DARK SUMMERS

3.  Lord Byron at Venice 1818

Life has changed considerably for Lord Byron. Following the tour of the Mont Blanc area, Polidori was gently sent on his way, although the relationship still remained friendly. More tours followed, first the Bernese Alps and then Italy, where, in Milan, Byron bumped into Polidori again. But Polidori soon blotted his copybook by getting himself arrested at La Scala for ordering a soldier of the occupying Austrian power to remove his hat. Despite Byron's intervention, Polidori was given 24 hours to leave Milan.

Byron has ended up in alone Venice, his friends either having gone back to England or carried on to see the rest of Italy. For eighteen months Byron has been at Venice, having a thoroughly good time. He now has quite a reputation in the city. He has more lovers than most men even dream of, an enviable life style where he does not get out of bed until midday at the earliest, and a strange habit of diving into the Grand Canal for a swim - at night he carries a torch in one hand in order not to get run down by passing gondoliers. But Byron does not advertise that there is a different, professional side to his life. At midnight he sits down pen in hand to work, usually not going to bed until the light of dawn.

But this life-style is disturbed when he gets involved in a correspondence with Shelley about his supposed child. Claire Clairmont has given birth to a daughter, Allegra. Shelley and Mary are married and Shelley has come into his inheritance. Now he has the money to travel, and by April Shelley and Mary are established at Livorno for the season and Allegra has been dispatched to Venice accompanied by a servant, Elise. From now on Allegra is to be Byron's responsibility. It crosses Byron's cynical mind that Claire does not seem to have put up much of a struggle to keep her child.

Byron's financial affairs have also taken a turn for the better, and he is in the process of leasing a larger villa. In the meantime Allegra is farmed out to his friends Richard Hoppner, the British Consul in Venice, and his wife. But when Byron and Allegra do move into the new villa he finds looking after a little girl very difficult. Their waking hours are incompatible and he hardly sees her, and there is also a problem with the fact that Byron has aquired a considerable number of pets. The whole ground floor is turned loose to a menagerie of pheasants, two monkeys, a fox, and various dogs.

After a couple of months it is clear the arrangement is not working, and Allegra is back with the Hoppners. But this information is passed back to Shelley by Elise, the servant he sent with Allegra: Elise writes frequently to the Shelleys.

Byron is unaware of Elise's intrigue, and the appearance of Shelley at his villa comes as a surprise. He greets his caller with mixed feelings - his life at Venice is becoming stale and a fresh face always pleases, although he cannot help wondering if there is an ulterior motive to Shelley's visit.

Shelley promptly proceeds to tell Byron a pack of lies. Claire has heard that Allegra is now at the Hoppners, and would like to visit Allegra to see she is all right: to this end Claire and Mary have travelled part of the way with Shelley and are now at Padua where they are waiting for Byron's agreement. In fact Mary is still in Livorno with Shelley's two small children, and Claire arrived in Venice with Shelley and has already seen Allegra at the Hoppners. Shelley has impressed on the Hoppners the need for secrecy: there is no point in needlessly upsetting Byron.

Byron has no reason to suspect Shelley is lying to him, and discusses the issue. An alternative plan is agreed. Byron would prefer Claire not to visit the child at Venice, and will put a villa he has rented for the summer at Este at Shelley's disposal; the child can stay with Claire there. Byron has no intention of letting Claire near him in Venice where he is sure she would seize the opportunity to make another attempt to throw herself at him - it crosses his mind that Shelley might be aware of his changed financial circumstances: now he would be an even better catch for Claire.

In fact Shelley is aware of everything, even that Byron had rented a villa at Este. The villa was rented from the Hoppners and the information was passed to Shelley by Elise. Shelley had not found it difficult to steer the conversation in such a way that the Byron, generous to a fault, had thought it had been his own idea to lend the villa at Este to Shelley.

Byron and Shelley spend a pleasant day together. They go riding on the Lido and then talk throughout the night until sunrise. Byron eventually gets to bed well pleased that he has sorted that little problem out. As he understands it, Shelley will go to Este and prepare the villa for Mary and Claire who will be arriving from Padua, and after a few days the servant Elise will ferry Allegra there. Everything has been arranged, with Shelley showing unusual thoughtfulness by insisting that he be given precise details of the availability of doctors in the vicinity just in case one is needed for Allegra. It never crosses Byron's mind that the doctor is required for a very different purpose.

Despite the hour he leaves Byron, Shelley gets busy immediately. He does not want his lie discovered, and that very morning he writes to Mary directing her to make all haste to the villa at Este, arriving as if she has only had to come from Padua. Shelley unthinkingly ignores the fact that he is putting one of his own children at risk: he is aware that little Clara is unwell and should not be allowed to travel, especially on the forced march that he has requested.

There is a self-centredness in Shelley's character which verges on autism - as Byron gradually becomes aware, Shelley is unable to comprehend how other people feel. On another occasion, when they were leaving Florence, a dog with which the Shelleys have become friendly runs beside their departing carriage barking frantically: but Shelley's only response is an airy statement to the effect that while the dog (a mere animal) clearly felt emotions because they were leaving, he (as a human being) naturally felt no such emotions for the dog. Shelley has no conception that some people might feel differently and have a great deal of feeling for their animals.

It is a few days later when the Shelley party are already esconced at Este that Byron finds out he has not been told the whole truth. The Hoppners consider Lord Byron a personal friend, and cannot live with the guilt of Shelley's secret for long. Shamefacedly, Hoppner informs Byron that Claire had been present in Venice all the time, adding that she appeared to be pregnant.

