild admiration for The Giaour or The Corsair …, but the real posterity – the quiet students of past literature – never read them or think of them’. The fact that the Romantics were remembered – at least some of them – is not down to the enduring excellence of their poetry, or to its ability to transcend the historical moment in which it was written. Rather, I argue, Romantic writers and their works continued to attract attention because they were mediated to Victorian audiences in new ways. This was necessary because the Romantics were increasingly in danger of seeming outdated. Victorian commentators worried that the literature of even the recent past was no longer suited to address the present’s most pressing concerns.
 
readingsforyoung
 
When Matthew Arnold hailed his generation as ‘we, brought forth and reared in hours / Of change, alarm, surprise’, he signalled a self-conscious modernity. In this accelerated and uncertain time, the literature of even the recent past began to seem alien or obsolescent. ‘Too fast we live, too much are tried, / Too harrass’d, to attain / Wordsworth’s sweet calm’, Arnold wrote. Poetry of the recent past no longer seemed like it could speak to the anxieties of the present. Echoing Byron’s Manfred, who found that ‘the wisdom of the world… avail’d not’, Arnold turned Manfred’s conclusion into a question and made it a matter of generational difference: ‘what availed it, all the noise / And outcry of the former men?’
 
Introducing an edition of Byron’s poems in 1866, Algernon Charles Swinburne reiterated Arnold’s sense of a generational shift, and framed it ironically in the religious language that Arnold would use earnestly in ‘Dover Beach’ the following year. ‘Men born when this century was getting into its forties were baptised into another church than [Byron’s] with the rites of another creed. … No man under twenty’, he asserted, ‘can now be expected to appreciate’ Byron or Wordsworth. This fear that the Romantics were being forgotten, and that they could not find new readers unaided, produced a whole set of efforts to bring them to new audiences, and make them newly relevant. In the book, I look at how these efforts took shape in four different media: illustrations, sermons, statues and anthologies.
 
Retro-fitted illustrations – that is, newly-produced illustrations for works that didn’t appear with illustrations when they were first published – were produced for many Romantic works in Victorian Britain. They helped to make new editions of Romantic poetry look modern and up-to-date, because an increasing number of new books in the Victorian period appeared with illustrations from their first edition. Think of the close association between Dickens and Phiz or Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel. New illustrations helped to renovate Romantic poetry, allowing it to circulate once again in the market for new books. Illustrations therefore offered a way to come to terms with the sense that a generation gap was opening up between the Victorians and their Romantic precursors. I look at several examples of illustrated books that thematise this sense of the passage of time. In some cases, they update Romantic poetry by including recognisably Victorian people and scenes in illustrations. In others, they combine canonizing images that proclaimed the lasting value of Romantic poetry with images that invited Victorian readers to put aside their preconceptions and experience it afresh.
Victorian Keats
When Victorian people went to church, they heard Romantic poetry quoted in sermons surprisingly often. Some authors – such as Wordsworth – could be recruited in support of a generalised and often rather vague sense of spiritual uplift. Others – such as Byron – were more likely to serve as an awful warning, an example of misspent time and misapplied talent. But the way Victorian preachers and religious writers handled Romantic writers and their works could sometimes be surprising. Shelley, for example, was turned into an honorary Christian by a number of progressive figures in several Christian denominations. And Byron was quoted not only as an example of a sinner, but also approvingly, for example for his paraphrases of certain psalms and his descriptions of nature. I look at one preacher in particular – Charles Haddon Spurgeon – who quoted Byron regularly. Spurgeon’s library has survived almost intact, and so we can trace the ways in which he encountered Byron through anthologies, primers and books of quotations.
 
Several Romantic writers were commemorated in statues and other kinds of memorials. These monuments were part of a wider effort to create a new British pantheon. The new pantheon was secular, and liberal enough to include people with drastically different political views. It helped to create a new kind of cultural consensus during a period of radical introspection about who constituted the nation and what they shared. And crucially, it was not housed in a particular structure or institution, but spread out across the cities of London and Edinburgh, and eventually across the country as a whole. I examine the statue of Byron in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, and the statue of Byron in Hyde Park, London, as key monuments in the development of this new pantheon. I also show how these monuments were remediated in figurines, postcards, and cigarette cards.
 
Byron_Statue
Finally, I examine the ways in which anthologies mediated Romantic poetry to Victorian audiences. I’ve looked at over 200 Victorian anthologies, and for the first time I can explain in detail which poems by Byron, Hemans and Shelley they included, which sections of long poems appeared, and how they framed these poems with editorial material such as headnotes, footnotes and glosses. The results are fascinating. The anthologies produced their own version of Byron, Hemans and Shelley, which is different in several key ways from the version you get in a collected or selected edition, as well as the versions of those poets that English students today discover in modern classroom anthologies.
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Overall, the book aims to show how literature of the past can be appropriated and made newly relevant in ways that could not have been imagined by its authors. I think recent critics have often tended to connect literature so closely to the context in which it’s written that we tend to overlook its ability to function in other contexts. I hope What the Victorians Made of Romanticism will help people to see some of the ways in which literary works get redeployed in unexpected ways.
 
Dr Tom Mole received his PhD from the University of Bristol in 2003 and has worked at the University of Glasgow, the University of Bristol and McGill University. He is currently Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Tom Mole 2Edinburgh. With Michelle Levy, he wrote The Broadview Introduction to Book History (2017) and edited The Broadview Reader in Book History (2014). His other books include Byron’s Romantic Celebrity (Palgrave, 2007), Romanticism and Celebrity Culture (ed, Cambridge, 2009) and What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (Princeton, 2017). From 2008-2013 he was Principal Investigator of the Interacting with Print research group, whose collaboratively written ‘multigraph’ will be published by Chicago UP in 2017. He is a member of the PMLA Advisory Committee.
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

David Bowie and Romanticism

Page 1

By Matthew Sangster, Emily Bernhard Jackson, Joanna Taylor and Beatrice Turner
 
In thinking about the developments of the Romantic period, scholars often place a great deal of emphasis on examining works’ receptions around the time of their original composition or publication. However, in re-inscribing the importance of Romantic-period developments, it is important to acknowledge the continuing power that Romantic authors and works exert in the present, where they continue to foster moments of inspiration, re-engagement and reconfiguration. As the Wordsworth Trust’s ongoing work demonstrates, Romanticism is in many respects a movement that continues to happen, shaping the ways in which we think about nature, consciousness, art and selfhood. While the ideas developed by writers like William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Jane Austen and John Clare have been altered and modified in the centuries since their deaths, their influences linger on in modern art in diffuse but potent manners.
David-Bowie_Chicago_2002-08-08_photoby_Adam-Bielawski
Our panel at the British Association for Romantic Studies conference sought to explore these enduring patterns of influence by focusing on an artist who seemed to us to be both powerfully inspired by elements of Romanticism and capable of realising new aspects of its potential. If the rock stars of the sixties presented themselves in manners that were often unreconstructedly Romantic, David Bowie offered a series of self-aware alternatives to this model, challenging many of its underlying assumptions about masculinity, sexuality, genius, aesthetics and performance. His oeuvre engages with a number of common Romantic-period themes – including desire, drugs, innocence, space, death, identity and the nature of childhood – but it also pushes forward in manners that iterate on, improve and sometimes reject previous Romantic conceptions. Through examining this multifaceted and self-consciously constructed artist and his works, we sought to consider how Romantic-period modes of making art and selves constitute a living tradition that later artists have drawn upon and challenged in their seeking to improve our ways of being, seeing and understanding.
 
The accounts below give a sense of the angles from which each of us approached Bowie’s engagements with Romanticism.
 
Beatrice Turner
Hunky Dory (1971) is a record in which things are everything but, voiced from the caustic perspective of the kids who have been left, as ‘Changes’ has it, ‘up to our necks in it’ by their parents’ generation. At its centre, however, is ‘Kooks’, a track which I’ve always found far more compelling than it seemed to deserve, and a strange choice to place at the album’s heart. Set against the lyrical cynicism and extravagant orchestrations of ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ or ‘Life on Mars’, or the visionary anti-prophecy of ‘Quicksand’, ‘Kooks’’ simple, jaunty arrangement and twee sentimental parental address feels wilfully naïve, at odds with the rest of the album’s grim sense of history unfolding.
In my paper, I tried to resolve this apparent contradiction in tone by suggesting that we understand ‘Kooks’ as belonging to the same Romantic lineage as poems like Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, or Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’, or the Immortality Ode. These are Romantic poems in which a ‘real’ child is overinscribed by the adult speaker as an idealised figure, preserved in eternal innocence and as a creative potential by its seclusion from formal education, society, the city, or any other form of experience that might taint its intuitive connection to nature. If you know the song, perhaps you might agree with me that the adult speaker’s feelings in those poems belong to the same order as ‘Kooks’, warning that ‘If you ever have to go to school ǀ Remember how they messed up this old fool’, and its gently anarchic suggestion, ‘If the homework brings you down ǀ Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.’
David_Bowie_-_TopPop_1974_11
With its appeal to the holding-off of adult experience and induction into the social order, ‘Kooks’ imagines Bowie’s baby son as the same Romantic child, who, as Wordsworth says, comes ‘trailing clouds of glory’ before adulthood regretfully sets in, and who, as Coleridge says, can read in nature the ‘eternal language’ of God. This image of the child, and the adult speaker who doesn’t want him to grow up, gives force to Bowie’s surrounding cast of angry, knowing adolescents and their rejection of Romantic innocence. While the Blakean awakening into nightmare reality of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ (‘look out the window, what do I see? ǀ a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me’) represents one of the album’s many authentic moments of anger, ‘Kooks’ ventriloquises a reactionary adult incursion into teenaged self-awakening that renders all the sharper the rest of the album’s call to ‘wake up, sleepyhead’. The adult speaker, who repeatedly entreats his baby son to ‘stay’ in the adult lovers’ ‘story’, can’t or won’t see that the adolescent generation who’ve inherited his world have far more urgent concerns than simply ‘driving their mamas and papas insane’, as the bathetic chorus of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ has it. Like the children, biological and literary, of the first Romantic authors, I think Bowie understood himself and his generation at this moment as poised finely on the cusp of a new world that would turn away from Romantic optimism in the post-1960s comedown to face painful knowledge instead.
 
