It’s one of the most famous – indeed infamous – episodes in English literary history. In the summer of 1816 Lord Byron took a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva. He was attended by his doctor, John William Polidori, and another nearby house was rented by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, with whom the married Shelley had eloped two years previously, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress. The weather was terrible that year – so bad they called it ‘the ‘year without a summer’ – and the party spent most of their time indoors, gathered about the fireplace in Lord Byron’s drawing-room. And it was there, during a night of thunderous sturm und drang, that a chain of events took place that began with the telling of ghost stories, and led eventually to Mary Shelley’s ‘hideous progeny’, Frankenstein.
It’s been recreated dozens of times, both on page and on screen – most outrageously in Ken Russell’s 1986 film, Gothic, and most recently in my own novel, A Treacherous Likeness. But do we really know, even now, what actually happened? We know that Shelley had a fit of wild hysterics and had to be administered ether by Polidori, and we know – or think we know – that Mary later had a terrifying dream of a scientist and the monstrous thing he had made. She gave that celebrated account of her novel’s nightmarish origins in a preface to the book, but that was written 15 years later, long after all the men present that summer were dead. And Polidori’s account, not published until 1911, makes no mention of her announcing to the company – as she later described – that she had ‘thought of a story’. Mystery, melodrama, and some of the 19th century’s most memorable figures; no wonder those nights on the lake still exercise such a hold. If only we could have eavesdropped – imagine that –
And that’s what got me thinking.
Earlier this year I wrote a version of the Netherfield Ball in Pride & Prejudice as it might have played out if the characters had had Twitter, and as I worked on that it occurred to me what riotous tweeters the Byron set would have been. But there was a serious side to that thought too: Lord Byron was in many ways the Justin Bieber of his day, ‘followed’ with fervour by his fans, and pursued with equal relentlessness by a rumour-hungry press. So with a little artistic license and tongue half in cheek (but only half), here is my Twitter version of that scandalous party at the Diodati…
The town is abuzz with #Byron gossip –at one soiree a lady is said to have fainted merely upon his entering the room – and she was *65*…
So can you top that? Have you got a better Byron story? We’ve all agog for the latest Lordship #goss Tweet us words and #pics hashtag #Byron
Another downpour means no boating today for the 5th day running – starting to wonder if we will get a summer at all this year :(
We hear everyone is talking about the goings-on at a *certain* local villa. Apparently it’s quite a party… #Byron #foursome #nudgenudge
May we remind our guests that the Villa Diodati is clearly visible from our beautiful terrace. Telescopes for hire, 5 Francs an hour
I see those damned snoopers at the D’Angleterre are still spying on us *checks mirror to ensure he is being sufficiently outrageous*
@MadBad&Dangerous The price of fame, I fear, my Lord
What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little
Why not parade starkers, that’d send ‘em scurrying
Ha! They could not withstand such a sight – the men would quail and the women faint *tears open shirt and flings wide the window*
*Gasps* OMG OMG I took this pic two mins ago from our hotel!!!! And I thought Switzerland would be boring!!! #Byron #sexy #hot
@Byronistas @Byrongroupies and 345,867 others retweeted you
*swoons* Ohh that pic almost gave me a heart attack! I am totes in love! Lord Byron <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 PLEASE FOLLOW ME! #ByronTeamFollowback
@MadBad&Dangerous LB, please, you are only encouraging them!
And confirming their worst suspicions – those innocent tablecloths drying outside are no doubt exciting the most frenzied titillation *sigh*
London’s wild with #Byromania! In this week’s mag - how to get that broody babe-magnet look, from the scowls to the shirts to the sweating
He was HERE! This VERY hotel and I missed him by a week! *sobs* Tho his age is down as 100 in the register – that cant be right can it?
We can confirm - it’s *definitely* pants on the line at the #Diodati. But what does #Byron favour? Boxers or briefs? Trunks or thongs?
@TheGenOnGen An actress of our acquaintance claims #Byron –like @BeauBrummell- disdains all drawers for a perfect trouser line #shewouldknow
Ha – that minx came to me at Covent Garden saying "My Lord, I can act men's parts. I have a mind to put on breeches and demand satisfaction"
“Miss Kelly”, quoth I, “I should be more than happy to requite you in full, here and now, by pulling off my own”
Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it
@ClaireClairmont *Must* that man Polidori be so coarse? And his presence so *very* insistent?
