Byron in Geneva

Byron in Geneva: That Summer of 1816

Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Byron in Geneva
    Book Description:

    In 1816, following the scandalous collapse of his marriage, Lord Byron left England forever. His first destination was the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva where he stayed together with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin, Claire Clairmont and John Polidori. Byron in Geneva focuses sharply on the poet’s life in the summer of that year, a famous time for meteorologists (for whom 1816 is the year without a summer), but also that crucial moment in the development of his writing when, urged on by Shelley, Byron tried to transform himself into a Romantic poet of the Wordsworthian variety. The book gives a vivid impression of what Byron thought and felt in these few months after the breakdown of his marriage, but also explores the different aspects of his nature that emerge in contact with a remarkable cast of supporting characters, which also included Madame de Staël, who presided over a famous salon in Coppet, across the lake from Geneva, and Matthew Lewis, author of the splendidly erotic `Gothic’ best-seller, The Monk. David Ellis sets out to challenge recent damning studies of Byron and through his meticulous exploration of the private and public life of the poet at this pivotal moment, he reasserts the value of Byron’s wit, warm-heartedness, and hatred of cant.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-716-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Map of Byron’s Switzerland
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Part One
    • 1 Heading for Geneva
      (pp. 1-9)

      In the early morning of Friday 26 April 1816, after a Channel crossing which had lasted sixteen hours, Lord Byron landed in Ostend. He was heading for Switzerland, and more particularly for Geneva. For many of us now, Geneva is where the United Nations meet or where the very rich, who prefer not too much scrutiny into their financial affairs, keep their bank accounts. In 1816 its reputation was rather different. Although the town had only very recently become an official member of the Swiss confederation, it benefited from the warm feeling which had existed in Britain towards Switzerland in...

    • 2 The Shelley Party
      (pp. 10-17)

      Making its way to Switzerland at roughly the same time as Byron was what it is convenient to call the Shelley party.* This consisted of the young poet himself, still only twenty-three, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would not become Mrs Shelley until the former Harriet Westbrook, Shelley’s abandoned first wife, had made that possible by committing suicide later in the year. With Shelley and Mary was their baby son William, who had been born in January, and also Mary’s sister Claire. To many the four adults were an object of scandal, and not merely because Shelley and Mary were...

    • 3 On the Road
      (pp. 18-26)

      There were reasons for Byron’s late arrival in Geneva beyond his habitual, temperamental preference for a leisurely mode of travel. By going through France, the Shelley party had taken the direct route to Switzerland. Byron seems to have made enquiries about doing the same but learned that, although he could obtain travel documents for France in general, it would be on condition that he did not set foot in Paris. The authorities may have discovered that he was acquainted with one of the British officers involved in Lavallette’s escape; they must have known that a book about France in 1815,...

    • 4 First Meetings
      (pp. 27-35)

      With all his luggage, and his fellow travellers, Byron’s arrival at the Hôtel d’Angleterre could hardly have been discreet and Claire Clairmont, on thequi viveas she must have been, was very quickly aware of it. She saw his entry in the hotel register and sent him a note saying that she was sorry he had grown so ancient although, from the slowness of his journey, she might have concluded he must betwohundred years old. ‘I suppose your venerable age,’ she wrote, ‘could not bear quicker travelling’. This was late on Saturday. Instead of getting in touch...

    • 5 Diodati
      (pp. 36-43)

      Neither the Shelley party nor Byron felt happy at the Hôtel d’Angleterre. Apart from being full of inquisitive compatriots, it was also expensive (especially for someone with Byron’s entourage). They had all begun house-hunting immediately after Byron’s arrival and it can hardly have been an accident that they soon found places to live only a few hundred yards from each other. The focus for them both was on Cologny, which during the late eighteenth century had been the semi-permanent home of at least three rich English families. They lived there, according to one observer, ‘in the greatest cordiality with the...

