Grand Tour (Lord Byron)
The problems of travel in the early 1800's were recorded by John Hobhouse, Byron's travelling companion for the first year: 'After stumbling through several narrow lanes in a blinding storm, we came to the miserable hovel prepared for our reception. The room was half full of maize in stalk; the floor was of mud, and there was no outlet for the smoke but through the door.'
Byron inspected ancient ruins and learnt a great deal about romance and vermin. His chief correspondence was with his mother - he thought a deal better of her at a distance than in her company. He later remarked that he had seen everything remarkable in Turkey, Greece, Constantinople and Albania, though he did not know that he had done anything except swim the Hellespont in emulation of Leander. He added that he had acquired nothing from his travels except a smattering of two languages and a habit of chewing tobacco; but since he had written Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage and become fired with the wish that Greece be freed from Turkish rule, he was not entirely truthful.
Byron's mother died before he returned home. The news of her death reached him in London and he travelled to Newstead for the funeral. Augusta wrote him a letter of sympathy and they renewed their correspondence - he had not written to her for over two years.
After differences had been ironed out with his publisher, John Murray, who objected to some of the religious sentiments in Childe Harolde: 'they may deprive me of some customers among the Orthodox' - the poem was ready to go to press.
At that time a Bill had been introduced into the House of Lords to make frame-breaking a capital offence, and in March 1812 Byron made his maiden speech on behalf of the Luddites. The irony and indignation that he felt for the frame-breakers, 'loud and fluent enough, perhaps a little theatrical,' came stinging into life but his oratory was not enough. The cause was lost and the Bill became law. As Byron himself recognised: 'I was born for opposition.'
When Lord Byron arrived in Nottingham in 1798, wild crocuses carpeted the meadows but St. Mary's workhouse was 'dark, verminous, ill-ventilated' and appallingly overcrowded. In that same year a gentleman complained that 'he had lived 17 years in the town and during that time there had been 17 riots.' Byron himself wrote of 'that political Pandemonium, Nottingham.'
Well into producing textiles, the town was so short of space that much of the work was done at home by stockingers whose upper floor windows were made bigger for extra light.
Four bad harvests in a row, Napoleon's ban on British goods, and war with the United States sank stockingers' fortunes. Wages fell. To add to it, manufacturers brought in cut-ups to increase output and lower prices - the stocking was not knitted to shape, but knitted straight, cut out, and then seamed together. It threatened the living of stockingers and thousands near starvation applied for parish relief.
Ned Ludlam, a Leicester apprentice, smashed his stocking-frame in a temper and the Luddite movement began. At Arnold, Nottingham, on 11 March 1811, a group of Luddites broke 63 frames. The Riot Act was read. These were not besotted fanatics but a disciplined, secret organisation who only attacked hosiers who produced cut-ups, or who paid below agreed rates. Their letters and proclamations were signed 'Ned Ludd' or 'King Ludd'.
The Council offered 50 guineas reward and a free pardon for information on frame-breakers. It was never claimed.
A Bill was brought in to impose the death penalty instead of deportation for frame-breaking and Byron spoke out in their defence in the House of Lords: 'I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces in Turkey; but never under the most despotic of infidel governments did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return to the very heart of a Christian country.' The young poet could not sway his lordships and the Bill became law.
The authorities drafted thousands of troops into Nottinghamshire, set up camp in Sherwood Forest - the Luddites met up there at night - quartered redcoats in every village whilst a curfew was proclaimed in the town of Nottingham. They had little success.
Women paraded, sometimes in their thousands, carrying placards: 'We Ask for Bread' . . . 'Help Our Children' . . . 'Pity Our Distress.' Men solicited contributions door to door.
Improvement in conditions came only slowly - except for a brief lace-boom in 1823 that was much like a gold rush - Heathcoat's patent adapting the stocking frame to make lace expired and mechanics flocked into town to modify machines. Rich rewards flowed for a time. Some workmen arrived at factories on horseback with a pint of champagne for their breakfast instead of their usual mug of beer. But output soon exceeded demand and the champagne days ended.
Childe Harolde was published a few days after Lord Byron's maiden speech in the House of Lords and the poet Byron woke one morning to find himself famous - the universal talk of the town. His speech and his poem had not only raised his fame to an extraordinary height but crowds of eminent persons courted an introduction. Some volunteered their cards.
The poem had arrived at just the right moment. The public were tired of Sir Walter Scott's narrative poems and readers wanted heroes less remote. Lord Byron's Childe Harolde may not have enlarged the reader's experience but it was full of gusto; vision it did not have, but excitement and graphic descriptions of contemporary events it certainly did.
Byron took the rewards of fortune as lavishly as they were offered. He went, so he said, into training before dining and getting drunk with Richard Sheridan, the battered old wit, playwright and politician. Sheridan had been the proprietor of Drury Lane Theatre until it burned down and its loss had left him deep in debt. When Drury Lane Theatre re-opened in the October, Byron wrote the opening address and then enthusiastically involved himself in its management.
Though not enthused with his poetry, Byron did like Robert Southey who was soon to be made Poet Laureate and Byron noted with some alarm that he was beginning to find himself liking everybody.
As to Byron's love-life, he was undoubtedly a favourite with the ladies, love being a constant necessity of his life. He invented the classic phrase, 'it's impossible to live with women, or to live without them', and organised his lovemaking with unparalleled stupidity, blundering from one affair to another, usually with maximum loss to everyone else.
Lady Caroline Lamb (pictured right) was 27 years old, the wife of the surviving son of Lord Melbourne, and something of a privileged madcap. She could draw, paint, write poetry and prose, and like a true romantic, was passionately absorbed in Caroline Lamb. Among her many contrary nicknames were 'Fairy Queen' and 'Young Savage'. As soon as Lady Caroline saw Byron at a party, she abandoned herself to an infatuation from which she never recovered. She wrote in her diary that Byron was 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know.'
Love letters from Lady Caroline to Byron arrived in profusion and he returned them with ardour, one of them extolling that she was 'the cleverest, most agreeable, absurd, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being . . .'
She plagued him for the rest of the season, and if not invited to a party where he was present she would lurk outside the room disguised as a page. But when Byron tried to end the affair he found he was dealing with a woman who was at once determined and a bedlamite. A succession of outrageous scenes followed and she began to make Byron look ridiculous. Her indiscretion knew no bounds - at a ball she melodramatically slashed herself with a piece of glass.
Lord Melbourne eventually packed Lady Caroline, whom he called 'little mania', off to Ireland.
Byron often visited his half-sister Augusta, now Mrs. Leigh, at her marital home, and in the following January he took her to Newstead Abbey where they became snowed in and were unable to return to London for three weeks.
His attempt to be conventional turned into an even bigger disaster. After meeting Anne Isabella Millbanke, an heiress and a cousin by marriage to Lady Caroline, he noted that she was: 'Pretty in a modest way, the fairest skin imaginable, and a perfect figure for her height.'
'High-principled' . . . 'cold' . . . 'a strong sense of duty' were expressions that found their way into other accounts of Miss Millbanke. She was a mathematician and Byron called her his 'Princess of Parallelograms.' All marital arrangements were made through Lady Melbourne, who was Anne Isabella's aunt as well as Lady Caroline's mother-in-law. Lady Melbourne saw the match as a means of extricating Lord Byron from his predicament with Lady Caroline.
Byron proposed to, and after some deliberation, was accepted by Anne Isabella. He had written to her: 'As to love, that is done in a week - marriage goes on better with esteem and confidence than romance.'
Married in January 1815, the couple set up home at great expense near Hyde Park Corner. Though their daughter Ada was born in December of the same year, these two emphatic personalities could not be more ill-suited. If Anne Isabella thought she could control Byron and his temper she had misread his character. 'It is very odd,' Byron's valet confided, 'but I never knew a lady who could not manage my Lord - except my Lady.'
Disillusionment soon set in and Byron was not a man to better bad luck. He held huge parties known as his 'mob dinners' and spent most of his time at Drury Lane Theatre, finding it very good fun interviewing applicants for parts, arbitrating in a devil of a row between the ballerinas, and having an affair with a minor actress.
On the following 12 January, Anne Isabella wrote to Byron's solicitor about Byron's mental disorder - she suspected that his debts, drunkenness and remorse had driven him mad. Three days later, with rising debts and no longer able to afford to live in style, she left London never to see Byron again. Wrangling then began over a legal separation. Anne Isabella's cause for complaint was never explicit and Byron said that he was at a loss as to what he had done. Whispers began to spread that he had committed incest with his half-sister Augusta who had given birth to a daughter - supposedly by Byron.
And there was newspaper scandal. True to tradition, the British press, having acclaimed Byron, now attacked him with venom, shooting him down with each and every innuendo. Byron fell from a position of esteem into one of contempt, seen through the eyes of society as a monster. In his sins he was spectacular; in assault he could be deadly; but in his defence he was mainly silent.
He was a man who did not wait for scales to weigh what he said, and carelessly exposed to the world all his blemishes, his intrigues, his flashes of vulgarity and his confusions of passion. Society dropped him like a hot potato. They called him the 'prince of wickedness and poetry' and 'a sneering misanthropic, wretched author.'
In April 1816, sad and disillusioned, he signed a deed of separation and left England, never to return, never to see his wife and child again.
In Geneva, he met up with Percy and Mary Shelley, and Mary's step-sister Claire Claremont (pictured right), who had fallen in love with Byron back in England. Byron formed an intimate attachment with Claire which he tried to explain in a letter to Augusta: 'Now don't scold me; but what could I do? - a foolish girl, in spite of all I could say or do, would come after me.'
Claire later described her association with Byron as 'her troubling, morbid obsession.'
Byron always pretended not to care whether he wrote poetry or not, regarding it only as an escape from the circumstances of his life, but in reality it was the constant gratified desire of his life and he began working on the Third Canto of Childe Harolde.
At the end of August the Shelleys and Claire returned to England, Percy carrying 2,000 lines of Byron's verses including the Third Canto of Childe Harolde and The Prisoner of Chillon, and Claire carrying Byron's child. Their daughter, Allegra, was born in England in the following January and was passed off as the child of a friend.
Byron left for Venice and lodged over the shop of a linen-draper named Segati who gave his shop more attention than his wife Marianna. She was 21 years-old with dark eyes, glossy hair and endowed with all the good gifts of nature. 'She cared,' Byron said, 'for nothing but passion.' A succession of love-intrigues was a necessity of Byron's nature, and by arrangement, Marianna became Byron's mistress - a situation commonly accepted in Italian society. Neither hiding the affair nor flaunting it - it was always Byron's habit to tell everybody everything about himself, and in his letters he confessed and repented his sins with the easiest air in the world.
When Carnival began, he threw himself into it. Every night for six weeks there was a display of 'all the Virtue and Vice in Venice - balls, operas, ridottos, routs, parties and the Devil knows what,' yet for a man who was supposedly going to the devil he continued his poetry at a prolific rate, completing Manfred and Lament of Tasso.
Deeply in debt, Byron welcomed the news that Newstead Abbey had been sold to his old schoolmate Thomas Wildman for £94,500.
In April 1818, the Shelleys, with Claire and her daughter Allegra in tow, arrived in Milan. Byron was not keen on renewing his intimacy with Claire but was prepared to receive their daughter Allegra. In the hope that it would open a door for her back to Byron, Claire allowed her daughter to go to Byron in Venice, writing to him: '. . . you are the father of my little girl and I cannot forget you.'
At first, Allegra with her blue eyes and fair curls delighted Byron but she soon showed her father's devil of a spirit, so he sent her, along with her Swiss nurse, to stay with the Hoppners with whom he had become friendly - Richard Hoppner was the British Vice Consul in Venice and was married to a Swiss lady.
If Byron was spectacular, it was in his sins, taking his pleasures as they came, usually in droves of dark-eyed beauties eager for his attentions. He kept fit by regularly swimming in the Adriatic, or the Grand Canal, and easily won a contest against a soldier - an admirer of Napoleon - in swimming the length of the canal. He also indulged his love of animals by keeping two monkeys, a fox, and two mastiffs at his villa.
At the beginning of 1819, Byron met Teresa, Countess Guiccioli (pictured right). He told a friend: 'I have fallen in love with Romagnola Countess from Ravenna, who is nineteen years old and has a Count of fifty . . . What shall I do? I am in love and tired of promiscuous concubinage, and have now an opportunity of settling for life . . .'
The Countess later wrote: 'I felt attracted to him by an irresistible force . . . and the thousand enchantments that surrounded him.' Teresa had red-gold curls, a brilliantly fair skin, dazzling teeth, blue eyes and a full voluptuous figure. Her husband was a red-haired, bewhiskered, rich nobleman of fifty-eight years. It was a marriage of convenience. For a week, midst the pleasures of Venice, delirious passion swept Byron and Teresa along until Count Guiccioli took her off to Ravenna.
When Teresa had a miscarriage, she persuaded her husband to send for Byron, who found her very ill in bed and nursed her till she was well. When the Count went off on his business, Byron and Teresa retired to Byron's villa at La Mira, Venice, disregarding the hostile gossip.
Not knowing where he stood, the Count presented an ultimatum to his wife that she must leave Byron. 'The only practical thing to do is to acquiesce,' Byron persuaded Teresa and she returned to her husband at Ravenna.
The lovers were desolate. Byron wrote to her: 'My love - my duty - my honour . . . should make me forever what I am now, your lover friend and (when circumstances permit) your husband.'
Now sure of Byron's commitment, Teresa laid her case before the Pope who granted her a separation from Count Guiccioli on condition that she lived respectably under her father's roof. The permanent pledge of Byron and Teresa to each other lent some stability to his life and she helped him find some peace for his restless, warring spirit.
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