The Byron effect

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


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.


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. 

What the Victorians made of Romanticism

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.
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.
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.
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.

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

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

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

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

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.
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.
@EleanorFitz on Twitter

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

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.

Diets of the Romantic poets

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.
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

Death, disaster, and the ‘End of Days’: ‘Darkness’, by Lord Byron

by Allen Ashley 
Later years and a deeper and wider reading of their work have shown me that the Romantics had a great affinity with the fantastic; but when I first read ‘Darkness’ during A’ Level English studies, I was amazed and delighted. Amazed that the dashing Lothario more associated with the bedroom and the battlefield, author of Don Juan and ‘She Walks in Beauty’, had turned his hand to a proto-SF piece. Delighted because, having had to temporarily abandon my usual fare of Brian Aldiss and A. E. van Vogt (New English Library, with Bruce Pennington covers) in favour of the dubious delights of The Winter’s Tale and Middlemarch, I could now legitimately pore over something I recognised and empathised with: a catastrophe story. ‘Darkness’ is essentially a poem depicting the end of life on Earth. The cause? The sun goes out:

The bright sun was extinguish’d and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Writing long before the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Byron’s source of inspiration is, in part, the King James Bible. In essence, Byron has inverted the divine imperative: “Let there be light”, restoring the universe or our segment of it to the earlier state of, “Darkness … upon the face of the deep.” Think The Book of Revelations told in a more measured tone and you have the atmosphere of this poem.

Again prefiguring later works, Byron maps out the stages of the disaster and its aftermath with the logic of a Hollywood SFX blockbuster. But there’s no Will Smith or Tom Cruise rescuing the remnants of humankind here: Earth is left thus –

… The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

The repeating suffixes – “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless” –echo like a list of dead brothers at a war memorial service.
At first, people take to creating their own light and heat, burning

The palaces of crowned kings – the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons

Soon whole “Forests were set on fire” but this can only be a temporary solution – like looting the abandoned supermarket in a disaster novel; the stock is going to rot or run out one day if never replenished. Some people realise that they are essentially building “Their funeral piles with fuel”. As the urge to survive becomes ever more desperate, fights to the death break out over food, “War” returns and the birds fall from the sky. Even the dogs turn against us except for one faithful hound who keeps watch over the corpse of his dead master, guarding him from the cannibals until:

But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress – he died.

Effective; if a tad melodramatic to modern eyes. This is one example of Byron realising that readers might not be able to grasp the macrocosmic totality of the tragedy; so he focuses in on one individual’s extended story to stand as representative of the fate of all. Symbolic moralism to the fore, Byron next focuses on the last two men who each see the other as a “Fiend” and promptly die. From here it’s just a dozen lines to the unfashionably bleak ending. Indeed, for what is effectively an End of Days epic, the poet has told his tale in a mere and surprising 82 lines.

Byron composed the piece during July-August 1816, the infamous year without a summer, with the permanently overcast sky having been caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia – what we would now call a “nuclear winter”; an event unexplained at the time and leading to outbreaks of mass hysteria. This is Byron with his finger on the pulse, portraying the effects of an unfolding environmental catastrophe and playing it out to Armageddon proportions.

As a poet, traditionally the conscience of a nation, Byron can adopt a moral stance that, perhaps, he doesn’t always adhere to in real life. From the authorial point of view, it’s a classic instance of taking something from the real world and extrapolating it into fictitious fantasy. I did something similar when I saw somebody severely reddened by sunburn and eventually wrote my catastrophe story Sunburst Finish. Indeed, I think Byron’s influence over me has been strong – neither of my disaster stories The Overwhelm or The Twilight would have existed without “Darkness”. One might also say the poem is a precursor to some of the much-loved twentieth century British disaster novels of John Wyndham, J. G. Ballard, John Christopher, Edmund Cooper et al. But Byron’s poem is a far from cosy catastrophe.

Also, one could respectably suggest “Darkness” as an influence on Isaac Asimov’s classic, breakthrough science fiction tale Nightfall (1941) – set on a world where the human inhabitants are about to encounter nightfall for the first time ever and are filled with fear. Moving beyond genre, or perhaps stretching science fiction’s boundaries to encompass modern theatre-craft, one can discern Byron’s dark light reflected in the following quotes from the final scene of Samuel Beckett’s End-Game (1963):

From the character Clov: “I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit”
From the character Hamm: “You cried for night; it falls: now cry in darkness”.

Sometimes the poem “Darkness” is too heavily influenced by Biblical verse forms: “Happy were those who dwelt within the eye / Of the volcanos”. There are occasional archaisms and awkward phraseology: in Line 10, for example: “They did live by watchfires” – the insertion of “did” really jars to modern ears. Yet at other times the writing is vivid in its unrhymed yet resonant precision: “Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea” (Line 75).
“Darkness” is a thrilling poem that has lasted two hundred years and in many ways is more pertinent now than at the time of its original execution. It is a piece that was ahead of its time for, although some of the vocabulary and idiomatic language has necessarily dated, the scenarios that Byron envisages seem more believable than ever in these times of climate change and ecological concern. And he knows and shows us that catastrophe may well bring out the baser elements of human nature. Wise words of warning, indeed.

Allen Ashley works as a creative writing tutor, with five groups running across  north London. His most recent book is as editor of Creeping Crawlers (Shadow  Publishing, 2015) and his next book will be an expanded re-release of his novel The  Planet Suite (Eibonvale Press, June 2016). He is a committee member of the British Fantasy Society. He has previously appeared on the Romanticism Blog with Kubla Khan – A Lament for a Lost Eden.

Romantic readings: Childe Harold, by Lord Byron

by Francesca Blanch Serrat

Lord Byron left England in April 1816 after he and his wife Annabella Milbanke had begun separation proceedings. The whole of English society had risen with a commotion over Byron’s alleged misconduct toward Lady Byron and his presumed incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Those who up to that moment had regarded the poet as an amusing, exotic, unapologetic character now rebuffed him. Byron, haunted by scandal and debt, and ostracized by his fellow Englishmen, sailed for Belgium. He was never to return home. Home was not home anymore. He had sold his estate, Newstead Abbey; his parents had passed away; only a few of his most loyal friends remained. In the years that followed, until his death in 1824, he would travel through Europe, from France to Italy and Greece. He masked his unrest by forming romantic acquaintances, creating political allegiances with liberal nationalistic movements and writing.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in its complete form in 1818, two years after the beginning of Lord Byron’s exile. However, the poet had started his composition as early as 1809, during his Grand Tour (1809-1811). The first two cantos were published in 1812, and with their release came Byron’s sudden rise to the status of celebrity: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”. Canto III was published in 1816 and canto IV in 1817. Nevertheless, Byron’s disdain for English society and his life of debauchery did not change through the years. Byron maintained the same disregard for his native land from 1809 to 1817, so we cannot assume the composition of Childe Harold to be a reaction to the commotion there in 1816.

'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by J.M.W. Turner, 1823

‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, by J.M.W. Turner, 1823, Tate, London

Behind the mask of the wanderer, now in the poetic persona of Childe Harold, Lord Byron expresses his detachment from English society and the life he has led in the past: “He felt the fulness of satiety: / Then loath’d he in his native land to dwell, / which seem’d to him more lone than Eremite’s sad cell” (Canto I 4:7-10), “And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart, / and from his fellow bacchanals would flee” (Canto I 6:1-2). He is satiated, tired of the pleasures he has experienced, which cannot satisfy him anymore. He loathes everything that surrounds him, especially England for representing everything he has grown tired of. Moreover, he feels alone and imprisoned, out of place: “Apart he stalk’d in joyless reverie, / and from his native land resolv’d to go, / and visit his scorching climes beyond the sea” (Canto I 6:5-7). Childe Harold, much like Byron, decides to leave land and explore new territories across the sea, where he hopes to regain his sense of wholeness and belonging. However, contrary to Byron’s own experience, leaving England is Childe Harold’s own and unconditional decision, inspired by the feeling of alienation that plagues him: “I stood / among them, but not of them” (III: CXIII). Our hero wanders sorrowful and tormented. It was the year 1809 and Byron had already defined the myth that was to survive him to become one of the most reproduced tropes in our culture: the Romantic hero. Through the Romantic hero that Childe Harold embodies, Byron will attempt to recover from the sufferings of exile. The healing will come from poetry itself, which allows him to detach himself from his situation by placing his struggle in Childe Harold’s hands. In other words, the poetic act allows Byron to explore his feelings from the viewpoint of the creator-poet.