    • 6 Frightening Tales
      (pp. 44-51)

      The pleasant routine which Byron and the Shelley party had established towards the end of May, and in the first ten days of June, and which they all hoped to continue once they were living close to each other, was hampered by the weather. On the journey to Geneva the Shelley party had been dismayed to find that Les Rousses, one of their stopping places in the French Jura, was still snowed up. The climate improved once they were out of the mountains and in Sécheron, but there are indications that it was hardly set fair. Mary remembered being out...

    • 7 A Narrow Escape
      (pp. 52-59)

      By 22 June the weather had cleared sufficiently for Byron and Shelley to feel that they could set out on an expedition which they must have been thinking about for days. In normal circumstances, they might well have felt obliged to take Polidori with them but on the 15th he had sprained his ankle, jumping off a wall, and three days later the injury was much worse, incapacitating him. The two poets could therefore go off on their trip without having to experience any unease about leaving him behind. What they had planned was a literary pilgrimage in honour of...

    • 8 Chillon, Clarens and Ouchy
      (pp. 60-68)

      After nearly capsizing in their efforts to enter the port of St Gingolph, it was a relief to Byron and Shelley to find that the weather was much calmer the next day and there were no difficulties about continuing their journey. They were heading for Villeneuve, at the head of the lake, and back into Swiss territory. As they passed beyond St Gingolph, and saw where the Rhone entered the lake, Shelley noticed that the powerful currents of the river caused the colour of the water to change in exactly the way St. Preux describes before the storm which forces...

  7. Part Two
    • 9 Coppet
      (pp. 71-78)

      While their lovers were away on the trip round the lake, Mary and Claire were left to amuse themselves. They had baby William to look after but this still left Mary plenty of time to pursue her own interests. She seems to have continued to work through what was clearly a long list of books in French and Italian, but also to have begun writingFrankenstein. In addition, she carried on making fair copies of Byron’s verse (there is a version of canto 3 ofChilde Haroldin her hand). Claire was also heavily involved in this copying, a task...

    • 10 Romans à clef
      (pp. 79-86)

      In the Estates-General of France to which Stendhal refers, there were three houses: one for the aristocracy, one for the clergy and a third for everyone else. The tripartite division in Coppet was rather different. Apart from the members of Madame de Staël’s immediate family, there were first of all the visiting English, to many of whom she was returning the hospitality she had enjoyed during her recent stay in their country. There were then the local intellectuals of a liberal cast and, finally, a fair sprinkling of princes, dukes, and titled dignitaries from continental Europe. Thechâtelaineof Coppet...

    • 11 Chamonix
      (pp. 87-94)

      Byron took Polidori to Coppet with him, but not Shelley. It is very unlikely that the latter would have been unwelcome there, attractive and eloquent young poet as he was; or indeed that Madame de Staël would not have been interested to meet Mary. During her relatively recent stay in London, she had made sure not to miss seeing Mary’s father, William Godwin, and she must have known that Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had lived a precarious life in Paris during the early years of the revolution, just as she herself had. It would be anachronistic to attribute to de...

    • 12 The Problem of Claire and the First of the Visitors
      (pp. 95-102)

      By the time the Shelley party came back from Chamonix, the problem of Claire, now well into her fourth month of pregnancy, was becoming acute. On the evening of their return, all three of them dropped in on Byron at Diodati and talked with him until twelve, their fatigue after the journey making for a relatively early night. Mary records in her diary that on three of the five subsequent evenings they also visited Byron, but on the sixth (2nd August) she writes: ‘S. & C. go up to Diodati. I do not for Lord B. did not seem to wish...

    • 13 Reconciliation
      (pp. 103-110)

      Matthew Lewis had been at Oxford with Fox’s nephew, Lord Holland, and knew most of the people in that sector of the fashionable world Byron had frequented, as well as many other important figures outside it. It was therefore inevitable that he should have met Madame de Staël when she came to England, especially as he shared with her such a strong interest in German literature. Describing Lewis much later, Byron said that he was ‘a good man – a clever man – but a bore’ (‘pestilently prolix’ is a term he had used earlier to describe how boring he...