Once again Byron knows he has been manipulated by Shelley. The pregnant Claire has been removed from the resort town of Livorno, which at this time of year would be packed with nosy English tourists, and is now secreted in Byron's rented villa at Este where Shelley is proposing to get a local doctor to provide an abortion. No doubt he will even be landed with the bill!

Byron is furious. He has never been totally convinced that Claire's first child was his - there was no birth certificate, merely a letter from Shelley announcing the event, and there was no way of knowing if the date on the letter coincided with the date Allegra was actually born. This new situation makes Byron consider the matter again. But he is in a cleft stick. He has mentioned Allegra frequently in his letters to England, and in fact has grossly exaggerated her family likeness: at the time he wanted to scotch rumours about her parentage in order to forestall any suspicions among his friends that he had been made a fool of by Shelley. He can hardly go back on all that now. And besides, he has grown fond of the child. He could not return Allegra to Claire's permanent control knowing what he now knows about the Shelley household.

Every visitor to Lord Byron's house in Venice has passed on all the latest London gossip. Not only had Shelley abandoned his first wife Harriet and their children, but he made so little provison for them that Harriet had drowned herself in the Serpentine. There was also a rumour that the suicide of Fanny Imlay, Mary Godwin's half-sister, which occurred shortly before Harriet's death, was due to her have become pregnant by Shelley. The death was hushed up and no one from the family attended Fanny's funeral. Mary's marriage to Shelley was rumoured to be part of the price Shelley had to pay for his escapade with Fanny: Mary was also expecting, and now that baby would be legitimate. With rumours like that flying around London, it would have been impossible for Shelley to survive if Claire produced another baby which would tell the world that he and Mary and Mary's half-sister Claire were really a ménage a trois.

When Mary arrives at Este, little Clara is very ill, but Shelley is too busy with Claire to bother about that. He takes Claire to a doctor in Padua, but on their second visit they get held up and miss the appointment. Claire is dispatched back to Este while Shelley continues on to see Byron in Venice. From there he writes to Mary: his letter contains a reference to 'Lady Shelley' - a bribe not to make a fuss about Claire: one day Mary Shelley may fill the role of 'Lady Shelley'.

Byron is not pleased to see him, but he sympathises when he hears that Clara is ill. Byron's initial anger against Shelley has coolled: in fact he cannot help having a sneaking admiration for Shelley's audacity. Byron believes it is time he too had a plan: his is simple; he will keep an astute eye on everything that is happening, but he will not let on that he is aware what Shelley is about. Anything that involves Claire is best left well alone.

But as usual Shelley has a further plan to which Byron is not a party to. Mary is to take Claire once again to the Doctor at Padua, but in order to make the appointment they will need to start off in the early hours of the morning. Mary is to bring the two children Clara and William, and Shelley will meet them at Padua. But once again it goes wrong. The early morning start is an even greater blow to Clara's health, and it deteriorates rapidly. The doctor in Padua cannot help, Claire is sent back to Este alone, and Shelley and Mary with her children hurry to Venice to see Byron's doctor. But no one can help, and Clara dies on arrival that morning. Clara is buried the next day, and after the weekend spent being consoled by Byron and the Hoppners, Shelley, Mary, and her remaining child, William, return to Este.

A few weeks pass before Byron hears from Shelley again, but, knowing Shelley, he is not at all surprised to find that Shelley has managed to put the loss of his child out of his mind. A few weeks is a long time for Shelley: certainly time to formulate yet another plan.

Both Shelley and Mary return to Venice together, but then Shelley returns to Este alone. Byron is sure that it has to do with Claire's pregnancy; he imagines that Mary is probably too upset to be a party to it. But it is difficult to read what Mary is thinking. To Byron she seems austere, a dry intellectual, and definitely not his type. And yet as he acts the gentleman and chaperone's Mary around Venice in Shelley's absence, another doubt enters his mind. Is he supposed to take advantage of this absence? Is he, the great seducer, now supposed to seduce Mary?

The idea would seem incredible except for the fact that he had heard rumours that a similar sort of thing had happened before. Shelley had apparently turned a blind eye to - and in fact eased the way of - an affair between his best friend Hogg and his first wife Harriet. And if the gossips were to be believed, Hogg had also had an affair with Mary while he was living under Shelley's roof. Shelley's ménage a trois was beginning to look like a ménage a quatre.

Byron could remember the unease he had felt when he had wondered if Shelley had been the driving force that had sent Claire to his bed at Lake Geneva. Was Shelley now trying the same thing with Mary? Was this another of Shelley's manipulations? Perhaps Shelley wasn't even aware he was doing it: Shelley seemed to have such a drive to be the one in control.

During the rest of Mary's stay in Venice, Byron made sure he was on his best behaviour, and no action could be misconstrued, but he did wonder if Mary was in on Shelley's little game. He found it very difficult to read Mary. He had the impression that she was not quite as mad on Shelley as she had been before: but now of course she was stuck. As Mrs. Shelley, she would have to make the best of her lot, which if the truth be told, financially was not at all bad.

Shelley returned from Este after a few days with Allegra and the servant Elise. His visit to Este was over, and, according to Shelley, Claire was already on her way back to Livorno. (In reality she was in Venice). Then the Shelley ménage leave as abruptly as they had arrived: Shelley and Mary, their son William, two servants, and - surprisingly - Elise, the servant who was supposed to stay and look after Allegra. 'Change of plan!' Shelly explained airily. Not one word of course about Claire who was waiting down the road, and unfortunately still as pregnant as when she arrived.

Byron gives a sigh of relief. From now on he wants a simple life. That evening he grabs a torch, swims the grand canal, and jumps into bed with a new mistress.

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