The Diodati Stories and Their Authors: Lord Byron
September 12, 2007 § 3 Comments
by By Robert Gordon
Byron and Shelley and Mary and Claire,
Braced by the grandeur and quick Alpine air,
Clustered themselves in a Genevese site,
Telling of spirits and ghosts in the night,
Byron was piqued by the whispering gloom;
Shelly had visions and ran from the room;
Claire became pregnant (her passion, his wine);
And Mary, bright Mary, begot Frankenstein.
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale
22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron 1813 Richard Westall, Nation Portrait Gallery London
Famously charactierized, no doubt to his secret gratification, by Lady Caroline Lamb as the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ titular anti-hero in her 1816 novel Glenarvon , Angl0-Scottish poet and satirist George Gordon, sixth baron Byron, was born on 27th January 1788 to an English aristocrat father and a Scottish aristocrat mother. He was the son of the profligate “mad Jack” Captain Byron and following the captain’s death he was raised in Aberdeen by his mother. Byron was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, and having inherited his barony, he took his seat in the House of Lords in 1809. Byron would become a leading figure of the Romantic movement and one of the most famous Georgians, a personage whose full tilt life fascinated his contemporaries. Among his best-known works are the narrative poems Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan.
His first published work Hours of Idleness (1807) was the subject of a severe notice in The Edinburgh Review (January 1807) provoking the riposte of Byron’s satiric British Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). The final stage of his education as an aristocrat was the Grand Tour which Byron undertook (1809-11) in the company of his friend John Cam Hobhouse. The Napoleonic Wars prevented the usual culmination of the tour in Italy, and Byron traveled through Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar and Malta to the more exotic regions of Albania and the Grecian provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1812 when Byron published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ( 1812-1818 ) he became an adored character of London society; he spoke in the House of Lords effectively on liberal themes and was hugely popular, a veritable Georgian celebrity. But fervent talk of his manifold loves affairs and rumors of homosexual liaisons (though such liaisons were certainly not unheard of at Cambridge), of incest and of his cruelty to his wife during his short lived marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815, abounded. Lady Byron’s request for a separation, following the birth of their daughter, affirmed public belief in the stories of Byron’s supposed incest with his half sister Augusta Leigh . Though his poetry was more popular than ever, Byron chose to exile himself from England.
The much canvassed story telling night at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland came to pass in the summer of 1816. Through Claire Claremont, who had recently become Byron’s mistress and hoped to remain so, Byron acquired the friendship of her step sister Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. With his personal physician John Polidori, a brilliant young doctor from a literary family, living with him, Bryon rented the Villa Diodoti on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Shelley party followed and lodged at the nearby Campagne Chapuis and Byron and Shelley’s friendship, according to Mary Shelley’s recollections, was instant, deep and firm until the later’s death in 1822.
In her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley related the famous anecdote of how in the midst of inclement weather (probably beginning on June 16th) the party (herself, Shelley, Byron, Polidori and Clare Clairmont) were housebound at Diodati and read aloud from what scholars later identified as Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d’Histoires d’Apparitions de Spectres, Revenans, Fantomes, etc.; traduit de l’allemand, par un Amateur 1812 by Baptiste Benoit Eyrie. The Fantasmagoriana is a French translation of a German collection of ghost stories, Das Gespensterbuch compiled by Friedrich August Schulze, which later appeared in London in 1813 under the title Tales of the Dead. Shelley recorded that, prompted by these readings, Byron challenged the company to each compose a horrific tale. Polidori’s diary from that summer later confirmed the veracity of this event, and the pastime probably occupied them for less than a week¹. Percy Shelley wrote a forgettable story, Byron began and abandoned a story, later made public by the author with the title Fragment of a Novel. From this fragment Polidori wove The Vampyre, the first modern vampire tale, in which the main man Lord Ruthven, is unmaskedly modeled on Byron. Mary Shelley experienced what she described as a ‘waking nightmare’ that would give birth to Dr Frankenstein and his Creature and the philosophical Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
The party soon afterward broke up and Byron, after traveling further abroad again with John Cam Hobhouse, would spend almost the rest of his life in Italy. For several years he lived with the Countess Teresa Guicciolo and he then became involved with the revolutionary politics that made him truly happy. He won the friendship of Teresa’s father and brother who initiated him into the secret revolutionary society of the Carbonari. In Ravenna he was brought into closer touch with the life of the Italian people than he had ever been. He gave arms to the Carbonari and alms to the poor. It was one of the happiest and most productive periods of his life and Byron produced some of his greatest poetry during this time, as well as being much involved with Leigh and John Hunt’s new periodical The Liberal, which being printed in Italy could not be censored by the British government, nor could the participants be jailed for publishing politically or socially liberal material, as they could and had been in England.
When the Carbonari was put on ice, domesticity with Teresa did not suit and after five years with her Byron left Italy to meet his destiny in Greece. The London Greek Committee had signed Byron on to act as its agent in aiding the Greek war for independence from the Turks and all of his legendary enthusiasm, energy, and imagination were now at the service of the Greek army. The cause suffered setbacks and Byron had reclaimed his school boy homoeroticism in Greece, and had entered into an emotionally straining friendship with the youth Louksa Chalandritsanos, whom he addressed in his final poems. Never stable, his emotional and physical being deteriorated rapidly during a period of ill health. After a series of violent fevers and fits he was repeatedly and ill-advisably bled, which led to a coma, and Lord Byron died in Greece on April 19 1824. Deeply mourned by the Greeks, his body was embalmed and the heart was removed and buried in Missolonghi.
Allegra Byron, his daughter by Claire Claremont died in childhood at the convent where Byron had placed her. Elizabeth Medora Leigh, the daughter of his half sister Augusta Leigh believed by many to be his, led a troubled life and was often supported by Byron’s former wife Anne Isabella Millbank. Their legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, also supported Elizabeth believing her to be either her half sister or her cousin, until Elizabeth’s death in France, aged 35. Ada, a mathematician, became very well know in society, in the arts and in mathematical circles, and she collaborated with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers. Ada Lovelace was also bled to death by her physician at age 36 while receiving treatment for cancer.
¹Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein by James Rieger, published in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 3, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1963), pp. 461-472
Tagged: Ada Lovelace, Allegra Byron, Anne Isabella Millbank, Augusta Leigh, Byron, Claire Claremont, Diodati, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, Frankenstein, Georgian Era, Georgian Period, Gothic Fiction, John Polidori, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Robert Gordon