HOLIDAY OF A LIFETIME
Byron in Geneva: That Summer of 1816
By David Ellis (Liverpool University Press 189pp £25)
On 27 May 1816, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley met on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron was accompanied by his doctor, John Polidori, and Shelley by his mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont. The two groups met by Claire's design: she and Byron had briefly been lovers, and it was at her instigation that Shelley and Mary had decided to journey to Switzerland.
In persuading Shelley and Mary that they should visit Geneva, Claire unwittingly set the stage for one of the most famous summers in literary history. Byron and Shelley became friends; the whole group embraced the joys of boating; Mary started work on Frankenstein. The events that followed the first meeting by the lake have been the subject of countless books, plays and films, and now provide the focus for David Ellis's new study of Byron. Ellis acknowledges in his subtitle - That Summer of 1816 - that he is on well-trodden ground. His subject is not just any old summer, but one so famous that we already know all about it. So why devote another book to its central characters and events?
Ellis's answer is that renewed attention to the summer of 1816 allows us to see Byron afresh, untrammelled by the ideological perspectives of his most recent biographers. Byron in Geneva is biography as synecdoche: by focusing on the particular Ellis aims to illuminate the whole, and to 'convey the truest possible impression of what kind of person Byron was'. This is a tricky task for any biographer, but especially for one with a subject as contradictory and complicated as Byron. By synthesising multiple perspectives, however, and by giving himself space to explore some of the summer's bit-part players in more detail, Ellis certainly succeeds in adding colour and detail to a well-known story.
Byron in Geneva serves as a useful reminder that Shelley and his party were not Byron's only acquaintances in Switzerland, even if they have dominated most previous accounts of the months he spent there. Having left England to escape the bitter aftermath of separation from his wife Annabella and the scandal swirling around rumours of an affair with his half-sister Augusta, Byron was in need of sympathetic auditors. Even as he reworked his travels into an account of magnificent isolation in the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, he gathered old friends around him, and found new ones in the literary coteries of Geneva and its environs. His most important new acquaintance was Germaine de StaŽl, who had been exiled to her chateau at Coppet in 1812 after Napoleon grew tired of her vocal politicking. De StaŽl hosted a brilliant salon and was determined to draw Byron out of himself by introducing him to her circle. She also did her best to effect a reconciliation between Byron and his wife, but her efforts were thwarted by a combination of Byron's reluctance, Annabella's resistance and interference from another visitor from England, Henry Brougham. Brougham and Byron should have got on well, since they were both Whigs and moved in similar circles, but Brougham's mistress was related to Lady Caroline Lamb, who by 1816 was chiefly concerned to blacken Byron's reputation. He also resented being referred to as 'blundering Brougham' in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. When Byron heard that Brougham had written to Annabella from Coppet to warn her of his desire for reconciliation, he attempted to challenge him to a duel. Brougham, however, refused to be drawn into a fight with Byron, perhaps because he was disinclined to meet a man who practised pistol shooting every day.
More congenial company at the Villa Diodati (the magnificent house overlooking the lake which Byron rented for the summer) was provided by a trio of old friends: John Cam Hobhouse, Scrope Davies and Matthew 'Monk' Lewis. Hobhouse and Davies had been at Cambridge with Byron, while he and Lewis knew each other from London. Lewis, Byron later recalled, would have been 'a Jewel of a Man ... had he been better set'. Lewis could be delightful company, and one evening kept both Byron and Shelley entranced with ghost stories, but he was also petulant and quarrelsome, and was therefore a rather wearing houseguest.
Lewis was also deeply implicated in the slave trade, having inherited extensive Jamaican estates from his father. He introduced several measures attempting to ensure the humane treatment of his slaves and supported the abolition of the trade in 1807, but he was against the emancipation of existing slaves, primarily for economic reasons. While at Diodati he drew up a codicil to his will, which stipulated that his heirs must visit the plantations regularly and not reverse any of his humanitarian reforms. The codicil was witnessed by Byron, Shelley and Polidori, none of whom appears to have objected sufficiently to its implicit support of the continuance of slavery to refuse to put their names to it. Lewis's presence in Geneva is often glossed over in accounts of 1816, and Ellis's focus on him and his antecedents enriches our understanding of the social and political dynamics of the summer, complicating the more familiar narrative of ghosts, galvanism and thunderstorms.
The Shelley party left Switzerland as the nights drew in, returning to England with a collection of manuscripts that testified to the productivity of the previous months. These included the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 'Mont Blanc', 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' and an early version of Frankenstein. Byron, meanwhile, set off to explore the rest of Switzerland with Hobhouse, and in October left Geneva for Milan, never to return. But Claire Clairmont also carried away with her a secret: an unborn child, conceived with Byron earlier in the year. This child, Allegra, would yoke Byron, Shelley, Claire and Mary together for years, and for all of them, the summer of 1816 marked a turning point in their lives. For this reason, and because of its extraordinary confluence of ideas and personalities, its story is one that bears retelling.
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Daisy Hay is the author of Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives.