DARK SUMMERS

2.  Lord Byron at Diodati 1816

The young Dr Polidori, Lord Byron's doctor and travelling companion, is having the adventure of his life. He and Byron have raced from London to Dover in Byron's impressive new campaign-style coach modelled on the one used by Byron's hero Napoleon. Byron is fleeing the country to escape his debts, a broken marriage, and the rumours amongst society that he had an incestuous affair with his half-sister Augusta. But that hasn't stopped Byron having a last romantic fling: a few nights before he fled the country he spent the night with a young woman, Claire Clairmont, who has been throwing herself at him for weeks.

At this stage, the twenty-eight year old Byron is not allowing himself to take his exile too seriously. He believes that in a year or so society will have forgotten and he will be able to return. It will take several years before Byron comes to terms with the fact that he will never return to England.

In modern terminology, Byron would be deemed the product of a broken home. His ancestry is spectacular.

Byron's grandfather 'Foulweather Jack' was an Admiral with a reputation for attracting storms, and his great-uncle the 'Wicked Lord Byron' fought a duel and killed a kinsman after a drunken argument in a London club. He was tried in the House of Lords, and on being found guilty was exiled to his estates, where not long afterwards he fell under suspicion of another murder. It appeared that when out driving one day, his Lordship became annoyed with his coachman, promptly shot the man, threw the body into the coach, climbed up onto the box, seized the reins, and drove on.

Byron's parents were just as fearsome. His father 'Mad Jack' was a womaniser and profligate who spent most of his time in Paris, funded by the money he had robbed from Byron's mother. He died when Byron was three. From then on Byron was brought up by his mother, the daughter of the 12th laird of the Gordons of Gight, a domineering and eccentric woman eternally proud of the fact that Stuart blood ran in her veins. Despite the family's reduced circumstances, Byron was never allowed to forget he was an aristocrat by birth.

But Byron had worse afflictions: he was born with a sensitive nature, intellectual dispositions, and a club foot. It was not until Byron reached Cambridge that he found real friends. But these friends were to be the start of his downfall. Like most teenagers Byron had experienced the ambiguity of sexual attractions, but in Cambridge he found pederasty had become 'the thing.' The activities of Byron's set were cloaked in secret codes and the penalty for discovery was extreme: in Georgian England not a year went by without a sodomite being hung. Byron and his friends were attracted as much by the frisson of danger as by the act. It was all part of the Dandy ethos then current amongst young aristocrats: they were breaking a convention, cocking a snook at the straightlaced morality of their elders.

In the main Byron's friends quickly grew out of it, however this was something that stayed longer with Byron. Perhaps it was due to his own disablity, the shame he felt for his club foot, but Byron was always drawn to the beauty of the youthful form. Even though his homosexual affairs became replaced by more normal dalliances, he was still attracted more by a girl with vivacity rather than by those with more feminine, and essentially stationary, charms. Byron was never at ease with the maternal type.

His previous lover Caroline Lamb had had an ambiguous presence: she was known for her pert boyish looks and her tendency to appear in pageboy costumes. It was Byron's infatuation with Caroline that was responsible for his current problems: sensing a kindred spirit he had confided in Caroline. But when he tried to end the relationship, Caroline had not held her tongue and bitter (and exaggerated) recriminations had been the result. The Whig society in which Byron moved could not accept someone who was rumoured to be a sodomite.

*

Polidori and Byron arrive at Ostend and hurry across Europe, visiting Antwerp, Brussels, and the field of the Battle of Waterloo which took place the previous year. Byron and Polidori gallop across the battlefield, their imaginations fired by the experience. Polidori is much closer to the centre of things than he would have been as a mere tourist without Byron as a companion. Byron knows everybody: in 1814 (the 'Year of the Generals') he met and took a dislike to Blucher, the Prussian General and neither is he keen on Wellington.

Intoxicated with his new life, Polidori accompanies Byron to Lake Geneva where they plan to stay. They go villa hunting, travelling the lake by boat, but one day something unexpected occurs. Polidori can see a man accompanied by two young ladies casually strolling at the lakeside where the boat will shortly arrive: it is obvious they can hardly avoid an encounter. The thought occurs to Polidori that perhaps the meeting is not as accidental as it looks.

Byron is irritated. Over the years he has learned ways of making his disability less obvious. Whenever he can he rides rather than walks; in company he strikes stationary poses rather than move around the room; and when he does need to move he adopts an apparently casual, but very swift series of steps, never allowing himself to show he is favouring his good leg. But now he is going to have to get out of the boat and limp up to the hotel under the inquisitive eyes of these damned tourists who are obviously waiting for a chance to stare at the infamous Lord Byron.

But as the boat gets closer he realises they are not tourists. One of the young women is Claire Clairmont, the girl Byron slept with just before leaving England, and the other is Claire's half-sister, Mary Godwin, who he had been introduced to by Claire on a visit to Drury Lane Theatre. He has not met the man the women are with, but there is no mistaking the slight build, the shock of hair, and the intense, penetrating eyes: Percy Bysshe Shelley - 'Mad Shelley' as he was known at Eton - has a reputation as a philanderer, revolutionary, atheist, and general bad lot that rivals Byron's own. Both are currently fleeing creditors, and both are living apart from their wives. Byron has at least an excuse - his wife has left him - but Shelley has none: his wife, Harriet, who he eloped with when he was nineteen and she was sixteen, has been abandoned.

Despite his initial irritation, Byron finds he is attracted to Shelley. In many ways they have a lot in common, and over the summer a relationship is forged.

Byron rents a house, Diodati, on the edge of Lake Geneva, and Shelley takes a house nearby. They go sailing together, and generally enjoy each other's company. All have literary interests: Byron produces Prisoner of Chillon and Mary starts writing Frankenstein. They read Caroline Lamb's recently published Glenarvon, a fanciful portrait of Byron and the tumultuous affair he had with Caroline. Byron has a splendid time that summer at Diodati, especially as Claire quite frequently shares his bed.

Byron has always been attracted to Claire. She is young, intelligent, eager, fun to be with, and not at all the maternal type like Mary. Byron does not try to 'play the Stoic' with a girl who came 'prancing to him at all hours.'

But Byron is uneasy. There is a dark side to Shelley. He seems to take a delight in frightening people. He scares the girls with talk of ghosts and strange paranormal science. He travels with a 'solar microscope' and other exotic scientific apparatus. He connects himself up to a pair of 'electrical machines' and gets the girls to wind the handles: his hair stands on end and gives off sparks. And every night a brace of loaded pistols accompany Shelley to bed. There is a rumour - which Shelley is only too willing to help promulgate - that once in wild and distant Wales an attempt was made on Shelley's life.

Byron is aware of the difficulties of moving out of his own aristocratic set. Even the people he considers as his friends are never entirely unaware of his superior rank. Some tend to the obsequious, while others err the other way - one person's ingratiating 'Good morning, my Lord,' is replaced with another's deliberately breezy 'My dear Byron! Good morning to you!' But Shelley is different: he shows no signs of deference, but at the same time he is always very precise in his mode of address. Byron has the odd feeling that by this Shelley is in some way defining him, controlling his position in the relationship. There is an element of competition: to get the better of Lord Byron the myth has more savour for Shelley than getting the better of Byron as a friend.

As Byron is becoming aware, all Shelley's relationships are about control. When Claire pops into his bed at night, Byron has the uneasy feeling that Shelley is not only aware of what is happening, but is the perpetrator. He, Byron, is being manipulated.

In July, Shelley and the two women set off for a tour of the Mont Blanc area, and Byron has a few days with only Polidori for company. Polidori does not know it, but he is not proving satisfactory. Byron is fully aware of the difficulty and to some extent sympathises: when they are in in his company all his friends seem to feel they have to live up to his reputation. Left to their own devices they would be as meek as church mice, but in a tavern with Lord Byron, everyone seems to feel no slight should go unanswered, no affront to a member of Lord Byron's party go unpunished. Byron who likes to make his own mind up whether he should take umbrage or not, is rather tired of presumptuous friends who start arguments on his behalf which he has to finish.

The young Polidori is doing precisely that. Polidori cannot hold his drink and tends to get into scrapes, once even challenging Shelley to a duel. Byron knows Polidori will have to go, but he still hesitates to break the news. Byron has a much warmer nature than his conversation or his letters project: Byron might talk like a jaded man of the world, boasting about how much he is 'putting it about', enlivening his letters to his publisher with the deliberately shocking c*** or f***, but it is Byron's sentimental heart that rules his head.

A week later the Shelley party return, but the atmosphere has changed. Eventually the reason is revealed: Shelley informs Byron that Claire is pregnant.

That evening a strange meeting takes place at Diodati. Byron is embarrassed, Shelley awkward, and Claire hardly says a word. A 28 year-old, a 24 year-old, and an 18 year-old are deciding a child's future. Byron has his doubts whether the child is his, but Shelley categorically denies having relations with Claire - although Byron mentally notes that the denial only covers the period since Claire first slept with Byron, but not before.

But Byron does not intend crossing a bridge before he comes to it. The pregnancy may turn out to be a false alarm; there might be a miscarriage; or Claire might even consider an abortion when she thinks about it more clearly. And after all Shelley and Claire are due to leave for England shortly - he may never hear of the matter again.

An agreement is made - Byron will bring up the child and Claire will have visiting rights as its 'aunt' - but at the back of Byron's mind is the thought that a verbal agreement can always be disputed if the child turns out not to be his. The date of birth will clarify that.

Shortly afterwards old friends of Byron arrive and the Shelleys say their farewells and leave for England. With relief Byron sets off for a short tour of the Mont Blanc area with his friends and Polidori.

At Chamonix it becomes clear they are travelling in Shelley's footsteps when he was on his tour of the Mont Blanc area. A hotel register bears Shelley's entry for occupation as 'atheist' and his destination as 'L'Enfer' - a gauntlet in the face of all the English who take this tour. Byron is not above making the odd sarcastic hotel leger entry himself - once, dead tired from travelling, he put his age down as 100 - but Shelley's entry is a direct affront: Byron is sure that Shelley wrote it for him to see. In effect Shelley is telling the world that he is not afraid to state his opinions however outrageous while the great Lord Byron meekly passes by. Byron irritably erases the entry, but on finding the same thing at another hotel they stop at, he gives up. Let Shelley go to hell!

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