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A Palace and a Prison at Each Hand: Lord Byron in Italy (part 1 of 2)

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ByronIn 1816, Lord George Byron left England for the Continent, never to return. He decamped first to Switzerland and then eventually to Italy, where he lived for many vibrant and creative years – but the events leading up to that colorful Italian interlude were notoriously convoluted, with the poet’s personal and sexual antics bringing him into such disrepute that he chose self-exile over remaining in the land of his birth. Before Italy beckoned, the poet lived through years of chaos.

Byron was born in London on January 22, 1788. His father, Captain John Byron, known as “Mad Jack,” was a spendthrift, immoral, dissolute rake. In 1778, he ran away with a married woman, Amelia Osborne, the Marquees of Leeds, and married her in 1779, after she had divorced. He then fled to France with her to avoid both creditors and scandal and had dissipated her considerable fortune. She had died in 1784, leaving him with a child, Augusta; in 1785, he met and married Catherine Gordon, a Scottish girl, and proceeded to spend her large £ 23,000 dowry. By the time George was born in 1788, the family was virtually penniless. In 1789, “Mad Jack” abandoned the family and decamped to France, returning only occasionally to sponge off his wife and obtain loans from her. He died in France in 1791, at the age of 36.

By then, Mrs. Byron had moved back to Aberdeen, Scotland, and devoted herself to the care of her son, George, who had been born with a clubfoot, which had the potential of rendering him lame for life if not treated. It was not properly treated. Mrs. Byron was also somewhat mentally unbalanced, alternating periods of intense loving care for the child with periods of abject abuse. This behavior confused young George and drove him away from her.

In 1798, when his great uncle died, George Byron inherited his title, became an English peer, and came into possession of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, the ancestral family seat.

Byron, now a Lord, was educated at Harrow and subsequently at Trinity College, Cambridge, obtaining a Master’s Degree in 1808. He was already an accomplished poet and his book, Hours of Idleness, was published in 1807. Statesman and literary critic Henry Brougham savagely reviewed the book in The Edinburgh Review, and an angry Byron replied the following year with another book, a long poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a satire in the style of Alexander Pope in which he lampooned all contemporary English poets and literary reviewers.

HoursofidlenessBy this time, young Byron had also engaged in several romantic entanglements. He fell in love, first, with a distant cousin, Mary Chasworth, who unfortunately was in love with another man and made fun of him because of his foot. Mary later reconsidered her feelings toward Byron when in 1811 he became famous but by then it was too late to mend the relationship.

Early on, Byron established a pattern of promiscuous love and he engaged in sexual relations, at times tenderly passionate and at times wantonly cruel, with nearly anyone willing, both male and female.

He struck up a close friendship with the 21-year-old daughter of a neighbor, Elizabeth Pigot and began an intensely active correspondence with his half sister, Augusta Byron, whom he considered his “warmest and most affectionate friend.”

His affections were not solely reserved for the fairer sex: Henry Yeverton, Lord Grey of Ruthyn, who had rented Newstead Abbey from the Gordon, and who was his host in December 1803, apparently made sexual advances to young George, causing him to flee the Abbey within weeks. Whether the advances had been repulsed, or Byron wished they had, is unclear…and the issue was further complicated when his mother, then 39 years old, fell in love, for a while, with the younger Lord Grey.

Doubts about who had been pursuing whom were furthered when, at Trinity College, Cambridge, Lord Byron quite possibly had a homosexual affair with another student, John Edleston. Edleston was at Cambridge on a singing scholarship but when puberty changed his voice, he lost the scholarship, had to leave school, and the romance came to an end. Byron wore a ring that Edleston gave him for the rest of his life and also wrote the poem Thyrzna to immortalize Edleston, though he changed all the pronouns from male to female to obscure the relationship. Byron was finally freed from the fear of exposure, and of guilt, when the 21-year-old Edleston died of consumption in May 1811, while the poet was away on a two-year tour of Europe and the Middle East. As he wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, his long autobiographical poem, “I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed.”

In 1809, perhaps to avoid disclosure that he was bisexual, Byron embarked on a two-year European tour which, because of the Napoleonic wars, was limited to Portugal, Spain, Albania, and Greece, these last two countries then ruled by the Ottoman Turks. In Athens, where he stayed for a while, he continued his love entanglements. One was with Teresa Macri, the twelve-year-old daughter of his landlady; to her, he addressed the poem Maid of Athens:

Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh, give me back my heart…
Hear my vow, before I go,
Zoë mou, sas agapo.
(My soul, I love you).

