Sunday, February 4, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VI: A Scandal in Geneva

In 1816, Percy Shelley was gaining renown amongst those who followed poetry closely, but he'd made little impression on the general public. But if Percy were the Frank Black of the Romantic movement, Lord Byron was the Kurt Cobain. He'd burst onto the scene four years prior with Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which had become a blockbuster success and marked the beginning of the second wave of Romantic poetry.

Byron had also developed a reputation as a sex fiend that made Shelley look like a monk. There were even rumors that he'd had sex with his sister, Augusta Leigh, and modern biographers are convinced he was bisexual and had relationships with numerous men as well. But unlike Percy, Byron didn't try to justify his behavior with political rhetoric. He just liked to screw.

And as a superstar poet, he had more than ample opportunity, and could pick and choose as he pleased. So when Claire Clairmont showed up on his doorstep, she was nothing special. However, she had something that other women didn't have -- she knew Percy Shelley. Byron was familiar with Percy's work and was eager to learn more about the author, which got Claire's foot in the door. But even then, Byron sensed there was something a little bit off about the situation. Like maybe she wasn't really interested in him but was rather trying to get revenge on her sister for hogging Percy. Byron's good sense told him he should avoid a tryst with Claire.

But this is Lord Byron we're talking about. Given the choice between listening to his good sense or his penis, there was no contest. Here was a girl in front of him practically demanding to have sex with him. Who was he to say no? As he put it later, "A man is a man – & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night – there is but one way."

He quickly realized his mistake. At this point he was already planning to leave the country -- partly for his health, partly to escape rumors about him and his sister -- so he gave Claire the, "So sorry, so sorry, but I gotta run" treatment and took off for the Continent.

Claire was having none of that, though. She learned that Byron's destination was Geneva, and she went to her sister and Percy and told them, "Hey, I happen to know Lord Byron is going to be this summer. Wanna go meet him?" Mary had given birth by this point, and her son, William (nicknamed Willmouse) was already four months old and looking healthy, so they agreed. In fact, by taking the direct route while Byron went sightseeing, they managed to arrive before him.

Now Byron was an early practitioner of safe sex -- in fact, the first thing he did upon arriving in Europe was to write a friend asking for him to send him some condoms. This would explain how it is that, despite his infamous promiscuity, he only has two illegitimate children attributed to him[1]. The first was with a maid, Lucy Monk, whom he knocked up when he was barely twenty-one and perhaps not yet wise to the idea of birth control. Though their stations in life made a marriage impractical if not impossible, Byron provided her with child support in the amount of £100 per annum (for comparison, Timothy Shelley provided Percy with £200 a year, and though Percy was constantly low on funds, that was due to his profligacy).

Byron's second bastard was with Claire.

It's not clear when Claire realized she was pregnant. She gave birth 12 January 1817, so the conception was probably early to mid-April 1816, though since first pregnancies often go long, it may've been as early as March, which is when her affair with Byron commenced. She left England with Mary and Percy on 3 May, which was probably too early for her to have realized anything was up, but she likely knew by the time Byron arrived in Geneva in late May, or soon thereafter.

When Byron found out, he was less than chuffed, especially since he suspected, not unreasonably, that he was being set up to take the fall for Percy (a suspicion that Godwin shared when he heard about the situation). Nonetheless, Byron did agree to take responsibility, though what that responsibility would consist of was a question for debate. Byron was already married, and though he and his wife were separated, under British law all divorces had to be approved by the House of Lords, which made them virtually impossible to obtain; and besides, Byron's wife had already borne him a daughter, the future Ada Lovelace, so a divorce would only shift the problem around. Byron felt that Claire was too flaky to face the challenges of single-motherhood on her own, so he insisted that she not raise the child herself. Byron wrote to his sister to see if she'd take in the child, but with the rumors already swirling around her, Augusta had to decline. In the end, Byron decided to raise the child -- a girl he'd named Allegra -- himself, though due to his constant travels she spent much of her life being passed around to friends. Eventually he put her in an Italian convent to be educated, over the objections of Percy and Claire, both of whom were horrified at the idea on consigning a child to Papists. As cold as that might sound, Byron did visit Allegra regularly, until she died from typhus at the age of five.

But those were issues for the future. In the meantime, the mood in Geneva was not the genteel garden party that Mary suggests in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.
While Mary and her companions undoubtedly managed to find some moments of pleasure that summer, it beggars belief that it could've been the cheery affair she describes. Even Percy, who normally would've been self-centered enough to find fun while everyone around him was miserable, was out of sorts. Dr. Polidori, who was traveling with Byron as his personal physician, described Percy as looking consumptive after first meeting him, and later described an incident in which Percy suffered what sounds like a bad acid trip.
Twelve o'clock, really began to talk ghostly. Lord Byron repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs. Shelley, and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.
Such incidents could only have added to the stress Mary must've been experiencing as a mother with an infant to take care of, to say nothing of dealing with Claire's mess of a life.

Of all those present at Lake Geneva, Claire must've been the most miserable. Ever since she'd run away from home two years previously, Percy had been filling her head with his theories of free love and sexual liberation. When he set her aside in favor of Mary, Claire had set out to prove that she could be as much of a rake as any man by seducing the greatest seducer of the age. And now here she was, pregnant and facing an unknowable future, reliant on a pair of men of questionable character. She had, in fact, stumbled upon the same hard truth that caused Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin to reconsider their ideas about sex and relationships twenty years before: Women cannot have sexual freedom if it doesn't come with legal, economic and social equality.

And most galling of all, this meant her mother had been right. Jane had been strict with Fanny, Mary and Claire precisely to prevent them from finding themselves in this situation.

In later years, Claire would become much more traditional in her worldview, to the point that she eventually converted to Catholicism, and in a memoir she wrote in her old age, she'd portray herself as an innocent girl beguiled by Percy and Byron:
Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery -- under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women who under the influence of free love ... loved him.
 Certainly what Percy did to her and Mary could be considered predatory -- the way he pressed his ideals upon them (and upon his wife Harriet as well) smacks of a sexual predator grooming a young victim (and they were young -- none older than sixteen when he turned his attention on them, though he himself was little older).

Her charge against Byron is more questionable. Her accusation is undoubtedly true for other women who fell under Byron's sway, but by all accounts Claire was the pursuer in their relationship -- quite literally; she followed him several hundred miles to Geneva, and she did so before she knew she was pregnant, so she had no justification for doing so beyond stalking him. Her mind may already have been poisoned by Percy, but Byron can't be faulted for that.

As for Byron, he had fled Britain to escape scandals, only to find a new one waiting in Geneva. He may've produced radiant verses during his stay, but his mood couldn't've been good. His relationship with Claire was tense, and any interest he had in Mary faded once he realized she wasn't going to sleep with him. That left him with Percy and Polidori to keep him company. The former was the one bright spot of his summer. As two poets of similar age and upbringing, they had much to talk about, and they spent much of their time together, including a lengthy trip to Vevey, Switzerland by themselves.

Byron's relationship with Polidori was much more fraught. Indeed, Polidori's relationships with most people were fraught. His diary for the trip is full of references to quarrels he had with various people along the way. For instance:
 Went to Rossi's—had tired his patience
Horses been a subject of quarrel twice, Berger having accused me of laming one.
And my favorite:
An apothecary sold some bad magnesia to Lord Byron. Found it bad by experiment of sulphuric acid colouring it red rose-colour. Servants spoke about it. Appointed Castan to see experiment; came; impudent; refused to go out; collared him, sent him out, broke spectacles. Laid himself on a wall for three hours; refused to see experiments. Saw Lord Byron, told him his tale before two physicians. Brought me to trial before five judges; had an advocate to plead. I pleaded for myself; laughed at the advocate. Lost his cause on the plea of calumny; made me pay 12 florins for the broken spectacles and costs.
But most pertinent is an entry from 4 June:
Came home. Went on the lake with Shelley and Lord Byron, who quarrelled with me.
After Percy and Byron returned from their trip to Vevey, Polidori's diary breaks off for two months, only resuming after the Shelley menage decamped for Britain:
September 5. —Not written my Journal till now through neglect and dissipation. Had a long explanation with Shelley and Lord Byron about my conduct to Lord Byron; threatened to shoot Shelley one day on the water. Horses been a subject of quarrel twice, Berger having accused me of laming one.
It's not clear whether the September entry is referring back to the quarrel in June, or if they quarreled again during the gap. Either way, relations between Byron, Percy and Polidori were clearly problematic, and Byron let him go soon after the Shelley party left Geneva.

For her part, Mary downplays Polidori in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, his presence and the problems he caused clearly not fitting in with the happy narrative she was pushing (she likewise erases Claire), but Polidori's journal shows that he spent a significant amount of time with Mary, at least up until July when his diary breaks off. For instance, during the nine days when Byron and Percy were away, he records meeting with Mary eight times, often for dinner, but once spending the entire day with her. He also records helping her study Italian by reading the poems of Tasso together, and taking Willmouse for immunization.

While Mary and the others were suffering through these dramas, the people of Geneva -- including a number of Brits there on holiday, were taking note. Byron was, after all, a literary star with a scandalous reputation, and Percy, though less famous, was still of note by himself. And here they both were, running around with a couple of teenage girls -- sisters no less, and one of them dragging around a baby, no one knows whose. Rumors quickly spread that Byron's villa was Orgy Central, and Genevese merchants started renting out spyglasses so curiosity seekers could catch a glimpse of the wild sex that everyone knew was taking place in there. These stories soon filtered back to Britain, where they became the scandal of the decade, and would lead to tragedy for both the Godwins and Shelleys.

And yet, despite all that, if Mary and her companions hadn't had such a miserable time in Geneva -- if their stay had been the cozy vacation that Mary describes in her preface -- genre history would be very different.

NEXT TIME: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

[1] There were scurrilous rumors that his sister's daughter, Elizabeth Leigh, was Byron's, but this is purely speculation; his sister, Augusta, was married at the time, so there's no way of proving who the father was without exhuming bodies.

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