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On This Day in 1816: 10th December and the tragic death of Harriet Shelley

We welcome Francesca Blanch Serrat to the BARS blog for the second time; Francesca is a pre-doctoral student and has written the following post on Harriet Shelley. She recently graduated in English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her areas of research include minor women writers of the eighteenth century and British and French Romanticism. She is on Twitter.

We are always looking for new contributors. If you’d like to write something on literary/historical events in 1817, please contact anna.mercer@york.ac.uk. We also welcome proposals from those who wish to write about 1817 more generally, and not about a specific date. We hope you are enjoying this series!

The Life and Death of Harriet Westbrook Shelley

On this day, December 10th, two hundred years ago, the body of Harriet Shelley, née Westbrook, was recovered from the Serpentine in Hyde Park. It was a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital, John Levesley (Shepherd, 2013) who saw the corpse floating in the lake and alerted the authorities. After the inquest, it was discovered that the remains belonged to a Harriet Smith (she had taken lodgings under that surname), who had disappeared a month before. She was pregnant when she took her life. The following is an account of the circumstances that led Harriet, the first wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, to her suicide.

The Serpentine, Hyde Park section of "Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger"

The Serpentine, Hyde Park section of “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger”

After a few weeks in Edinburgh, the newlyweds spent their first three years as husband and wife travelling: initially they moved to York, and then to Keswick, where Shelley began writing to William Godwin. After a while the Shelleys travelled to Ireland – Percy had noble revolutionary intentions that were not so well received by the Irish (Gilmour, 2002) – and on their return they established themselves in Wales before moving shortly to North Devon and back. In 1812, they went to London, where they finally met Godwin and his family, with the exception of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), who was in Scotland.

After that, Percy and Harriet moved to Wales, and then returned to London, where Harriet gave birth to a girl, Ianthe. By 1814, Harriet, Ianthe and Eliza (Harriet’s sister) were finally established in Windsor while Percy wandered, visiting London and meeting with friends, including Godwin and, finally, Mary. Even though Percy and Harriet married again under English law around this period, his visits became less frequent, until he eventually stopped seeing his – now once more pregnant – wife.

Harriet's husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

Harriet’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

During these months of estrangement, Percy began a relationship with Mary Godwin, who was to become his wife and companion. Their relationship flourished in the following months, despite Godwin’s disapproval and Harriet’s desperation. Finally, Percy eloped with Mary and her stepsister Jane (later Claire Clairmont) to the continent. It attests to his lack of maturity and irresponsible idealism that Percy wrote to Harriet from Switzerland, inviting her to join him and his lover in Europe, and to bring money with her (Hay 2011:32). At this request, she was beside herself. Even if Harriet was not economically strained (she received £200 from her father, and £100 from Shelley), she must have been emotionally traumatised as an abandoned pregnant mother.

Harriet returned to her father’s house with Ianthe and Eliza, and gave birth her second child, Charles. The Westbrooks took care of the situation as best as they could: they sent Ianthe and Charles to the countryside, which one might think could have added to their mother’s torment. Eventually, Harriet left her father’s house and took lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. It is possible that this decision was motivated by her pregnancy, but we cannot know whether she was trying to conceal it from her family, or if it had been her family’s idea, to shield her from further gossip.

On December 12, 1816, this notice appeared in The London Times:

   “On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine river and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad.”

Harriet's suicide letter. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

Harriet’s suicide letter. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Later, Harriet’s last letter, addressed to her sister, was found. It read as follows:

“To you my dear Sister I leave all my things as they more properly belong to you than any one & you will preserve them for Ianthe . Hog bless you both My dearest & much belod Sister

Sat. Eve.

When you read this letr. I shall be [no] more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. […] God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe [Percy, her husband]. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate   Harriet S–––” [i]

Harriet’s death, subject to a great deal of speculation ever since, is, if anything, an example of the situation in which married women found themselves in eighteenth-century England, tied to the decisions and whims of their husbands, for better or for worse. Percy’s irresponsibility lead Harriet to a situation of social vulnerability he seemed not to fully understand.

 

Bibliography

Harriet Shelley’s Suicide Letter. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Gilmour, Ian. The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time. London: Pimlico, 2002.

Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron an Other Tangled Lives. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Shepherd, Lynn. “‘This fatal catastrophe’: The sad life and strange death of Harriet Shelley”  [consulted 22/11/16].

On this day in 1816: 17 November, Marriage, Scandal and the Death of a Lover

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Brianna Robertson-Kirkland (University of Glasgow).

Brianna completed her PhD in 2016 (funded by the College of Arts Internship Scholarship). Her research examines the 18th century castrato singer Venanzio Rauzzini and the education and career of his operatic students. She regularly performs in solo recitals and has taken part in masterclasses with Emma Kirkby, Robert Toft and Nicholas Clapton. She was part of a recording project for The Centre for Robert Burns Studies, which was also filmed as part of the BBC documentary Burns, My Dad and Me, that aired in 2016.

As always, if you’d like to contribute to this series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816/1817, please contact Anna Mercer.

On this day in 1816: 17 November, Marriage, Scandal and the Death of a Lover

Figure 1: John Braham as "Lord Aimworth", steel line engraving by Thomson/Foster, 1818, Wikicommons

Figure 1: John Braham as “Lord Aimworth”, steel line engraving by Thomson/Foster, 1818, Wikicommons

On 17 November 1816, the eminent British tenor John Braham (1774-1856) was married to the young and wealthy Frances Elizabeth Bolton of Ardwick (1799-1846). Though Braham was 25 years her senior (he was aged 42, while Miss Bolton was 17) the marriage appeared to be a happy one, producing six children (two daughters and four sons), all of whom survived into adulthood. However, Braham’s motivation to marry a young and virginal bride was perhaps not entirely altruistic. In fact, his choice was of particular significance, since the marriage was perhaps an attempt to wash away a summer of scandal that threatened both his reputation and his future musical career. At least this was strongly speculated by Joseph Norton Ireland in 1863:

Mr. Braham married in early middle life, and the rectitude of his latter years served to redeem his reputation from the gallantries and follies that marred the days of his youth (p. 343).

The ‘gallantries and follies’ to which Norton was referring, was perhaps not just the summer of 1816, but the fact that Braham had been in a long-term, unmarried relationship with the Anglo-Italian prima donna Nancy Storace (1765-1817).

Figure 2: Bettelini, Pietro (1763-1829) Portrait of Nancy Storace (1765-1817), English soprano. Printed in April 12, 1788 by Moltens Colnaghi & Co No. 32 Pall Mall, and in Paris by chez Tessari Zanna et Ce. Quay de Augustins No 42.

Figure 2: Bettelini, Pietro (1763-1829) Portrait of Nancy Storace (1765-1817), English soprano. Printed in April 12, 1788 by Moltens Colnaghi & Co No. 32 Pall Mall, and in Paris by chez Tessari Zanna et Ce. Quay de Augustins No 42.

The pair had been introduced by their shared vocal teacher, the Italian castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (1746-1810). Storace was first trained by Rauzzini in England, before developing an illustrious career on the continent, most notably singing the role of Susanna in the premier of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro. In 1784, she was married to the English violinist John Abraham Fisher (1744-1806), though it was publically known that he was violent and abusive to Storace, resulting in Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor (1741-1790) forcing him to quit his continental tour and leave Storace behind. Though Storace returned to England in 1787, she never saw Fisher again, but they were still legally married until his death.

Braham was trained by Rauzzini from 1794-1796, where he developed his initial skills in an Italianate style of singing, something for which he would gain much celebrity throughout his career. Rauzzini frequently obtained professional engagements for his students but also showcased their talents through his popular Bath Concert Series. Storace came to perform in this series during the 1796-97 season alongside Braham. In the same year Braham as offered the leading role in Mahmoud, which was written and composed by Storace’s brother Stephen. This would begin a long professional and personal relationship between two of Rauzzini’s most successful students (Robertson-Kirkland, 2016).

Figure 3: Rauzzini Memorial, Bath Abbey, Photograph by Paul Turner, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 17 May 2015. https://www.flickr.com/photos/11602696@N00/5277396962/

Figure 3: Rauzzini Memorial, Bath Abbey, Photograph by Paul Turner, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 17 May 2015.

However, Braham was at the beginning of his career and though he had been offered the leading role in the Drury Lane theatre, known as the home of English opera, his performance was not well received. It was not until he was offered a role at The King’s Theatre, aka the home of Italian opera, that he received favourable reviews:

As a singer [Braham] has infinite merit as his powers are much better calculated for the Italian opera than the English stage (1796, p. 2).

The following year, contemporary periodicals reported contradictory information about Storace and Braham’s intentions to travel to the continent. True Briton stated that Storace was ‘going to Italy to improve herself in singing’ with Braham accompanying her to ‘practice duets’ (1791, p. 1). The Oracle and Public Advertiser, on the other hand, stated that Braham went ‘to Italy for improvement’ and Storace accompanied him ‘for the purpose of managing his points’ (1791). Other reports did not attempt to spin a professional guise but crudely stated their relationship outright:

Braham has promised Storace to give her an animated description of Moses erecting his serpent in the wilderness (1797, p. 3).

The continental tour proved a success for both Braham and Storace, but there can be no doubt that it was through Storace’s former contacts that they were able to obtain illustrious engagements, improving Braham’s visability as a tenor of note. This exposure allowed his career to flourish, particularly upon their return to Britain, where Braham’s singing was in high demand.

Yet Storace’s career diminished somewhat, with reports frequently teasing that her lack of stage appearances was due to pregnancy. These reports were a continuous reminder that the pair were more than friendly, professional colleagues (1798, p. 4). For the most part, the reports were true; by 1802, Storace gave birth to Braham’s son, William Spencer Harris Braham.

Though Storace may still have been married to Fisher and William born out of wedlock, Braham and Storace were received in good company and it was generally accepted that they were unofficially man and wife. Even so, after Fisher’s death in 1806, one might expect that the pair would have made their relationship official, if for no other reason than to appease Georgian society. But this was not to be. Storace and Braham continued to live unwed until his betrayal in the summer of 1816.

On 23 July, The Times reported that Braham was being sued for damages by Mr Wright in the amount of 5000l. It transpired that Braham had run off with Mr Wright’s wife earlier in year resulting in a very public affair to the detriment of Braham, the Wrights’ and Storace’s reputation. While Storace and Braham’s relationship may have been initially accepted in polite company, the public immediately turned on them both, placing particular blame on Storace for leading Mrs Wright astray (1816, p. 3). Braham was forced to pay Mr Wright 1000l in damages and his career was threatened after he was hissed off the stage by the audience at Drury Lane theatre (1991, p. 302).

His hasty marriage to Miss Bolton just a few months after his public affair with Mrs Wright and break-up with Storace established that he was settling down to a socially acceptable life and for the most part, the public forgave his prior descretions. Unfortunately, Storace was not as lucky, as she suffered two strokes the following year, the second resulting in her death. Was Braham’s betrayal responsible or was this merely a coincidence? Though reports suggested the former, Braham’s singing career returned to its former glory and he became one of the most internationally sought after vocalists of the day (1817, p. 3). The marriage served its purpose, so in many ways 17 November 1816 was Braham’s rebirth as an honourable man.

 

 

Works Cited

Morning Post and Fashionable World, July 10, (London: William Griffin, 1797).

Observer, October 28, (London: W S Bourne, 1798).

Oracle and Public Advertiser, July 8, (London: P Stuart and James Boaden, 1797).

Sun, October 31, (London: B McMillan, 1796).

The Times, July 24, (London: James Lawson, 1816).

The Hull Packet and Original Weekly Commercial, Literary and General Advertiser September 30, (Hull: Robert Peck, 1817).

True Briton (1793), July 5, (London: A Wilson, 1797).

Ireland, Joseph Norton, Records of the New York stage, from 1750 to 1860, 2 volumes, (New York: T H Morell, 1863), vol. 2.

Ed. Highfill, Philip H; Burnim, Kalman A; Langhans, Edward A, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800: S. Siddons to Thrnne, (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), Vol. 14.        

Robertson-Kirkland, Brianna Elyse, Are we all castrati? Venanzio Rauzzini: ‘The father of a new style in English singing’. PhD thesis, (University of Glasgow, 2016).

On This Day: 9 October 1816, John Keats and Leigh Hunt

This post continues the ‘On This Day’ series: Francesca Blanch Serrat writes for us on John Keats and Leigh Hunt. Francesca is a pre-doctoral student. She recently graduated in English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her areas of research include minor women writers of the eighteenth century and British and French Romanticism. She is on Twitter.

