Making the film ‘Swimming with Byron’

by Christopher Flynn
About 12 years ago I started working on a series of pieces related to Romantic tourism. Not the tours the Romantics took, but my own wandering in their wake. Narcissistic, yes, but as many have pointed out, the Romantics started the navel gazing we all do now so persistently. Keats may have referred to it as the “egotistical sublime,” but there’s a lot of Keats in Keats as well. None of the Romantics were immune.

It’s not as if I haven’t fought it. I set out to make a film about the Romantics and their travels. Trips I took in 1999 and 2003 put the idea into my head. The first one took me to the Lakes. The second was all focused on London. Later, in 2011, I went to Missolonghi to see where Byron died, and Rome, to see where Keats and Shelley were buried. That was a death tour, pure and simple. I saw the crypt of the Capuchin friars, a ghastly, beautiful set of little rooms ornamented with skulls and bones, the Museum of Criminology with its models of drawing and quartering. I spent hours in the Protestant Cemetery. The idea wasn’t to commune with the spirit of Keats or anything fuzzy like that, but just to spend time there and figure out what the place had to teach. I suppose that’s fuzzy as well.

In the middle of those trips I taught abroad in France. We had a crisis: low enrollment. There were fears that my university would shut down the program. A colleague of mine came up with a brilliant plan on the spur of the moment, literally. The moment spurred her the way a cowboy spurs a horse (and we work in Texas, so …). She would teach French – she’s multilingual, and can easily slip into the role of elementary French teacher – which left me jumping in and saying I’d take over her French cinéma class. She was going to teach it as a language class. I’d been watching the great French movies of the past 70 years and learning about them in order to improve my very wobbly command of the Gallic tongue. So I said:

“I’ll teach it, but as the history of French cinéma.”

And so I became a film professor.

The class was fun and we – the students and I – all learned a lot. Before I began it I asked several film professors what they thought I should do with a bunch of first year students in a film class. They all said: “they should make a movie.” So in a bumbling fashion that’s sadly typical for me, I asked my university for a couple of camcorders, some microphones, and we made a documentary about their semester in France.

I was hooked on film as the media I wanted to work in by the end of that semester. I never studied it; I never worked on a film. But I’d been reading about the French New Wave, and Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Rivette, and many of the rest had started as enthusiasts, graduated to film journalism, and then just started making films without any real training. I’m not saying I’m the next Godard or Truffaut, but I’ve always been the type to think: if they can do it, I can do it.

It’s not like I had no background in the arts. My father was a playwright, and he wrote for television. I’d spent years in the theatre as a spectator because of him, and not just for the final performances. I was there from the initial readings of works in progress through dress rehearsals.

I was a music student at Juilliard. I’d played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center many times. I’d been on stage from age 10.  Film was the missing piece for me. I’d worked on Romanticism as a scholar and loved it, and had been teaching it for years. I’d written essays, chapters, reviews, and a book. I’d given about 40 conference papers. But I’d always felt the outsider in my own field. I’d felt as if I were working in genres that were close, but not quite.

Film answered that final question, so I started making little ones for my classes. I loved them. But I’m absurdly ambitious, and little films for class instruction were never going to be enough. I posed the question to my partner at my university on these shorter films: what if we make a BIG one? A feature film. He – Eric Trimble – said that’s what he’d always wanted to do as well. So I said I’d been thinking of a series of essays about Romantic travels, but would much prefer making a movie about the same thing.

We raised the funding with crowdfunding. We ran a Kickstarter campaign, and raised $13,000. A tiny amount, but enough to get us on planes and to feed and house us in the seven countries we’ll visit for our film. I’m using students as crew in London, and am paying most people with IMDB credits and the joy of working on a movie about Romanticism. With a lot of people that’s been enough. I’m grateful to them.

We’ve had brilliant scholars volunteer their time. The peerless Kenneth Johnston, emeritus of Indiana University (where I got my own undergraduate degree in music after leaving Juilliard), came out to talk with us at the British Library. Danielle Barkley, Ph.D. McGill University, talked with us at the Keats House in Hampstead. Patrick Duggan of the University of Surrey, an old friend from a conference on trauma in Swansea years ago, came to talk with me in Tavistock Square and quarrel about my simple questions about Romanticism vs. classicism.
Several acting students came out to Westminster Bridge to read the sonnet Wordsworth wrote about crossing the span in 1802.

Left to right: Rebecca Pingree (actor), Victoria Cavazos (sound), and Sara Radebaugh (sound monitor). Photo Daniel Sullivan

Left to right: Rebecca Pingree (actor), Victoria Cavazos (sound), and Sara Radebaugh (sound monitor). Photo Daniel Sullivan

We’ll have more, and we’ll also have people connected to Romanticism who aren’t scholars. I went to Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave and tried to soak in everything Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin must have been feeling when they courted in that spot. I’m going to Newington Green to talk with the people behind a campaign to get a proper memorial to Wollstonecraft built there. I’ll talk with others working in Manchester for a memorial to the Peterloo Massacre, famously chronicled by Percy Shelley in “England in 1819.”

We’ll go to Watchet and talk at the Ancient Mariner statue erected by the people who run the museum there. Tintern Abbey, of course.

And then we’ll be up in the Lakes, talking to locals, scholars, and to the mountains and tarns. I haven’t been there since 1999, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, presenting my first professional paper at the Wordsworth Summer Conference.

It was about Coleridge and language, and at one moment one of the less tall leaders of the group got up on a chair and yelled at me that I was getting it wrong, that remarks I made about the differences between American English and British English were incorrect, and that I should take it back and apologize.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “But I’m not taking it back.”
And I thought: “This is academic discourse? How exciting.”

We’ll be in Cockermouth, Grasmere, and Hawkshead, and wherever else we’re encouraged to go. I’m looking forward to being back at Tintern Abbey, and back at the Lakes. It’ll be like a Wordsworthian memory trip. In my case it’ll be more like: “Sixteen years have passed: Sixteen summers with the length of sixteen long winters.” It doesn’t scan well, but it has the benefit of being the truth.

After all this English traveling, we’ll go to France, Switzerland, Italy, and Turkey. I’ll hike Wordsworth’s 1790 route to the Alps, hang out with the ghost of Helen Maria Williams in Paris, mourn at Keats’s grave in Rome, and swim the Hellespont.

Yes, you read the right. The movie ends with the director swimming the Hellespont (as all movies should).

But all these later bits might be the subject of another blog post.


Christopher Flynn is an associate professor of literature and film at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He has published a book, Americans in British Literature, 1770-1832, and many essays on Romanticism and 18th-century literature. His first film, New Eyes/d’autres yeux, (2010), focused on American students
studying in France. He has also made several shorter films, most recently, Defoe in the Pillory (2015), a study of Daniel Defoe’s punishment for seditious libel.