She was not the only girl he loved while in Greece, since in a letter to his friend Henry Drury, he wrote that he was “dying for love of three Greek Girls at Athens”, “Teresa, Mariana, and Kattinga.”

In Greece, he also developed an abiding love for that land, a love, which, in 1824, was the cause of his premature death. He later celebrated his strong feelings about Greece in his Don Juan, Canto III:

The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece.
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace…

On visiting Marathon, the place where the ancient Greeks defeated the Persians in 490 B.C., he so recalled his experience:

The mountains look on Marathon
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persian’s grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

Proceeding to Turkey, Byron swam across the Hellespont strait, a considerable athletic feat, and saved at gunpoint a young Turkish girl, who, because of an illicit love affair, had been sewn inside a burlap sack and was about to be thrown into the sea to drown.

He returned to England on July 14, 1811, to learn that, in addition to Eddleston, his mother had also just died at the age of 46. Forgetting his past dislike of her, or perhaps feigning, he said, before she was buried in the family’s vault at Newstead Abbey, “I had but one friend in the world, and she is gone!” using about the same words he had uttered in 1808 when his dog, Boatswain, who was also buried in the same vault, had died.

childeharoldspilgrimageThe following year, 1812, Byron found fame, or rather fame found him, as a politician and as a poet and social lion. Taking his seat in the House of Lords, he made his maiden speech by opposing the death penalty for the Luddites, the cloth weavers who opposed the mechanization of their craft. Soon after, the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which he had composed during his European tour, was an enormous success and the first edition sold out in three days. Elated, he said, “I awoke one morning to find myself famous,” and started referring to himself as “The Grand Napoleon of the Realms of Rhyme.” Now his intelligence, witticism, and uncommon good looks, despite his pronounced limp, not only opened him society’s doors, but attracted myriads of women to him.

One woman in particular, Lady Caroline Lamb, pursued him constantly, engaging in many subterfuges to entangle him, until he succumbed to her. Of high social position in the English aristocracy, in 1805 Caroline had married William Lamb, the son of Lord Melbourne. William Lamb, a rising politician at the time, was to become later Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister.

Probably William Lamb was sexually promiscuous and his wife complained in a veiled manner in a May 1810 letter to her mother-in-law that he had introduced her to all kinds of unusual and unorthodox sexual activities:

He called me prudish – said I was strait-laced, – amused himself with instructing me in things I need never have heard or known – & the disgust that I at first felt for the world’s wickedness I till then had never even heard of – in a very short time this gave way to a general laxity of principles which little by little unperceived of you all has been undermining the few virtues I ever possessed.

PortraitLadyCarolineLambHowever, she must have liked the sexual variety he introduced in their relationship since the two remained affectionate and together until her death.

Lady Caroline was, in her way, a strange bird, an independent and eccentric soul. She was tall, thin, pretty, and vivacious, she cut her curly blond hair very short and in her slenderness resembled Eddleston. She also disdained feminine attire and dressed most of the time as a male page. She certainly was not the traditional, demure early 19th century damsel and after they had first met, Byron told his friend Thomas Medwin that, “the lady had scarcely any personal attention to recommend her… too thin to be good…” Still he was very much intrigued by her.

Caroline Lamb had become interested in meeting Byron after reading Childe Harold and her interest was heightened when she was told that Byron “has a club-foot, and bites his nails”, to which she had replied, “If he was as ugly as Aesop I must know him.”

When they first met, Caroline had been fascinated by him and later wrote, “That beautiful pale face is my fate.”

Byron, despite the feigned disinterest expressed to Medwin, started to pursue his new target, and in April-May 1812, became inseparable. She dubbed him “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” but could not resist his attraction and apparently, to keep him tied to her, she also procured younger female companions for him.

The affair, however, was not long lived. Byron wanted to run away with her, but Caroline would not leave the security and status her husband provided and wanted both to have her cake and eat it too. Then Byron grew disinterested and was convinced by his friend John Hobhouse to leave London for his ancestral country house. Caroline wrote to him constantly but he did not answer her. After he returned to London, on July 29,1812 she barged into his house in disguise, refused to leave and tried to stab herself. Byron and Hobhouse calmed her, and he had to promise he would visit her soon before she would leave. He did not and on August 9, she sent him a letter enclosing a personal gift – her pubic hair. The note in the gift enclosure read:

Carolina Byron
Next to Thyrsa dearest
& Most faithful-God bless you
Own love-ricordati di Biondetta
From your wild antelope.

The gift of the pubic hair remained an unconfirmed whisper during Byron’s lifetime, but was later clarified when the letter she had also sent became known. Not so subtly she was looking for a reciprocal gift: “I asked you not to send blood but Yet do – because if it means love I like to have it. I cut the hair too close & bled much more than you need – do not you the same & pray put not scissors points near where quei capelli grow – sooner take it from the arm or wrist – pray be careful….”

Byron did not comply with her wish. She then run away from her in laws household and was hiding, but he found her and convinced her to join her husband in Ireland. It was the end of their romance, although they continued to write to each other occasionally and see each other at social events from time to time.

Romantic that he was, his good-bye letter was a masterpiece of lying or self-delusion. He wrote, in part:

My dearest Caroline, – If tears which you saw and know I am not apt to shed, – if the agitation in which I parted from you – if all I have said and done, and am still but too ready to say and do, have not sufficiently proved what my real feelings are, and must ever be towards you, my love, I have no other proof to offer… You know I would with pleasure give up all here and all beyond the grave for you, and in refraining from this, must my motives be misunderstood? I care not who knows this, what use is made of it…. I was an am yours freely and most entirely, to obey, to honor, love, – and fly with you when, where, and how you yourself might and may determine.

Jane Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford 1797 by John Hoppner 1758-1810While avoiding Caroline, Byron was already finding ready consolations with a number of other lovers. One of these, Jane Elisabeth Harley Scott, Countess of Oxford, was a 38-year-old free-thinking beauty, mother of six children by as many fathers (none by Lord Oxford- they were known as the Harley Miscellany) and he lived with her, receiving at her home Caroline’s letters, which he and Jane Scott read aloud and answered together on her crested paper. “We lived like the gods in Lucretius,” he would say of the half dozen passion-imbued months they spent in her country house.

She was also a friend of Caroline Lamb, but that friendship came to a sudden halt when Caroline received a reply to one of her letters, which Byron had apparently composed jointly with Scott:

I am no longer your lover; and since you oblige me to confess it, by this truly unfeminine persecution, – learn, that I am attached to another; whose name it would of course be dishonourable to mention. I shall ever remember with gratitude the many instances I have received of the predilection you have shewn in my favour. I shall ever continue your friend, if your Ladyship will permit me so to style myself; and, as a first proof of my regard, I offer you this advice, correct your vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices upon others; and leave me in peace.

This was rather strong language and made Caroline physically ill; when she was well, she became angry and threatened both Byron and Lady Scott with exposure. They just laughed at her.

Another of Byron’s lovers was Lady Frances Webster-Wedderburn, the wife of his friend Sir James Webster-Wedderburn. At first she resisted his advances, but when she at last relented, and as one commentator put it, “The billiard table at Aston Hall [Lady Frances residence] got lots of use”. He quickly grew tired of her and by October 1813 the affair was over, and the relationship between the two friends became strained not only over the affair but also because James Webster-Wedderburn borrowed one thousand pounds from Byron and never paid it back.

Meantime Caroline Lamb, who had been away in Ireland with her husband, returned to London and on July 1, 1813, at a masked ball in honor of the Duke of Wellington, Byron, who was dressed as a monk, reproached her in front of others but she did not take the bait and respond. A few days later at a waltzing party she taunted Byron about her being free to dance rather than sitting by him, and he, who could not dance because of his club foot, taunted her right back, saying, “With every body in turn – you always did it better than anyone. I shall have a pleasure in seeing you.” and later said to her with a voice dripping with sarcasm, “I have been admiring your dexterity” This sent Caroline momentarily over the edge and she grabbed a table knife and made to stab herself. Byron did not take this seriously but deemed it a cheap theatrical stunt and told her “Do it my dear. If you mean to act a Roman’s part, mind which way you strike with your knife- be it at your own heart, not mine – you have struck there already.”

Some ladies then tried to take away the knife and in the process Caroline cut her hand slightly and left in distress, but the fracas ended up reported in the papers. Caroline Lamb continued to be a problem for Byron until 1815 when she had an affair with Wellington. In 1816, years after the affair with Byron had ended, she sought a measure of revenge by publishing a fictional, but mostly autobiographical, account of the affair in the novel Glenarvon.

GlenarvonLadyCarolineOne advantage Byron had in ending his affair with her was that he gained the confidence of her mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, to whom he proposed that he marry one of her nieces, Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. Caroline Lamb, ironically, had introduced the young girl to him. Annabella, a 20-year-old heiress, was pretty and clever, but had a prudish attitude, which did not bode well for a relationship with sexually experimenter Byron.  She, when approached by Lady Melbourne, her aunt, declined Byron’s offer of marriage, piquing Byron’s interest even more.

Concurrently, in the second half of 1813, Byron started to have an incestuous affair with his half sister, Augusta Byron Leigh. She was married to Colonel George Leigh and had three children. In the summer of 1813 Augusta was 30 years old and lonely as her husband, an inveterate gambler, spent more time at the racetrack than at home. She was also in financial difficulties because of Colonel Leigh’s addiction to gambling, and Byron helped her as much as he could. He was repelled and attracted by his behavior toward his stepsister, but continued it and they started an affair, sliding from affectionate tomfoolery to something infinitely more complicated and dangerous. Never, he said, “was seduction so easy.” Later, when he was having problems with his wife Annabella, he wrote to his step-sister about what might have been:

What a fool I was to marry—and you not very wise—my dear—we might have lived so single and so happy—as old maids and bachelors; I shall never find any one like you—nor you (vain as it may seem) like me. We are just formed to pass our lives together, and therefore—we—at least—I—am by a crowd of circumstances removed from the only being who could ever have loved me, or whom I can unmixedly feel attached to.

The affair remained not more than gossip until it was made public in an 1869 article by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in Macmillan’s Magazine.

It is highly likely that the natural father of one of Augusta’s children, Elizabeth Medora Leigh was Byron. He, in a veiled manner, admitted it in a letter to Lady Melbourne, the aunt of his future wife: “Oh! But is ‘worth while’- I can’t tell you why — and it is not an Ape and if it is-that must be my fault.” A folk belief, common at the time, was that a child born of incest would be ape-like.

While he was having the affair with his half-sister, Byron was, however, still corresponding with Annabella Milbanke and during 1814, the two courted by mail. By October, they had decided to marry and did so on January 2, 1815. Why Byron chose to marry Annabella is a matter of speculation. He may have hoped that marriage would squelch the rumors of incest, or perhaps he was after Annabella’s dowry to stabilize his always-shaky finances.

The marriage was a disastrous nightmare as Byron’s mood swings, in turn, elated and distressed his bride. He even told her the morning after their first night together, a night during which he had paced the hallway with loaded pistols, “It is too late now; it is done and cannot be undone.”

In March 1815, the newlyweds, after first living with her parents, moved to London and in April invited Augusta Leigh to visit them. Now Augusta Leigh found herself allied with her sister-in-law, trying to moderate Byron’s mood swings. By the time she left to return to her home, Annabella was pregnant. A child, Augusta Ada, was born to the couple on December 10, 1815, and while Byron was a proud father, he no longer loved his wife. She suspected that he was insane and on drugs and, at his half-sister’s advice, consulted two doctors.

Despite his country properties and substantial income, Byron’s high expenditures in London could not be met by his income alone and he suggested that his wife and baby return to live with her parents. On January 15, 1816, Annabella Byron and the one-month-old baby left; the three never saw each other again.

From her parents’ home, Annabella continued to write to Byron, whom Augusta had joined in London. She also informed her parents of Byron’s mood swings, uncouth behavior, and his infidelities with actresses from the Drury Lane Theater, with the result that her father proposed a peaceful separation. After some initial recalcitrance, on March 3, 1816 he agreed to the separation and shortly after, mailed her a poem he had written, which said in part:

Fare thee well, and if forever
Still fare thee well.

In the midst of the stressful negotiation for separation, Byron became involved with yet another woman. Seventeen years old, Claire Clairmont first started importuning Byron by letter, allegedly
Donjuanseeking his advice on some poems she had written. The first letter was followed by other admiring ones and finally by a personal visit.

Jane “Claire” Clairmont was the stepdaughter of William Goodwin, a radical political philosopher, and the stepsister of Mary W. Goodwin. Mary, then19 years old, had run away with a 23-year-old poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had abandoned his wife and two children for her. Mary, Claire, and Percy had then set up household together, and Claire unable, at least at that time, to seduce her stepsister’s lover, had set her sights on Byron. While not in love with her, Byron eventually succumbed to her, and they engaged in a relationship. Claire was soon pregnant.

Negotiations on the terms of separation from his wife were still going on when, threatened with a formal public disclosure of his incestuous relationship with his stepsister Augusta Leigh, Byron signed the legal separation document on April 21. On April 14, he had also said his goodbyes to Augusta and had decided to leave England to join the Shelley-Goodwin-Clairmont trio on the Continent. By then, Byron’s serious financial problems had worsened, and his library had been sold at auction. Furthermore, the former social lion had now become a pariah as rumors of his unorthodox sexual adventures circulated widely, leading to concerted snubbing and pointed avoidance.

Thus, on April 25, 1816, Byron, accompanied by his servants, sailed away from Dover, never to see England again. Despite his financial problems, Byron had had a new traveling coach built in London at the cost of 500 pounds. The coach was a replica of the one Napoleon had used and which the English had appropriated after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. It contained a bed, a library, and all the accouterments for gracious living. Byron’s servants traveled in a separate coach.

Doctor John Polidori also accompanied Byron. Tasked with looking after Byron’s health, he was 20 years old and a recent honor graduate of the Edinburgh Royal College of Physicians, its youngest medical graduate ever. He was also supposed to be a linguist, and because he claimed to possess some literary skills, had been engaged by John Murray, Byron’s publisher, to keep a diary of Byron’s travels in Europe, for whose contents he was to receive £500.

Polidori, however, proved more of a hindrance than help to Byron. He was frequently ill, pugnacious and intensely neurotic. He was arrested for fighting in Geneva and was dismissed by Byron. He followed the poet to Milan where he was re-arrested at La Scala during an altercation with a theater official (a story recounted by Stendhal). Byron sprung him loose, but Polidori was expelled from Austrian Italy and had to return to England.

Traveling by coach through the low-countries and Germany, Byron proceeded to Geneva, Switzerland, where he arrived on May 25, 1816. Shelley, Mary Goodwin, and Claire Clairmont were already there. Claire, already pregnant by Byron, kept importuning him and their sexual relationship resumed, but when Byron found out that he was to be a father again he was not pleased, although he promised to take care of the baby. The child born of this relationship, Allegra Byron, had a short and unhappy life, dying at the age of five years in a college in Bagnacavallo (Ravenna).

In Geneva, Byron and Polidori lived at Villa Diodati next to Campagne Mont Alegre, where Shelley, his wife Mary Goodwin Shelley (author the novel Frankenstein), and her step sister, Claire Clairmont were staying.

The summer of 1816 was quite cold and rainy and the two poets, Polidori, and the two women often got together at Villa Diodati. One June night, after they had read stories from Tales of the Dead, a 1813 anthology of horror stories, on Byron’s suggestion the group undertook a bet to write their own horror story. Shelley then wrote five short ghost stories; Byron started, but soon abandoned, a horror story about a character named Augustus Darvel, and Mary Shelley penned her immortal novel. Doctor Polidori, who had literary pretensions, took up the abandoned Byron story, later rewrote it and in 1819 it was published in a London magazine, without his permission, as The Vampyre. This was the first vampire story published in England.

In late August, the Shelley group returned to England and in October, Byron left Geneva for Italy. In Milan he met Stendahl, the author of The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, Italian poet Vincenzo Monti (whom he considered the most famous Italian poet living but who is now mainly remembered for his verse translation of Homer), and poet Silvio Pellico, whose tragedy Francesca da Rimini Byron intended to translate into English. In Milan, he also visited the Ambrosiana Library, and viewed some of Lucrezia Borgia’s love letters and memorabilia, and stole a strand of her hair from a golden lock preserved there.

By November 16, Byron was in Venice, enthralled by that magic city, as he was to write in Canto IV of Childe Harold:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison at each hand:
…Look’d to the winged lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!

The writing of poetry did not detract from thinking about the practical aspects of life. Within four days, he had found a place to stable his horses in the Lido of Venice Island, hired a gondola and gondolier to move about, rented an apartment, and found a new love.

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Luciano Mangiafico is a retired U.S. diplomat who served, among many postings abroad, as consul in Milan and Consul General in Palermo.