Authors: Veronica Bennett
“The bear on a chain did not like Switzerland very much,” I replied. “And I thought
wanted to be near the sea.”
“And you, my darling? What is your desire?”
“I do not care where I go, as long as it is away from here,” I told him. “I will not stay to hear society’s cruel comments about the death of our precious child. Cannot you imagine the gossips, whispering behind their fans? ‘They have got what they deserve,’ they will say.”
Shelley nodded mischievously. “‘And he still keeps that forlorn little wife and two children!’” he declared in a high, disapproving voice. “‘My dear, the man is a monster!’ You are right, Mary. We
go abroad again.”
e did not go abroad immediately, though.
To my joy, I discovered I was expecting another child very soon after our daughter’s death, and did not wish to have the baby in Switzerland. It would be wintertime anyway. We decided to wait till the following spring.
This second child was a boy. Not, alas, Shelley’s first son, but a beautiful healthy baby nonetheless. Optimistically we called him William, my father’s name.
I never left him in a cradle. He slept in our bed with us, and I watched over him every minute of the day. As the days lengthened and warmed, and the baby thrived, our contentment was increased by the sale of several of Shelley’s poems for publication. His reputation was growing daily; favourable reviews abounded. Intellectuals of radical persuasion admired him, and their company fired his interest in politics. He increased his fame both as a poet and a campaigner for social justice by defending in his writing the causes of those oppressed by despotism or political corruption. My admiration grew too. I had fulfilled my girlish ambition to find a clever man.
If only my father had extended forgiveness, my happiness would have been complete.
Sitting in our cramped parlour, I tried to write. The notion of a story lay in the recesses of my brain, fashioned from our encounter with Herr Keffner. But I did not feel free either to indulge my imagination or improve my skill without my ever-supportive critic, my father.
I read and reread the books my parents had written. Nowhere in them did I find condemnation of the idealistic love Shelley and I had found. There was only praise for its liberating influence.
Why could my father not see that a man of Shelley’s gifts could not become a poet under ordinary circumstances? A poet was a prophet, a genius, a visionary. His admirers understood, as my father did not, that a creative spirit such as Shelley’s needed to live a different existence, an experimental existence in a household freed from society’s bonds. And Shelley loved me because I, too, was unshackled. Why, then, was I so cruelly punished by my papa, whose teachings had first unlocked those shackles?
“Do not spoil your beauty with self-pity,” Shelley counselled me one evening, when I had been crying. “I will help you with your writing far better than he. And anyway, he is causing more unhappiness to himself than to you.”
“Why do you say that?”
He sighed. “I passed him in the street this very morning.”
“He cut me. Quite dead.”
“But do you not see that he has wrought his own misery? Can you imagine what living in that house with your stepmother and Miss Melancholy must be like, now you and Claire are no longer there?”
It was true. The house must have been very quiet without the shrieks and giggles with which Claire and I had disturbed Papa’s peace. And there must have been more room, too, without our gowns and shoes and bonnets and cloaks and all the paraphernalia of girlhood – bundled letters, scrapbooks and more pieces of abandoned embroidery than Mama would ever find.
There was no doubt that from the day Shelley had walked into the shop and demanded a sovereign, nothing had been as it was. He had brought love and adventure, and given me the rare gift of knowing I was admired by a man who was himself admired by many. But he had taken things away too. Elusive things. Things which drifted around my head like half-remembered dreams: childhood conspiracies, sisterly loyalty, my father’s devoted respect for
“Do you know Lord Byron?” Claire enquired of Shelley casually one morning.
“Lord Byron?” exclaimed Shelley. His voice became fervent. “Who does
know Lord Byron? He is a great poet, a man noble in name and in genius. You have read his work, of course?”
“Of course,” agreed Claire, unmoved by this extravagant praise. “So you have never met him, then?”
“Did you know that he has connections with the theatre?” asked Claire. “How I long to meet someone who may procure me an entry to that wonderful world!”
Claire’s appetite for wealth and notoriety had been whetted by the scandal Shelley and I had caused. As our notoriety grew, so did hers by association. She agreed that we should go abroad again in order to escape gossip, but she also revelled in the knowledge that people were talking about her.
She longed, truly, to be famous. Her desire for attention had always been indulged at home, and sensational novels had fed her imagination. Because she could play the piano and sing a little, she had a notion of herself as a performer. She was merely awaiting the moment when her appearance on the London stage would make her the darling of the wealthy and the envy of the poor. She would be adored by men and disapproved of by their wives. She could see it all, and had frequently described it to me.
“Indeed!” I exclaimed. Lord Byron’s scandalous way of living was as widely known and disapproved of as Shelley’s. “And did
know he is estranged from his wife and is living in sin with his sister-in-law?”
“What gossips women are!” cried Shelley. “And what, pray, is ‘living in sin’, if it is not exactly what
I stared at him. “Oh! But it does not
sinful to us, does it?”
He grinned. “I will tell you something about Lord Byron,” he said mischievously. “He has a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. If we make ourselves known to him, I see no reason for him not to welcome us there, do you?”
“Oh, Shelley!” exclaimed Claire. “Let
be the one to make myself known to him! I have heard so much about him – and not just gossip, Mary – I can hardly contain my desire to meet him. Do you know where his London residence is, Shelley?”
“I do,” he said. “By all means be our ambassador, my dear Claire, if you wish.”
Later, Shelley watched Claire from the window of the lodgings as she set off on her quest to conquer Lord Byron. “I will wager that she succeeds,” he muttered. “Byron will be charmed, poor devil.”
“He would not like to be described so, to be sure!” I observed.