Emily Bernhard Jackson
Writing about David Bowie’s habit of slipping in and out of different personae over the course of his career, David Buckley stated that ‘before Bowie…nobody had ever…conceived of his or her career as the adoption of a succession of masks and alter egos.’ But as Romanticists know, someone had: Lord Byron. My paper explored the connections between the ways in which Byron and Bowie stretch the concept of identity.
 

 
In the video for his 1984 song ‘Jazzin’ for Blue Jean’, Bowie gestures backward to Byron by donning a costume that obviously draws on Thomas Phillips’ portrait of the poet in Albanian dress.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips. Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips. Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.


However, it is possible to read Bowie’s entire career – certainly between 1972 and 1983, and possibly later – as a continuation of Byron’s exploration of the concept of self, and as building on the poet’s eventual conclusion that there was no such thing as a single or stable ‘self.’
For one thing, both men had no trouble seeing, and announcing, that there was a difference between the poet or singer and his productions. While Byron was fully complicit in spreading a manufactured version of himself, for instance demanding alterations to portraits he found unflattering, Bowie created public selves that could possibly be taken as real as an acknowledgement of fundamental falseness involved in being onstage. At the same time, however, both men smeared the line between their fictional and actual selves, as well as their selves and their characters, suggesting through doing so that it is a mistake to think of the self as a single entity.
Bowie_1983_serious_moonlight
Where Bowie appears to build on Byron is in extending Byron’s conception of the self as multiple (expressed most clearly in Don Juan) out of multiplicity and into absence. For Bowie, during the period a persona exists, it is the self: when Bowie assumes a persona, there does not seem to be any other person underneath. Interestingly, Byron himself suggests something similar in The Vision of Judgement, although he does not explore the idea in any depth. It took a hundred-and-fifty years for David Bowie to live its truth.
 
Joanna Taylor
The Romantic period witnessed a profound shift in understandings about lived experiences of everyday spaces. This change was attributable to a number of factors, not least – as Norbert Lennartz points out – political events in France and enclosure in Britain. For writers like the Wordsworths, Charlotte Smith, John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, liberty depended upon the knowledge of the limits which contained the self.
It was Coleridge, though, who thought about this relationship most extensively. In Biographia Literaria, that tension was central to his conceptions of selfhood and poetic creation. He declared that ‘[w]here the spirit of a man is not filled with the consciousness of freedom (were it only from its restlessness, as of one still struggling in bondage) all spiritual intercourse is interrupted, not only with others, but even with himself’. Coleridge suggests that knowledge of freedom can only exist with an awareness of ‘bondage’. The boundaries themselves, though, are not self-evident; what makes the ‘spirit of man’ aware of his entrapment is his struggles against it. It is his ‘restlessness’, or what elsewhere Coleridge would call ‘motion’, that elucidates the connection between containment and expansion. In my paper, I suggested that David Bowie’s music enacts restlessness with a similar aim; that is, to elucidate a spatial oddity whereby close confinement can – and in Bowie’s corpus usually does – result in freedom.
David_Bowie_1976
In my reading, Bowie emerges as an artist who self-consciously engaged and played with Romantic spatial strategies. Tracks from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Blackstar’ make clear that Bowie considered questions about expansion, containment and their effect on the self throughout his career. ‘Space Oddity’, for instance, mingles the fictional spatial narrative with the listener’s experience of the song as a spatial construct, and immerses the listener in the dialectics of containment and expansion that ‘Space Oddity’ both describes and enacts. The oddity is both Major Tom’s experience of outer space, and the strange way that the song uses and engages with spaces. This oddness is inherited from Romantic writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth – but it might also offer us new ways through which to understand Romantic spatialities.
 
Matthew Sangster
The Romantic period saw the reification of the modern idea of the artist, as poets brought their own identities to the centre of their works by making heightened claims for the special nature and implications of their sensibilities. In no previous era would it have been possible to conceive of an epic poem whose central subject was the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’. In defining powerfully what an artist should be – albeit in various and often conflicting manners – the poets of the early nineteenth century and the Victorians who synthesised their ideas created kinds of cultural authority that served powerfully to legitimate their heirs, but which also imposed considerable obligations upon them.
 
My paper explored the ways in which David Bowie engaged with the legacy of the heroic Romantic artist by showing it simultaneously to be absolutely ersatz and absolutely true. His work built on one of the Romantic period’s unquestionably great legacies – the radical expansion of the boundaries of representation in literature – by including previously marginalised figures, modelling new kinds of language and defending the value of oft-neglected subjectivities. As he put it in ‘Changes’, ‘These children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ They’re immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware of what they’re going through’. The affordances of modern mass media allowed Bowie to reach audiences on a scale that was almost unimaginable in the Romantic period, performing to thousands in theatres and projecting himself to millions through carefully-designed records and TV appearances that deliberately distorted the line between stagecraft and self. As Shelley once wrote enviously of Byron, Bowie’s representations ‘touched a chord to which a million hearts responded’.
David Bowie en "Rock in Chile"
However, Bowie was deeply suspicious of another key Romantic paradigm: that of the visionary artist’s transcendent capacity for communication. For Bowie, as he worked through a series of characters and selves compromised by recognisably Romantic maladies, such as self-love, madness and addiction, the artist was simultaneously a visionary and a fraud. He was fully capable of ‘play[ing] the wild mutation as a rock & roll star’, but in showing this to be play, albeit of a serious kind, he argued implicitly for more fluid notions of genius that recognised the roles played by change, chance and foolishness. Over the course of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, it becomes clear that the title character is at least in part a terrible person, self-absorbed and self-regarding. Crucially, however, this does not mean that Ziggy’s project is necessarily a failure. What matters is not so much the artist himself, but the inspiration that other people draw from him and build upon. What’s reported of the Starman’s ‘hazy cosmic jive’ is pretty vague and garbled; what’s important is how his transmission makes his listeners feel, creating a community united for a moment in the ecstasy of shared excitement. Bowie shows both the medium and the message to be fallible, but their human fallibility is intrinsic to their effectiveness as a form of art that can mean something for others, saying with certitude, ‘Oh no love, you’re not alone.’
 
This post arose from a panel at the recent British Association for Romantic Studies  ‘Romantic Improvement’ conference, held at the University of York.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

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28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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‘’Huge and blackbearded and ferocious’’: Byron’’s manservant Tita Falcieri

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by Claudia Oliver

If there is one thing I have learnt about my ancestor Giovanni Battista Falcieri, as I have worked on my biography of him and the film script that seeks to bring his story to life, it is that he was an absolute nightmare to live with.
He had the Italian temperament, of that there is no doubt. He was also by trade a gondolier, a group described by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Review in the 1820s as “noisy fellows, but a fine, faithful, violent race”. He certainly lived up to the reputation, and spent his life working for some equally noisy literary fellows – Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, author of a scandalous Gothic novel, the outspoken atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley, and – most famously – Lord Byron. Tita (as he was known) was just 19 when he began his valeting career in his native Venice, working for Matthew Gregory Lewis. In Tita, ‘Monk Lewis’ had finally resolved a long-standing problem with finding reliable and trustworthy staff. One of Lewis’ travelling companions, Mary-Anne Finlason, recalled how enamoured Lewis seemed by this new servant:

For this man he had a great respect, and used to relate a romantic adventure which first introduced them to each other. I believe it had reference to an encounter with banditti, when Lewis was travelling in Italy, from whom Tita had aided his escape.

 

Matthew 'Monk' Lewis, by Henry William Pickersgill, National Portrait Gallery, London

Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, by Henry William Pickersgill, National Portrait Gallery, London

When Lewis died at sea on the way back from Jamaica, seven months after this recollection, one of his last acts was to write his will and ensure the payment of Tita’s wages. Tita first met Byron at La Mira in 1817, whilst in Lewis’ employ, although he wasn’t to work for the poet for another fourteen months. Tita then became Byron’s bodyguard, as the poet already had a valet, William Fletcher. Tita certainly took his duties seriously sticking close by his master’s side, resplendent in Byron’s special livery:

A cocked hat with a plume of feathers, scarlet coat, richly embroidered with gold lace; pantaloons, also similarly embroidered; Hessian boots, with tassels; sword and sash completed his equipment when out on special occasions in attendance of his Lordship.

 Tita 2
Lord Byron did run a rather disorganised household, that much is evident. Richard Hoppner, the Venice Consul, described Byron as being “culpably lenient” with his staff and that “he rather bantered with them than spoke seriously to them”. When they were in Venice, Tita swam with Byron in the Grand Canal, they rode out together on horseback, and he was responsible for ferrying Byron to and from his various amorous liaisons, of which there were many. Bad habits set in early. Byron bailed Tita out each time he came up against the authorities, paying his fines, and a generous sum to allow him to avoid conscription in Venice. Later still, he paid his father an annuity to compensate him for Tita leaving Venice and abandoning the family business at the Palazzo Mocenigo, where he and his brothers were all gondoliers.

Byron Grasmere

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Grasmere

He clearly had a forbidding demeanour: Byron described him as “huge and blackbearded and ferocious in appearance“, though insisted he was, nonetheless, “the gentlest of men.” Shelley agreed, describing him as “the most good-natured looking fellow I ever saw”, and Mary Shelley concurred that he was “an excellent fellow, faithful, courageous, and daring”. But despite his apparent good nature, Tita still managed to get himself arrested on at least three separate occasions while in Byron’s service – for being armed, for arguing with the Austrian guard who then ruled Venice and indeed much of Italy, and roughing up the occasional member of the military personnel. Percy Bysshe Shelley described how he had “stabbed two or three people” and William Ferguson Beatson Laurie, who later met Tita at the India Office, wrote a short memoir of him in the 1870s, which included this recollection:

On one occasion, in Venice, when some police came to take him up for some offence, he looked at them and smiled, telling them they had better not venture. They attempted to take him, and he threw three of them into the street, while the other four took to their heels. The Commandant of Police went to Byron, and Byron went to the Grand Duke. His Highness remarked that it would be ‘all right’, as the men ‘were being attended to in hospital!

The most serious incident occurred in Pisa, in March 1822. A garrison Sergeant Major of the Tuscan Royal Light Horse named Stefano Masi had argued with Byron and his friends whilst out in the street. Shortly afterwards, Masi was attacked and ‘pitchforked’ by one of Byron’s servants – although as it later transpired Tita was not the culprit. Edward Williams, who was to drown with Percy Shelley and Charles Vivian at the Bay of Spezia, claimed that Tita was ‘innocent, but “mad enough to go into court armed with a stiletto and a brace of pistols…” He was, of course, promptly imprisoned. Mary Shelley takes up the story:

The officer in question [Masi] has not died which is fortunate. However, our imprisoned servants have been kept a fortnight on jail allowance without being allowed to see any friend, not even their wives, or to receive any assistance, or even a change of linen from their friends. Even so Lord Byron has sent them down a 12 course dinner to share amongst their fellow prisoners, their only companions.

Once released from prison, Tita decamped to Lerici for several months where he worked for the Shelleys and their entourage. Once Tita had safely arrived, Shelley reported excitedly to Byron on 3rd May: “I ought to tell you Tita is arrived with Mr. Dawkins’ passport and has reassumed his marine life. He seems as happy as a bird just let loose from a cage.”
After Shelley’s death, Tita accompanied Byron to Missolonghi, where Byron died in Tita’s arms in April 1824. As Count Pietro described it:

At four o’clock, after this consultation of his physicians, [Byron] seemed to be aware of his approaching end. I think this was the exact time, and not before. Dr Millingen, Fletcher, and Tita were round his bed. The two first could not contain their tears, and walked out of the room. Tita also wept, but he could not retire, as Byron had hold of his hand; but he turned away his face. Byron looked at him steadily, and said, half smiling, in Italian—Oh questa è una bella scena.

Tita later wrote to his parents “it has been a great sorrow for me to lose such a good Master who was to me everything I held dearest in the world.”
Tita accompanied Byron’s body back to England aboard the Florida, sleeping with the coffin – faithful bodyguard to the very last. He also followed the funeral cortege to the tomb at St Mary Magdalene, close by Newstead Abbey, the ancestral Byron home.
Just over a year later, still in England and working for John Hobhouse, one of Byron’s closest friends, Tita decided to return to Greece He joined Pietro Gamba, whom he’d met while working for Byron, and remained in Greece until the close of the War of Independence in 1828, when he returned to England and joined up briefly with what remained of Byron’s old household in London.
From 1832 to 1848, Tita lived in the Chiltern Vale in Buckinghamshire, serving in the household of Benjamin Disraeli’s parents. But despite his advancing years, he still managed to get himself into scrapes: he was hauled in front of magistrates, accused of attacking one of the local lads in the village (of which he was found innocent) and quarrelled with staff who were then sacked. He almost eloped with one lady’s maid and secretly married another whilst still in service, and he was well known for taking impromptu holidays down to London to visit old friends. Amazingly enough, the D’Israelis even put off house guests one Christmas so Tita could ‘enjoy the holidays’.
Throughout his career Tita always regarded himself as an ‘obedient, faithful servant’, even though the evidence suggests he was rather negligent of the niceties required of an effective valet, and rather managed his masters than the other way round. He spent nearly 30 years in the service of others – six years with Byron, six or so with Lewis, Shelley, Hobhouse and others, and sixteen with the D’Israeli family. After this he turned his back on valeting, and spent the last twenty six years of his life at the Board of Control, later the India Office.
By the time he died, he had been immortalised in literary works great and small. Firstly by Byron as ‘Beppo’ and subsequently in Don Juan. Then as himself in Samuel Rogers’ poem ‘Italy’, inspired by his meeting with Byron at Bologna, and then by Disraeli as the hero’s Italian valet in his autobiographical novel Contarini Fleming of 1832. And Dizzy’s father also mentions him in a revised edition of Curiosities of Literature, and he appears here and there in many more literary works besides. When he died, his passing was reported around the world. William F B Laurie, a colleague of Tita’s at the India Office and author of Sketches of Some Distinguished Anglo-Indians, first published in 1875, drew on his chapter on Tita for the columns of the Times by way of an obituary. He reminisced over the last months of his life, saying that with Tita’s passing there disappeared “a most interesting relic of the Byronic legends”. He continued:

During what seemed his convalescence, Falcieri occasionally hobbled down to the India Office, where I had a conversation with him a month before he died. The old fire seemed to be hovering about his eye; and I could not help thinking of ‘Tita’ as one of the few men in London who connected the past romantic and poetical age with the distracting, too-fast, and ever busy present.

Claudia Oliver is a writer and fashion designer and currently lives in Manchester. Claudia’s interest in Lord Byron began when she discovered her great-great-great-grandfather was his gondolier and bodyguard Tita Falcieri. She published her biography of his life in 2014 and a revision is due out in 2017. She has contributed to various publications and has appeared on TV and radio in connection with her research. As well as running her own business, Claudia now works at Newstead Abbey and continues to research and write about her genealogy. She is currently working on a film script about Tita’s life.Claudia

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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'The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be'’: Ada Lovelace and her mother Annabella Byron

Page 1

by Eleanor Fitzsimons
‘Never was a bridegroom less in haste’. This worrisome observation was noted down by politician and diarist John Cob Hobhouse as he accompanied his dear friend George Gordon Byron on a convoluted journey to Seaham Hall in County Durham. Once there, Hobhouse, who had known Byron since both were students at Trinity College, Cambridge, witnessed the marriage of his friend to Annabella Milbanke at eleven o’clock in the morning on 2 January 1815.
 

Seaham Hall

Seaham Hall


 
Although his bride had expressed a preference for a lavish wedding, Byron insisted on a private ceremony; the only people present besides the bridal couple and Hobhouse, in his capacity as Byron’s groomsman, were Annabella’s parents, her governess, and two members of the clergy. In his journal, Hobhouse also noted that although he expressed uncertainty about the strength of his love for Annabella, Byron insisted their marriage would provide ‘the surest road to happiness’. It did not.
 
The newly-weds, sketched by Byron's former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb

The newly-weds, sketched by Byron’s former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb


 
Ever since he had first met her, Byron had been intrigued by his ‘Princess of Parallelograms’. When Sir Ralph Milbanke, 6th Baronet, and his wife, the Hon. Judith Noel, realised that their daughter Anne Isabella Milbanke, known affectionately as Annabella, had an exceptional gift for mathematics, they had engaged former Cambridge fellow, and tutor in mathematics at Jesus College, William Frend, to oversee her education. An enlightened man with stellar credentials, Frend had also tutored Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Malthus. Under his supervision, Annabella studied philosophy and mathematics to an advanced level, and also demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for astronomy.
 
annabella-byron

Annabella Byron


 
Although she was exceptionally scholarly, she was far from dull and she absolutely loved to dance. In 1810, aged eighteen, Annabella attended her first London season, attracting several eligible suitors as she swirled around the most fashionable ballrooms in the capital. Two years later, she was introduced to Byron, who, at twenty-four, was already celebrated as an accomplished poet. Although she rejected his first proposal of marriage, Annabella was captivated by the notion of taming Byron’s turbulent nature. She accepted his second proposal in 1814.
 
Difficulties in their marriage arose almost immediately. As Annabella struggled through an early pregnancy, she was beset by worries arising from her husband’s dark moods, heavy drinking and casual infidelity. Augusta Ada, the couple’s only child, was born on 10 December 1815, but her parent’s marriage survived for just six weeks more. In January 1816, Lady Byron, at her husband’s request it seems, fled with her new-born daughter back to her family home. This rash act gave rise to widespread speculation. By leaving her husband, she was inviting notoriety. Since a divorce would almost certainly not be granted, she was also destroying any chance of a happy marriage in the future. Also, she stood to lose custody of Ada, since Byron, as her father, had sole rights to his daughter.
 
On 8 February 1816, a remorseful Byron wrote to his estranged wife:

I still cling to the wreck of my hopes, before they sink forever. Were you, then, never happy with me? Did you never at any time or times express yourself so? Have no marks of affection of the warmest and most reciprocal attachment passed between us? or did in fact hardly a day go down without some such on one side, and generally on both?

 
In a letter to Irish poet Thomas Moore dated March 1816, he accepted responsibility for the failure of his marriage, writing: ‘I do not believe—that there ever was a better, or even a brighter, a kinder or a more amiable and agreeable being than Lady B’. Weeks later, having agreed to a legal separation amid rumours of a scandalous affair with his half-sister Augusta, he left for continental Europe, never to return. Although Byron never saw his daughter again, he assured his publisher, John Murray: ‘I have a great love for little Ada, and I look forward to her as the pillar of my old age, should I ever reach that desolate period, which I hope not’. He also sent her a locket containing a lock of his hair, and received in exchange a portrait of his little girl. Byron’s longing for Ada is expressed in the first stanza of the third canto of his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,
And then we parted, – not as now we part,
But with a hope. – Awaking with a start,
The waters heave around me; and on high
The winds lift up their voices: I depart,
Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by
When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.

 
Eight years later, Byron, still hopeful of reconciliation, told his confidante William Parry: ‘The prospect of retirement in England with my wife and Ada gives me an idea of happiness I have never experienced before’. His faithful servant Fletcher insisted that he died with words of affection for Annabella on his lips.
 
With help from her mother and a band of tutors and servants, Annabella took charge of Ada’s upbringing and education, filling her days with music lessons, mathematics and French, although poetry was excluded from the curriculum. Aged twelve, Ada, precocious and imaginative but prone to ill-health, drew up plans for a flying machine. At seventeen, she was introduced to Charles Babbage, Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and founder of the Statistical Society. He invited her to inspect a small-scale version of the difference engine, a calculating machine he was working on at that time. Ada was fascinated. She began to exchange notes with Babbage discussing complex mathematical matters including his plans for an Analytical Engine. One such note, she signed ‘Your puzzle-mate’.
 
No longer required to oversee her daughter’s education, Annabella devoted her intellect to developing a radical new educational model. She held Harrow responsible for corrupting her husband and denounced ‘the vicious systems of our schools,’ adding: ‘Few have as much cause as I have to lament their effects’. In 1833, she founded Ealing Grove School for labouring-class boys, and she presided over it until 1852, instilling in its pupils skills that were practical as well as academic. Ada was drafted in regularly to teach and lessons included allotment schemes, carpentry, masonry, and the commercial principles of marketing garden produce. Annabella also attended the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, worked to improve slum conditions, and pioneered women’s rights. In 1852, she bought Red Lodge in Bristol and invited educationalist and social reformer Mary Carpenter to administer it as a reformatory for girls.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace


 
In 1835, when she was nineteen, Ada had married William King, later Earl of Lovelace, and their three children were born between 1836 and 1839. In 1841, she rekindled her passion for mathematics under the tutelage of Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also corresponded with leading mathematician and astronomer Mary Fairfax Somerville, the woman who had introduced her to Babbage. When she published her translation of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine in 1843, she included her own extensive notes, which contained the first ever algorithm detailing instructions for the very first computer programme. She also developed a passion for gambling but the mathematical model she formulated in an attempted to improve her chances of winning was a spectacular failure.
 
Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer on 27 November 1852. She was just thirty-six years old. At her own request, she was buried beside the father she had never known at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
 
byron-grave
 
Her mother Annabella died of breast cancer on 16 May 1860, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. We are grateful for Ada’s contribution to computing to this day. Since 2009, ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ has been commemorated on the second Tuesday of October in order to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths and ensure that women and girls can look to role models in these fields. Perhaps we should also remember Annabella and her input into her daughter’s education.
 
 
Further Reading:
Julia Markus, 2015: Lady Byron and Her Daughters (New York: W. W. Norton & Company)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1870: Lady Byron Vindicated
The British Library holds a set of letters from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage
Doris Langley Moore, 1977: Ada: Countess of Lovelace (London: John Murray)
Joan Baum, 1986: The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron (Archon Books)
Betty A. Toole, 1992: Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers (Mill Valley, CA: Strawberry Press).
 
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher and writer who specialises in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013 she was awarded the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. Her work has been published in The Keats-Shelley Review, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, History Today and elsewhere. Her book Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew was published by Duckworth Overlook in October 2015. She is working on a new biography of Edith Nesbit for publication in 2018.
 
https://eafitzsimons.wordpress.com/
@EleanorFitz on Twitter

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Fictionalising 1816: The death of Harriet Shelley

Page 1

by Lynn Shepherd
The Shelleys and their circle have inspired hundreds of books, plays and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences, where the biographers can offer us only speculation. My third novel, A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US), was an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect and explain those silences.
Turning  fact into fiction is a labour of love for any novelist, but one that comes with its own challenges, whether technical, literary,  or indeed, moral.  This is the second of two posts in which I discuss this question in relation to two particular episodes in 1816 –  the death in October of Mary Godwin’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, and less than three months later, the discovery of the body of Harriet Shelley, the wife he had abandoned for Mary Godwin more than two years earlier. She is pictured on the right by @AmandaWhiteArt – no portrait of her was ever painted.

Harriet Shelley: The facts
On 15th December 1816, Shelley received a letter in Bath from his old friend and publisher, Thomas Hookham. The Shelley party was  still coming to terms with the sudden death of Fanny Imlay, but another tragedy was about to overwhelm them.  The body of Shelley’s wife, Harriet, had been found floating in the Serpentine. It appeared that she, too, had killed herself.
serpentine
Harriet had been living at her father John Westbrook’s house in Chapel Street, Mayfair, ever since Shelley abandoned her, pregnant, in the summer of 1814. But Shelley now learned that she has suddenly left that house in September 1816, leaving her two children behind. She went first to lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, telling the landlady her name was ‘Harriet Smith’, that she was married, and that her husband was abroad (which was not so very far from the truth, as far as it went). Though the main purpose of such a cover story was no doubt to account for her increasingly obvious pregnancy. Indeed it was probably the impossibility of concealing this from her family any longer that had forced her to flee .
And then, on November 9th, she disappeared a second time, and we still don’t know where she spent the weeks before December 10th, when her body was discovered in the Serpentine by one John Levesley, a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital. He told the authorities that he thought she had been in the lake for some days, but there were no obvious signs of violence, and the natural conclusion was that she had taken her own life. As was customary in such cases, the remains were taken to the nearby Fox and Bull inn, where a hastily-convened inquest passed a verdict of ‘found dead’.
Within days the body had been buried under its assumed name, and the briefest of notices had appeared in The Times, which made no mention of Harriet’s name – real or otherwise – and ended with the words, “a want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe”, in a veiled reference to her pregnancy.
hs-times
Even now, we do not know who was the father of Harriet’s baby, though some biographers have suggested Shelley himself, as the two of them could have met in London about the time her unborn child must have been conceived. More likely candidates include a certain ‘Major Ryan’, perhaps stationed at the Knightsbridge barracks; sixty years later Claire Clairmont claimed it had been ‘a Captain in the Indian or Wellington Army, I forget which’, who had gone abroad. At the time, Mary’s father William Godwin passed on a frankly scurrilous rumour that Harriet had been unfaithful to Shelley even before he abandoned her, and Godwin may also have been the source behind a claim Shelley himself later made that Harriet had “descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith”. In the same letter Shelley wrote that “beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret”. Not his finest hour.
harriet-smith-shelley-st-marys-paddington

So how did Harriet Shelley die? Some of her more passionate advocates have gone so far as to suggest that Godwin could have killed her, or had her killed, the theory being that she was standing in the way of Shelley marrying his daughter (and the stridently anti-marriage Godwin did indeed insist on a wedding less than a month after Harriet’s death). But by far the likeliest explanation is that she did indeed take her own life. Even before she was married she had been strangely obsessed with suicide, talking calmly of killing herself even before people she scarcely knew. And the letter she left behind leaves little room for doubt that she met her death by her own hand.
One thing we do know, unquestionably, is that the whole thing was hushed up. Hushed up so effectively, in fact, that one cannot but conclude that it was done deliberately, and by someone with the skills and connections to do so. And here I turn, again, from fact to fiction.

Harriet Shelley: The fiction
The account of Harriet’s death in the novel is part of a long flash-back narrated by Charles Maddox senior, a former Bow Street Runner turned expensive private investigator. Having been employed by Godwin to track Shelley’s movements (because Godwin feared losing an important source of loans ), Maddox is one of the first to realise that Harriet has disappeared, and he has both the men and the means to discover where she went:

In the week that followed Miss Imlay’s death I received, almost daily, supplications from Godwin to augment the account I had sent him from Swansea with whatever further information I had now at my disposal; supplications I steadfastly refused to gratify with even the briefest of replies. I cared not for his feelings, judging he possessed very few; I did care, and very much, about Mrs Shelley, where she might be, and what circumstances had driven her to such a reckless course of action. I feared the worst, and those fears were brought to a greater and more painful intensity when my assistant Fraser brought me word that the Westbrooks had hired a young man, one William Alder by name, to drag the ponds in the area of Hyde-park nearest the house. My distress on hearing of this was extreme, but Fraser soon established that nothing had been found. It was some time before I was to receive further news, and I attempted to engross my mind with other pressing cases recently neglected, until, one morning in November I was woken by Fraser pounding on my door an hour before breakfast and calling to me, hot-faced and out of breath, that Miss Eliza Westbrook had dressed the children herself before the rest of the household was awake, and taken them to an address near Hans-place, Brompton.

Less than half an hour later the coachman set us down outside the lodging-house, where I made myself known to the lady proprietor of the establishment and asked if I might go up to Mrs Shelley’s rooms.

‘Mrs Shelley, sir?’ she said, looking – or feigning – ignorance. ‘We have no lady by that name here.’

‘A lady of below middle height,’ intervened Fraser. ‘Rather plump than trim as far as her figure goes. Quite a beauty once, I should say.’

‘Ah,’ said the landlady, with a look I could not at once decipher, ‘you must mean Mrs Smith. Do you bring word from her husband? She is hoping to see him every day.’

‘I am, as you so cleverly surmised, a fr―’ But my tongue stumbled against the word, and I could not utter it. ‘A business connection of her husband’s. It has but recently come to my knowledge that his wife has been reduced to the painful circumstances in which she now finds herself, and I wish to do all in my power to assist her.’

That last, in any event, was the absolute truth.

‘Well,’ sniffed the woman, folding her arms, and looking up and down at my fine marcella waistcoat. ‘You can begin by assisting me with the money. A month’s rent she owes me, and that’s a fact.’

I smiled in what I hoped was a gracious manner, and proceeded to take my pocket-book from my coat and count out the coins, one by one. Her acquiescence, if not her confidence, thus purchased, she informed me that the young lady’s room was ‘at the top – the last you get to,’ and left me to find my own way up.

When I reached the last landing I knocked sharply and heard a few moments later the sound of a bolt drawing back and a light but weary female voice saying, ‘If it’s about the rent’ – as the door swung open. ‘Oh,’ she said then, drawing back and frowning, ‘I took you for Mrs Thomas.’

I had wondered at Fraser’s remark that Mrs Shelley must ‘once’ have been a beauty, for I could not believe she was much more than twenty, but now I understood his observation. The woman who stood before me looked at least a dozen years more, with none of the freshness and bloom of youth the calendar surely owed her. Her brown hair was lank, her eyes lustreless, and if her figure did indeed incline to enbonpoint, her face was gaunt and her skin dull.

‘Who are you?’ she said, holding the door close, and pulling her shawl about her. ‘What do you want?’

‘It is, indeed, about the rent, or at least in one respect,’ I replied, as I proceeded to inform her that I had just had the honour to assist her with that particular obligation.

The smile that greeted this information was enough to show me how lovely she must once have been. It illuminated her whole face, lifting the lines from her eyes, and setting the ghost of a flush on her thin cheeks.

‘Do you come from Shelley?’ she said, with a gasp. ‘Is he well – does he want to see the children?’

How I cursed the man then, in my soul; to have abandoned this young woman so callously, depriving her of the protection she had every right to expect, and leaving her suspended in a pitiable state that was neither marriage nor widowhood. ‘I regret,’ I began, ‘that I have no commission from him. But what I may do for you, you may rely upon.’

And then, as the shawl slipped a moment from her grasp, I saw. I saw her secret, and I knew what it was that had driven her from her father’s house.

‘You are with child?’ I asked gently.

She flashed me a look then, though whether of anger, fear, or shame, I could not tell. ‘Please go now. I do not wish you to be here when my sister returns.’

‘But surely there is more I can to do assist you – does your husband even know of your condition?’

‘No!’ she cried, her eyes wild. ‘And he must not be told of it! Never!’

‘But he must discharge his duty!’ I exclaimed, my mind in fury. ‘Not merely towards your existing children, but towards this one. To have behaved so despicably – to have continued to exercise all the rights of a husband while presenting himself in that character to another woman – another woman who has already borne him two children―’

‘You do not understand,’ she wept. ‘He is not to blame – I have not seen him – not since – not since long before―’

At that point the door flew open and a woman strode into the room. From a distance she might well have been deemed handsome, with her abundant black hair and pale complexion, but standing as I was, within a few feet of her, I could see that her skin was seamed with the smallpox and of a dead white, and her hair, of which she was evidently very proud, coarse and wiry.

‘Who are you, sir?’ she demanded. ‘My sister is not nearly well enough to receive casual visitors.’

‘Please, Eliza,’ whispered Mrs Shelley, going at once to her side. ‘Mr Maddox was offering to help me. Perhaps he might be able, if he knew―’

‘I can give you all the assistance you need,’ replied Miss Westbrook, firmly, leading her resolutely to the bed. ‘You need no one but me, Harriet,’ she said, as she settled her gently against the pillows. ‘You have never needed anyone but me, and now that that villain has gone, we may be together once more, and for ever.’

Miss Westbrook then marched swiftly to the door and held it open. There was no mistaking the gesture, just as there was no mistaking the look that flickered across Mrs Shelley’s face as I stepped briefly towards her and made my bow. ‘You know where you may find me, Mrs Shelley,’ I said gravely, contriving to leave a fold of banknotes on the table by the bed. ‘I am at your service, and will remain so.’

‘Mr Maddox?’ said Miss Westbrook as I drew level with her in the doorway. ‘Do not call again. We need no interference from strangers. However seemingly benevolent.’

Some readers will no doubt recognise the description of Harriet’s sister Eliza Westbrook, which I have borrowed from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s memoir of Shelley, published long after his death. This is just one among many examples of how I used contemporary texts and observations to bring my characters to life (in the extract below, Harriet’s heart-breaking last letter is a transcription of her actual words). William Alder is another historical figure, whom I discovered in the fourth volume of Kenneth Neill Cameron’s series, Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822. The section on ‘The Last Days of Harriet Shelley’ collects together all the known information about Harriet’s death, including an account of the inquest held by the coroner, John Gell, at the Fox and Bull, on 11th December.
fox-and-bull
William Alder apparently knew Harriet from working for her father, and went with her when she took a second-floor room in Hans Place in September, in the house of a Mrs Jane Thomas. In the novel, Maddox and Fraser question Adler after Harriet’s second disappearance –none too gently, either – and he becomes thereafter Maddox’s informant, with instructions to contact him if he sees Harriet again:

November had passed and December commenced before I received any word of her. I was at dinner in Downing-street, whence I had been invited to offer my advice as to the apprehension of the miscreants responsible for the late disturbances in Spa-fields, when the waiter slipped me a message in Fraser’s hand: Alder has seen her – Chapel-street. I made my excuses immediately and hurried down to the waiting carriage. The night was dark and the fog so heavy we could not move at any pace through the crowded streets, and I half despaired of arriving in time, but the carriage eventually drew to a halt a few yards from the Westbrook residence, and Alder stepped forward to open the door.

‘Saw ’er by chance, guv. I were in two minds whether to try to talk to ’er but thought it best to send for you instead.’
I glanced at him; there was still the ghost of a bruise along his jaw and I could well understand that he wished to run no risk of further intimacy with George Fraser.
‘She’s been ’ere ’alf an hour and more. Just walkin’ up and down. Cryin’ I think she is, and talkin’ to ’erself. Once or twice I saw ’er approach the door but then seem to think better of it.’
‘And you have not informed Miss Westbrook, or anyone else in the house?’
He shook his head. ‘No, guv. I judged as I’d leave that to you.’

I nodded, and turned to look down the street. A little distance ahead of me, I could see a figure walking away from me slowly in the mist; even at that distance I knew from her gait that it was a woman, and one much advanced in pregnancy. I could, as I intimated to Alder, have gone quietly to the door and summoned Miss Westbrook, but I did not see a way of doing so without alerting the whole household, and I judged likewise that had Mrs Shelley wished to see her sister she had had ample time already to do so. By that judgement I stand, but I cannot acquit myself of not perceiving the degree of alarm my own appearance would engender. I knew she feared Godwin, but I did not comprehend the full extent of that fear, or the terror she might conceive at the merest glimpse of a man she believed to be hounding her at his behest. I should have deduced this, but I did not; I should have sent Alder in my place, knowing that she had deemed him her friend, but to my everlasting regret, I did not.

Ordering Alder instead to remain by the carriage, I started down the pavement towards her. The fog thickened suddenly and I hastened my step, but the heavy air so absorbed all sound that I was almost upon her before she heard my approach. She turned then and I saw her face – a face at once stricken with panic.
‘You – you,’ she stammered, clutching her shawl tighter about her.
‘Do not distress yourself,’ I said. ‘I wish only to assist you.’
‘You said that before,’ she whispered, taking a pace backwards, ‘and then I discovered you are working for him – for them.’
‘I work for no one, I give you my word.’
‘I do not believe you – why else would you―’
‘Because I have had dealings with your husband in the past, and I know the cruelty – the wanton, careless cruelty – of which he is capable.’
‘No, no – you misjudge him – it is her – if it were not for her he might return to me – we might be happy again.’
I stepped forward then and gripped her hand. ‘Do not think it – do not wish it. The last time I saw your husband it was in the same inn where a young woman had destroyed herself – destroyed herself out of love of him, a love he allowed, even encouraged, but had no more thought of returning than he does of returning to you.’

I spoke it out of a desire to free her – I spoke it because my greatest fear was that he might indeed seek to return to her, and I wished her to have the strength to refuse him. I knew my intentions to be honourable, but I did not allow sufficiently for the effect such words must have had upon a woman – upon a spirit so distraught, a heart so sorely wounded. I had accused him – and justly ‒ of cruelty, but I stand accused in my own mind of no less a crime.

‘No, no,’ she cried again, wrenching her fingers from my grasp. ‘It is all a lie, all a wicked, wicked lie.’

And she turned from me and ran, stumbling, blinded by the tears that were streaming from her eyes. I hesitated a moment – a cursed moment – then set off after her, calling her name, but we were hard by the entrance to Hyde-park, and by the time I reached it she had disappeared into the darkness. I remained there for some moments more, then spent more precious minutes retracing my steps to the carriage, where I ordered Alder, somewhat breathlessly, to muster as many men as we had and conduct a search of both the park and the streets around.

They found nothing – then. I was still awake at three the following morning when Fraser returned to say there was no sight or trace of her. My relief at these words was profound, but all too short-lived. This was Saturday; it was Tuesday morning that I received the note from Alder that destroyed all my hopes.

He begged my presence without delay at the sign of the Fox and Bull in Knights-bridge. They had brought a woman’s remains to the inn, he said, through the old gate leading into the park whence all those found drowned were always conveyed. He said no more, but I knew; knew he would not have summoned me so unless he was certain beyond all possibility of doubt.

And so it was for the second time in as many months I stood before the body of a young woman ruined by love of that man, confronting the piteous waste of a death that could have been prevented – a death, in this case, that I seemed only to have hastened. I blamed Shelley – blamed him bitterly ‒ but I knew I merited my own share of censure.

The water had been cruel. Her body was bloated, the rank cloth clinging to the swollen form of her dead child, and her sweet face mottled with the taint of rottenness. These are not, I know, the words of a practitioner of my art, but my feelings were not the feelings of a professional man. Indeed, had one of my subordinates displayed such a weakness in the face of death I should have cashiered him at once and without reprieve. And knowing that, I strove to regain command of my passions and assess the corpse not as a man who had known her, but with the dispassionate and appraising eye of the detective, scrutinizing the cadaver for signs of violence, and seeking to determine how long it had been immersed. But grim indeed was that examination. I could see no obvious wound, and I was forced to conclude, with infinite sorrow, that she had indeed ended her own existence.

I had protected one young woman from public scandal and ignominy; I now faced the same distasteful task once more. It was harder, in the gossip of the metropolis, to achieve my end, but I knew the coroner, John Gell, and the editor of The Times was in my debt. I likewise persuaded Sir Nathaniel Conant, the chief magistrate at Bow-street, to allow me free rein, though not without profound misgivings, knowing he trusted me, and I had never before abused that trust. I then instructed William Alder to take up residence at the Fox and Bull, so as to be on hand to give witness at the inquest, and ensure that Mrs Thomas’ servant gave the name of the deceased as Harriet Smith, and provided only such further evidence as was strictly necessary. The jury sat barely a quarter of an hour before returning, as I had ensured, a verdict of ‘Found Dead in the Serpentine River’. The body I then caused to be taken to the Paddington cemetery and buried there under her assumed alias.