Nevertheless, by writing Childe Harold, Byron does not simply yield to the muses—he is following an agenda. I do not think his intention was to be readmitted to English society, because, in my opinion, he would have never come back with less than the treatment of a national hero and the restitution of his properties and reputation; however, he writes seeking a pretext that will amend society’s rejection of his character. It is debatable whether or not he had actually “lost all local feeling for England,” as he wrote to Douglas Kinnaird in a letter from Ravenna in 1820. He might have thought of England with regret and even hatred, but it is undeniable that he did think of England.
The self’s attachment to one’s homeland is something an exile can never escape: “But my soul wanders; I demand it back” (IV:XXV). He has lost his sense of identity, and the farther he is from England, the stronger his need to attach himself to new nationalities, and the stronger his remembrance of England: “Nor is it harsh to make, nor hard to find / A country with – ay, or without mankind; / Yet was I born where men are proud to be, / Not without cause; and should I leave behind / The inviolate island of the sage and free, / And seek out a home by a remoter sea.” (IV: VIII). The third and fourth lines contrast with the references in the third canto to Childe Harold’s loathing towards Albion’s Isle. What Byron the recent graduate thought of Britain has nothing to do with what Byron the exile feels about it. In conclusion, there is no closure possible for him; he is as detached from Britain as from anywhere else. He is, in his own words, alone on Earth: “What is the worst of woes that wait on age? / What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow? / To view each lov’d one blotted from life’s page, / And be alone on Earth as I am now” (II: XCVIII).

In conclusion, Byron crafted Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage partly as a therapeutic strategy, seeking solace from the trauma of his exile. In the long poem we can divine the contradictions of Byron’s internal turmoil. Byron possibly did not feel himself at home in England, but leaving left him with grief over the native land, a grief that never abandoned him. No matter how far he went, how much his society changed, he would forever feel attached to Albion’s Isle. As he wrote in the aforementioned letter to Kinnaird: “I have quite lost all local feeling for England, without having acquired any local attachment for any other spot.” And that is the tragedy of the exile, living between worlds, never being able to call anywhere home.

Francesca Blanch Serrat is a Master’s student, recently graduated in
English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. This post is a revised piece from her degree
dissertation on Lord Byron and Charlotte Smith’s Poetry in Exile. Her main interests are 18th-century women writers and English and French Romanticism. She is currently writing her MS thesis focusing on the construction of female Romantic heroism in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.

Boxing with Byron

 by David Snowdon

To day I have been very sulky – but an hour’s exercise with Mr. Jackson of pugilistic memory – has given me spirits & fatigued me into that state of languid laziness which I prefer to all other.

Lord Byron, letter 8th April 1814

The ‘exercise’ referred to is pugilistic sparring, and Byron regularly attended lessons at the Bond-Street rooms of former prizefighting champion John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson.

 John Jackson

John Jackson

Writing to Thomas Moore the following day, Byron claimed to have been ‘boxing for exercise, with Jackson for this last month daily’, and appeared to revel in these invigorating-cum-fatiguing sessions with ‘the Emperor of Pugilism’. The foremost sports-writer of the period, Pierce Egan, portrayed Jackson as the ‘fixed star’; other pugilists being ‘the many satellites revolving around … his dominion’ (Boxiana I, 1813). Byron invited Jackson to Cambridge, Brighton, as well as Newstead.

Byron’s pugilistic fascination was not some short-lived mania. In 1808, he declared that he would willingly ‘advance any sum necessary for the liberation of the captive’, Bob Gregson, the boxer, from debtors’ prison. Thus, in October, Gregson was free to fight national hero Tom Cribb for the ‘championship of England’. A snippet from Pierce Egan’s commentary of that fight’s second round reveals Gregson’s uphill task:

CRIB full of activity, put in two body hits … Gregson endeavoured to return the compliment, but CRIB dexterously avoided it by shifting, and put in a severe blow … which made the claret flow most profusely.

Apart from journalism, Egan’s principal publications were the Boxiana series, which comprised ‘sketches’ of pugilism (1812-29), and a metropolitan tour, Life in London (1821). He was a member of various sporting and drinking clubs and had the ‘inside line’ on sporting affairs.

 Pierce Egan

Pierce Egan, National Portrait Gallery

In the initial volume of Boxiana (1813), the reader is guided by ‘ONE OF THE FANCY’ through Egan’s predominantly London-based ‘pugilistic hemisphere’. Collectively, ‘the Fancy’ comprised those who followed sporting events, but the term was particularly applied to prizefighting votaries. This sporting set embodied much of pugilism’s inherent shadiness, exacerbated by Egan’s use of their ‘flash’ city slang.

Byron was already ahead of the game, urging Moore to ‘go to Matlock … and take what in flash dialect, is poetically termed “a lark”, with Rogers and me for accomplices’. Moore would later record: ‘It was not a little amusing to observe how perfectly familiar … with all the most recondite phraseology of “the Fancy”, was the sublime poet of Childe Harold’.
A common interest in the prizefighting scene found Lords and MPs mingling with coal merchants and costermongers. For the wealthy, being ‘seen in the ring’ predominantly involved occupying the role of patron, but  such knowledge was considered essential for gentlemen who wished to be part of the fashionable world. Moreover, the practise reinforced a sense of masculinity, and countered the perceived insidious spread of ‘effeminacy’. The notion of pugilistic exercise as a ‘manly’ activity, boosting vitality and hardihood was one persistently promoted by Egan, and Byron noted in his journal on 17 March 1814:

I have been sparring with Jackson for exercise this morning … My chest, and arms, and wind are in very good plight, and I am not in flesh. I used to be a hard hitter, and my arms are very long for my height (5 feet 8 ⅓ inches). At any rate, exercise is good and this the severest of all.

‘Fatigue’ is, again, ascribed with positive connotations; purging bodily and mental impurities.

Daffy Club
In Boxiana I, Egan recalled an ‘insolent’ Venetian Gondolier threatening to ‘take the shine out of Englishmen’, but he was soundly ‘punished’ and ‘the conceit was so taken out of him’. This latter phrase, essentially, expressed knocking the arrogance out of an opponent. It was a staple Boxiana expression and flows quite naturally from Byron in an August 1814 letter to Moore as he mocks literary rivals:

Half of the Scotch and Lake troubadours, are spoilt by living in little circles and petty societies. London and the world is the only place to take the conceit out of a man – in the milling phrase.

‘Milling’ was a term appropriated by the Fancy as a verb to denote fighting. Byron’s Don Juan provides instances of the writer incorporating flash idiom into his work (in 1819, Keats specifically referred to it as a ‘flash poem’). In Canto VIII, Byron commends the resistance of the Tartar Sultan’s sons before they ‘died all game and bottom [a sporting term signifying stamina]’. Canto XI is relatively awash with slang, including a footnote tribute to Jackson.

Egan regularly commented on the social diversity of spectators rubbing shoulders ringside or in popular sporting meeting places such as the Castle Tavern, Holborn: ‘The groupes to be met with … are highly characteristic of the different grades of life – abounding with ORIGINALS of all sorts’. Byron’s interest is evident in his journal entry of 23 November 1813: ‘Jackson has been here: the boxing world much as usual … I shall dine at Crib’s to-morrow. I like energy – even animal energy … and I have need of both mental and corporeal’. Note Byron’s emphasis on the dual nature of the benefit to be derived.

Still a national hero, Cribb was at this time landlord of the King’s Arms, Duke Street, and Byron’s ‘animal’ reference assumes a complimentary aspect, not implying brutishness but, rather, a vitality that he feels is preferable to an enervated state of lethargy and overindulgence. Following his ‘audience’ with Cribb, Byron’s ‘Mezza Notte’ journal entry is almost unstinting in affectionate admiration: ‘A great man! … Tom is an old friend of mine; and I have seen some of his best battles’.

Egan consistently arraigned the capability of foreign foes to ‘meet our brave sons on equal terms in the field or on the wave’ (Book of Sports). A street altercation abroad might result in a concealed dagger being wielded to inflict lethal revenge, but an argument between two Englishmen could be resolved openly in the ring in a somehow civilised ritual that was expressive of national character. Byron, writing from Pisa to Walter Scott (May 1822), told of a tussle with an Italian dragoon: ‘he got his paiks – having acted like an assassin’. Byron selects this Scottish term for blows to describe the physical admonishment he claims to have meted out.

