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  • 1816:Romanticisms Quick and Slow
  • Jonathan Sachs

New Year's Day, 1816. As the year begins, a 27-year-old Lord Byron is living in his large establishment at Number 13, Piccadilly Terrace, London. The era's most popular poet and active in the interests of the Drury Lane theater, Byron was also the proud father of a little girl, the three-week-old Augusta Ada. But his household's new expenses worsened Byron's debts, which regularly drove him—as did other troubles—into what he called his "ungovernable fits of rage."1 This emotional storm lay hidden. His friend John Murray perceived him, around this time, as "perfectly well" and in "better dancing spirits than … ever."2 Two weeks into January, however, Lady Byron left Piccadilly Terrace for her parents' house in Leicestershire. The pair would never meet again. Their separation became the scandal of early 1816.

Meanwhile, Percy Bysshe Shelley, age 23, was living in Bishops-gate, Surrey, some 25 miles from London, on the edge of Windsor Great Park, in a two-story redbrick cottage with a pitched slate roof. Having just finished Alastor, Shelley turned to financial matters: avoiding creditors and raising funds for his increasingly desperate mentor and future father-in-law, William Godwin. Shelley's correspondence from this period is full of long, tedious letters to Godwin explaining the complications of his entail interspersed with short notes presenting Shelley's complements to Messrs. Brookes and Co., his bankers in Hanover Square.

By year's end, Byron had moved to Venice, where he wrote garrulous missives to Thomas Moore and John Murray on the predictable regularity of his "'way of life'" or "'May of life'" as he punned.3 This involved mornings babbling Armenian with the friars at St. [End Page 88] Lazarus' convent and evenings at the theater or at a conversazione where, instead of lemonade and ice, talk was facilitated by stiff rum-punch. Still, things couldn't have been too regular: the carnival had begun, and one night at the theater, Byron found himself "compelled to regale a person with an English punch in the guts—which sent him as far back as the squeeze and the passage would admit" (BLJ, v, 152). Byron wrote more sober letters to his half-sister Augusta Leigh and to his solicitor John Hanson about Ada's future. To Murray in late December, he reflected that "my run of luck within the last year seems to have taken a turn every way but never mind—I will bring myself through in the end" (BLJ, v, 153). On January 2, 1817, Byron noted the third anniversary of the Corsair's publication, as well as the second anniversary of his marriage. "I shan't forget the day in a hurry," he noted (BLJ, v, 154).

By this point, Shelley had returned to London and married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on December 30 at St. Mildred's Church, Bread Street, London, in the presence of her father and step-mother. Unlike the kind of marriage that ends a good comedy, this one was made possible by the suicide of Shelley's first wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, found dead in the Serpentine a month after disappearing from her lodgings. The prospect of Mary Godwin's marriage mitigated her father's ingratitude and his demands for money, both of which had plagued Shelley over the past year. Despite this relief, Shelley was troubled over grief for Harriet and worry about the prolonged battle ahead for custody of the children, Ianthe and Charles.4

In the days, weeks, and months between Byron's infamous separation and Shelley's quiet marriage lay a very wet, unseasonably cold summer, which the two passed together at Lake Geneva. Highlights included a ghost-story competition and regular visits to Madame de Staël. Mary Shelley drafted Frankenstein; Byron completed Childe Harold, Canto III, and The Prisoner of Chillon; and Shelley composed "Mont Blanc." In late June, the two men jointly toured the environs of Lake Geneva, admiring Rousseau as well as the Alps. In early December, Leigh Hunt's "Young Poets" essay in the Examiner gave Shelley his first favorable notice in print...


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