A second pauper’s grave, a second desolate and windswept interment, the only persons present the minister, myself and Miss Westbrook, her face heavily veiled, scarce able to support herself in the wretchedness of her grief.

‘We will have our revenge, my love,’ she whispered hoarsely, falling to her knees in the mud as the body was lowered into the grave. ‘Papa will institute a process in Chancery for custody of the children, and expose that man to the world as a profligate and an atheist. All who know him will abhor and shun him for the murderer he is.’
‘I must, I fear, bear some responsibility myself,’ I began, assisting her to her feet as the sexton turned the first soil upon the pit. ‘I am very much afraid that our last meeting only served to distress your sister further, and that had I acted differently – ’
But she was already shaking her head. ‘If you are to blame, then so am I. I was away from the house on Saturday and did not receive this until I returned.’

She put her hand into her reticule and drew from it a letter. ‘She must have left it at the door and waited in the street, hoping – expecting – that I would come out to her. And I did not. I can hardly bear to think what must have passed through her mind. She must have thought I no longer loved her – that I did not care -’
I had no great regard for Miss Westbrook, but I did pity her then. I pressed her hand. ‘She would not have believed so.’
She shook her head once more and put her handkerchief to her eyes as she watched me read her sister’s last words. A letter she copied for me later, at my request, and sent to me at Buckingham-street. A letter that tore my heart; a letter no man could peruse without seeing ‒ in the tears that stained it, in the very orthography – the most afflicting proof of the depths of her despair.

Sat. Eve.
When you read this letr. I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache. I know that you will forgive me because it is not in your nature to be unkind or severe to any. dear amiable woman that I have never left you oh! that I had always taken your advice. I might have lived long & happy but weak & unsteady have rushed on my own destruction I have not written to Bysshe. oh no what would it avail my wishes or my prayers would not be attended to by him & yet I should he see this perhaps he might grant my last request to let Ianthe remain with you always dear lovely child, with you she will enjoy much happiness with him none My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. – Do not refuse my last request – I never could refuse you & if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy. oh! be careful of him & his love may prove one day a rich reward. As you form his infant mind so you will reap the fruits hereafter Now comes the sad task of saying farewell – oh I must be quick. God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S–––

harriet-shelley

Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted a reference here to a meeting between Shelley and Maddox at Swansea, after Fanny’s death, and to other – clearly disastrous – earlier dealings between the two. In devising a fictional narrative that might make sense of all the ‘known unknowns’ of the Shelleys’ history, I involved the elder Charles Maddox not only in the suicides of 1816, but much earlier in their lives, and his first encounter with the poet is in late 1814, after his elopement with Mary Godwin. And it is Mary, in fact, who is the first member of the Godwin family to hire Maddox’s services. But what she commissions Maddox to do, and what fateful consequences that task then had, you will have to read the novel to discover….

Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), A Treacherous Likeness, and The Pierced Heart. She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

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Fictionalising 1816: The suicide of Fanny Imlay

Page 1

by Lynn Shepherd
I write literary mysteries. Taking the classic literature of the 19th century as the inspiration for new stories that inhabit the same world. I’ve worked with novels like Mansfield Park, Bleak House, and Dracula, and in my third book, I did the same with two of the century’s most remarkable literary figures: Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

The lives of the Shelleys are incredibly rich material for a novelist. There’s so much we simply don’t know. From what Richard Holmes calls the “two great biographical mysteries” of the assassination attempt in Tremadoc in 1813 and the adoption and abandonment of baby Elena in 1819, to the relationship between Shelley and Claire Clairmont, and even the authorship of Frankenstein – all are to a greater or lesser extent unresolved, and all leave us with unanswered questions. Even the established facts sometimes stagger belief (so much so that one of my readers was convinced I’d made my whole novel up, when in fact less than a tenth of it is outright invention). To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we’re in the territory of both ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’ here, not least because so much of the evidence is either missing or deliberately destroyed, whether by the Shelleys themselves, or by that fearsome self-appointed rehabilitator, their daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley.
Faced with such pregnant silences (perhaps literally, in Claire’s case), fiction can be an extraordinarily fruitful vehicle for speculation. It allows you to fill those gaps, and explore possible explanations. Not just what might have happened, but – even more intriguingly – why.

And so we come to A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US) . The novel encompasses all the mysterious episodes I’ve referred to, and attempts to create a story that can make sense of them. It’s structured as two parallel narratives, one set in late 1850, just before Mary Shelley’s death, and one 30 years earlier, which includes that infamous interlude at the Villa Diodati in 1816.

This is the first of two posts in which I will look at how I turned fact into fiction in the case of the ‘Shelley suicides’ – the twin tragedies that confronted the Shelley party on their return from Geneva in late 1816. The first of these is the death of Fanny Imlay, Mary Godwin’s half-sister (pictured above by @AmandaWhiteArt – as far as we know, no portrait of her was ever painted).

Fanny Imlay: The facts
Let’s start with a brief resumé. The Shelley party landed in Portsmouth on 8th September 1816, and took up residence at 5 Abbey Churchyard, Bath.
Abbeychurchyard

Shelley travelled regularly to London in the next few weeks, both on his own business and Byron’s (he had brought the manuscript of Childe Harold back with him for John Murray), but it was in most other respects a period of comparative calm in their turbulent and peripatetic lives. As Shelley wrote to Byron on 29th September:

We are all now at Bath, well and content. Claire is writing to you at this instant. Mary is reading over the fire; our cat and kitten are sleeping under the sofa; and little Willy is just gone to sleep. We are looking out for a house in some lone place; and one chief pleasure which we shall expect then, will be a visit from you.

That visit never happened, of course; Byron had ‘shaken the dust of England from his shoes’ for what proved to be the last time. The Shelley party’s domestic bliss was not to last long either. On 9th October a letter arrived from Mary Godwin’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, which suggested such a disturbed state of mind that Shelley travelled immediately to Bristol, where it had been posted, but failed to find her. It later emerged that Fanny had already travelled on to Swansea, where she checked into the Mackworth Arms inn, and later that same night, killed herself with an overdose of laudanum.

Mackworth Arms Swansea
She had with her a watch that had been Mary’s gift, and the stays she was wearing bore her mother’s initials. She left a note, but a strip of paper had been torn off the bottom, and thus when The Cambrian reported the news, Fanny was not identified by name. We can only conclude that someone who was actually there, at the inn, must have intervened to prevent Fanny’s identity being made public. Meanwhile her step-father, William Godwin, was doing all in his power to achieve the same end, albeit at a safe distance. He had started for Bristol after Fanny went missing on October 7th, but he turned back to London as soon as he got the news of her death, and explicitly forbade either Mary or Shelley from going to Swansea or attending the funeral.

My advice, & earnest prayer is, that you would avoid any thing that leads to publicity. Go not to Swansea. Disturb not the silent dead. Do nothing to destroy the obscurity she so much desired… We are at this moment in doubt whether during the first shock we shall not say that she is gone to Ireland to her aunt, a thing that had been in contemplation. Do not take from us the power to exercise our own discretion… What I have most of all in horror is the public papers; & I thank you for your caution as it might act on this. We have so conducted ourselves that not one person in our house has the smallest apprehension of the truth.

Godwin’s desire for secrecy was almost pathological: the real cause of his step-daughter’s death was not divulged even to her family, and almost a year later, Fanny’s step-brother Charles still hadn’t been told she had died.

Why did Fanny Imlay kill herself? The documentary evidence offers no one simple cause. Part of the answer may have been physiological: she seems to have suffered from the same periods of depression that afflicted her mother, and which Mary also endured. And Fanny’s life at Skinner Street had never been easy. In a household where none of the five children had the same mother and father, she was the only one living with neither of her biological parents, and in that intensely competitive environment she clearly cut a rather sad figure. Godwin went on the record saying that his own daughter Mary was “considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before”, and Mary herself obviously agreed – in a painful letter sent to Geneva that summer Fanny wrote that she knew she was the “laughing stock” of Mary and Shelley, and the butt of their “satire”. There is some evidence that Fanny may have nursed an unrequited attachment to Shelley, (all three girls at Skinner Street had been in love with him, according to Godwin). Shelley’s poem ‘Her voice did quiver as we parted’ certainly suggests a deep personal remorse. In the weeks before she died, Fanny had also made the distressing discovery that she herself was illegitimate (something everyone else in the family must have known long before). Moreover, she had been disappointed in a long-held ambition to take up a teaching position at her mother’s sisters’ school in Dublin. Emotional fulfilment, social acceptance, personal independence: it must have seemed like they had all been denied her.

Godwin, Mary and Shelley
Fanny Imlay: The fiction
In A Treacherous Likeness, the account of Fanny’s death is narrated by the elder Charles Maddox, a former Bow Street Runner who has set up a lucrative private practice finding missing persons, and solving crimes. This, of course, is long before the establishment of an official police force in England. In the novel, Maddox is hired by William Godwin to investigate Shelley on his return from Switzerland. Godwin’s always fragile finances are by now reliant on handouts from Shelley, and there are rumours that Shelley intends to abandon Mary Godwin and return to his lawful wife, which would inevitably cut off all further funds. Hence the Godwins’ concern:

As I made my way to Skinner-street that morning I was anticipating, with some degree of apprehension I confess, an introduction to a distinguished philosopher, a fine thinker, an exacting intelligence. What I encountered in his stead was a short, balding, solid little man, with a long, thin nose, and a very disagreeable wife. And even had I not my own sources of information as to the perilous state of the gentleman’s finances, I should have seen at once that the bookshop of which he had become the proprietor was a failing concern: ill managed, ill situated, and the shelves half empty.

 Godwin's bookshop

I wondered at first, and for a moment, that any man of business could employ such a timid and self-effacing assistant behind his counter, only to find that the young woman in question was none other than the elder daughter of Mr Godwin’s first wife, a Miss Fanny Imlay. A modest, gentle, well-meaning creature, to judge of first impressions, though it was evident, from words Godwin let drop later, and – may I say – in the young woman’s presence, that he adjudged Miss Imlay considerably inferior in capacity to his own daughter by that same lady. That he considered the latter to be singularly bold and active of mind, and almost invincible in everything she undertook, while the former, though sober and observing, was too much given to indolence; that he thought his own daughter very pretty, while Fanny could at best be termed ‘not unprepossessing’. I glanced more than once at the aforementioned young woman during this exposition, and it was evident to me that she was only too accustomed to hearing her own talents thus denigrated in comparison with her younger sister’s. I say this, not only in condemnation, however well deserved, but in anticipation of what is to come, for I believe such behaviour on Godwin’s part – such arrant thoughtlessness – played its own part in the tragedy that was so soon to unfold. For my own part, and from such limited observations as I was able to make, I considered the young lady to be virtuous, gentle and kind; qualities, in my opinion, to be both admired and fostered in woman, even if they were neither valued nor encouraged by her celebrated mother, with her infamous concern only for the rights and freedoms of her sex. That Miss Fanny resembled that lady as little in looks as she did in temperament I could see for myself, by reference to a very fine portrait of Mrs Wollstonecraft Godwin which hung over the fireplace. Such a fine portrait, and so centrally displayed, that any subsequent wife might have found it irksome; that the second Mrs Godwin did so, and profoundly, was obvious to me at once, as was the fact that her husband seemed not in the slightest aware of it.

 

The said Mrs Godwin busied herself, firstly, in providing refreshment, or rather in instructing Miss Imlay to do so; she then took a seat beside her husband, and proposed to lay before me the facts of the case. I was, I admit, disconcerted. I have, on occasion, encountered women of insight and intelligence in the course of my profession – women able to follow the principles of logic and observation that I have always expounded – but I did not expect to find one in Mrs Godwin. Appearances were decidedly against her, but I gradually divined that her coarse features, prominent bosom and rather extraordinary green-tinted spectacles concealed a mind of considerable cunning, even if she could boast neither education nor understanding, in the strict meaning of those terms.

 

I asked then, if either Mr or Mrs Godwin had spoken in person to Shelley as to his plans in relation to his wife. A look passed between them at this, and Mrs Godwin answered, somewhat pink about the cheeks, that all direct communication had ceased the day the poet first left London in company with the two young women, some two years previously. ‘Mr Godwin has forbade him the house,’ she said, ‘and quite right too, after such a scandalous and disgraceful betrayal. He swore he would stop seeing Mary, you know. He stood there, on exactly the spot where you’re standing now and swore the affair was over and there would be no more clandestine meetings and midnight assignations and secret messages going to and fro. And the next we hear he’s upped and gone with her, and tricked my Clairy into going with them.’

 

I observed with mounting irritation Mr Godwin’s rather supercilious expression throughout his wife’s narration, and I was very much tempted to enquire how he reconciled his public condemnations of the institution of marriage with his continued ostracism of a man who appeared to have followed those precepts only too assiduously. Nor did I venture my own opinion as to the justice – moral or indeed political – of importuning such an individual for money while refusing to afford him even the time of day. Mrs Godwin, meanwhile, had become increasingly testy, saying that the current state of affairs was most trying and unsatisfactory, and had rendered it difficult, nay, almost impossible, to obtain the information they required as to Shelley’s wider intentions.

 

That, in short, was to be my undertaking.

You can see here, how I have attempted to translate fact into fiction. The preparatory work for the novel required almost the same degree of research as a biography, and in my case, letters, journals, and other papers were invaluable not just for what they said, but how they said it. I wanted to be able to speak in my characters’ voices, absorbing their own words, where appropriate, and drawing on contemporary descriptions. The suicide note Fanny left is reproduced in her own words, for example. And Charles Lamb was no great admirer of the second Mrs Godwin, and thus a particularly lively source. And even for a fictional character like Maddox, I wanted to create a strong sense of the period through an appropriate and convincing prose style.

To continue the story. Godwin later summons Maddox a second time, on the morning they discover Fanny has disappeared. It is entirely natural, within the world of the novel, that Maddox should offer to follow Fanny, and thus find himself at the Mackworth Arms on the day she died. History tells us someone intervened that day; in my novel that person is Charles Maddox:

I found Skinner Street in uproar – maids dispatched hither and thither in random and ineffectual enquiries, and the youngest Godwin child, a rather fearful-looking boy of some thirteen years, crying aloud for his sister and trailing about the house, unregarded, it seemed, by anyone in it. Godwin himself I found hunched over his writing-desk, taciturn and morose. As well he might be. What does it say of any father that all three of the young women consigned to his care had now gone to such extraordinary lengths to escape from it? But if Godwin had become silent in the face of such a calamity, his wife appeared even more strident, if such a thing were possible. Poor silly Fanny, she repeated incessantly, was always falling into such fits of dejection at the slightest provocation, and without the slightest cause. ‘You mark my words, William,’ she said to her husband. ‘It will just be another attempt to put herself forward and have people notice her. That girl never did know how to conduct herself properly – but what do you expect with an adventurer like Imlay for a father? It will all be just another billow in a ladle, just you see. I’ll wager even now she is thinking better of it, and is on her way home with her tail between her legs. And she’ll have a piece of my mind when she gets here, make no mistake about that.’

 

This vulgar tirade seemed at length to rouse the philosopher from his broodings, and he reminded his wife, with a certain terseness, that she might have done better to keep the secret of Fanny’s parentage from her, or at the very least informed her of it in a rather more delicate manner. I was forced to conclude from this that even if the circumstances of the young woman’s birth were widely known outside the family, Fanny herself had not known until recently of her own illegitimacy. I could see how sorely this might have affected her, and began to feel a degree of concern far in excess of what Mrs Godwin clearly believed either necessary or appropriate. And this concern was only augmented when Godwin took me aside to inform me that Fanny had, only a few days previously, been sadly disappointed in a long-held ambition to join her mother’s maiden sisters at their school in Dublin, and assume a career there as a teacher. Mrs Godwin then interjected loudly that that was all Mary’s fault, not Fanny’s, and how could you blame them? However reluctant I was to find myself in agreement with Mrs Godwin on any point of note, I had to concur that it was in all likelihood the public scandal occasioned by Miss Godwin’s elopement that had caused the ladies in question to decide against offering such a position to a young woman living in the same household, albeit their own niece. But the fact that Fanny was in no way to blame for this change in her prospects cannot have afforded her much consolation in the loss of them, left, as she must have believed, without any possibility of making a life for herself independent of her family. Godwin begged me then for my counsel, and I gave it as my opinion that there seemed only two places that the young woman might have fled: to her half-sister and step-sister in Bath, or to the aforementioned aunts in Dublin, and I thought it likely that Dublin would be her preference of the two. My advice, therefore, was that I should send one of my most trusted men to Bath, but I would go myself to Swansea, that being by far her likeliest port of departure for Ireland. I wrote out a description of Miss Imlay, and asked Mrs Godwin to ascertain the likely contents of her travelling case. How much more grave my concerns became when that lady returned downstairs to report Fanny had taken with her only a small reticule, and the clothes she was wearing. ‘And that watch that Mary bought for her in Swisserland,’ she said. ‘Make sure to mention that. Expensive, that was.’

 

I arrived eventually late in the afternoon of October 9th. A hard wind was blowing off the sea, and I wanted nothing more than a hot bath and an honest dinner, but disdaining both I made at once for the house of an acquaintance, a man in the employ of the port authorities. There had been but one crossing that day, he informed me, the wind being so foul, and there had been no young lady answering Miss Imlay’s description aboard. Having extracted a promise for vigilance and dispatch I repaired to a small ill-favoured inn, where I ordered such a repast as the sour and slatternly landlady could offer, and retired as soon as I might to my bed, exhausted, dispirited and uneasy.

 

I did not know – and it will haunt me to my dying day – that scarcely an hour after I had left the noisy and stinking tap-room there came a knock at the outer door and an enquiry, in low and trembling tones, whether there might be a room available for a respectable lady travelling unaccompanied. A small room only was required, and for that night alone. She would be gone, she said, by morning.

 

I wonder now, with pain, how she spent those last hours. How many times she put the bottle of laudanum to her lips before she had the courage to take the fatal dose. How sadly her thoughts must have returned to the mother she barely knew, who had tried, she too, to put an end to a life that had become to her unbearable. I wonder likewise if any circumstance might have prevented it. A kind word unlooked-for; a knock of concern at the door; a letter in a much-loved hand. But no help came. By the time a thin sun was rising over the bleak iron sea, I awoke to commotion and alarm in the corridor outside and arose in a terrified haste, my heart misgiving me and a terrible certainty weighing upon my heart like lead

 

The maid it was who found her. The maid who needed only one glance at the young woman on the bed to know that something was dreadfully amiss. She was lying, fully clothed, above the counterpane, in one hand her sister’s last gift, and in the other a single sheet of crumpled paper. I know all this, because I saw it. Before the doctor came, and the constable, and the idly and offensively curious, I thrust the maid from the room and slammed the door behind her. Then I went to the bedside and placed my hand against the pale forehead, and saw with a heart that faltered that on her eyelashes there still lingered tears. And then I took the paper from her cold and rigid fingers and read the words she had left for us to find.

I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as

Fanny Imlay

 

My duty – my professional duty – was clear. This note must remain, and the constable must see it. But I had a higher duty, or so I thought then. Not to her family, who, I feared, would be only too ready to commence their forgetting, but to the young woman herself. I knew what scandal and gossip would be whipped up by the very mention of her name, and what vile speculation would dog her to her grave, if it were bruited abroad that one connected so closely with the Godwin family had died here by her own hand, desolate and alone. Hearing footsteps on the stair I knew I had no time, and I made a decision I have never since regretted, not for one moment: I took the letter and tore the name away, then stepped quickly to the hearth and consigned the scrap of paper to the fire.

