1816 – exactly two hundred years ago this year – was a significant year for Lord Byron.
His marriage, contracted just one short year earlier, on 2nd January 1815, crumbled into dust.
His wife left him, taking his one month-old daughter with her: he would never see either of them again.
He was bankrupt, with bailiffs sitting in the kitchen of his home at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, London.
And so he decided to leave England and resume his travels.
April found him in Belgium, whilst he spent the summer on Lake Geneva.
In the autumn he set out for Italy.
On 10th November 1816 Lord Byron arrived in Venice……
The Byron – Venice blog plans to follow Milord as he travels across Europe. Along his route there will be eccentric doctors, Romantic poets, countless ladies, chambermaids and draper’s wives. Byron will visit Waterloo less than a year after the Battle; he will host an evening in Geneva which will lead to the creation of horror’s two most celebrated characters; he will – inevitably – fall in love.
We hope you will join us on our journey: Happy New Year!
… Byron wrote in a letter dated December 1815. Two hundred years ago today, 10th December 1815, Byron’s daughter Ada was born. Barely five weeks later the child was taken away by her mother, ostensibly on a visit to Lady Byron’s parents; but neither Byron’s wife nor his daughter ever came back to him. After this he was forced to rely on scraps of information and the occasional memento – a sketch, a lock of hair – grudgingly relayed by his wife via his sister.
Ada was only a few months past her eighth birthday when her father died in April 1823. She can’t be said to have had a happy childhood since Lady Byron, grimly determined that the daughter should not take after the father, subjected her to a cold and unemotional upbringing. The child’s nurse-maids were changed on a regular basis, to prevent Ada developing an attachment to any of them, and she was taught of “the importance of pleasing mamma by doing her duty,” locked in a dark cupboard for any misbehaviour. She was even forbidden, by a clause in her grandmother’s will, from seeing this famous portrait of her father until she reached the age of twenty-one.
Lord Byron in Albanian Costume, by Thomas Phillips.
On the surface, it seemed to work. Married at the age of nineteen to a man chosen by her mother for being upright, dutiful and nothing like her father, Ada was a mathematical genius. At the age of eighteen she was introduced to the engineer Charles Babbage, and worked with him designing programs for his Difference Engine, a calculating machine which is considered to have been the forerunner of modern computers. Ada is widely regarded as the author of the first computer program, and today both a computer language and a prize for women in science and technology are named in her honour.
Ada’s “Diagram for the computation of Bernoulli numbers” – the first algorithm?
But despite her efforts, Ada’s mother didn’t succeed in obliterating her Byron inheritance. Just as her father had done, Ada suffered from poor mental health throughout her life. She seems to have suffered from acute post-natal depression after the birth of her eldest child (whom she named Byron). She became addicted to gambling, and used her mathematical skills to try to create a model scheme for winning on the horses which, inevitably, left her thousands of pounds in debt.
Ada died in 1854 aged only 36: the same age her father had been when he died. Her final wish was to be buried in the Byron family vault in Hucknall, Nottingham, with her father.
The final portrait of Ada, painted in 1853 by Henry Phillips. Although very ill and in great pain, Ada insisted on sitting for the picture, since the artist’s father had painted Byron in Albanian costume.
Well, I always planned to blog about my trip to Rome. This isn’t perhaps the blog that I had in mind, but it has certainly come from my visit to one of my favourite cities in the world, and to my visit to the remarkable Keats-Shelley House.
I wouldn’t be writing this blog at all if I didn’t already have a great fondness for the younger generation of Romantic poets, so I was always going to enjoy my visit to the House; but I have left Rome with a new perspective on Byron, Keats and Percy and Mary Shelley.
The curator of the Keats-Shelley House, Giuseppe Albano, was instrumental in crystallising my thoughts. He has some interesting ideas about the future of the House, and spoke in a recent interview about his determination that it should not stagnate as a “shrine” to dead poets, but become part of contemporary Roman life, and that it should encourage visitors from among the newer communities now living in Rome, the children of refugees and economic migrants.
This was like a light-bulb going on in my head. Of course I was well-aware of the individual dynamics which took Keats, the Shelleys, Byron to Rome, but I soon began to distinguish parallels with modern migrants and asylum-seekers.
For a start, in the early years of the nineteenth century the journey from England to Italy was no simple matter of a quick low-cost flight. More than twenty years of total war had only recently come to an end, and Europe was still in a state of considerable upheaval. Byron’s journey overland from London to Venice lasted from April to November 1816 (his visit to Rome – where his lodgings were, coincidentally, just across the Piazza di Spagna from the Keats-Shelley House – was a brief one, in 1817). John Keats’ sea-voyage through the straits of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean took the best part of two months. These were not simple pleasure-seekers, out for a quick trip to sunny Italy. Behind each journey lay a complex tangle of reasons, many of which would be only too familiar to a modern arrival in Lampedusa.
Let’s begin with Keats, if only because his stay in Rome was the shortest and most tragic. Keats came to Rome on the run: on the run from disease and death. He was suffering from advanced tuberculosis, a disease which had already claimed his mother and one of his brothers, and which was incurable in those pre-antibiotic days. The warmer climate of Italy was his last hope, but he left it too late: Keats arrived at Piazza Di Spagna in November 1820. By February 1821 he was dead.
What of Byron? He spent the longest period in Italy: the years from 1816 to 1823. From what was he escaping? Bankruptcy, certainly. In the spring of 1816 bailiffs occupied his London house and his goods were seized. He was also escaping a disastrous, failed marriage which had almost robbed him of his sanity. His mental health and finances both finally returned to an even keel in 1818, but his original impetus in coming to Italy was because it was a much cheaper place to live than England: he was in some senses an economic migrant.
Percy and Mary Shelley arrived in Italy in 1818. Mary finally returned to England in 1823. They lived a peripatetic existence: Naples, Lucca, Florence, Pisa. They lodged at Piazza di Spagna in 1819. To say that Percy Shelley was a bad financial manager is an understatement. He would literally give his last penny to someone he believed needed it more than him, and would then walk the streets of London all night to avoid debt-collectors who might knock at his door. So the Shelleys were also, to some degree, in Italy for economic reasons. But there was more to it than that.
Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy, was a baronet and MP. He could easily have bailed his son out, but chose not to do so, because of Percy’s Radical political opinions and his declared atheism, for which he had been sent down from Oxford and which led to his being refused custody of the children of his first marriage. The author of The Masque of Anarchy, which calls on the working people of England to revolt:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep has fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!
had much in common with those who have been forced from their homeland because of their political beliefs.
Today, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a staple of exam syllabuses. Academic theses are written on The Byronic Hero or Keats’ imagery of death. It is easy to forget that they were not always pillars of the literary establishment, figures (to quote Mozart in the film Amadeus) “so lofty that they sound as if they shit marble.” Two hundred years ago they were young migrants, searching for freedom, security, a better life. Is it time to use their words to speak out to, and for, young people, regardless of background, origin and culture, in Europe today? I hope to continue exploring this theme in future blogs.