We are always looking for new contributors. If you’d like to write something on literary/historical events in 1817, please contact anna.mercer@york.ac.uk. Thank you to all those who have sent in posts so far – please have a look through the back catalogue of posts for blogs celebrating the bicentenaries of events from 1815-16.

 

On This Day: John Keats meets Leigh Hunt

 

1816 was a decisive year in John Keats‘s life. In March, after bringing his apprenticeship to a close, he began working as a surgical dresser at Guy’s Hospital in London, planning to complete the twelve months of training required for Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons. In July, he successfully sat for his examinations and became an apothecary. By December, however, he had decided to abandon his career as a surgeon to focus on his poetic endeavours. Although Keats had already demonstrated an affinity for poetry, (he had written “Imitation of Spencer”, his earliest extant poem, two years before), he had not chosen between his medical career and his literary one up until that moment. The reasons behind that timing might be attributed to a very exciting and stimulating episode in the poet’s life, one that can be argued to have marked a turning point not only in his life but also in the history of literature: Keats began an acquaintance with Leigh Hunt, and was hence introduced into a politically involved and artistically devoted circle of artists and thinkers.

On this day two hundred years ago, Keats wrote to C.C. Clarke:

To C.C. Clarke, 9 October 1816

Wednesday October 9th-

“The busy time has now gone by, and I can now devote any time you may mention to the pleasure of seeing Mr Hunt-‘t will be an Era in my existence– I am anxious to see the Author of the Sonnet to the Sun, for it is no mean gratification to become acquainted with Men who in their admiration of Poetry do not jumble together Shakespeare and Darwin- I have coppied out a sheet or two of Verses which I composed some time ago, and find much to blame worst in them that the best part will go into the fire […]”

It was Keats’s good friend and former schoolmate, Charles Cowden Clarke, to whom this letter is addressed, who introduced him to Leigh Hunt. The Clarkes had been supporters of Hunt since the foundation of his newspaper The Examiner, and he and C.C.Clarke met during Hunt’s stay in gaol, in 1813. C. C. Clarke was the son of the schoolmaster of Clarke’s Academy, Enfield, which Keats attended. From an early age, Keats and Clarke, separated by only eight years, became close friends, and the latter always encouraged the former’s literary endeavours. Clarke was a culturally involved scholar who cultivated friendships with some of the most well-known names of the period: Charles and Mary Lamb, Shelley, Hunt, Coleridge, the Novellos, Godwin and Dickens, among others. Thus, he acted as the link between the young student with poetical aspirations and the literary circle that revolved around Hunt, known as the Cockney School, a derogatory and classist term coined by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in a series of articles criticising the non-aristocratic members of the coterie.

by Unknown artist, watercolour on marble, circa 1841-1854

Charles Cowden Clarke

Keats had been an admirer of Hunt since his senior year at school, when he regularly borrowed The Examiner from Clarke. The Examiner was a politically independent weekly newspaper, running from 1808 to 1886, edited by Leigh Hunt and printed by his brother John. The publication included theatre and literary reviews, original poetry, reports on parliamentary proceedings, columns on manners, fashion and even international politics. It was in this newspaper that Hunt established himself as a radical political voice. The Examiner published some of the leading radical voices of the time, such as the poets Charles Lamb, Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, the painter Benjamin Haydon, or the essayist William Hazlitt. In Hunt’s political dissent, Keats found an ideology from which he could draw poetic inspiration. In the words of C.C.Clarke, Hunt’s paper “no doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty” (Recollections of Keats, 123). Although in scholarship Keats’s politics tend to be relegated to a second plane, compared to other writers of the Hunt circle, politics played a significant part in his literary productions and should not be overlooked. Evidence of these political interests are present in his early poems: “On Peace” (a sonnet calling on the European monarchs to support reform after Napoleon’s defeat, 1814) and “Lines written on 29 May The Anniversary of the Restoration of Charles the 2nd” (1814). Both works were very much in line with the style and ideology professed by Hunt. In his biography of the young poet, Robert Gittings argues that, previous to their acquaintance, Hunt was an inspiration to Keats, a model for him to follow: “In search for reassurance, he turned to his intellectual touchstone, The Examiner, and its poet-editor. Here was poetic success which had endured persecution and prison without compromise. Leigh Hunt had done what Keats felt himself failing to do, and kept poetry alive in a workaday world” (Gittings 105:1979). The young poet found in Hunt “not only [a] political exemplar, but [a] model for his poetry” (Gittings 116:1979).

Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt

Previous to their meeting, however, Hunt and Keats’s relationship began in April 1816, when Keats sent a poem to The Examiner under the initials J.K. and was published two weeks later. Later that year, Clarke gathered some of Keats’s writing and brought it with him to Hampstead, with the intention of showing it to Hunt. Hunt read the manuscripts and reacted with great enthusiasm, asking Clarke to bring Keats along on his next visit. In Clarke’s own words, their first meeting “stretched into three morning calls”, and Keats was “suddenly made a familiar of the household”. Thus began a close relationship that biographers have recorded in the form of domestic anecdotes that shed light on both authors’ personalities. In Young Romantics, Daisy Hay portrays the Romantics writers as active members of a series of artistic circles, from which they drew both encouragement and insight. Hay emphasises Hunt’s role as the central figure of his circle of artists and friends. He was not only constantly encouraging and supporting young writers, and introducing them to his other artistic connections, but also turned his home into the nucleus of the circle. Hunt’s household, already crammed, would always have a seat to spare for another artist, and Keats is said to have spent evenings that turned into mornings discussing poetry in Hunt’s living room. Hay references a particular evening of literature and music in which Hunt sang and Keats played an unnamed instrument: “leaning against the instrument, one foot raised on his knee and the smoothed back between his hands” (113). Another evening, Hunt made Keats a flower crown and put it on his head, and the young poet did the same for him. Later, when some visitors called on Hunt, he hastily removed the crown, but Keats proudly refused to be decrowned. These reminiscences attest to the level of intimacy established between the two writers, a relationship that would continue flourishing up until the very last and critical moments of Keats’s illness, when the Hunts hosted and took care of a very sick Keats previous to his departure to Rome, where he was to draw his last breath.

John Keats

John Keats

In December 1816, Leigh Hunt published his essay Young Poets, in praise of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. What we now consider the second generation of Romantic Poets, their genius and their essential contribution to Romanticism, had already been recognised by one who knew, encouraged and published each one of them. What Keats described as “an Era in my existence” was prophetic. His relationship with Hunt and the Cockney school contributed to his growth as a poet, and, consequently, may be considered a turning point in his literary production.

 

Works cited:

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985.

Keats, John. Selected Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

 

On This Day in 1816: 18 July, apocalypse, and Byron’s ‘Darkness’

July’s ‘On This Day’ post is by Patrick Vincent, Professor of English and American literature at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. With Angela Esterhammer and Diane Piccitto, he recently published Rousseau, Romanticism, Switzerland: New Prospects (Palgrave 2015). This year he helped organize the “Byron is Back! ” exhibition at Chillon Castle as part of the bicentenary commemoration of the summer of 1816.

In the post below he considers the way in which the idea of apocalypse shaped the writing of those present during the 1816 Geneva summer, and the extant sources (including the weather reports) that tell us about early July 1816.

We are looking for future contributors to this series, which seeks to celebrate the 200th anniversaries of important literary/historical events of the Romantic Period. Please contact anna.mercer@york.ac.uk if you are interested.

 

On this Day: 18 July 1816

by Patrick Vincent

 

When the last sunshine of the expiring day

In summer’s twilight weeps itself away,

Who hath not felt the softness of the hour

Sink on the heart—as dew along the flower?

– Byron, “Monody on the Death of the Righ Honourable R.B. Sheridan”

 

On 18 July 1816, the world was expected to come to an end. As Jeffrey Vail and others have noted, an astronomer in Bologna had predicted that the sun would die out on that day, an event often associated with Byron’s composition of the deeply pessimistic “Darkness.” Although we are unsure when the poet composed his apocalyptic dream vision, we do know that he wrote another poem thematizing the sun’s disappearance, the “Monody on the Death of the Righ Honourable R.B. Sheridan” sometime between 7 July 1816, when Richard Sheridan died, and 22 July, when Byron sent the poem to Douglas Kinnaird. Possibly inspired by a Lake Geneva sunset, this lesser known work rehearses many of the same themes as the summer’s other literary productions, most notably its strange atmospheric conditions. The poem’s controlling symbol, the sun is represented as “a Power” that “Hath pass’d from day to darkness”, yet whose “Promethean heat” will forever continue “to cast its halo” in spite of the “public gaze”, which makes “Hearts electric—charged with light from heaven / Black with the rude collision”.

In 1826, the painter William Edward West reported an anecdote in which Byron apparently attributed the composition of “Darkness” to a “celebrated dark day, on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight.” I have come across no other evidence that such a day occured on or around 18 July, or ever at all, yet the story has contributed to 1816’s gothic reputation. Byron’s prodigious literary productivity during his time in Switzerland, in particular in July when he composed the “Monody,” “Prometheus,” “Stanzas to Augusta” and perhaps also “Darkness” in addition to finishing and correcting Childe Harold III and The Prisoner of Chillon, strikes me as more significant than the Genevan summer’s overly rehashed gothic incidents. It is as if the poet refused to allow the weather, European politics, or even his exile extinguish his own Promethan heat. And while the “Monody” suggests the sun’s extinction may indeed have been a topic of conversation at Diodati, the opening lines’ calm, elegiac tone better captures villa’s daily routine and largely unremarkable incidents than do the many dark and doomsdayish accounts of 1816.

Primary sources for the month of July 1816 are scarcer than for the rest of the summer: Polidori had stopped keeping his diary on 2 July, Mary only began hers on the first day of their Chamonix excursion on the 21st, and Byron was either too depressed, or more likely, too busy writing and sailing to keep a regular correspondence. Through Lady Frances Shelley’s diary and several other contemporary accounts, we know that the poet’s nemesis, Henry Brougham, had arrived in town along with 1100 other English visitors, some of whom enjoyed playing cricket at Plainpalais, others spreading gossip on Diodati’s scandalous household. We also know that Byron and Polidori went to Coppet for the first time on 12 July, where the second Duchess of Devonshire pretended to faint and the poet discussed Glenarvon with Madame de Staël. In Geneva’s register of foreigners, we can read that the two men received their permis de séjour the next day. Claire’s two undated notes in July reveal that things between her and Byron had soured—her attemtps at finding a pretext to see him, notably by fair copying his poems, are sure signs of his rejection. Finally, in a lesser known anecdote recorded by a town magistrate and discovered by Claire Eliane Engel, we learn that thieves tried to break into Diodati on 17 July, inciting the Cologny mayor to make an inquiry.

 

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Marc-Auguste Pictet, Tableau des observations météorologiques faites au Jardin Botanique de Genève, July 1816, in Bibliothèque universelle, Sciences et Arts, volume 2 (Genève: Bibliothèque britannique, 1816).

 

Another important source, the daily meteorological recordings published in the Bibliothèque universelle indicate the weather that month was not as dramatic as often portrayed: a recent meteorological study based on this data argues that it was the summer’s climate that was extreme, not its weather. The sky was indeed overcast, the temperature lower than the seasonal norms, and it rained an unusual amount, causing flooding around all Switzerland’s lakes, yet the summer also had its good days. On July 17th, for instance, it was 10 degrees and raining, on the 18th it warmed to 16 degrees at 2pm but was still overcast, and the next day the temperature climbed to 20 degrees, allowing Lady Shelley to complain in her diary of the excessive heat. Apocalyptic fears nevertheless did make some headway among Geneva’s well-educated and usually staid populace. In his less than reliable memoirs published in 1883, for example, Jean-François Vernes-Prescott recalls that “sermons were attended assiduously” (“les prédications sont très suivis”). Furthermore, a brief article on the first page of the local Gazette de Lausanne on 19 July (the same day that Sheridan’s death and Brougham’s arrival in Geneva were reported) cites Parisian astronomer Charles Rouy’s popular demonstrations at the Muséeum uranographique in order to help dispell these superstitions:

 

 Les taches actuellement visibles sur le soleil, le froid, et les pluyes extraordinaires dans cette saison étant devenus l’objet de toutes les conversations et d’une crainte presque générale de la prochaine extinction de ce flambeau de notre système planétaire, et par conséquent de la fin du monde, M. Rouy a cru devoir contribuer à dissiper les craintes chimériques que la malveillance et la superstition se plaisent à propager. C’est dans ce but qu’il ajouté aux démonstations qu’il fait chaque soir dans son muséum uranographique le représentation des sudites taches sur le disque du soleil, en y ajoutant l’explication de ce phénomène (p. 1)

 

[Translation: The spots currently visible on the sun, the cold, and the rain that is out of the ordinary at this season have become the topic of all conversations and an almost universal source of fear that the planetary system’s flame will soon die out, hence ending the world. As such, M. Rouy has thought it necessary to help dissipate these chimerical fears propagated by malevolence and superstition. With that goal in mind he added a representation of these sun spots to his evening demonstrations at his Muséum uranographique, together with an explanation of this phenomenon.]

 

As he noted in his 20 July letter to Kinnaird, Byron intended his “Monody” to be delivered with “Energy” at Drury Lane. One may argue that poem likewise shares Rouy’s skepticism regarding the possibility of the sun’s extinction, and might be read as a hopeful counterpoint to “Darkness,” dissipating the forces of superstition and fear that belittle man’s genius.

 

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La Gazette de Lausanne et Journal Suisse, Friday 19 July 1816

 

Far more worrisome than these imaginary apocalyptic warnings was the all-too-real suffering, already much discussed in this blog, brought upon by the end of the wartime economy, the rain and the cold, but also poor government planning, as historian Daniel Krämer has recently shown. These elements are arguably more important to the genesis of “Darkness” than the Bologna prophecy itself. The Gazette de Lausanne regularly reported the hardships but always in its backpages, stating on 16 July for example that snow fell in the Bernese Alps and that cattle had to be killed because of lack of feed. The Bibliothèque universelle in July commented that all the harvests were late, and potatoes rotting. Unlike in other regions of Switzerland, the Genevan government was able to avoid a famine thanks to its emergency storehouse of grain and government intervention in the sale and pricing of flour. As Lady Shelley commented, “Scarcity, owing to the destruction of crops, has been felt here also, and white bread is forbidden, under an amende of eight louis d’or.” Thanks to a letter that emerged at an auction in 1975, we know that Byron and Shelley were also aware of the situation. Writing to his friend Peacock on 17 July to describe his tour around Lake Geneva with Byron, Shelley adds at the end of the letter as a sort of afterthought: “Affairs here are rather in a desperate condition. The magistrates of Geneva have prohibited the making of white bread.—all ranks of people are in the greatest distress.—I earnestly hope that England at least will escape.” The passage was curiously cut from the published version of the letter in History of a Six Weeks Tour, however, as if these problems were not important enough to impinge on their memories of the Swiss summer. On 17 September, to his credit, Byron donated three hundred francs to the pastor of Cologny in order to help the poor. He then took off on his tour of the Alps, the weather having at last turned warm and sunny.

 

Works Cited

Auchmann, S. Brönnimann, L. Breda, M. Bühler, R. Spadin, and A. Stickler, “Extreme Climate, Not Extreme Weather: the Summer of 1816 in Geneva, Switzerland,” Climate of the Past, 8 (24 February 2012), pp. 325-335, http://www.clim-past.net/8/325/2012/

 

Lord Byron, Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie Marchand, 13 volumes (London: John Murray, 1973-1984), vol. 5.

 

Lord Byron, Monody on the Death of the Righ Honourable R.B. Sheridan, London: John Murray, 1816.

 

Claire Clairmont, The Clairmont Correspondence: Letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, ed. Marion Kingston Stocking, 2 volumes (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995), vol. 1.

 

Claire-Eliane Engel, Byron et Shelley en Suisse et en Savoie, mai-octobre 1816 (Chambéry: Dardel, 1930).

 

Daniel Krämer, Menschen grasten nun mit dem Vieh: Die letzte grosse Hungerkrise der Schweiz (Basel: Schwabe, 2015).

 

Gazette de Lausanne: http://www.letempsarchives.ch/

 

Marc-Auguste Pictet, “Tableau des observations météorologiques,” Bibliothèque universelle, Sciences et Arts, volume 2 (Genève: Bibliothèque britannique, 1816).

 

Registre des permis de séjour. Archives de l’Etat de Genéve. Cote D. Etrangers, n. 3

 

Lady Frances Shelley, The Diary of Lady Shelley, ed. Richard Edgecumbe, London: John Murray, vol. 1.

 

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Unpublished letter to Thomas Love Peacock, 17 July 1816.” In Donald Reiman and Doucet Devin Fischer, eds. Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1986), vol. 7, pp. 28-34.

 

Jean-François Vernes-Prescott, Causeries d’un octagénaire genevois (Geneva: Jules Carey 1883).

 

Jeffrey Vail, “ ‘The Bright Sun was Extinguis’d’: The Bologna Prophecy and Byron’s Darkness,” Wordsworth Circle 28 (1997), pp. 183-192.

 

William Edward West, “Byron’s Last portrait,” The New Monthly Magazine, vol 16 (1826), pp. 246-247.

 

 

 

On This Day in 1816: John Polidori finds a book

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Fabio Camilletti on Fantasmagoriana, celebrating exactly 200 years since the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori held their now infamous ghost story competition during a rainy summer by Lake Geneva. As always, if you have a post to contribute to this series, please email Anna Mercer.

Fabio Camilletti is Associate Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick. In 2015 he completed a new edition of Fantasmagoriana, and since then he is working on a project on anthologies of the supernatural in Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe.

 

On This Day in 1816:  John Polidori finds a book

 

Fantasmagoriana frontispiece

 

On the 12th of June 1816, John Polidori ‘rode to town’, and ‘subscribed to a circulating library’; five days later, on June the 17th, he records in his journal that ‘the ghost-stories are begun by all but me’. Who knows when they started reading: on the evening of the 12th, Polidori slept in a hotel, and so he did on the 13th, when he ‘walked home in thunder and lightning’, lost his way, and the police drove him back to the inn; it may have been on the 14th (‘Shelley and I had a conversation about principles, – whether man was to be thought merely an instrument’: a nice appendix to a ghost story-telling night), or on the following days – the Shelleys, at any rate, were always around. The question, however, is in the end irrelevant – the ‘night at Villa Diodati’, as we imagine it, may well not have taken place at all. But the book was there, this is for sure: and, most plausibly, it came from the ‘circulating library in town’, to which Polidori had subscribed on the 12th. In the previous days, he had been reading Tasso and Lucian: from that day on, ghosts, fate, and the principles of life became an increasing concern for the company, until the moment when – as per the entry of 18, at ‘Twelve o’clock’– they ‘really began to talk ghostly’.

 

Fantasmagoriana had been published in Paris by the Alsatian bookseller Frédéric Schoell (or, more correctly, Friedrich Schöll), a philologist and historian who had entered the editorial business during the Revolution – first in Basel, and later in the French capital – and would later attend the Congress of Vienna as a member of the king of Prussia’s entourage. Schoell’s bookshop was located in the Rue des Fossés-Montmartre (nowadays a part of the Rue d’Aboukir, in the second arrondissment), namely a few metres away from the medieval ruins of the convent and church of the Capucines, which had been ravaged during the Terror and would later be dismantled in the course of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. In 1798, part of the convent had been hired by the Belgian manager Étienne-Gaspard Robert, better known under the name of Robertson, who had exploited the properties of that quintessentially gothic setting for his show: a mixture of lights, images, and sounds which he sold under the name of Fantasmagorie. In the heart of old Paris, not far away from Place de la Révolution where the king and Robespierre had been guillotined, the book and the show echoed, therefore, each other, both promising an experience of terror behind which, in a sense, sounded as the afterimage of another, and more historical, Terror.

 

Robertson's phantasmagoria

Robertson’s phantasmagoria

 

Phantasmagoria was not Robertson’s invention. In the 1770s, an ex-Hussar and freemason named Georg Schröpfer had held necromancy séances in his coffee-house in Leipzig, and his ability in summoning ghosts via a hidden magic lantern had awarded him the nickname of Genspenstermacher (‘Ghost-maker’): Schröpfer’s experiments played with the ambiguity between ‘real’ supernatural and artifice, and so did the shows performed in Paris, since 1792, by an otherwise unknown Philipstahl or Philidor, being the first ones to be advertised under the name fantasmagorie, and which exploited the audiences’ interest in occult subject by selling themselves as a way of debunking credulity towards superstition. The same ambiguity was preserved – and indeed brought to the extreme – by Robertson’s shows, a veritable multi-sensorial experience that aimed at catching the beholders’ imagination completely: audiences were welcomed in the dark vaults of the convent of the Capucines, where meticulous care was paid to generating a ‘Gothic’ atmosphere; among skulls and spectral sounds, lamplights and smoke, Robertson held a speech in which he mixed necromancy and occult sciences, electricity and Galvanism; then full dark ensued, while the lantern began projecting its horrors, including skeletons, ghosts, the ancient gods, but also the shadow of Voltaire or the guillotined head of Danton. Ancient superstition mixed with contemporary history: at some point, the show was forcibly closed by the police when rumour was spread that Robertson could bring King Louis XVI back to life.

 

Naming the book Fantasmagoriana meant, therefore, to assimilate the experience of reading to Robertson’s popular phantasmagoria shows, and to offer the reader a comparable hullabaloo of horrors within the three hundred and more pages that each of the two tomes was made of. On the one hand, the equation between literature and magic lantern performances invited readers to approach texts through the visual paradigm constructed by phantasmagoria shows. Let us see a passage from Friedrich August Schulze’s ‘L’Heure fatale’ (original ‘Die Verwandtschaft mit der Geisterwelt’), describing the apparition of a girl’s uncanny Doppelgänger:

 

Je m’approchai de l’armoire. Mais juge de ma frayeur mortelle, lorsque me préparant à l’ouvrir, les deux battans se déploient sans faire le moindre bruit; la lumière que je tenois à la main s’éteint; et comme si je me trouvois devant un miroir, mon image fidelle sort de l’armoire: l’éclat qu’elle répand éclaire une grande partie de l’appartement. Alors j’entends ces paroles: ‘Pourquoi trembler en voyant ton être propre s’avancer vers toi, pour te donner la connoissance de ta mort prochaine, et pour te révéler la destinée de ta maison?’

 

[I went towards the closet. But just imagine my mortal fear when, as I was about to open it, the two doors opened wide without a single sound; the lantern I was holding in my hand switched off, and, as if I was standing in front of a mirror, my faithful image came out of the closet; the shining she emanated enlightened a great part of the room. And then I heard these words: ‘Why are you trembling in beholding your very being, who is approaching you in order to bring you the knowledge of your coming death, and to reveal you the fate of your lineage?’]

 

The whole scene can be visualised and interpreted by making reference to phantasmagoria devices and visual codes: the alternation of dark and light, the closed doors opening, the image coming towards (and not walking, an effect that the magic lantern would not allow); and, finally, the words not being uttered by the apparition, but rather heard by the narrator (exactly in the same way as Robertson’s public did hear speeches coming from the backstage).

 

British illustration for L'Heure fatale

British illustration for L’Heure fatale

 

On the other hand, the association between visual and textual phantasmagorias also worked the other way round: indeed, the term itself fantasmagorie, plausibly devised by Philipstahl/Philidor, already possessed a strong link with textuality. Literally a coinage after the Greek terms phantasma (‘ghost’, but also ‘image’) and agoreuein (‘to speak’), fantasmagorie can be equally understood as a ‘dialogue with ghosts’ or a ‘summoning of ghosts’, but also (more audaciously, perhaps), as a ‘ghostly talk’. ‘Twelve o’clock, really began to talk ghostly’, would write Polidori in his journal, thereby cryptically making reference to the very title of the book that had given rise to it all.

 

Like Robertson’s phantasmagoria shows, Fantasmagoriana played with the ambiguity between supernatural and mental ghosts, illusion and reality, theatricality and disenchantment. The subtitle, in particular, was a little masterpiece of ambiguity, by announcing a ‘recueil d’histoires d’apparitions, de spectres, de revenans, fantômes, etc.’ (‘collection of stories of apparitions, spectres, revenants, ghosts, etc.’); indeed nowhere – with the exception of a winking epigraph from Horace, in which the book was said to ‘fill the heart with deceitful terrors’ (falsis terroribus implet) – did the paratext signal that it was actually a literary book. The editor declared himself to be just ‘un Amateur’, and the text to have been translated from the German – which, in France as much as in England, was a label indicating whatever could be uncannily foreign, and overall a synonym for Gothic. No indication was given about the authors of single tales, nor about their original sources.

 

The ‘Amateur’ was Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès, a geographer from Marseille who, at that time, was already forty-five years old. He spoke nine languages, and had an excellent knowledge of Germany and its culture (in 1804 Napoleon and Talleyrand had sent him to mobilise the French émigrés in that country); Fantasmagoriana was a sort of divertissement from his real activity, that is to say geography and travel writing, but surely it was a well-planned book, aimed at presenting a fashionable and up-to-date literary genre to the French public. Five tales out of ten had been published just one year before, within the first two volumes of the anthology Gespensterbuch (literally, ‘Book of Ghosts’) printed in Leipzig by the publisher Göschen; one of them, ‘La Chambre noire’ [(or. ‘Die schwarze Kammer. Anekdote’), had been conceived as a sequel to Heinrich Clauren’s ‘La Chambre grise’ (or. ‘Die graue Stube (Eine buchstäblisch wahre Geschichte’), which had appeared in 1810 in the Berliner newspaper Der Freimüthige, and was equally included in Eyriès’s anthology. The editors of Gespensterbuch, and the authors of the majority of tales selected by Eyriès, were two writers coming from Saxony, Johann August Apel and Friedrich August Schulze, the latter under the pseudonym of F. Laun. Fantasmagoriana also included a tale by Apel, originally appeared in the 1810 volume Cicaden, and by a long piece extrapolated from Johann Karl August Musäus’s Volksmärchen der Deutschen, an anthology of German fairytales published between 1782 and 1786. A varied, albeit consistent corpus (all authors came from Eastern Germany, besides the cradle of German Romantcism) crossed thus the Rhine, also crossing, immediately afterwards, the Channel: if the Diodati company would read the French text, as early as in 1813 the thirty-two year old Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson, the wife of the antiquarian and collector Edward Vernon Utterson, translated a huge part of Eyriès’s anthology, entitling it Tales of the Dead and publishing it with the Londoner bookseller White, Cochrane and Co.

 

 

Sarah Utterson too decided to remain anonymous: her translation, she would write in her brief ‘Advertisement’, had been ‘the amusement of an idle hour’. Utterson suppressed three tales, adding one on her own – entitled ‘The Storm’, and presented as ‘founded on an incident similar in its features, which was some years since communicated to me […] as having actually occurred in this country’; she significantly abridged Musäus’s ‘L’Amour muet’ (or. ‘Stumme Liebe’), translating it as ‘The Spectre-Barber’, and added to each tale epigraphs taken from the British literary tradition, especially from Shakespeare. The targeted use of quotations had become a customary practice in Gothic fiction since M.G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and indeed all Utterson’s choices seem to aim at captivating the British reader by connecting with that national tradition: although, she writes, ‘the multitude of contemptible imitations’ of Ann Radcliffe’s novels has ultimately nauseated readers, whose ‘want […] at length checked the inundation’ of this flood of books, perhaps stories such as these ‘may still afford gratification in the perusal’. By so doing, Utterson’s anthology marks the entrance of Fantasmagoriana into the more mature literary market of Georgian England, but at the same time it corresponds to the domestication of the French anthology into the more normative categories developed by that market in terms of genre: indeed, Tales of the Dead is a fully Gothic book, as the title makes explicit in avoiding every reference to phantasmagoria, and hence to the sphere of artifice and deception. While Utterson’s cuts transform ‘L’Amour muet’ into a veritable ghost story, by isolating within a much more complex tale the only supernatural element, she also suppresses precisely those stories – Schulze’s ‘Le revenant’ (or. ‘Der Geist der Gestorbenen’), ‘La Chambre grise’, and ‘La Chambre noire’ – in which the supernatural was explained with natural causes, thereby eroding the constitutive ambiguity between reality and deception that had formed the backbone of Eyriès’s anthology.

 

In France, Fantasmagoriana had instead been produced and received in a very different context, as testified by the publication, within the space of ten years, of at least three works that try to ride the crest of its popularity by echoing its title: J.P.R. Cuisin’s Spectriana, published anonymously in 1817; Gabrielle de Paban’s Démoniana, of 1820; and Charles Nodier’s Infernaliana, appeared in 1822. Tellingly, all these works explicitly refuse to be labelled as fictional books, and are rather collections of stories relating supernatural or uncanny events, mostly looted from such eighteenth-century repertories as the treatises on occult phenomena by Augustin Calmet or Nicolas Lenglet du Fresnoy, but also from Gothic or fantastic fiction (from M.G. Lewis to Jan Potocki). In particular, publishing his book, Cuisin is concerned about specifying how his work differs from the

 

foule de rapsodies connues sous le nom de manuel des sorciers, fantasmagoriana, etc., qui ne méritent pas plus de créance que d’estime. On nous pardonnera sans doute d’avoir pris un titre aussi futile que celui de spectriana; c’est un tribut que nous avons payé à la manie de l’époque où nous vivions.

 

[crowd of rhapsodies known under the names of The Wizard Handbook, Fantasmagoriana, etc., which do not deserve more credit than they deserve appreciation. It shall doubtlessly be pardoned to us if we have chosen such a frivolous title as Spectriana: it is the tribute we paid to the mania of the age we are living in]

 

This consideration is very interesting, as the ‘mania’ of the age Cuisin is referring to is not exactly what one might expect. Indeed, unlike Utterson, Cuisin is not complaining about the flood of Gothic and supernatural fiction, but rather about the vogue of scientific entertainment that had been proliferating in revolutionary France, and which had resulted in the massive publication of amateur works aimed at disseminating scientific and pseudoscientific knowledge to the broader public. Most of these works discussed issues that were very popular at the time – including electricity, ventriloquism, automata, animal magnetism/mesmerism, and occultism – and proposed entertaining ways to make experiments with science. Such is the case of the Manuel des sorciers Cuisin mentions, which is in fact a compilation of mathematical and arithmetic curiosities, enriched with a great number of magic tricks and parlour games involving numbers; in the subtitle, the anonymous author specifies how the book belongs to the genre inaugurated by Henri Decremps’s claimed La Magie blanche dévoilée (1783 and 1784), namely one of the most famous eighteenth-century handbooks of stage magic. In other words, Fantasmagoriana may be assimilated, on the one hand, to the many works dealing with supernatural beliefs that proliferate in post-revolutionary. On the other, it may be equated with books, such as Le Manuel des sorciers, dedicated to conjuring and illusionism, and to mixing popular science with entertainment.

 

From this angle, rather than a repertoire of images and themes nourishing – to a more or less extent – the literary outcomes of Diodati, it is interesting to read Fantasmagoriana as a veritable imagination-triggering engine, which, by moving on the edge between reason and credulity, illusion and reality, science and the supernatural, invites to explore a little bit further the limits of possibility, and turn a story-telling parlour game in a rainy summer into new patterns of invention.

‘On This Day’, Fictionalising 1816: A Treacherous Likeness

Lynn Shepherd is the author of A Treacherous Likeness, a fictionalisation of the lives of the Shelleys. The novel was one of Kirkus Reviews’ 100 Best Fiction Books for 2013, and a BBC History magazine historical novel for that year.

Today for the ‘On This Day’ series we include an extract from Lynn Shepherd’s novel to mark 200 years since the 3rd May 1816, the day when Percy Bysshe Shelley left for the continent with Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and Claire Clairmont. This journey was the start of their second expedition to Europe, and would lead to the infamous summer spent by Lake Geneva with Lord Byron.

The story of A Treacherous Likeness includes an account of the summer of 1816, in the form of a ‘long lost’ journal written by Claire. The following is an edited extract of that section of the novel, which has been reproduced by kind permission of Penguin Random House and Constable & Robinson.

 

Fictionalising 1816: A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

treacherouslikeness copy

I do not remember, now, what first led us to talk of ghosts. No one could have known what would eventually come of it, and in any case it was entirely natural that our thoughts should tend in such a morbid direction, with the unquiet shadows cast by the guttering candles, and the wind howling about the walls like a banshee. I do recollect Byron coming down one night with a book of old German horror stories, and taking great delight in declaiming them to us in a loud and lurid voice. Shelley was in a state of the most excited animation, talking – babbling even – of how he had tried to raise ghosts when a boy and had once sat up all night in a charnel-house, reciting from a book of spells and hoping to see a ghastly spectre rise from the heaps of dry old bones. It sounded childish, spoken in that shrill, high-pitched tone that always came upon him in agitation, and I could see the sardonic sneer once again on the doctor’s face.

Byron then cast down his book with a theatrical gesture, declaring the thing to be contemptible trash and that surely our combined intellects could concoct a horror story worth the name. Better still, cried Shelley, let us each devise our own tale, and contend with one another to harrow up our souls and set our eyeballs starting from their spheres! His own eyes were hardly less frenzied at that moment and I could see Mary’s look of apprehension – she was concerned, always, to avoid any circumstance that might provoke a renewed attack, but Shelley was not to be gainsaid. He sought his notebook out at once, saying he had an idea for a story based on his own early life. Again I saw Mary’s look, again I saw the shadow of disquiet cross her face, but she said not a word. Polidori announced that he already had an idea for a story concerning a woman with a skull instead of a face. Shelley squealed with laughter at this, but then his face darkened with thought, or memory, and he cast himself into a chair by the fire, declaring that the most profound horror was to be found not in the artificial apparatus of the macabre, but in the terrible depths of even the truest-intentioned human heart. I can recall moments, he continued, his voice dropping to a whisper, when I have looked upon my own being with unutterable abhorrence, and started from my own company as if it were that of a fiend, seeking anything rather than a continued communion with self.

Mary went to him then, and spoke to him softly, putting her hand to his forehead and looking into his eyes. I could see she was telling him that the idea was ill-advised, that no good could come of it, but she could not dissuade him. Byron, meanwhile, had stretched himself full length on the chaise-longue and was dictating at great speed to Polidori, who was endeavouring to capture it all in his leather-bound notebook. As for me, I had tried my hand at writing once before, and Shelley had been kind enough to encourage me and tell me I had a talent worth nurturing, and I saw no reason therefore why I should not make an attempt at a ghost tale of my own. Mary did her best to discourage me, but I had long since shaken off the conviction so studiously borne in upon me as a child – and not least by her ‒ that it was fruitless, in our family, even to put pen to paper unless one could produce a work of such originality as would cast all other books into the shade. I could not refrain from an inward smile when I saw that she, indeed, seemed not a little fretful at having no immediate idea of her own to hand, but a question or two she subsequently asked Polidori about the discussion we had had of galvanism and electricity led me to believe that she was considering this as the basis of her tale. Though her tone appeared careless when she thanked him for his reply, I saw her go at once upstairs, to where she had stowed her writing-desk.

Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran

Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran

But to return to my story. We slept at the Diodati that night, as so often that fortnight, and when Byron made his appearance at luncheon the following day Shelley was already far advanced in his tale, his hair disordered and flecks of ink spattered on his hands. Mary sought to induce him to join us at table, but he shook her arm roughly away, and for the rest of the afternoon he sat there, his desk placed to face down towards the water, writing with one hand and with the other conveying currants and pieces of stale bread to his mouth from the pocket of his long grey coat. As the hours wore on the weather worsened, and we felt in the air the sulphurous onset of thunder. With the descent of darkness the wind swelled to a roar, and the flashes of lightning leaping from peak to peak lit up streaks of clouds racing across the angry sky, and the bowl of the lake seething like an alchemical crucible. As hour after hour passed it was clear that this vast collision of the elements was stimulating Shelley’s nerves to an almost painful pitch, while Byron, by contrast, was evidently aroused in quite another manner. So much so, indeed, that he and I adjourned discreetly to his room after dinner, leaving the others variously preoccupied about their books.

When I descended again the clock in the hall was striking half after eleven, and the storm was at its very height. And then as the hour of twelve struck, the drawing-room doors were thrown open with a splintering crack and a figure stood in the blue-white glare of a bolt of lightning, both arms outstretched, and draped in a black cloak and hood that reached down over his face. It was as if a monster from a Gothic novel had come that moment to life, or returned, a vampire glistering with the clammy dew of hell, from among the mouldering dead. I saw Shelley start aghast from his chair, even as a smile of ironic amusement slid across Polidori’s face. He knew, as I did, that this was exactly the sort of cruel jest Byron delighted most to play – had he not taunted me, only a few nights before, with dark insinuations that he was the father of his own sister’s child? My own nerves might withstand this latest prank, but I feared for Shelley, in his high-wrought state, after so many days caged up in such constraint. And for a moment – the briefest moment ‒ I wondered if Mary too had not believed it, for in the dazzle of the lightning I had glimpsed her face, and seen there not just horror but something that I should almost have called ecstasy.

But all this passed in an instant, for then Byron threw back his hood and laughed. And now, he said, with a sweep of his black-swathed arm, we will, at the midnight hour, read aloud what we have written. Mary began at once to protest, saying she had nothing to share, but Shelley, by contrast, appeared of all of us the most eager to begin. He went to close the shutters himself as the servants made up the fire and extinguished the lamps. As the room darkened we took our seats again about the fire, and the flames threw grotesque dancing shadows across the walls, transforming each of us in our turn from mortal to monster. Polidori, attentive but detached, ever the observer; Mary, folding her hands on her lap in seeming demureness, her real feelings betrayed only by the dead whiteness about her lips; and Shelley, passing strange, his eyelids drawn back as if in pain, and his breath coming fast and shallow.

Byron took his place in the centre of the circle, planted his feet apart and raised his arm, pointing slowly to each of us, one by one. And then he began, in sonorous tones, to recite. Not a piece of his own, but Christabel. Coleridge’s Christabel. And much as I have always hated it, I could not but agree that it was a fine choice for such a night, that gruesome tale of a serpent-witch taking the shape of a lost and innocent girl. We sat there, silent and motionless, as Byron’s voice mingled with the lashing of the rain against the glass and the boom of the thunder, close and far, and the room became by degrees ever more icy. The fire had risen to a blaze but seemed powerless to dispel the chill, which felt, at that moment, and in that strange and heightened atmosphere, the very ice of death. On and on he intoned, and as he approached the moment when the enchantress begins to disrobe, I could see Shelley becoming painfully restless, his hand at his side and his chest heaving with the effort for calm.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropped to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side

Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue –

At that moment one of the shutters crashed open against the wall and Shelley staggered to his feet with a shriek of such anguish one might have thought his living heart was being torn from his breast. No – no! he cried, and ran sobbing and stumbling from the room. Mary rose at once, but Polidori prevented her and, consigning her to Byron’s care, seized the nearest candle and followed Shelley’s steps. Mary was by this time crying bitterly in his lordship’s arms and, not wishing to play the role of spectator where I was accustomed to that of principal, I made my way out into the hall. I thought only at first of getting a little air and dispelling the poisonous atmosphere of the saloon, but I heard at once the low sound of voices and perceived that Shelley had taken refuge in the breakfast room. There was a little closet next that chamber, and as the lightning flooded again through the windows and the thunder clove the air above me as if to sunder the very mountains, I pushed open the door and slid into the dark space.

Villa Diodati by Edward Finden after William Purser (Credit to "Shelley's Ghost" Exhibition, Bodleian Libraries)

Villa Diodati by Edward Finden after William Purser (Credit to “Shelley’s Ghost” Exhibition, Bodleian Libraries)

I do not think, to this day, that they knew I was there. Neither ever said so, and both, now, are long dead ‒ one by water, the other by his own hand. And certain it is that they gave no sign then. Silent still, I inched the connecting door open and saw Shelley lying on a couch on the far side of the room, his face and shirt soaking wet. It was clear at once that Polidori had thrown water in his face to quiet him, and I could see now that he was holding a cloth to Shelley’s face and adjuring him to breathe deeply. I watched then as Shelley appeared to slide slowly into a curious intermediate state; his body lulled to something like repose, but his tongue excited to a flood of bizarre and nonsensical chatter in which half-memories merged with true fears, and long-told lies struggled towards the light. He owned the truth, for the first time in my hearing, of Harriet and all that dire affair, but the next instant he was jabbering incoherently of a demon with his own face, and a nameless persecutor who refused to come to blows, which matched with nothing I knew – then or since ‒ of his history. And then my blood ran frozen as he described in heaving gasps how, as Byron was speaking, he had looked towards Mary and seen standing in her place the monstrous figure of a woman with her breasts uncovered, and eyes staring at him where her nipples should have been. He stammered that this horrifying vision had taken hold of his mind, and when Byron spoke then of the witch, and her deformed arm and bosom, the picture had come to his mind of a young girl he had known many years before, whose face still haunted his waking days, and would not let him rest. This, he whispered then, his eyes widening, was the story he was writing – this was the tale that would awaken those who read it to terror, and a sick fear of what lurked unseen in their own souls.

I heard the door to the drawing room open then, and Byron calling my name, and I slipped away.

I was not the only one of us to sleep badly that night, and when I ventured downstairs in the grey light of daybreak, I found Mary alone. She started when she saw me, like a guilty thing surprised. She has said, since, that it was this very morning that she announced to the assembled company that she had thought of a story. It is a lie: no such declaration was ever made, then or on any other day that summer. She was not at her desk writing that morning, when I discovered her, but on her hands and knees before the dying fire, feeding page after page into the flames – pages covered not with her own handwriting but with Shelley’s. She answered, when pressed, and with some irritation, that the story he had begun was making him ill – that she had found him sleep-walking again. Her duty, she said, with much emphasis on the word, was to prevent further such mischief, and thus it was that she had taken it upon herself to destroy what he had written. And what, I said, will he find to occupy him now, seeing as you have taken it upon yourself to burn his tale? That, Mary replied, was no concern of mine. Then she stirred the ashen ghosts of Shelley’s story with the poker, watched the flames lift for a moment, and turned on her heel and departed.

On This Day in 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part II)

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with the second part of a post on Italian Romanticism from Fabio Camilletti, who is Associate Professor at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Warwick. The first part of this blog post can be viewed here.

To contribute a blog to this series about the bicentenary of a significant event in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer.

 

29 February 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer, part II

 

Cold and Warm

The Fall of Napoleon

The Fall of Napoleon

In the imaginary space of the Classicist/Romantic quarrel, climate metaphorizes, since the beginning, Italy’s cultural specificity, resisting the tide of Northern literary fashions. Pietro Giordani, in answering Staël in the second issue of Biblioteca italiana, polemicizes against the ‘monkeys’ folly’ of those who would like to import foreign imaginaries in countries where nature ‘bids otherwise’. Romanticism, writes Carlo Giuseppe Londonio in 1817, is the literature of ‘those who are buried in snow and ice for the two thirds of the year, and to which the sun never shows itself with the fullest splendour of its beauty’, and who are therefore ‘naturally brought to see from a melancholy viewpoint all that surrounds them’: ‘their mind takes pleasure in the gloomiest ideas’, whereas ‘the lively, warm, bright-minded Italian sings nature as beautiful and smiling as he sees it around him’. Giovanni Gherardini notes in 1820 how the tempers of Northern people are ‘callous and unable to receive the soft impressions of the beautiful to which the Greeks and the Italians are so sensitive’: so rough sensibilities need ‘strong shocks’, ‘Gargantuan images’, ‘horrid objects’, ‘eccentricities’, ‘quickly changing sensations’, and ‘things outside natural laws’. In 1818, the jurist Pier Luigi Mabìl held a picturesque allocution at the university of Padua, rhetorically asking whether the ‘audacious innovators’ of Romanticism would not ask Italians to ‘abandon the pleasant and flowery Parnassus for the Hercynian forest, for the snowy and steep yokes of Scotland and Ireland’, and ‘if they, ‘accustomed to the gentle metres and to the sweet fashions of the poet from Teos [i.e. Anacreon]’, would perchance ‘give an easy and indulgent ear to the rough songs of the bards, of the skalds, of the Iroquois’, or ‘clutter theatrical stages with gallows, hangmen, skulls, sorcerers, and ghosts’. Italy, writes an anonymous editor of the anti-Romantic journal L’Attaccabrighe in March 1819, does not need the ‘barbarian’ and ‘obscure’ poetry of the Northern Romantics, because the weather – and, consequently, the aesthetic sensibility – are different. Adjectives denoting meteorological phenomena soon take on aesthetic and moral nuances:

a sky perennially bright, such as the Greek or Italian one; a most pure and tempered air, always imbued by the sweet-scenting smells of a thousand different flowers, of cedar and orange trees; such a sky will pour out of the mind of its poets joyful and pleasant ideas, full of imagination, in the same way as the soil generates through it a variety of flowers and fruits. He who secludes himself in the melancholy regions of the North, where mind and heart are both oppressed by the perennial shadows, and by the mist, and by ice, will not be surprised if the poems born in those country are gloomy, ferocious, and sad, and if the similes employed by the poets of those unfortunate climates look all the same.

The same geo-cultural opposition animates Leopardi’s Discourse on Romantic Poetry, whose apocalyptic closure explicitly equates territory and aesthetic disposition, individuating in the kind of poetry inspired by the Italian soil the only possibility for a true survival of antiquity (which, for Leopardi, is the only possibility – for poetry – to be as such). Italians, Leopardi writes, must ‘imitate this nature, and behold this sky and these fields and these hills’, for:

we are still great; we still speak that tongue before which all living ones retreat, and with perhaps would not retreat before the dead ones; […] we still drink this air and tread this earth and enjoy the same light that an army of immortals enjoyed; the fire that enflamed our ancestors still burns […]; that character that belongs to us is unchanged; it remains an inspirer of the highest things, ardent and judicious, most willing and most vivid, sweet and tender and sensitive in the highest degree, and still solemn and nonchalant, the most mortal enemy of every affectation whatsoever, aware and enamoured of naturalness above every other thing, that naturalness without which there never was nor ever will be any beauty nor grace, the yearning lover and most refined connoisseur of the beautiful the sublime and the true, and finally the most wise moderator of nature and reason.

Leopardi concretizes, therefore, a recurrent image of Classicist polemics: that modern poetry – i.e. Romantic verse – is nothing else but the prosecution, through other means, of Napoleonic invasions, aiming to ravage Italy from its last prestige, that of literature. The Romantic invasion is much subtler as it disguises itself under the (Satanic) temptations of fashion: in his later work Operette morali, of 1827, Leopardi will name fashion (moda) the sister of death; with ‘modernity’, moda shares the etymology from the Latin adverb modo (today), conveying the principle that what is new is intrinsically better than what is old.

From this angle, Leopardi shares exactly the same view as Stendhal: the breach opened by Napoleon near Milan has allowed modernity to irrupt into Italy. However, whereas Stendhal saw the battle at Lodi as presenting a possibility for reawakening, Leopardi views modernity as the most threatening menace to Italian specificity, namely its being located before modernity, before that extreme sophistication of taste that exceeds civilization, turning into barbarism. Romanticism is, therefore, the last attempt, on the part of the nations that has ‘always hated and will [always] hate’ Italy, to defeat it for good: because, ‘having defeated us when we were weak and unarmed and motionless, but always defeated in the arts and writing’, it now tries to outrage Italy’s last prestige.

Hayez Meditazione

Hayez Meditazione

Leopardi – unlike other Classicists, who often equate Romanticism, Bonapartism, and liberalism – is not interested in the historical and political dimension of the matter: the rape of Italy he is describing is not flattened to the mere contingency of French occupation, but deliberately groups the manifold invasions suffered by the country over the centuries, to the point that the image of France itself (which he never names directly) is dissolved into the almost archetypal one of a Transalpine, imperial, and foreign Europe that has always threatened Italy’s identity, and now tries to barbarize it through the ‘sentimental and poetic dung dripping down to us from the Alps, and vomited on the shores of our seas’. The natural borders of Italy have been violated, and the passing of the Alps – a Romantic trope connected to the sublime and the experience of Grand Tour  – becomes the channel by which ‘drips down’ something intimately horrid, excessive, and Northern aiming to pervert Italy’s most intimate nature.

Turner, 'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps'

Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’

That ‘dung’, Leopardi writes, is ‘welcomed and greedily swallowed and praised and magnified’ by young Italians; ‘as soon as some odd newness appears on the top of Cottian or Noric Alps’, notes in 1816 Carlo Botta, ‘Italians immediately follow as a bunch of fools’.

Within this constellation, the most interesting text is perhaps the first answer received by Staël, initially appeared in the Florentine journal Novelle letterarie and republished in Lo Spettatore. The author, signed ‘P.L.V.’, compares Staël with Adam Müller, a peasant clairvoyant from Baden who had predicted the victory at Waterloo to an attendant of von Blücher and had met the Prussian king. Under the veil of irony, the Swiss Germaine de Staël is made the reincarnation of those German priestesses, mentioned by Tacitus, who enflamed warriors against Rome; the people who follow her are the victims of the same credulity of ancient Germans, which, as the telling example of Müller shows, still survives among the moderns:

The French journal named Débats referred on 29 February, date of Frankfurt, that a Spirit, one of the Lemures, a Genius or a Demon whatever we want to call it, has become acquainted since quite a while with a certain Muller, and that this good German, through his secret influence, makes all sort of prophecies, but especially political ones […]. Another Spirit, certainly not much different from the former, makes since quite a long time political and literary prophecies in several parts of Europe, through an old Pythoness; and it is almost sure that, after travelling the North, has now pointed towards the South, and that, having crossed the Alps and the Apennines, has now penetrated in the hearth of Italy. […] We know that by the Germans, or other Boreal peoples, women were believed to possess some divine power of predicting the future. By these peoples, therefore, the names of Veleda and Aurinia and many others were very famous: for them, these nations had a sort of worship, and kept in great value their advice and responses.

This text is overtly ironic, but the image is clear: a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Romanticism – and it aims, as Botta puts it, to darken the ‘light’ of Classical tradition with its ‘Germanizing and Frenchy stuff’, and with ‘the mist of Caledonian moors’. As in Napoleon’s time, Milan is the most vulnerable front against the invasion: a borderline city between South and North, Milan is the place where the plague (of modernity and of central/Northern Europe) is more likely to make its entrance into the country.

 

Bringing the Plague

On 22 October of that year 1629, Pietro Antonio Lovato, an infantryman in a regiment located in the area of Lecco, made his entrance into Milan, with a load of clothes stolen or bought from German soldiers; and he went to stay at the place of some relatives of him, in the neighbourhood of Porta Orientale. As soon as he got there, he got sick; they brought him to the hospital; and on the fourth day he died. In the corpse they found a bubo, which raised the suspicion of plague.

Lovato enters Milan

Lovato enters Milan

In Alessandro Manzoni’s novel Fermo e Lucia, begun in 1821, the great plague of 1630 enters Milan on a specific date and from a specific gate, Porta Orientale, from whence the otherwise unknown infantryman Pietro Lovato had brought infected clothes, stolen from German soldiers. Names of streets running parallel to the former Corso di Porta Orientale – now Corso Venezia – still bear the memory of the contagion: and are named via Lazzaretto, or via Lodovico Settala, in honour of the doctor who had first acknowledged the disease to be bubonic plague.

In Manzoni’s times, another kind of plague had entered the city, and from the same route. After the forced closure of the Romantic journal Il Conciliatore, in 1819, and while he was being transferred from the Milanese prison of Santa Margherita to the Venetian one of Piombi, from whence he would be deported to the Spielberg fortress, in Moravia, Silvio Pellico remembered the glory days of Italian Romanticism:

Oh, you avenue of Porta Orientale! Oh, you the public gardens, where I had often walked with Foscolo, Monti, Lodovico di Breme, with Pietro Borsieri, with Porro and his children, and with so many other beloved mortals, talking in the fullest of life and of hope! […] When we exited the Porta, I brought my hat over my eyes and, unnoticed, I cried.

From this angle, in the topography of Milan, Porta Orientale and its Corso are remarkably allusive. Not only do they recall – as we have seen – the memory of Napoleon’s invasion and the route of Simplon, but also that of the plague and, at the same time, of Romanticism: another kind of contagion, since the arrival of which nothing will ever be the same.

Manzoni’s view of Romanticism was ambiguous. Initially, he had sided with the Milanese Romantics, for he viewed Romanticism as a salutary revolution for Italian literature: since then, he had progressively withdrawn his support, seeing – as did many of his contemporaries – the plain import of Northern Romanticism as a ‘hodge-podge of witches and ghosts’, to be rejected with the greatest severity. In 1821, while Pellico was being transferred to the Venice prison of Piombi, he began to write Fermo e Lucia – a draft and a prelude to his masterpiece I promessi sposi (1827), bearing the traces of the cultural and political conflicts animating Italy at the time.

From this angle, the emphasis Manzoni places in mentioning Porta Orientale in Fermo e Lucia is less innocent than it could seem at a first glance. In the novel, Porta Orientale is the doorway through which something innately Other enters into Milan, as a deadly consequence of the foreign invasion of Landsknechts coming from Germany.

Melchiorre Gherardini, The Plague in Porta Orientale

Melchiorre Gherardini, The Plague in Porta Orientale

Equally, in Fermo e Lucia the ambiguity surrounding the theme of the plague echoes the ambiguity with which Manzoni views Romanticism, a ‘hodge-podge of witches and ghosts’ that has nonetheless had the merit – as Manzoni writes to Cesare D’Azeglio – to sweep away the Arcadia-like and provincial junk plaguing Italian literature. Such ambiguity will remain unresolved throughout the entire course of Italian modernity, between the defence of tradition and the yearning for renovation, intellectual autarchy and foreignizing temptations: South and North. ‘This pestilence has been a curse, my sons, a curse’ – comments Don Abbondio in the ending of Manzoni’s novel: ‘but it was also a broom: it swept away certain people whom, my sons, we’d never got rid of’.

On This Day in 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part I)

We continue the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on Italian Romanticism from Fabio Camilletti, who is Associate Professor at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Warwick. This post has two parts; the second will be posted here next week.

As always, to contribute a blog to this series about the bicentenary of a significant event in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer.

 

29 February 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part I)

 

Damn Bonaparte!

‘Maladett Bonaparte!’ – ‘Damn Bonaparte!’: thus ladies exclaimed around 1816 (at least, according to Stendhal’s testimony), when approaching Porta Orientale, the ancient door of Milan – nowadays Porta Venezia – from whence the Alps could be seen at the end of the Corso, where aristocrats’ carriages used to parade.

Milan - Corso di Porta Orientale

Milan – Corso di Porta Orientale

For them, Stendhal records, the French Emperor was the cause of the early frosts experienced in Lombardy since the French Revolution: in opening the route of the Simplon, Napoleon must have breached the natural wall of the Alps, which had thus far sheltered the city from the inclemency of Northern winds.

Together with the frost, Bonaparte had also brought something else. Many years later, in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Stendhal credits to another breach opened by Napoleon – in 1796, at the bridge of Lodi, during the first Italian campaign – the opening of a deeper and far more incisive breach in Italy’s national consciousness, which had slumbered through centuries of political servitude and literary Classicism:

The Battle of Lodi

The Battle of Lodi

On 15 May 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan at the head of the youthful army that had just crossed the bridge at Lodi […]. The miracles of valour and genius of which Italy was the witness within a few months re-awoke a slumbering people […] In the Middle Ages, the republican Lombards had given proof of a valour equal to that of the French, and deserved to see their town razed to the grounds by the emperors of Germany. Since they had become ‘loyal subjects’, their main business was printing sonnets on little pink taffeta handkerchiefs whenever a girl belonging to some noble or wealthy family happened to get married […] Such effeminate customs were a far cry from the profound emotions aroused by the unforeseen arrival of the French army. Soon new and passionate customs arose. An entire people realized, on 15 May 1796, that everything it had hitherto respected was supremely ridiculous and sometimes odious.

In 1796, in other words, modernity had made its entrance into Italy – under the guise of an army whose soldiers ‘were not yet twenty-five and their commanding general, who was twenty-seven, passed for being the oldest man in his army’. Exactly twenty years later, in 1816, with Napoleon defeated and exiled in Saint Helena, one could easily believe that time had turned back. On the 6th of January, the Austrian monarchs – restored to their throne by the Congress of Vienna – had shown themselves again on the Corso di Porta Orientale. On that evening, the theatre La Scala had witnessed the premiere of Il ritorno di Astrea, a Classicist and apologetic piece by Vincenzo Monti celebrating the return to order. Italy, sang its chorus, was still alive and ‘divine’, but only by the favour of the Austrian Emperor. Italians – as well as Hungarians, the Moravians, and the Czechs – were back to their status of ‘loyal subjects’, all worshipping the Austrian throne that appeared in the middle of the scene – as per the libretto – at the end of the piece.

In sum, all evidence showed that the ‘new and passionate customs’ of 1796 had died – but was it really so? After all, some were still feeling that sonnets printed on handkerchiefs were odious. And, after all, it felt colder.

 

The Fall of the Sun

In a sense, the ladies parading in the Corso were right. The years from 1812 to 1816 had been particularly severe. 1816, in particular, would become globally known as the ‘year without a summer’ – a year of rains and floods in the whole Atlantic area, plaguing economies that had already been weakened by the Napoleonic wars. Literary works of 1816 bear the traces of such devastation, coupled with the idea that the entire world is growing colder and darker. In Byron’s lodgings in Geneva, the poet, his physician John Polidori, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, inspired by the unusual climate of that summer, took pleasure in reading German ghost stories: weather propitiated the abandonment to ‘Northern’ and Gothic imaginary, and the narratives produced in those weeks – the thunderstorms of Frankenstein, the blackened sun of Byron’s Darkness, the Swiss glaciers of Shelley’s Mont Blanc and of Polidori’s Ernestus Berchtold – are all marked by the vestiges of something obscure and apocalyptic that is impacting Europe, deeply interweaving reality and imagination.

The ‘year without a summer’, as is nowadays well known, had most probably been caused by the eruption, on 10 April 1815, of the Indonesian volcano Tambora: ashes and toxic gases caused a remarkable lowering of temperatures all over the world for several years, giving birth to unusually cold summers, rigid winters, and hurricanes; volcanic ashes gave sunsets a brightly red colour, as portrayed in William Turner’s canvases. Two months later, on 18 June 1815, an unexpected night rain had transformed the area surrounding the village of Mont Saint-Jean, near the Belgian town of Waterloo, into a sort of morass: the French army had had to wait for the sun to dry the wet ground, and when Napoleon had finally be able to draw his attack, late in the morning, cannons had remained blocked by the mud, leaving the Prussian troops the time to re-join the British infantry. On that evening, both armies had lost many men, but the British-Prussian coalition of Wellington and von Blücher had won, and the French had been defeated.

The connection between Waterloo and Tambora is merely speculative: there remains its involuntarily symbolic charm, and the idea that only some apocalyptic fatality could destroy the power of Napoleon, a sort of Icarus or Phaethon who had more ruinously fallen, the more he had attempted to ascend. Not incidentally, when commemorating Napoleon’s death in the poem ‘The Fifth of May’ (1821), Alessandro Manzoni would surreptitiously evoke the mythologem of the reckless son of Apollo: Napoleon, once ‘shining in his throne’, has fallen; in his exile at Saint Helena, ‘at the silent dying of a useless day’, the Emperor’s ‘lightning eyes’ – but Manzoni uses the lyrical term ‘rai’, literally meaning ‘rays’ – bend down, subtly delineating the image of a dying sun. By so doing, Manzoni transforms the chariot of Napoleon-Apollo of imperial iconography into the wrecked carriage of Phaethon: the sun of Austerlitz reveals itself to be a false star, betraying the folly and haughtiness of a usurper who had come to the point of defying God.

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Allegory of the Battle of Austerlitz

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Allegory of the Battle of Austerlitz

 

Apocalyptic Imaginaries

Not only literature bears the traces of such symbolic short circuits. In the ‘year without a summer’ all Europe seems to be crossed by apocalyptic fears, a sort of post-traumatic aftermath of Waterloo, mixing science and superstition, political metaphors, and the entire panoply of the age’s taste – from the grotesque to the sublime, and through the Gothic. Popular imagery often points to the sun as a seemingly dying star on the point of extinguishing or exploding. Rumours had spread about the planet getting colder, and between 1815 and 1816 spots had been seen on the surface of the sun. Both phenomena could be perfectly explicable: Carlo Riccati, a nobleman from Piedmont who had written a first-hand chronicle of the first two years of the Bourbon Restoration, explained through the data of the Milan observatory of Brera that temperature fluctuations and sunspots were perfectly natural. Still, the idea that the sun was extinguishing, and that a fragment of it was about to fall on earth, had run all over the continent. Rumours fixed the catastrophe for the 18th of July, and it is interesting – Riccati notes – how this whisper had been particularly welcomed in such a formerly revolutionary country as France: while travelling through France and the Brabant, in July 1816, one would have wondered – he writes – to see so many people believing in such superstitious ways among those who had lately erected temples to Reason.

Finally, on the 26th of July, the newspaper Gazzetta di Milano commented the ‘ridiculous prophecy’ that had been cheating so many between Alsace and Belgium. The article was ironic, but also ironic was its incidentally being followed by an article in praise of Wellington, including a meditation on Napoleon that reactivated, again, the image of Phaethon:

Wellington was the first who dared to challenge Bonaparte when this latter, at the peak of his glory, aspired to rule the continent. Wellington made the dream of human ambition to vanish.

It is, therefore, as if an unconscious but tenacious knot encompassed – in the collective imaginary of 1816 – the falling sun and the ruination of Napoleon’s star. The very distribution of the 18th of July gossip is eloquent: Paris, the Alsace, Belgium – that is to say, the military geography of the Hundred Days. On the 11th of July, Riccardi notes, people in Gand (less than 45 miles from Waterloo) had mistaken the trumpet of a cavalry regiment for that of the angel of the last day; like the French army, terror had invaded the entire Europe. Thus comments the Gazette de Lausanne on the 23rd of July:

18 July has passed, and this day, which had to be devastated by the most terrible cataclysm, has offered no other marvel than the return of nice weather. This terrible catastrophe of the planet has often been predicted, but never, perhaps, has terror exalted so many minds and run over so many countries. Since a month, all Belgian churches were full of anxious and fearful masses of people. In Germany there have been towns were people stopped working and disdained daily occupations. In Naples a priest has announced terrible devastations from the pulpit. In Paris, still on the 17th, travelling booksellers distributed a poor writing bearing the title of Details on the end of the world, gathering an alarmed people.

The weather could well have improved, but what collective imaginary was confusedly trying to express, all over Europe, was the idea of a fracture from whence it was impossible to come back. The falling sun, the Northern winds coming from the Simplon, the very idea of something terrible and fateful that has forever changed Europe and the world, unchaining the fury of elements, are nothing but ways of metabolizing and elaborating a historical transition: Napoleon – and, more broadly, the French Revolution and the war, in a word: modernity – was seen as having dissolved the timeless connection binding humankind and nature, opening a fissure between a pre-modern, Arcadian world and a new, enlightened and technicized, one.

 

Et In Arcadia Ego

On 29 February 1816, in Milan, the weather was fine; temperature, however, had remained low, at least if compared to contemporary standards – between 4 and 10-15 degrees, in February-March – oscillating between 2 degrees in the morning and 5.5 degrees in the afternoon. This data is taken from the measurements of the Milan observatory of Brera, published as an appendix to each volume of Biblioteca italiana, a literary and scientific journal printed in Milan and directly funded by the Austrian government. On that day, the first issue of the periodical made its first appearance: the journal was opened by a short text by Madame de Staël, Sulla maniera e la utilità delle Traduzioni (On the Custom and Usefulness of Translations), which – as the following months would make clear – was to be the inaugural act of the so-called ‘Classicist/Romantic quarrel’.

Biblioteca Italiana vol. 1, 1816

Biblioteca Italiana vol. 1, 1816

The debate would enflame Italy for years, dividing those who felt that it was necessary for Italian literature to open itself to the literary novelties coming from the rest of Europe (the ‘Romantics’) and those who reclaimed, instead, the legacy of Classical tradition as the most characteristic trait of Italian identity. In years of political and cultural censorship, the quarrel incorporated and challenged, under the guise of a literary skirmish, a deeply political problem concerning Italian identity and its role within the broader scenario of modern Europe. While Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich contemptuously claimed that Italy was ‘a geographical expression’, the quarrel raised questions that would deeply permeate Italy’s later cultural history: the onerous heritage of its historical past, its troubled transition into modernity, its ambiguous relationship with foreign cultures and their ‘lure of Italy’ – in many cases, a badly dissimulated colonial attitude.

Of this attitude, Staël’s article was a perfect example. She made a conventional paean of praise to Italian culture and its tradition: still, Staël could not help but noticing how Italian culture had lost its central and propulsive role, and how the most lively cultural experiences were now taking place elsewhere, in the ‘rest of Europe’, ‘beyond the Alps’, in the North. Even Italy’s sun, an already outworn Grand Tour cliché, was almost useless, for a people – such as the Italian – plagued by centuries of Classicism and sterile classical philology: presently, it was nothing but a motionless star, shining over a landscape made of ruins and tombs.

5. Sablet_Eleėgie romaine (1791)

Sablet’s Elégie romaine, 1791

This image was combined, in the article’s ending, with an insulting consideration of the role of Italy in the Europe to come, relegating it to an unspecified ‘prestige’ in literature and the arts:

nations must have some interest moving them. Some have it in the war, some in politics: Italian must find their prestige in literature and the arts, without which they would lie in a dark sleep, whence even the sun could not awake them.

The fracture between North and South, and between cold and warm, aimed thus at delineating a specific political and cultural geography, placing Italy in a subaltern position against Transalpine Europe: an equation between climate and the national inclinations grounded in the thought of the French Enlightenment, but which in 1816 could possess far more literal resonances.

On This Day in 1816: Introducing ‘The Year Without a Summer’ Part II

Here is part II of the essay ‘Every Cloud: How Art and Literature Benefited from a Year Without Summer’ by Eleanor Fitzsimons. This is part of the ongoing ‘On This Day’ series celebrating the literary and historical events from 1816 in 2016 (if you missed part I, you can read it here).

If you want to contribute to the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer (anna.mercer@york.ac.uk). 

 

EVERY CLOUD: HOW ART AND LITERATURE BENEFITED FROM A YEAR WITHOUT SUMMER

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810. National Portrait Gallery

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810. National Portrait Gallery

The English novelist Jane Austen spent the summer of 1816 in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, where she shared a cottage with her sister Cassandra, her chronically ill mother and an assortment of nieces and nephews. In a letter to her niece Anna, written on June 23, 1816, Austen described how their neighbor Mrs. Digweed had been soaked to the skin by a rain shower she characterized as ‘beyond everything’. The appalling weather kept the author indoors: ‘Oh! It rains again; it beats against the window’, she told her nephew Edward, adding, ‘such weather gives one little temptation to be out. It is really too bad, and it has been for a long time, much worse that anybody can bear and I begin to think it will never be fine again’. On July 9, Austen, accompanied by her niece Mary Jane, attempted a jaunt to nearby Farringdon in the family’s donkey cart: ‘we were obliged to turn back before we got there’, she told Edward, ‘but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way home’.

At the time, Austen was working on The Elliots, which she later renamed Persuasion. Although she had thought the book finished in July, as she sat indoors watching rain cascade down her windowpanes, she decided that she was dissatisfied with its ending and spent a further three weeks rewriting the final two chapters. By autumn, Austen’s health had deteriorated dramatically. Her back ached continuously and she felt unable to walk even a short distance. Although she blamed her wretchedness on rheumatism brought on by the unusually damp weather, her symptoms were indicative of something far more serious, possibly Addison’s disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. By winter she was housebound, but she remained stoic: ‘Air and exercise is what I want’ she assured her family. In May 1817, Jane Austen was taken by carriage in the pouring rain to Winchester Hospital where she died in the arms of her sister Cassandra on July 18, 1817.

The world had been forecast to end precisely twelve months earlier, on July 18, 1816. Seeking an explanation for the bizarre weather, a superstitious populace had concluded that such weird portents could only indicate an impending apocalypse. This supernatural thinking was forgivable. News of the eruption of Mount Tambora did not reach Europe for many months and, even if it had, the link between volcanic eruptions and unseasonal weather was not recognized until 1913, when William Jackson Humphreys, an American physicist and atmospheric researcher with the U. S. Weather Bureau, presented evidence to the Cleveland meeting of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America. However, in the absence of a sound scientific explanation, news of the planet’s imminent demise was widely accepted. Such fear mongering prompted opium-addled poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to remark ‘this end of the World Weather is sadly against me by preventing all exercise’. At the time, Coleridge had left his home in the Lake District and was living in London as a patient and houseguest of Dr. James Gillman, who had prescribed daily walks as an integral part of his treatment regime.

Attempts were made to calm the situation. While newspapers carried soothing editorials, clerics held public prayer services and recommended mass demonstrations of piety, but apocalyptic fear was fuelled by a series of sunspots, visible to the naked eye, which were interpreted as proof of the disintegration of the sun. Keen to strike a lighter note in the face of mass hysteria, English satirist William Hone published ‘Napoleon and the Spots on the Sun or the Regents Waltz’, a satirical ditty in which he claimed that Napoleon had escaped from the Island of St. Helena and invaded the sun in revenge for his defeat at Waterloo. The solution proposed by Hone involved catapulting the Prince of Wales, then Prince Regent, into space where he would engage in hand-to-hand combat with Britain’s nemesis.

The citizens of Europe had every reason to feel aggrieved with their rulers. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the entire continent had been ravaged by a serious of ruinous wars that left its populace ill-equipped to withstand the destruction wrought by devastating weather patterns. Bands of unemployed veterans recently returned from the grueling Napoleonic campaign now faced rocketing food prices, destitution and disease. They had surely had their fill of wet weather too. It had poured with rain on June 18, 1815, the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, turning the battlefield into a quagmire and compounding the horror of the occasion. By 1816, these battle-weary men were back in Britain, feeling abandoned by their rulers. In response to the lack of gratitude for the loyalty they had shown to the Crown, these men took to rioting in the streets, looting everything they could get their hands on and considering it no more than their due.

Widespread unrest culminated in the ‘Bread or Blood’ riots that erupted in East Anglia, home to painter John Constable who lived in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt. Constable, a committed Tory who had lost two cousins at Waterloo, had little patience with the band of armed veterans and laborers that marched on the cathedral town of Ely in protest at food shortages, holding the town’s magistrates hostage and fighting a running battle against the militia. Rather than incorporate the inclement weather into his work, as Turner had, Constable did precisely the opposite, painting idyllic representations of bucolic Albion as a reaction to this social and climactic upheaval; The Wheatfield and Flatford Mill, both painted in 1816, are examples of this.

As ever, enterprising folk found opportunity in a crisis. When the German oat crop failed, leaving people unable to feed their horses, the entrepreneurial Baron Karl Christian Ludwig von Drais de Sauerbrun enjoyed a sudden upsurge of interest in his latest invention, the bicycle. There were cultural benefits too: the spectacular sunsets and ominous sulphurous skies that lit the skies with bilious yellow and orange tints, found their way into the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and recent scientific analysis demonstrates that the works he completed in the years immediately following major volcanic eruptions contain significantly higher levels of red pigmentation in his extravagant sunsets. His Chichester Canal, which is included in the Tate Britain collection, captures the distinctive sepia hue so characteristic of refracted sunlight.

Turner paid a high price for accessing such beauty. He was dogged by bad weather all summer long and left Yorkshire to travel throughout continental Europe where conditions were, if anything, even worse than those he had endured at home. This caused him to exclaim:

Rain, Rain, Rain, day after day. Italy deluged, Switzerland a wash-pot, Neufchatel, Bienne and Morat Lakes all in one. All chance of getting over the Simplon or any of the passes now vanished like the morning mist.

Switzerland in particular was battered. Prodigious rainfall filled Lake Geneva, adding two meters to the water level and flooding low-lying districts for miles around. Homes were destroyed, livelihoods lost and livestock drowned, their bloated corpses found floating across the brimming lake. Turner arrived just in time to witness the disastrous wheat harvest that resulted in a serious flour shortage and inflated the price of a loaf of bread to the extent that Swiss dinner guests were asked, politely, to bring their own.

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, exhibited 1840. National Portrait Gallery

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, exhibited 1840. National Portrait Gallery

Eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who called herself Mary Shelley by then, had been in Switzerland since June 1816. Along with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Claremont, she was renting the modest Maison Chapuis on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, close to the opulent Villa Diodati that was occupied by Lord Byron and his entourage. Unremitting rain put paid to any plans for alpine walks, boating trips and sightseeing excursions. In her journal, Mary recorded: ‘it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. When Byron and Shelley embarked on a sailing trip to the medieval fortress of Château de Chillon, torrential rain delayed their return, obliging them to take refuge for two days in the Hôtel de L’Ancre in the lakeside resort of Ouchy. It was during this enforced hiatus that Byron wrote his narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon.

Confined to Byron’s rented villa, the party huddled by the fireside, recounting chilling tales of the supernatural as lightning cleft the skies above and thunder reverberated off the mountains that surrounded them. Byron found the weather frustrating and complained of the ‘stupid mists, fogs and perpetual density’, but enforced confinement allowed him to complete several works including his autobiographical ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, which includes a vivid description of the storms that raged across the lake as the ‘big rain comes dancing to the earth’. His apocalyptic poem ‘Darkness’, which describes an ‘icy Earth’ presided over by an ‘extinguished sun’, was written, by his own account, on ‘a celebrated dark day, on which fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight’. It contains the line: Morn came and went, and came, and brought no day’.

