Yet another death in the Summer of Death, 1822
I see, going over my notes, that I neglected one key story in this Summer of Death, 1822. I’ve told about Mary’s miscarriage on June 16, about the drownings of Bysshe, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian early in July. I’ve told a little about the death of Byron in 1824.
But there’s another story, one that takes us back to the Frankenstein summer of 1816, the summer when Mary and Bysshe met Byron in Switzerland, where the turbulent weather (courtesy of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia a year earlier, an eruption that had global climate consequences) forced the friends indoors for much of the time, where—as we know—Byron proposed the ghost-story competition that gave birth to Frankenstein (and some other tales).
I’ve written, too, how one object of that visit to Geneva was to deal with a problem facing Claire Clairmont, daughter of William Godwin’s second wife. Mary’s stepsister. Only a few months younger than Mary, she had joined Bysshe and Mary when they’d eloped in 1814 and had been living with them, on and off, ever since. And would continue to do so for quite a while.
In the summer of 1816, Claire was pregnant. The father was Lord Byron. And “arrangements” had to be made, arrangements about which I’ve written earlier. On January 12, 1817, Claire delivered the child (Claire named her Alba; Byron insisted she change the name to Allegra; she did).
When the Shelleys and Claire went to Italy in the spring of 1818, they surrendered Allegra to her father (also in Italy), and Byron proceeded to pretty much ignore the little girl. He eventually placed her in a convent/convent school, where he never visited her, entrusting her instead to the care of his banker in Ravenna—a man who was also taking care of his animals.
In mid-April, 1822, Byron got word that Allegra was ill. Doctors bled the five-year-old—several times. By April 19 she was dead. Byron, reportedly, was distraught—but not in public. Byron’s principal biographer, Leslie Marchand, believes there is little doubt that Byron was deeply affected by the event. I don’t doubt that he was—and I’m sure much of it was due to a conscience that must have already been quite overtaxed.
He wrote a note to Bysshe on April 23. The blow was stunning and unexpected, he said. Time will do his usual work—Death has done his.
But now … how to tell Claire that her daughter was gone?
Bysshe and others were discussing that very issue when Claire walked in the room at Casa Magni. On May 3, Bysshe wrote to Byron about that moment—a moment they had put off, as you can tell by the date, for a week and a half. I will not describe her grief to you, he said. He told Byron that Claire had requested to see the coffin, to have a clipping of her hair and a little portrait of her daughter. And Byron complied.
Earlier, I wrote about Byron’s determination to bury the child at a church near Harrow School, his own boyhood school back in London. I described the marker I saw there in 1999.
But as I sit here today, I have difficulty imagining the horrors of Mary Shelley’s experiences in Italy. Yes, they saw Florence and Rome and Venice and Naples. They climbed Vesuvius. Viewed some of the world’s great art.
But Mary had to bury children and a husband. And to prepare to return to England, a country where she knew she would be greeted as a Fallen Woman. An outcast.