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Book Review: Byron in Geneva

Byron in Geneva: That Summer of 1816

by David Ellis

Liverpool University Press, 2011

When Lord Byron realized the extent to which the failure his marriage to Annabella Milbanke (and the concomitant titterings about his relations with his half-sister Augusta Leigh) would tar him socially, he decided to leave England and add picturesque wandering to the species characteristics of the byronic hero.

He travelled to Geneva, where he rented the Villa Diodati and met up with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont (and John Polidori along for the ride), and for the summer this brilliant, volatile group went sailing on the lake, climbing in the hills, sight-seeing in the local spots of interest (including the house and garden where Gibbon finished his great epic), and dining out with local luminaries like Madame de Stael. The group also passed at least one evening in the exercise of telling each other gothic horror stories in the style of The Castle of Otranto or The Mysteries of Udolpho, and that evening became the most legendary literary bull-session since Plato’s Symposium. It, more than any other feature of this period, draws biographers like squirrels to bread-crumbs.

We can now count veteran historian David Ellis among that number, and his latest book, Byron in Geneva, though slim, is packed with interesting observations – interesting and very often puzzling. Ellis is frequently dead certain about things nobody can ever really know and daintily diffident about things that nobody ever questions. Take his quick description of that freakish 1816 summer itself:

 The summer of 1816 is in fact famous in meteorological history because there was so little of it, not only in Switzerland but elsewhere in the northern hemisphere. The phenomenon of bad weather was world-wide, and has been attributed by some specialists to a volcano eruption of unprecedented size which had taken place in Indonesia the year before. This had sent millions of tons of dust into the upper atmosphere, forming a barrier between the earth and the sun.

Specialists? Some? Those millions of tons of dust didn’t board a rocket to the moon, after all – they eventually re-settled back on Earth, leaving a sedimentary layer that’s hardly the equivocal province of a handful of scientists … so the arm’s-length tone here is odd. Equally odd are some of Ellis’ divinations about his main subject’s innermost feelings. Take the supernatural, for instance: Ellis expertly discusses Polidori’s 1819 novel Ernest Berchtold (are Ellis and I the only readers on Earth who’ve slogged through the Collected Works of John Polidori? I hope not, and yet I hope so), then he ranges to Polidori’s The Vampyre, which was partially adapted from an 1816 manuscript of Byron’s featuring a man who appears to die in Greece only to be seen alive and well in London. Ellis makes a connection:

The reason for the probability that such a reappearance can be associated with an episode in Byron’s own life. In 1810 he was lying very ill of a fever in Patras but at more or less the same time, he later worked out, various people in London, including his former school friend at Harrow, Robert Peel, were convinced that they had seen him walking around there. A natural sceptic, it was one of the paradoxes of Byron’s nature that he was at the same time a superstitious man with a half-reluctant interest in prophesies or coincidences, and he puzzled over these apparently strange sightings of himself without being able to dismiss them entirely as obvious cases of mistaken identity.

But the only recorded reaction Byron had to this bizarre case of mistaken identity was to mock it (he hoped his mysterious double behaved like a proper gentleman) – there was no puzzling and plenty of dismissing. Considering how bewilderingly complex Byron could be, it’s odd to find a writer trying to import more complexity. But Ellis can be forgiven quite a bit, because some of his pop-psychologizing is so entertaining it might just be true. He tells us, for instance, that Byron needed to write continuously in order to keep himself on an even keel, He needed to write continuously in order to keep himself on an even keel, and there’s probably something to that. He assures us that Byron “laughed because he would rather do that than cry, but he also laughed because he enjoyed laughing,” and that is almost certainly true, however pat. The subject of Byron’s laughter is worthy of a book on its own and can be quite perilous; Ellis falls afoul of it as often as he illuminates it:

In all the ribbing, joshing or ridicule in which young men characteristically indulge there is an inevitable element of cruelty; yet whether Byron’s own laughter was predominantly or even ever ‘the heartless fiend’ to which Shelley refers in his sonnet is doubtful. Certainly his fondness for it was due less to any lack of feeling than to depression and a hopelessness about the futility of all human endeavour.

But our biographer always recovers his footing, and some of his analyses are refreshingly sympathetic:

Byron found much of human life absurd but he often took what can be described as an intrinsic delight in its absurdity, and there is frequently in his comedy the geniality of a man conscious enough of his own inadequacies not to be too obsessed with those of others.

In fact, that element of sympathy is the main reason to read and enjoy Byron in Geneva (such enjoyment is slightly hampered by sloppy formatting – “lightening” standing in for “lightning,” “latter” for “later,” etc., but that’s to be expected in our World Without Copy Editors). Ellis states in his remarkable introductory matter that his main impetus for writing the book was to redress the shrill assessments Byron has received at the hands of three of his most recent biographers (all women, though Ellis doesn’t press this point), and he might well have gone further and included Claire Clairemont, an assiduous liar whose journals amount to one enormous smear campaign against Byron’s memory. The idea that it might be time for a biographical re-assessment of Lord Byron is fascinating and I think quite welcome – but this isn’t that book, nor does it hope to be. Instead, this is a thorough and energetic micro-examination of one pivotal season in a collection of pivotal lives. No student of Byron or the Romantics should miss it.

As for that rollicking, even-handed yet sympathetic full-dress biography of the man, it remains to be written. I’d nominate Christopher Hitchens to do the honors, if I thought there was any chance of it.