Egan extensively quoted a ‘Mr. M’ who proposed pugilism as a ‘cure’ for social unease: “We must allow passion to work itself off … We must have a safety-valve” (Boxiana III). The notion of sparring as a therapeutic activity, a cathartic outlet, corresponds with Byron’s comments implying that his body has been reinvigorated, his mind exorcised of ‘demons’, and passionate desires sublimated. Byron’s preoccupation with his intermittently bulging waistline might be placed at the head of any list of motivating factors. He would doubtless also have wished that all memory of another aberration (‘wedlock’) could have been pummelled out of his system.

Egan argued that a mutual interest shared across a broad spectrum of society meant that, at boxing matches, distinctions of rank were temporarily blurred in an air of sporting unity. His remark: ‘the love of claret levels all distinctions’ is simple but intuitive. The ethos of uninhibited sporting fraternisation was one that Byron savoured, but ultimately his social status appears to have precluded an appearance on the prizefight bill. The enticing prospect of seeing ‘Battling Byron, the Newstead Nailer’ going through his paces competitively at a showpiece event was always going to be a purely fantasy scenario.

Several years after Byron’s death, Egan reflected that this literary heavyweight had consistently ‘mixed with society in all its different shades’ (Book of Sports), and this is underscored by Byron’s partiality for mixing with the loungers at certain coffee-houses such as Limmer’s, which as Venetia Murray puts it in High Society, was ‘the rendezvous for the sporting world, in particular the boxing fraternity and men of the turf ’. Naturally, Egan particularly lauded Byron’s interest and ability in the ‘noble art’:

His Lordship, like his poetry, always entered into the spirit of the thing; – he viewed boxing as a national propensity – a stimulus to true courage…In setting-to … he received with coolness from his antagonist, and returned upon his opponent with all the vigour and confidence of a master of the art. (Book of Sports)

Throwing oneself ‘into the spirit of the thing’ is the pivotal element here, sparring offering Byron a physical and psychological outlet. Ultimately, Byron’s absorption with vigorous exercise may have simply been an attempt to reconcile his conscience for past and ongoing dissolute behaviour, and his aforementioned boast of an intensive sparring timetable went on to record:

I have also been drinking, – and, on one occasion, with three other friends at the Cocoa Tree, from six till four, yea, unto five in the matin. We clareted and champagned till two – then supped, and finished with a kind of Regency punch.

Following one late night out with its accompanying heavy drinking, Byron chronicled his penitent exercise regime the following day: ‘Got up, if any thing, earlier than usual – sparred with Jackson ad sudorem, and have been much better in health than for many days’.

Towards the end of these month-long exertions, on 10th April 1814, Byron reaffirmed his new-found credo: ‘The more violent the fatigue, the better my spirits for the rest of the day; and then my evenings have that calm nothingness of languor, which I most delight in’. It was a question of discipline versus dissipation. To fully embrace the flash and Fancy culture involved exposure to an ambivalent societal group replete with its conflicting qualities: probity yet dishonesty; salutary yet pernicious. Strenuous sparring could negate or partially offset perceived physical and moral degeneration. Crucially, it also fended off ennui. Pugilistic exertion induced fatigue and, for Byron, this constituted an elevated state of bodily health and psychological consciousness.

‘This sporting piece of furniture, in the possession of LORD BYRON, and so much admired by the higher flights of the FANCY, from the numerous portraits and anecdotes it contained … was made principally from the first volume of BOXIANA. At his Lordship’s sale it proved a good sporting lot, and produced a handsome sum. It originally cost his Lordship £250.’ (Boxiana II, 1818) It was bought by John Murray at the 1816 auction.

‘This sporting piece of furniture, in the possession of LORD BYRON, and so much admired by the higher flights of the FANCY, from the numerous portraits and anecdotes it contained … was made principally from the first volume of BOXIANA. At his Lordship’s sale it proved a good sporting lot, and produced a handsome sum. It originally cost his Lordship £250.’ (Boxiana II, 1818) It was bought by John Murray at the 1816 auction.

David Snowdon is the author of Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan’s SnowdonBoxiana World, which won the BSSH Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History in 2014. He runs the  website

  • Dove Cottage, Grasmere,
    Cumbria, LA22 9SH


Enter your e-mail below to receive updates from us: