News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Posts filed under On This Day

On This Day in 1818: Shelley approaches Italy

Prof Alan Weinberg (University of South Africa) has produced this post to mark 200 years since P B Shelley’s journey to Italy – a crucial turning point in his life, and his writing. He and Mary Shelley had left England on 12 March 1818 accompanied by Claire Clairmont, three children, and two female servants. Percy Shelley, who was 25 years old at the time of the journey, was never to return and would drown off the coast of Tuscany four years later in 1822.

On this day in 1818, just before his arrival in Italy, he writes from Lyons, France, to Leigh Hunt, in an affectionate letter full of hope:


Lyons, March 22  1818.––

My dear friend,

Why did you not wake me the night before we left England, you & Marianne  I take this as rather an unkind piece of kindness in you, but which in consideration of the 600 miles between us I forgive. ––

We have journeyed towards the spring that has been hastening to meet us from the South–– & though our weather was at first abominable, we have now warm sunny days & soft winds & a sky of deep azure, the most serene I ever saw. The heat in this city to day, is like that of London in the middle of summer–  My spirits & health sympathise in the change. Indeed before I left London my spirits were as feeble as my health – and I had demands on them which I found  difficult to supply.

I have read Foliage–– With most of the poems I was already familiar. What a delightful poem the Nymphs is, & especially the second part. It is truly poetical in the intense & emphatic sense of the word. If 600 miles were not between us, I should say what pity that glib is not omitted & that the poem is not as faultless as it is beautiful! But for fear I should spoil your next poem I will not let slip a word upon the subject––––  Give my love to Marianne & her sister & tell Marianne she defrauded me of a kiss by not waking me when she went away, & that as I have no better mode of conveying it I must take the best, & ask you to pay the debt. When shall I see you all again ? O, that it might b<e> in Italy! I confess that the thought of how long we may be divided make<s> me very melancholy:– Adieu –my d<ear> friends––  write soon–  ever most affectionately Yours

[Shelley & his Circle VI: 523-4.]


Prof. Weinberg contextualises Shelley in Italy for us:

In the first 8 months of their residence in Italy (April to December 1818) the Shelleys crossed the length and breadth of Italy (excluding Sicily) and resided in or stopped by at a great number of places including (more importantly, and in something like chronological sequence), Turin, Milan, Como, Pisa, Livorno, Bagni di Lucca, Florence, Padua, Este, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Spoleto, Terni, Rome, Naples and its environs including Vesuvius. Visits were usually accompanied by sightseeing in regard to architecture and landscape or visits to palaces, prisons or picture galleries.  There were periods of calm and some of frenetic travelling by carriage in circumstances which would be a trial for the modern tourist. The Shelleys had few acquaintances and had two small children to look after, William and Clara, as well as assist with Claire and Byron’s daughter, Allegra, and in September, endured the severe illness and loss of their daughter Clara. It is not generally recognized that in these early months, Shelley wrote only one major poem, and it is one of his neglected Italianate pieces in iambic tetrameter and trimeter, Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. It was largely inspired by Petrarch. Several other compositions, like Prometheus Unbound and ‘Julian and Maddalo’, were begun and only completed in 1819, or were eventually aborted, like ‘Prince Athanase’, a redaction of which appeared in press copy in 1819 as ‘Athanase: A Fragment’ (but was not published).  One prose essay,  ‘Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks’ was finished in draft, the translation from the Symposium nearly completed, and a few other prose works, such as a Preface to The Banquet (Symposium), ‘The Coliseum’ (begun December 1818) and ‘A Future State’, were left unfinished in manuscript.

Shelley’s residence in Italy is a turning point in his career: it follows a period of intense creativity which saw the composition of AlastorMont BlancHymn to Intellectual Beauty, Laon and Cythna (re-named The Revolt of Islam), Rosalind and Helen, as well as a History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, prefaces, reviews, political pamphlets, essays (like the sketch ‘On Christianity’ (more specifically Christ’s teachings), and brief, mostly unfinished political or philosophical sketches. Laon and Cythna was meant to be the crowning piece in which Shelley encompassed much of what he understood to be his task as poet and seer, and was written in the belief that he was suffering from consumption and thus had not long to live. He put his heart and soul into this composition but it didn’t win much favour. The early residence in Italy was clearly a period of settling in, of recuperation, of reconfiguration, and of adventure, but Shelley also felt the frustration of a loss of creativity. He began a play on ‘Tasso’ but soon abandoned it, turning to Greek translation as a means of compensation – but producing an outstandingly eloquent and fluent rendering of The Symposium which had a formative influence on subsequent works. While 1818 has little to show for itself in terms of finished products, it was effectively a period of conception and regeneration, and of great receptivity to the classical world as it suggested itself in the remains of antiquity and in the emulation of classical styles in modern architecture. In this regard Shelley was a classicist and not a romanticist, and was always aiming to reach beyond Christianity, much as he admired the ethics of Jesus, whom he regarded as a reformer and not a divine redeemer, and whose tortured representation in Italian painting, and that of his followers, filled him with anguish and disbelief. It was pagan and classical Italy that largely inspired Shelley, and this made an immediate impact in scenes which reminded him of Virgil’s eclogues or the famed scenes at Delphi and Mt Helicon.

Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Baths of Caracalla, Joseph Severn 1845


On This Day in 1817: 28 December, The Immortal Dinner

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Ana Stevenson to celebrate 200 years since a gathering of remarkable intellects…


Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1824 – 1820 by Benjamin Robert Haydon


The Immortal Dinner
by Ana Stevenson

Born in 1786, Benjamin Robert Haydon was a history painter who surrounded himself by men whose genius he judged equal to his own. Although Haydon is less well-known today, he was highly regarded as an artist in his own time. In 1804 he entered the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited there for the first time at the age of 21. Although this led to recognition and commissions, he did not have a steady income, meaning that he was in constant debt and struggled financially until the end of his life.

In 1817, however, Haydon moved to 22 Lisson Grove, where he was in possession of his own furniture and house-appliances for the first time. He wrote that he had used ‘my own tea cup and saucers. I took up my own knife. I sat on my own chair. It was a new sensation!’.


Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1825 portrait by Georgiana Zornlin


Fond of social gatherings, his new house also inspired the painter to invite some selected friends to dine at his home during the Christmas period. Haydon had an impact in the Literary world, with William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Leigh Hunt writing verses dedicated to the artist, therefore it is not surprising to find these poets amongst the guests who attended his dinner – except Leigh Hunt, who was excluded due to an argument between the host and Hunt’s wife.

The guestlist for this exceptional evening included Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb, Tom Monkhouse, Joseph Ritchie, a few more of Haydon’s acquaintances, and a man named John Kingston, who invited himself as “a friend of Wordsworth”. Thanks to Haydon’s habit of documenting his life in journals, there is a detailed account of what took place that evening, and the event is known as ‘The Immortal Dinner’.

The party was welcomed by Haydon’s current project, ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’, which hung over the guests. Wordsworth and Keats are featured in this painting along with other notable figures of the era, a fact that stimulated conversation on the evening. The artist was delighted by the good humour the setting inspired and watched his friends partake in a gleeful discussion. Apart from Kingston, all were to some extent acquainted with one another. Haydon documented in his journal that once they retired for tea, Kingston, whom he forgot to introduce to the party, decided to take upon himself to engage with Wordsworth. He enquired ‘Don’t you think, sir, Milton was a great genius?’. Until this point, Keats was occupied examining Haydon’s books, and Lamb, who had a bit too much to drink and ‘got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty’, was sat by the fire. When the question was asked, everyone turned their attention to Kingston’s remark.


John Keats, c.1822, portrait by William Hilton after Joseph Severn


Keats looked at Haydon, Wordsworth looked at Kingston, and Lamb said ‘Pray, sir, did you say Milton was a great genius?’ to which the man replied that he had asked Mr Wordsworth if he were not. Lamb then declared ‘Oh, then you are a silly fellow’. After a brief interruption by Wordsworth, everyone went quiet. Not content, Kingston decided for a second attempt: ‘Don’t you think Newton a great genius?’. At that point Keats hid his face in a book, Haydon could no longer stand it, Wordsworth did not know what was going on, and Lamb got up asking ‘Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?’. Kingston realised that Wordsworth did not seem to know who he was, therefore, in a third attempt to engage with the poet, he expressed that he had the honour of some correspondence with him, to which Wordsworth could not remember. Kingston seemed to finally give up, but at that point, Lamb was much amused. Haydon describes in his journal Lamb getting up and singing ‘Hey diddle diddle, The cat and the fiddle. Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John,’ while Wordsworth cried ‘My dear Charles!’ trying to stop Lamb, but to no avail.

‘Do let me have another look at that gentleman’s organs.’ Lamb shouted, as Keats and Haydon locked him in a different room while bursting into laughter. After this event, the party tried to console Kingston, who stayed for dinner but no longer attempted to further engage with the guests in the same manner. Peace was seemingly restored; the guests were occupied in their discussions and trying to move on from the incident, but Kingston had lost his dignity and the matter could not be forgotten as Lamb could still be heard calling from the other room: ‘Who is that fellow? Allow me to see his organs once more’.


William Wordsworth, 1818, portrait by Richard Carruthers


This event was not only immortalised by Haydon’s words, but the fun aspects of a casual event attended by a group of notorious figures from the time remains a topic of great interest until the present day. It is rare to be immersed into situations such as this, which appears to be of little importance to the attendees’ works, but incredibly relevant when it comes to understanding how they interacted with one another on a personal level. The Immortal Dinner truly proved itself to have a longer life than the ones who were present at that evening:

‘Keats made Ritchie promise he would carry his Endymion to the great desert of Sahara and fling it in the midst.

Poor Ritchie went to Africa, and died, as Lamb foresaw, in 1819. Keats died in 1821, at Rome. C. Lamb is gone, joking to the last. Monkhouse is dead, and Wordsworth and I are the only two now living (1841) of that glorious party.’

Two years after Haydon transcribed his account, Wordsworth became Poet Laureate and proceeded to survive the whole party as Haydon took his own life in 1846.

Primary Sources:

Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Autobiography and Letters

On This Day in 1817: Keats and Negative Capability, 21-27 December

After a hiatus, ‘On This Day’ continues with a post by Ellen Nicholls (University of Sheffield). Ellen is a third year PhD candidate and Wolfson Scholar, studying under the supervision of Dr Madeleine Callaghan. Her thesis explores the interdependency of pleasure and pain in the poetry and letters of John Keats, thinking about how far Keats uses the poem as an experimental space in which to engage with, advance, and depart from a medical understanding of bodily experience. Alongside her studies, she is also working with the Keats-Shelley Association of America as a Communications Fellow, collaborating with and promoting the many bicentenary celebrations of the Romantics through online media.

We return to this series to celebrate an iconic moment from 1817 which will be familiar to many scholars of Romanticism and readers of Keats. Here Ellen explains the significance of this bicentenary and also discusses the short lyric ‘In Drear-nighted December’.

More ‘On This Day’ posts to follow. If you want to contribute to this series, please contact Anna Mercer (


‘Drear-Nighted December’ and the Bicentenary of Keats’s Negative Capability Letter


This Christmas marks the bicentenary of Keats’s ‘Negative Capability’ letter. Written roughly between 21-27 December 1817, this important anniversary leads many romantic scholars and enthusiasts to reflect on Keats’s considerable achievements. As this time approaches, I am not only reminded of the astonishing creative energies that Keats displays in his letter, but also drawn to Keats’s attentiveness to the season in which he is writing. Critics are often attuned to the role darkness and mist play in Keats’s conception of negative capability.[1] But very little has been said of how ‘Drear-nighted December’, the month and time of day in which Keats was writing to his brothers Tom and George, informs one of his most famous poetic speculations. December 21 1817 was the winter solstice, and the shorter, darker days of winter, alongside the many indoor festivities that accompanied them, were not far from Keats’s mind while he was writing to his brothers in Teignmouth.

The composition history of this significant letter remains somewhat shrouded in the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ (Letters: John Keats I, 193) that it so famously sets forth.[2] The letter survives from a transcript by John Jeffrey; second husband to George’s wife, Georgiana. Hyder Edward Rollins points out Jeffrey’s misdating of the correspondence, a fact that is unsurprising given Keats’s habit of composing letters over fragmented periods of time. But Rollins conjectures that the letter’s main passage on negative capability was ‘very likely’ (Letters: John Keats I, 194) written the night of 26th December, after Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke accompanied Keats to the Drury Lane Christmas pantomime: Harlequin’s Vision, Or, The Feast of the Statue.

It is Keats’s busy social life throughout the festive period that not only interrupts the letter’s composition, but that is also vital in informing its content. Keats wryly comments upon how he has ‘been out too much lately’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192), describing how he: watched one of his favourite actors, Edmund Kean, in Shakespeare’s Richard III; spent ‘two very pleasant evenings with Dilke’ (Letters: John Keats I, 191-192); viewed Benjamin West’s painting Death on the Pale Horse with Charles Jeremiah Wells— an artistic experience that was central in elaborating his thoughts on the ‘close relationship […] [between] Beauty & Truth’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192) ; ‘dined with Haydon’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192); dined also with Horace Smith, Smith’s two brothers, Thomas Hill, John Kingston, and Edward Du Bois; and, of course, attended the Christmas pantomime with Brown and Dilke.


‘Death on the Pale Horse’ by Benjamin West (1817)


It is the spirit of conviviality, converse, and merriment that accompanied Keats’s busy social calendar between 21 and 27 December that led him to set out his theory of negative capability. Reflecting upon his walk to and from the Christmas pantomime with his two friends, Keats writes:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously— I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason— Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge (Letters: John Keats I, 193-194).

Keats comically draws attention to the friendly spirit of disagreement, typical of the festive period, which characterised his conversation with Dilke by means of rejecting the term ‘dispute’ in favour of ‘disquisition’. The rigorous discussion and questioning that the verb ‘disquisition’ implies becomes important for understanding ‘what quality’ Keats is attempting to spell out. Keats writes in response to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, published the same year that this letter was composed, and in which Coleridge suggests that the poet should aim to reconcile ‘opposite or discordant qualities’ through a synthetic imagination.[3] Entering into dialogue with Coleridge, Keats suggests that reaching after reconciliations and conclusions can lead to the ‘verisimilar’, or that which appears true, but is ultimately fallacious. Instead, negative capability proposes an ability to remain at ease with the ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’ of contradiction and disagreement, advancing the idea that the poet should have a disquisitional mind that is content with ‘half knowledge’ and in which meaning is neither fixed nor debate shut down. It is with such a dialogic openness of mind that Keats conceives of negative capability. With a characteristically contradictory turn of phrase, Keats highlights how holding ‘several things’ in equipoise within his imagination paradoxically leads his ideas to ‘dovetail’, uniting together to form his important poetic concept. Creativity, for Keats, is not inhibited but enabled by the inherent equivocality of tensions so much so that the ambiguities and indeterminacies of ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ would become one of the defining features of Keats’s poetic style.

Considering the season in which Keats sat down to write this letter 200 years ago, brings into relief the receptivity of his creative imagination. A mind continually responsive to and informed by his surroundings, encounters, and conversations with friends, the negative capability letter demonstrates the inextricability between Keats’s life, letters, and poetry. It was on another day in December 1817 that Keats wrote and poetically reflected upon the season in the short lyric, ‘In Drear-nighted December’. This winter poem does not contain depictions of friendly converse and companionship that we see in Keats’s negative capability letter, instead presenting harsh and ‘sleety’ (6) images of dismal ‘frozen thawings’ (7). But Keats’s sense that nature might find contentment with its winter condition, with the darkness and dreariness of a season in which life clings on so tentatively, resonates with his thoughts on ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. As John Barnard writes: ‘The poem reflects Keats’s ideas on “Negative Capability” and “intensity”, which he outlined in his important letter to Tom and George on 21-7 December 1817’.[4] The ‘crystal fretting’ (14) of Keats’s poem is centred on how we might share in nature’s contentment with ‘drear-nighted’ (1) uncertainty without writhing (20) at the ‘passed joy’ (20) of summer’s ‘budding’ (8) stability:



In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy tree,

Thy branches ne’er remember

Their green felicity:

The north cannot undo them,

With a sleety whistle through them;

Nor frozen thawings glue them

From budding at the prime.



In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy brook,

Thy bubblings ne’er remember

Apollo’s summer look;

But with a sweet forgetting,

They stay their crystal fretting,

Never, never petting

About the frozen time.



Ah! would ’t were so with many

A gentle girl and boy!

But were there ever any

Writhed not of passèd joy?

The feel of not to feel it,

When there is none to heal it,

Nor numbèd sense to steal it,

Was never said in rhyme.[5]


Keats’s repeated use of the negations ‘Ne’er’ (3), ‘nor’ (7), ‘never’ (15), ‘not’ (20), sets forth the issue under interrogation: namely, how to articulate a feeling as ambiguous as absence and loss. The poem paradoxically draws attention to the sensation of senselessness, or ‘the feel of not to feel it’ (21), presenting the loss of joy not as a ‘numbèd sense’ (23) in which all feeling is annihilated, but an absent presence or painful void that causes one to writhe (20). The poem proposes an inability for ‘rhyme’ (24) or poetic language to contain such an experience, leading Michael O’Neill to argue that the poem is, ‘called into being by the “feel” it is said never to have found words for, “rhyme” stands apart from “feel” by virtue of its failure to rhyme with any lines in the stanza (it rhymes with the final lines of stanzas 1 and 2)’.[6] Poetic language ostensibly fails to meet the demands of negative capability by being unable to capture the uncertain, mysterious, and doubtful sensation of absence. And yet it is at the point where rhyme is said to fail that the potentiality of such uncertainty is evident. The word ‘rhyme’ may not harmonise with any other line ending in the third stanza, but it shares an important formal and semantic relation to the end words of the previous two stanzas: ‘prime’ (8) and ‘time’ (16). The final words of each stanza are aurally incongruous to the other rhyme sounds in each contained section, isolated within the bleak landscape that they both describe and reflect. But they also serve to link each of the stanzas together as a whole by drawing the eye and ear back to the only words that they share a formal relation with in the other stanzas. By linking these three words together through rhyme, the poem’s outlook of winter desolation is both undermined and belied by the suggestion that ‘drear-nighted December’ (1) is the ‘prime’ (8) ‘time’ (16) for engendering thought and sensation within poetic language. That which is dark, obscure, and uncertain becomes a site of frustration and ‘fretting’ (14) that resists the limitations of language, even as it is presented as a location of ‘budding’ (8) potentiality.

Keats may be a poet who is most frequently associated with autumn, but the importance of winter for his poetic thought should not be underestimated. December reminds us of the remarkable achievement of Keats’s letters as the month that both brought into being and embodies his thoughts on negative capability.

– Ellen Nicholls


[1] See Keats’s 3rd May 1818 letter to Reynolds in which Keats creates a simile for life as ‘a large Mansion of Many Apartments’ (Letters: John Keats I, 280-281). In his analysis of the letter, Alexander Patterson suggests that darkness and mist do not inhibit, but facilitate thought and imagination. Alexander Patterson, ‘A Greater Luxury’: Keats’s Depictions of Mistiness and Reading, Romanticism, 18 (2012), pp. 260-269 (p. 260).

[2] The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958). All subsequent references to the letters will be taken from this edition.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Biographia Literaria” (1817) in The Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 155-482 (p. 319).

[4] See footnotes to ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[5] John Keats, ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[6] Michael O’Neill, “The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale”: Keats (I)’ in Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 180-209 (p. 182).

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 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.



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.

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 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 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.





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.



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,


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:


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’.