In late July, in defiance of the weather, the Shelleys set out to visit Mer de Glace, a vast glacier that nestled in the Chamonix Valley at the base of Mont Blanc, but a dense white mist descended and Mary recorded that ‘the rain continued in torrents’. Shelley incorporated the rain-swollen torrent of the River Arve into his poem ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’, and he used that image to denote great power. Although the weather curtailed their activities, all were enthralled by the frequent and frenetic thunderstorms that reverberated off the mountains, imbuing the landscape with a supernatural light. Mary described these tempests as ‘grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before’, and described in her journal how, as each discharge of lightning rent the clouds, the landscape was: ‘illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness’.

Safe indoors, they would read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, a collection of ghost stories. In Shelley’s preface to Frankenstein, he described how hearing these stories ‘excited in us a playful desire of imitation’. Byron issued a challenge to those present that they should write a story ‘founded on some supernatural occurrence’; he started immediately on ‘A Fragment’, which is recognized as one of the first stories to feature a vampire and hailed as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819. National Portrait Gallery

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819. National Portrait Gallery

 

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, oil on canvas, 1813. National Portrait Gallery

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, oil on canvas, 1813. National Portrait Gallery

Although Mary struggled to settle on a theme, she found inspiration in a conversation between Byron and Shelley concerning the reanimation of a corpse. In her preface to the third edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, she described how her gothic tale of rejection and revenge was informed by a ‘waking dream’ that she experienced later that night, when the ‘bright and shining moon’ hanging over Lake Geneva shone through the shutters into the bedroom she shared with Shelley. This preface also mentions the ‘incessant rain’ that beat against the windows of the Villa Diodati, keeping them all indoors. Percussive rain accompanied the creation of Frankenstein and found its way into her story; ‘rain pattered dismally against the panes’ as the eponymous scientist gave life to his monster.

Mary punctuated her narrative with the thunderstorms that raged above. In one instance, Victor Frankenstein describes a storm that ‘advanced from behind the mountains of Jura’:

The thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

Later, he is described watching a terrifying storm from the same lakeside spot where Mary herself stood. His words echo almost exactly the entry Mary made in her journal on June 1, 1816:

…the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. It was echoed from Saleve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant everything seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens.

Weather is inescapable in the works of the Romantics, and never before had they experienced the conditions that characterized the ‘year without summer’. Yet, had a benign Swiss summer encouraged Byron and the Shelleys to abandon their fireside tales and embark on Alpine walks instead, we might not have Frankenstein, or at a stretch, Dracula. Had clement weather permitted Jane Austen to leave her cottage in Chawton, her wonderful Persuasion might have a different, less satisfying ending. The incessant downpour that prevented J.M.W. Turner from entering Weathercote Cave swelled the Ure, the Washburn and the Wharfe, and filled the high glacial Malham Tarn, providing him with dramatic subjects at every turn. At Malham Cove, Turner painted the arc of a rainbow. He sketched children as they gazed down on the raging torrent at Cotter Force and he captured the torrential descent of the Aysgarth waterfalls. He even hired a guide to take him underground so that he could sketch Dow Cave by candlelight, keeping one ear to the roar of the swollen river. The old adage reminds us that every cloud has a silver lining. Certainly, there was no shortage of clouds during the bleak summer of 1816 and the dramatic weather that prevailed permeates some of our best loved art and literature.

On This Day in 1816: Introducing ‘The Year Without a Summer’ Part I

We are very pleased to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons (winner of the 2013 Keats-Shelley Prize and author of Wilde’s Women) to the BARS blog. This post, part of the ‘On This Day’ series, presents Part I of her essay ‘Every Cloud: How Art and Literature Benefited from a Year Without Summer’. Eleanor’s essay looks at 1816 as the year of no summer and examines the impact that catastrophic weather patterns had on the work of writers and painters such as Turner, Austen and the Shelleys. Part II is to follow.

We think you’ll all agree that this is a great way to introduce 1816 in 2016, a year in which we will be celebrating the bicentenaries of many important Romantic events. If you want to contribute to the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer (anna.mercer@york.ac.uk). 

 

EVERY CLOUD: HOW ART AND LITERATURE BENEFITED FROM A YEAR WITHOUT SUMMER 

JMW Turner. Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour. British Museum

JMW Turner. Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour. British Museum

Often, an artist must go to great lengths to get the aspect he desires. In 1808, English Romantic landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner scrambled to the bottom of Weathercote Cave, a misnamed pothole situated close to the hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale in North Yorkshire. On reaching a plateau, thirty-three meters below ground level, he unpacked his kit and produced a characteristically vibrant watercolor that captured the wild torrent of water as it tumbled from a cavity situated two-thirds up before terminating in a violent whirlpool at the base of towering rocks. Barely discernible at the foot of the canvas is a tiny figure that appears to represent the artist himself. Turner’s somewhat dramatized representation, which he presented to his great friend and patron Walter Fawkes, is titled simply Weathercote Cave, Yorkshire and can be seen in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery.

Turner loved to paint the Northern English landscape and experimented with dramatic light and weather effects in his compositions. In recognition of his deep appreciation for the untamed beauty of the region, Longman & Co. commissioned him to produce one-hundred-and-twenty watercolours for incorporation into an illustrated history of Yorkshire, the accompanying text to be supplied by the Reverend Dr. Thomas Dunham Whitaker, the highly respected author of a well-received series of scholarly histories. Although artist and author had worked together on Whitaker’s The History of Whalley (1801) and his The History of Craven (1812), this would be by far their most ambitious collaboration and Turner’s fee of three thousand guineas was the highest paid to a British artist at the time.

On July 12, 1816, Turner left London and travelled north to Farnley Hall near Otley, the home of Walter Fawkes, who was to accompany him on this lucrative tour. Regrettably, the undertaking proved to be far from pleasurable. Although the entire Fawkes family set out with the artist on a series of excursions to local beauty spots, the company disbanded at the end of a week of almost constant rain that culminated in a thorough soaking as they traversed the moors that led to the towering cliffs of Gordale Scar. In order to complete the sketches that would form the basis of his finished watercolours, Turner had no option but to negotiate his way around the vast county of Yorkshire, a distance of more than five hundred miles, alone on horseback in torrential rain. At some point, a capricious wind must have snatched his little sketchbook from his hands, since one page is coated in mud to this day. As he went, he recorded how his progress was hampered by the frightful weather that blighted the summer of 1816: ‘Weather miserably wet. I shall be web-footed like a drake…but I must proceed northwards. Adieu’, he lamented in a letter to watercolorist James Holworthy, dated July 31, 1816

Turner returned to Weathercote cave that summer with the intention of sketching it for inclusion in his book, but days of incessant rain had left it submerged and completely inaccessible; ‘Weathercote full’, he scribbled on the pencil study he made that day. His finished painting, the cumbersomely titled Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour, is on view in the British Museum; this time the perspective is from above. Days later, the route Turner followed took him across the treacherous Lancaster Sands, a low tide shortcut that intersected Morecombe Bay and was particularly dangerous after heavy rainfall. As he went, he sketched a sodden band of horsemen huddling together in the lee of the Lancaster coach while ferocious rain crashed down from an angry sky. His dramatic Lancaster Sands is housed in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

JMW Turner. Lancaster Sands. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

JMW Turner. Lancaster Sands. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

After all his efforts, Turner must have been disappointed when spiralling costs ensured that the project was scaled down significantly and just one of the proposed seven volumes was published. He had been desperately unfortunate in his timing. The apocalyptic weather that blighted the summer of 1816 was truly exceptional and had its origins in an event that occurred fifteen months earlier and many thousands of miles from England. On the evening of April 10, 1815, the tiny island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago was rocked when Mount Tambora, the highest mountain in the region and a volcano that was long believed to be extinct, produced its largest eruption for ten thousand years. The outcome was catastrophic. Eyewitness accounts describe how the summit disintegrated, leaving behind a crater measuring three miles wide and half a mile deep. Horrified locals watched open-mouthed as three towering columns of rock-laden fire shot thirty miles skywards and a pyrocastic flow of incandescent ash surged down the mountainside at a speed of in excess of one hundred miles an hour, scouring everything in its path. On reaching the coast, twenty-five miles from its point of origin, this boiling mass cascaded into the sea, destroying aquatic life for miles and forming vast platforms of pumice that blockaded vital ports and inlets.

Ten times the quantity of debris that had buried Pompeii two millennia earlier rained down on Sumbawa and its neighboring islands during what remains to this day the largest recorded eruption in history. On Sumbawa, the cool air that was sucked into the vacuum left by the inexorable rise of superheated air formed a ferocious whirlwind that moved across the ravaged landscape, destroying everything before it. The tiny villages of Tambora and Sanggar, which had clung safely to the slopes of Mount Tambora for generations, were wiped out entirely and an estimated ten thousand people died in an instant. Fresh water sources were contaminated and crops withered in the fields, resulting in the death by starvation of a further eighty thousand inhabitants of the region. For days, the archipelago was battered by towering tsunamis and such was the extent of the devastation and loss of life that the indigenous Tambora language was eradicated forever.

On the northern shore of Eastern Java, three hundred miles away, residents of the city of Surabaya reported that the ground shook beneath their feet. On hearing a series of thunderous roars, startled inhabitants of the island of Sumatra, which lay one thousand miles northwest of Sumbawa, concluded that they had come under attack from some deadly enemy force, although they couldn’t be sure if it were human or supernatural. Within days, the entire region was enveloped in an ash cloud so fine that tiny particles suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere blocked adequate sunlight from filtering through. The entire East Indies, as the region was known, was plunged into an oppressive and unnatural darkness. Within three months an aerosol cloud of sulphide gas compounds had encircled the Earth from pole to pole. Volcanic dust entered the high stratosphere, supplementing debris deposited there by two earlier volcanic eruptions: La Soufrière on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in 1812, and Mount Mayon on the island of Luzon in the Philippines in 1814. Although he had not witnessed the spectacular eruption of La Soufrière, Turner had painted it, basing his vivid oil painting on a sketch made by Hugh Perry Keane, a barrister and sugar plantation owner who was present that day. Keane wrote an account of the eruption in his diary:

Thurs 30: … in the afternoon the roaring of the mountain increased & at 7 o’clock the Flames burst forth, and the dreadful Eruption began. All night watching it – between 2 & 5 o’clock in the morning, showers of Stones & Earthquakes threatened our immediate Destruction …Wed 6 May: … The Volcano again blazed away from 7 till ½ past 8. Thurs 7: Rose at 7. Drawing the eruption.

Turner’s painting, The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 1815, can be viewed at the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool.

JMW Turner. The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 1815. Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool

JMW Turner. The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 1815. Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool

All this volcanic activity had a disastrous impact on the weather, and nowhere on Earth escaped the consequences of this latest cataclysm. Across the globe, average temperatures plummeted by five degrees Fahrenheit as weather patterns were thrown into absolute chaos. In time, 1816 would be dubbed ‘the year without summer’. In Asia, unseasonably cold weather coupled with unprecedented early monsoons caused catastrophic floods that destroyed the rice crop and wiped out valuable livestock. Famine gripped China, killing many thousands of her citizens, while India was devastated by a cholera epidemic that swept through the subcontinent. In North America, accumulating snow was observed in the Catskill Mountains as late as June 1816, and it snowed on Independence Day in the southern state of Virginia.

Unprecedented quantities of weirdly-hued, ash-laden snow fell all over Europe and it was still snowing in London as late as July 1816. By the following September, the Thames had frozen and abnormally large hailstones were flattening the wheat and barley crops as they ripened in the fields. In neighboring Ireland, eight weeks of incessant rain resulted in the failure of both the potato crop and the corn harvest, triggering a widespread famine that provided a foretaste of what was to come three decades later. Starvation was followed inexorably by disease. Typhus erupted throughout the British Isles before fanning outwards across Europe and killing tens of thousands of her citizens.

 

(To be continued…)

 

About the author: 

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer and journalist specialising in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize with her essay ‘The Shelleys in Ireland’ and she is a contributor to the Romanticism Blog. Her work has been published in a range of newspapers and journals including The Irish Times, the Guardian, History Ireland and History Today. She is a regular radio and television contributor. Her book, Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew was published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015. She tweets as @EleanorFitz.