    • 14 Old Friends
      (pp. 111-118)

      From the time he settled in at the villa Diodati, Byron had been expecting John Cam Hobhouse, with whom he had always intended to move on to Italy. There had been numerous delays on Hobhouse’s side but he eventually appeared on 26 August, and not alone, but with another close friend of Byron’s, Scrope Berdmore Davies. The newcomers were just in time to meet Shelley, who was to leave for England three days later, on the morning of the 29th. The four men spent the intervening evenings together, with Claire and Mary staying behind in the Maison Chapuis. Claire’s final...

    • 15 Polidori Does Not Suit
      (pp. 119-126)

      With the departure of the Shelley party and of Davies, Byron and Hobhouse were left on their own. But not for long. Between Davies’s leaving on 5 September and their own setting out to see more mountains on the 17th, they saw or entertained a number of visitors. It was in that fortnight, for example, that Lady Jersey and her husband were in the area. One of the formidable aristocratic ladies who decided who should or (perhaps more importantly) should not be invited to the fashionable social gatherings periodically held in Almack’s Assembly Rooms in London, Lady Jersey was a...

    • 16 The Jungfrau
      (pp. 127-138)

      Vevey, Clarens and Chillon were familiar to Byron from his previous boat trip with Shelley, but on Thursday 19 September he and Hobhouse set out for what was new territory for them both. They were using a well-known guide book for travellers in Switzerland by Johann Gottfried Ebel, a French translation of which Hobhouse had acquired before he left England. The route they followed roughly corresponds to what is tour number 33 in Ebel and they both gave day-to-day accounts of it, Hobhouse in his diary and Byron in a long letter he wrote to Augusta in diary form. Sending...

  8. Afterwords
    • 1 Lewis, de Staël and ‘Poor Polidori’
      (pp. 141-145)

      After Byron’s stay in Switzerland, several members in the supporting cast of the story of his life there did not fare too well. Matthew Lewis, for example, spent a year on the continent after leaving Diodati, visiting Rome, Florence and Naples (where he had a married sister), and in July 1817 again calling in on Byron, who by then was established in Venice. But Lewis was back in England in October of that year worrying about his slaves and in November he sailed again for Jamaica. His main aim on this trip was to institute further humanitarian reforms on a...

    • 2 The Shelley Party and Allegra
      (pp. 146-152)

      After the Shelley party had arrived back in England, the two men continued to write to each other and Claire also tried to correspond with Byron; but her several heart-rending letters, begging him to keep the promise she claimed he had made to communicate with her, received no reply. She was taken by Mary and Shelley to Bath to await the birth of her child, and established in a boarding house there, away from any of her previous contacts in London (that she was pregnant was successfully hidden from her parents). Her baby was born on 12 January 1817 and...

    • 3 The Road to Greece
      (pp. 153-157)

      With the death of Shelley in July 1822, four of those who had been with Byron on the Lake of Geneva six years before were gone, and he would not live much longer himself. The failure of de Staël to reconcile him with his wife had been a turning point in his life and from then on he did all he could to put his marriage behind him. What aided him in the methods he first chose to achieve this objective was that the Venice in which he settled in November 1816 was a very different town from Geneva. There...

    • 4 Last Rites
      (pp. 158-163)

      There are conflicting accounts of Byron’s last words and final wishes but one of the English doctors in attendance reported him as saying: ‘One request let me make to you. Let not my body be hacked, or be sent to England. Here let my bones moulder. Lay me in the first corner without pomp or nonsense.’¹ In declaring this preference he may have been thinking of Polidori’s unfortunate patient, Lord Guilford, who was shipped back to England from Italy in bits. This is exactly what happened to Byron, except that the Greeks insisted on keeping his lungs. They were anxious...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 164-177)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 178-182)
  11. Index
    (pp. 183-194)