June 15, 2016

It was a dark and stormy night...

From Shelley's chalet, a hillside path ran up  to the Villa Diodati, an easy climb even when one was encumbered by long skirts. Byron and Shelley, it turned out, shared a passion for sailing and split the cost of leasing a small sailboat, which they moored in the little harbor below Shelley's house. Whenever they they could, they went onto the lake, though this was not as often as they would have liked, as the weather was becoming increasingly stormy. Ash-colored clouds poured over the mountains from Chamonix. The lake churned; lightning shot across the sky. Everything on the opposite shore -- the cottages with their red roofs and the terraced vineyards, the Hotel d'Angleterre with its scandalized guests -- disappeared behind a curtain of gray sleet, leaving the little party with what initially was a delicious sense of being cut off from the rest of the world but gradually turned worrisome to those who tended to worry and tedious to those who were prone to boredom, trapped as they were indoors, day after day.
The plot thickens...
After a week of being shut inside by the steady rain, Byron amused himself by suggesting that the lovesick Polidori demonstrate his chivalry by jumping off the porch -- an eight-foot drop -- to offer Mary assistance as she made her way up the wet, slippery path. Polidori was too naive to know what Byron knew instinctively, that a man who took such extraordinary measures would appear foolish. Sure enough. when the smitten Polidori took his lordship's advice and leapt, Mary was startled but certainly not impressed. Even more embarrassing, Polidori sprained his ankle upon landing, with the result that when he and Mary made their way to the house, the young knight had to  lean on his lady's shoulder rather than the other way around. Wincing, irritable, and out of sorts, he retired indoors, fully aware that he had been ridiculous.
      Confined to the couch for the rest of the week, Polidori brooded over Mary's perfections -- her slanting sidelong looks, her air of hidden secrets -- until he could bear it no longer.
      He confessed his love, hoping Mary would welcome his advances; after all, she had scorned the social code by living openly with Shelley and bearing his children. Perhaps she would welcome a new suitor. But he was quickly disabused of this notion when Mary told him she thought of him as a little brother and that she was in love exclusively with Shelley. This was a humbling moment for the ambitious young man who, although he was a physician wanted to be a writer and believed his literary talents rivaled those of Byron.
      If June 15, the day of his infamous jump, loomed large as one of the most humiliating episodes in Polidori's short and troubled life ... it has also become notable in literary history for the chain of events that began later that evening. To cheer up the injured young doctor, the group agreed to hear him read the first draft of his new play. Although no one though highly of the work -- they said it was 'worth nothing, he recorded dolefully in his journal -- it did spark a conversation that would have important ramifications for all assembled, so important that literary scholars are still trying to piece together exactly what happened that night.
      Creation and human nature -- these were the topics on the table. ... Before long, the conversation turned to electricity and 'the experiment of Dr. Darwin,' Charles Darwin's grandfather, who has dined with Mary's mother long ago. ... Byron and Shelley particularly liked the story about how Darwin had applied an electrical charge to 'a piece of vermicelli* in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.' But though Shelley rejoiced in the idea of human beings creating life, Mary would later say, in a preface to her revised edition of Frankenstein, that she found the principle 'supremely frightful' ... Evil, she felt, was lodged too deeply inside the human heart. ...

from Romantic Outlaws:  the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft
and her daughter Mary Shelley
, by Charlotte Gordon

{*And then there's this}

1 comment:

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

I feel like Byron would have been both a delightful and horrific house guest. In the pro column: handsome, charming, and clever. In the con: everything else.

Sounds like a very interesting book!