A Story of a Travelling ‘Refugee’ — a Fresh Look at Lord Byron
A deep-feeling aristocrat, a talented poet, an emotional eccentric and an avid traveller, Lord Byron have been misinterpreted and misrepresented on quite a few occasions, both during his life time and centuries after. Considering his personality and the way he expressed it, such misinterpretations are not a coincidence but a consequence. After all, personalities who stick out always attract unwelcome attention of less intriguing characters, harsh criticism of the contemporaries and wrong type of scrutiny of the generations to follow.
Despite the supposedly ‘debouched’ early life that included parties with fellow students, drinking, and whoring and sleeping with chambermaids, Lord Byron did not have any looser morals than any single, unattached man of his title and status in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Perhaps, he was just less secretive about it all than his contemporaries.
‘He had the sexual morality of his age and class although he always prided himself on paying handsomely for his pleasures. The servants he slept with at Newstead were richly rewarded, as no doubt were the chambermaids in Belgium and Germany. It would take a revolution in attitudes before those in a position comparable to his could be made to feel as uneasy as they ought to have felt about casual sex as an exploitation of social privilege and power.’
Chambermaids and servants aside, true love and sincere attachment was a rarity in the aristocratic circles of Byron’s time, especially in connection to women of his own class. For most of upper-class marriages were arranged ones, based on financial benefits and beneficial connections. This, of course, does not mean that aristocrats did not fall in love, but most of the affairs conducted with ladies from aristocratic families were based on desire rather than love and short-lived fancies rather than long-term relationships. This suited both men and women, as long as such affairs were conducted discretely, which was not always the case.
‘You say you will ruin me - I thank you. – But I have done that for myself already. – You say you will destroy me, perhaps you will only save me the trouble. – It is useless to reason with you – to repeat what you already know that I have in reality saved you from utter & impending destruction. – Everyone who knows you knows this also…’ – Lord Byron in his letter to Lady Caroline Lamb
Impressionable, affectionate and longing for being loved, Lord Byron tended to be very open when it came to his own feelings and was generous in his expression of friendship and affection when it came to others. But warm welcomes and partings, unreserved feelings and humane approach were found in abundance by Lord Byron during his travels in Southern Europe, not back home in England.
‘Seville is a beautiful town, though the streets are narrow they are clean, we lodge in the house of two Spanish unmarried ladies, who possess six houses in Seville. – They are women of character, and the eldest is a fine woman, the youngest is pretty but not so good a figure as Donna Josepha, the freedom of women in general here astonished me not a little, and in the course of further observation I find that reserve is not a characteristic of the Spanish belles, who are in general very handsome with large black eyes, and very fine forms. - The eldest honoured your unworthy son with very particular attention, embracing him with great tenderness at parting (I was there but 3 days) after cutting off a lock of his hair, & presenting him with one of her own about three feet in length, which I send, and beg you will retain till my return.’ – Lord Byron in his letter to his mother, Mrs. Catherine Gordon Byron, Spain, 1809
‘I am very happy here because I love oranges and talk bad Latin to the monks, who understand it, as it is like their own – and I goes to the society with my pocket -pistols, and I swims in the Tagus all across at once, and I rides on a mule, and swears Portuguese, and have got diarrhoea and bites from the mosquitoes. But what of it?’ Lord Byron in his letter to Francis Hodgson, Portugal, 1809
Extravagant and curious by nature, Lord Byron’s passion for travelling, however, stemmed from his being unhappy and wanting to expand horizons of his feelings and experiences elsewhere. For at home, he was bound to boredom, short-lived fancies, and Society intrigues. Having a rich inner world boiling with emotions, Lord Byron in his eagerness to be attached tended to go for the wrong women who caused him plenty a problem. One of them was his wife, Anabella Milbanke, or Pip as Lord Byron lovingly called her. An intelligent, religious, and somewhat reserved in her feelings, woman, Anabella did not quite know what she wanted and why she had married Lord Byron. Byron, on the other hand, in a search of an intelligent companion, a loyal friend and a loving partner, mistakenly thought he might have found one in Anabella.
‘I have always thought—first that she did not like me at all—& next— that her supposed after liking was imagination—this last I conceive that my presence would—perhaps has removed—if so—I shall soon discover it—but mean to take it with great philosophy—and to behave attentively & well—though I never could love but that which loves—& this I must say for myself that my attachment always increases in due proportion on the return it meets with…’ – Lord Byron in the letter to Lady Melbourne, November 1814
Having exchanged philosophical letters with lord Byron for around two years and having rejected his proposal once, Anabella Milbanke, had finally agreed to their marriage, which turned out to not last long. In two months after the birth of their daughter, she left Lord Byron.
‘Were you then never happy with me? – Did you never at any time or times express yourself so? Had I not – had we not – the days before & on the day when we parted – every reason to believe that we loved each other – that we were to meet again – were not your letters kind?’– Lord Byron to Annabella Milbanke, February 1816
The separation induced by his wife emotionally bruised Lord Byron. Disillusioned and heart-broken he left London on 22nd April 1816, setting for Geneva, Switzerland, a stop-over on his way to Italy. The trip that he had planned with his best friend, John Hobhouse, some months before the infamous marriage.
‘The deeds are signed, so that is over. All I have now to beg or desire on the subject is—that you will never mention or allude to Lady Byron’s name again in any shape—or on any occasion—except indispensable business. Of the child you will inform me & write about poor little Da—& see it whenever you can. I am all in the hurries—we set off tomorrow—but I will write from Dover.’ – Lord Byron to his sister, Augusta Leigh, April 1816
Lord Byron’s journey to Geneva lay through Belgium and Germany to avoid France for which he did not have the right documents. He travelled in a company of two servants, a Swiss guide, and a doctor, in an extravagant and lavish coach, the replica of the one that belonged to Napoleon and was captured at Waterloo. The coach was something of an equivalent of today’s stretch limos. It contained a day bed, dining facilities, and a small library. Although royal in appearance the coach proved to be unpractical as it broke several times on the way which delayed Lord Byron’s travelling schedule by couple of weeks.
Arriving in Geneva end of May 1816, Lord Byron booked into the Hotel D’Angleterre in Sécheron, at that time a Swiss countryside outside of the city walls. The Hotel was well-known among English travellers, thus the Byron’s choice. Soon after his arrival, Lord Byron found a villa for himself in Cologny, a hilly picturesque area overlooking the Jura mountains and situated on the opposite from the Sécheron side of the Lake Leman.
‘I have taken a very pretty villa in a vineyard – with the Alps behind - & Mt. Jura and the Lake before – it is called Diodati – from the name of the Proprietor – who is descendant of the critical & illustrissimi Diodati – and has an agreeable house which he lets at a reasonable rate per season or annum as suits the lessee…’ – Lord Byron in his letter to his best friend, John Hobhouse, June 1816
Though shying away from Society, English in particular, due to his painful experience in London related to his ex-wife, Lord Byron, nonetheless, had come to Geneva with some letters of introduction. Some were arranged for him by his best friend, John Hobhouse. One of the letters was to a young banker, Charles Hentsch, who loved literature and wrote poems. He assisted Lord Byron in certain matters in Geneva and was the one who would translate into French the Byron’s farewell verses to his wife.
…Yet, O, yet thyself deceived not: Love may sink by slow decay;But by sudden wrench, believe not Hearts can thus be torn away: Still thy own its life retaineth, -Still must mine, though bleeding, beat;And the undying thought which paineth Is—that we no more may meet.
The introduction letters gave Lord Byron access to the Genevan circle of notables. One of them was Marc-Auguste Pictet, a scientist, an experimental natural philosopher, and the man who at the Congress of Vienna had helped to negotiate Geneva’s adhesion to the Swiss confederation. A member of London’s Royal Society, Marc-Auguste was also a founding member of Geneva Society of Physics and Natural History and was associated with the scientific periodical, Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève. It was Marc-Auguste who introduced Lord Byron to the salon of the one of the Genevan leading hostesses, Madame Eynard-Chatelain. There, Lord Byron met many interesting people, including a Bernese liberal writer and the author of ‘Researches on the Nature and Laws of the Imagination’, Charles Victor de Bonstetten.
Not lacking on introductions and invitations to social events in Geneva, Lord Byron, however, preferred to spend his time at villa Diodati, swimming, sailing on the Lake Leman in his boat or taking short trips to places of interest along its shores.
‘At the present writing I am on my way on a water-tour round the Lake Leman – and am thus far proceeded in a pretty open boat which I bought and navigate – it is an English one & was brought lately from Bordeaux – I am on shore for the Night…’ – Lord Byron to his best friend, John Hobhouse, June 1816
The ‘Night’ time was devoted to writing. Usually, Lord Byron would not go to bed until five in the morning. The summer ‘Nights’ of 1816 proved for Lord Byron to be inspirational and creatively productive. During his stay in Geneva, he completed canto 3 of Childe Harold, wrote The Prisoner of Chillon, and composed several poems, including ‘Darkness’ and ‘The Dream’. The last was perhaps most reflective on his broken heart and ‘unequal spirits’ at the time.
‘As for me, I am in good health - & fair – though vey unequal spirits but for all that she [Lady Byron] - or rather the Separation - has broken my heart. I feel as if an Elephant had trodden on it. - I am convinced I shall never get over it but I try.’ – Lord Byron in his letter to his sister, August Leigh, September 1816
And he did. But mystical ‘mists and fogs’, floating over the villa Diodati in the summer of 1816, had brought to Lord Byron dreamy visions, a reminder of his past loves, enveloping him in density of his recollections:
…he was alone,And pale, and pacing to and fro: anonHe sate him down, and seized a pen, and tracedWords which I could not guess of; then he lean’d His bow’d head on his hands, and shook as ’twereWith a convulsion—then arose again,And with his teeth and quivering hands did tearWhat he had written, but he shed no tears.The Boy of whom I spake; he was alone… - The Dream, by Lord Byron, 1816
Lonely but not alone, Lord Byron during the summer of 1816 had the comforting company of newly acquired friends, Percy Shelly and Mary Godwin, the warmth and welcoming atmosphere of Madame de Stael and her literary-social salon in Coppet, and, finally, the joy of re-joining with his best friends, John Hobhouse and Davies Scorpe, who arrived in Geneva in September 1816.
Before leaving Geneva in October 1816, Lord Byron had sent with Davies Scorpe some souvenirs to Augusta Leigh, Lord Byron’s sister, and his daughter, Ada.
‘… Seals, necklaces, balls &c - & I know not what – formed of Chrystals – Agates – and other stones – all of & from Mont Blanc bought & brought by me on & from the spot expressively for you to divide among yourself and the children including also your niece Ada, for whom I selected a ball…[…] and moreover a Chrystal necklace and anything else you may like to add for her – The Love!’ – Lord Byron in his letter to his sister, Augusta Leigh, September 1816
Immediately after the Lord Byron’s departure, the proprietor of the villa and a great admirer of the poet, M. Diodati, came in, enquiring from the caretaker if he had preserved the numerous first drafts that Lord Byron scattered through the rooms of villa Diodati.
The reply he received was: ‘I should lie to you, Sir, if I didn’t tell you that at least two days were occupied in burning all those scraps of paper.’ (Life, 659)