 

It was little enough, by way of a service, and not as decisive as I had hoped, for I discovered later that she had her mother’s initials sewn into her stays, and I fear that the prying of a callous posterity will uncover the secret I was striving so desperately to keep. But for then, and I hope for some little time yet, it was enough – enough to keep her poor wounded name from the speculations of the newspapers, and cast the kindness of concealment about her last hours. And even if I had failed her living, I had the power to protect her dead. Swansea is a small town, and word of such an untoward incident promulgates only too quickly, but I was relentless. No effort was spared, no payment unmade, and by nightfall on the third day I had ensured that the inquest verdict was given merely as an unexplained death, and there would be none of those references to insanity or self-destruction as would have seen her corpse treated with indignity and disrespect.

 

Of the interment, I wish not to speak. The rain driving in off the sea, the black-suited clergyman racing through the service that he might return to the comfort of his own fat fireside, and the bodies, three of them, sewn into their rough sacks, heaved one by one into the tainted pit of a paupers’ grave. I did not even know which one was hers.

The second post will be on the second tragic suicide of that autumn: Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. The woman he abandoned, pregnant, when he eloped with Mary….

Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), A Treacherous Likeness, and The Pierced Heart.  She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Byron and his women: Mad, bad and very dangerous to know

Page 1

by Alexander Larman
In the (mercifully) final season of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham, played with wooden heartiness by Hugh Bonneville, is convalescing after a spectacular moment of bloody vomiting. To aid him in his recuperation, he is shown leafing through a volume of Byron’s poetry. There is a jocular exchange in which Byron is said to have been ‘a great lover of wine’, and then an indulgent chuckle before it is announced ‘and women too’. This has for centuries been the accepted public face of Byron, that of a man who loved – ‘not wisely, but too well’. He loved liberty, life and literature, and made himself one of the most talked-about men of letters who ever lived.

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage


 
The adjective ‘Byronic’ has entered the language in a way that the names of few other writers have, and is generally bestowed as a mark of approval. Many men, and not a few women, would regard being described thus as a badge of honour; it seems to convey dash and panache, coupled with a liberal political stance and peerless artistic achievement. The less savoury and more unfortunate aspects of Byron’s character – the often callous treatment towards his lovers; the violence of his mercurial temper; an attitude towards friends that alternated between reckless generosity and equally reckless dismissal – have not been ignored, but have become part of the Byronic myth. It is time to delve beneath the surface of the myth, and be prepared for what we may find there.
 
The greatest falsehood propagated about Byron is that he loved women. On the contrary, his attitude towards those in his life was mainly a mixture of contempt, violence and lordly dismissal. In addition to the innumerable chambermaids, maidservants and acolytes who were, in Byron’s own words, ‘tooled in a post-chaise- in a hackney coach – in a gondola – against a wall – in a court carriage- in a vis a vis — on a table — and under it’, he had a series of mutually destructive relationships with a variety of women. Some of them, such as Lady Caroline Lamb and Annabella Milbanke, he was initially drawn to because of their status and wealth but soon grew tired of. Others, including his most tragic mistress Claire Clairmont and his mother Catherine Gordon, were treated with disdain and even anger. The two exceptions were his final lover, Teresa Guiccioli, who at least received a small measure of compassion; and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, who weathered the slings and arrows of a scandalous and incestuous affair with a dignity and good humour that makes one wonder why she has been regarded by posterity as little more than a brainless dupe.
 
The answer, unfortunately, is a lazy misogyny that has permeated the Byron establishment for decades. In a hurry to put their beloved lordly poet on a pedestal, scholars, critics and general readers alike have been all too keen to overlook the obvious faults that he had as a man. When I decided to write an ‘anti-biography’ of sorts, it seemed obvious to examine his life through the prism of his relationships. I was not prepared at first for how distressing this would be, nor how revealing. Using as much of his lovers’ and friends’ correspondence as I could, I set out to paint a picture of those who were so much more than mere satellites orbiting an aloof star. I was equally keen for the voices of those around him to be heard, whether the precise, cold decisiveness of Annabella, the worried but fiercely loyal bustling of Catherine, the warm affection of Augusta and even the bewildered tenacity of his presumed illegitimate daughter Medora Leigh, product of incest and deceit.
Byron women
What is plain to see in the people I spent so much time with is how extraordinarily independent-minded and tough they all were. Catherine, abandoned by her feckless and debt-ridden husband, doggedly brought up her son to be worthy of the title that he inherited; Caroline took revenge on Byron by publishing a roman-à-clef that was nearly as scandalous as anything that her lordly lover ever wrote; the unlikely trio of Mary Shelley, Claire and Shelley travelled through Italy and Switzerland as free agents, casting off the shackles of respectability that they were expected to wear in favour of intellectual and sexual emancipation; and his daughter Ada Lovelace played a pioneering role in the development of computing science.
 
All nine of ‘Byron’s women’ in my book are a remarkable reminder, decades before universal suffrage and the concept of ‘women’s rights’, that intelligent and forthright women could and did expect to live lives considerably richer than merely serving as wives and dutiful producers of children at regular intervals. These lives might often have been difficult, or unconventional, or short, but they were seldom boring.
 
And what of ‘the Manager’ himself, as Annabella and Augusta nicknamed Byron? At times, as I wrote about his grotesque cruelty towards Annabella and Claire, I found myself loathing him so much that it was almost an ordeal to continue to chart his misdeeds. Yet I must confess that I have, like so many others, been at least been half-seduced by Byron. Like the women he associated with, he was a pioneer in thought and deed. Of all the Romantic poets, it is his writing that speaks most clearly to us today, as his hatred of ‘the cant’ will find a warm reception with readers who have themselves long since wearied of being told what they should think and feel. His personal legacy is undeniably a tarnished one, and many readers may have some sympathy with the manner in which Annabella attempted, without success, to bring up her daughter in ignorance of what her father represented. But there can be little doubt that Ada’s fierce protectiveness of him should find an echo in all but the most dogmatic of hearts. Unlike the Roman, I have come here neither to praise him, nor to bury him.
 
Nonetheless, as I consider, with some reluctance, the relationship between Byron, his romantic relationships and Downton Abbey, it is appropriate to remember the words of the Dowager Countess from an earlier episode: ‘The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron. And I presume we all know how that ended.’
 
Alexander Larman is the author of Byron’s Women, published in September 2016. He is a writer and biographer whose books include Blazing Star (2014), a life of Byron’s predecessor the Earl of Rochester and Restoration (2016), a social history of the year 1666. He writes Alex Larmanabout literature and culture for publications including the TLS, Observer, Times and Telegraph, and lives in Sussex with his wife Nancy and daughter Rose.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Diets of the Romantic poets

Page 1

by Andrew McConnell Stott
Cartoon by Mike Barfield

The most notable meal in the history of English Romantic poetry took place on a Sunday afternoon in late December, 1817, as a garrulous group of men assembled at the London home of the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The guests included William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, one of Haydon’s models, a gatecrasher, and a young unknown named John Keats. According to Haydon’s diary, it was a great success—a big boozy incitement full of laughter, argument, and discussion of topics as diverse as Homer, mathematics, and postage stamps—all in the shadow of the host’s enormous, jostling masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, which hung on the dining-room wall.
Christ's_Entry_into_Jerusalem
But while Haydon’s “immortal dinner” is never to be forgotten as a high point of Romantic conviviality, there is no record of what the men actually ate. This is perhaps not so surprising given that Romantic poetry is largely unconcerned with food beyond the occasional ripening ear of corn or grapes dangling above the lyre. But even poets have to eat—so what do we know of their diets?
Perhaps it’s telling that the most influential Romanticist was also the least concerned with food. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head.

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

In contrast, William Blake loved to eat and his wife Catherine was an excellent cook. She also had a habit of serving him up with empty plates as a reminder that he needed to start bringing home some money. Habitually broke, Blake maintained temperate appetites, eating cold mutton and drinking pints of porter from the local pub. (He was particularly offended by wine glasses, which he considered an absurd affectation.) Blake also accepted gifts from admirers, and having once been given a bottle of walnut oil that he didn’t know what to do with, decided to drink it all in one go.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner, and his hosts never failed to find him the consummate companion—witty, erudite, able to recite long poems by heart, and with more natural intelligence than any writer of his generation—although he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

If the first generation of Romantic poets had an unhappy relationship with food, the second were little better. Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” While convinced that he always felt better when he was a bit heavier, he was similarly certain that the extra weight caused him to misbehave, and that it was his duty to “starve the devil out.” Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating, although at least some of this can be attributed to the creation of his own myth. When Byron went to Samuel Rogers’ house for dinner, he refused soup, fish, mutton, and wine, and when asked what he did eat, replied, “nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water” (Rogers eventually served him potatoes, “bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”) A few days later, Rogers met Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse, and asked him how long Byron intended to continue with his diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” was the reply.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, National Portrait Gallery, on display at Dove Cottage

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was prone to forgetting where he was and who he was married to, frequently became so absorbed in thought that he also forgot to eat. A vegetarian from his teenage years, Shelley’s pamphlet On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813) equated rearing livestock and eating meat with man’s murderous urge to war and dominion. When he did eat, his sweet tooth held sway over an array of jam tarts, penny buns, and “panada”—a kind of boiled dough covered in sugar and raisins—and glasses of “spurious lemonade.” He also liked to test the inspirational qualities of various foods, and once badly poisoned himself by eating laurel leaves. Laurel is the garland of the poets, and also contains prussic acid. He also liked to lick tree sap.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, National Portrait Gallery

Finally, as poor, sickly John Keats spent most of his life battling the twin poetic evils of poverty and illness, he was forced to endure many months on restrictive diets that were intended to restore his health, but only made him weaker. When in good spirits, he was particularly partial to game—hare, partridge, grouse, woodcock and pheasant, which it was the fashion to hang almost to the point of putrefaction before cooking. He washed it all down with buckets of claret, and while the stereotypical image of a weakling Keats doesn’t really permit for him to be an heroic drinker, claret, he said, transformed him into “Hermes.” It was “the only palate affair I am at all sensual in.”

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

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 which we review here. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.
Andy Stott

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

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28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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