I did not add that knowing Claire as I did, I assumed her intentions towards Lord Byron included becoming his lover, notwithstanding the estranged wife and alleged mistress. She would make the same assault on him as she had made on Shelley. The difference was, of course, that I was not there to prick her conscience and, from what I had heard, Byron had no conscience at all.
Hours later, Claire returned. “Imagine, Mary!” she instructed me breathlessly. “Lord Byron – he allowed me to call him George, and is very, very charming – devoted the entire afternoon to me! And he intends to spend the summer in Switzerland! I believe it is only a matter of time before we receive an invitation to join him there! How splendid it will be!”
I was not so certain. “Are you sure?”
“Does he truly want the whole troop of us to invade his household?”
She stamped her foot impatiently. “You always used to accuse
of not being romantic enough! Why, it was the thing I loved about you, the way you pursued love and freedom, and never cared what people thought! Do you not remember how you stood up to Papa that day in the drawing-room, when I brought Shelley’s letter? Where has your courage gone?”
Her words stung me. I did not know where my courage had gone. “Please, consider Lord Byron’s –”
“Oh, do call him George!” she urged. “He is the dearest, sweetest, most amiable man. When you meet him you will fall in love with him just as I have done. But mind he does not fall in love with you!”
Ignoring the coy look which accompanied this, I persisted. “Claire, I beg you to consider. Do you not understand that ‘George’ is simply not interested in me, or you? It is
” she repeated, with the sort of frown she used to give me when I suggested going for a walk on a rainy day, or eating no bonbons after dinner. It meant “You are mad and I pity you”.
“What nonsense you talk, Mary! Why should he care about
“Because Shelley is a sought-after poet these days, and poets always seek each other’s society.”
“Ach!” she exclaimed impatiently, tossing her head in exact imitation of her mother.
“And furthermore,” I continued, unflinching, “Lord Byron is doubtless attracted by Shelley’s style of living and political beliefs, which are similar to his own. If he invites us at all, he will do so in order to welcome
to his villa, and display
, not us, to his influential guests.”
If Claire had not been Claire, she would have received this message clearly. But she was incapable of this degree of understanding: in her world, only
was attractive, only
“But the invitation will be to
, Mary,” she insisted. “Have you not listened to anything I have said?”
I sighed. It was no use. “Will you help me fold William’s napkins?” I asked. “The nurse has toothache and I have sent her to bed.”
Our party in Switzerland consisted of Shelley, Claire, myself and baby William. The nurse remained in England with her toothache. George had rented the Villa Diodati, the most impressive villa on Lake Geneva, positioned to command the most arresting prospect. And as I had predicted, we did not receive an invitation to stay with him there.
The less grand house Shelley had taken for us, however, was to my mind more charming. Unlike George’s villa it had no fluted pillars or marble floors. But it had pleasant south-facing rooms, with long windows overlooking gardens where William could play safely.
“How exciting!” Claire giggled as we unpacked. “George will come tomorrow!”
Claire’s capacity for self-delusion had already propelled her into a reckless affair with an unscrupulous man. I was strongly convinced that Lord Byron did not return my sister’s affection, but, inspired by his fast and furious poetry and his equally fast and furious way of life, she could not resist her fantasy.
At last I understood what she had meant when she had outlined our future life of merriment and ease, and new dresses. She had grown tired of her role as the superfluous member of a two-woman-one-man triangle. Defeated in her attempts to prise Shelley from my side, she had been plotting for many months a strategy for getting her
aristocrat. And most important of all she wanted her
source of scandal and notoriety, greater even than Shelley could boast.
George duly arrived in a carriage and six with one guest and a large retinue of servants, and set up house in the Villa Diodati. But he did not call.
“Does he expect us to call on
?” I asked Shelley. “I am not sure of the etiquette.”
“Etiquette be damned,” declared Shelley.
“But he is our social superior, is he not?”
“Social superior be damned,” said Shelley. “Let him come when he likes.”
Claire could scarcely contain herself. I was reminded of the feverish days between my meeting with Shelley in the bookshop and his first afternoon call, when I had gazed perpetually out of the front windows, elated and despairing by turns. Claire sat on the balcony outside her room, from where she could see the roof and some of the windows of the Villa Diodati, all day for several days, until impatience overcame her and she dashed off a letter to George.
I did not see its contents, but I could imagine her pleadings. Her chance to parade her conquest before the world, which his scandalous style of living did not allow at home in London, was too precious to miss. And the summer was passing.
Then, when more than a week had gone by and Claire had stopped sitting on the balcony, he appeared. It was the early evening of a scorching day. Shelley was outside by the lake when Claire and I, who were preparing supper, heard a commotion and an aristocratic English voice. I gathered William into my arms and followed Claire’s shrieking, fluttering figure down the front steps to the beach.
We stared at the unexpected sight that met us. Her lover and mine were splashing barefoot in the shallows, hauling in a rowing boat and shouting instructions to each other like fishermen. George, who had jumped out of the boat when he saw Shelley on the shore, was soaked to his waist, and wore his shirt tied up, more like a Swiss peasant than a member of the English ruling class. Shelley, helpless with laughter, lost his footing, sat down hard on the pebbles and laughed louder.
“Have you never handled a boat before, man?” roared George. “And you call yourself an Englishman?”
“An Englishman would arrive on a proper sailing boat with a proper crew!” called Claire, advancing down the beach. “Not row himself like any common oarsman!”
Shelley tugged the boat with all his strength, and at last he and George succeeded in beaching it. George collapsed at Claire’s feet and caught the hem of her skirt in his teeth. Shelley lay beside him, holding his stomach and groaning.
“What are you doing, George? Are you being a dog? Is this a game?” asked poor Claire.
George released her dress and growled. Shelley groaned louder. Their combined noise was louder and more childish than anything William could produce.