@TheRealMrsShelley Don’t look at me, his being here is none of my doing, the dirty little Peeping Tom. I caught him snooping on us again yesterday
@ClaireClairmont I fail to see why his attendance should be required at all – My Lord scarcely requires a doctor, to judge *ahem* of his nightly exertions
@TheRealMrsShelley *arches eyebrow* Perhaps he is not a doctor at all – perhaps he is really a spy for the vile @LadyByron …
@TheRealMrsShelley But if so, you’re in no position to look down your nose. After all you’re not @TheRealMrsShelley either, are you? How *is* poor Harriet?
@ClaireClairmont *disdainful look* Poor! She is no doubt living in the lap of luxury in her father’s house while we starve on bread and cheese
@TheRealMrsShelley. *looks askance* Hardly. You have gorged yourself at his lordship’s expense every night since we got here. I saw you snaffle that lobster
BREAKING: We are told the Lord #Byron has no intention of returning to these shores. He has “shaken the dust of England from his shoes”
@PhysiciantotheFamous In light of this news I trust you are keeping to the terms of our agreement – I require details, sir, of all that passes concerning my Lord B
@JohnMurrayEsq Have no fear – you shall have your fill of scandal, and a full penn’oth for your penny
@PhysiciantotheFamous It was a more than generous £500, as well you know, and I shall expect value for my money
Read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and gave it 5 stars – available now at Amazon http://amzn.to/16LaIfW
The populace at large have a very odd notion of geography if they think to find Childe Harold in a river in Peru…
@MadBad&Dangerous It’s not the river, it’s a - oh never mind
The original Byronic hero. Mean, moody and magnificent. Follow my pilgrimage through exotic distant lands. Warning: may tweet in cantos
@TheRealChildeHarold How dare thee, varlet – th’art not the true Childe Harold! Charlatan and imposter, get thee gone!
@TheRealChildeHarold blocked and reported for spam
And no, you most certainly CANNOT load down my romaunt for free – tender thy groat like every other honest churl
In the Times tomorrow ‘Byron - A flawed hero for our times’. Joshua Abrahams blogs on propriety, privacy, prurience and *those* rumours
I hear the half-sister of a Nobleman Who Shall Be Nameless is to return to town now the said reprobate has fled
I wonder why #incest is trending? *innocent face*
SEVERE STORM WARNING: Thunder in the mountains and heavy rain on the lake. Secure all doors and windows and remain inside
Fierce roars the midnight storm O'er the wild mountain, Dark clouds the night deform, Swift rolls the fountain Hahahahahaha!
@UnackLegislator Will you stop flicking those bloody currants at me.
*nervous look* Can we not find something to occupy ourselves? What of my Lord’s suggestion that we all compete in writing a ghost story?
I’m up for it. After all, the only thing Lord B can do better than me is penning bloody poetry. How hard can it be?
@PhysiciantotheFamous *coolly* On the contrary there are three such things. First, I can shoot the keyhole of that door from here
@MadBad&Dangerous Yeah right -
@PhysiciantotheFamous Second, I can swim across the river
@MadBad&Dangerous *Scoffs* Forgive me for stating the bleedin’ obvious, but you’re in no shape for another of those Hellespont stunts -
@PhysiciantotheFamous And third, I can give you a damned good thrashing *makes across the room*
I was thrashed at Eton for raising the devil with an electric battery - when the master seized it the shock almost blew his head off Hahaha!
@Duracell @Energizer and @CutPriceElectronics followed you
That sounds horribly like those galvanic experiments we talked of the other night – that scientist who made the dead frog twitch *shudders*
*in desperation* Ghost stories – we must devote our attention to our ghost stories! Where is that book LB was reading from yesterday?
@TheRealMrsShelley *proffers copy* Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d'histoires d'apparitions de spectres, revenants et fantômes
@ClaireClairmont *tartly* Ah, you and your much-vaunted facility for French. But I suppose we must all make the most of what talents we have
@TheRealMrsShelley You’re happy enough to make use of it. Like on that famous elopement of yours. But we all know whose idea *that* was
@ClaireClairmont That’s quite enough. You know we agreed not to speak of it – it will achieve nothing to rake all that up again
@TheRealMrsShelley *arches eyebrow* I remember you wrote a story on that trip too. What was it you called it? Ah yes, I recall now. ‘Hate’
@ClaireClairmont If I write anything this summer it will be a good deal more enduring than that. And nothing whatsoever to do with *you*
@TheRealMrsShelley So I take it that you have come up with an idea for your ghost story – *do* enlighten us
@ClaireClairmont Well, er, no actually. Not yet. But I’m sure I will. Of course I will. I just need time alone to collect my thoughts
I have often started from my own company as if it were that of a fiend, seeking anything rather than a continued communion with self -
@UnackLegislator You feeling all right, mate?
@UnackLegislator Perhaps it would be prudent to lie down my love? We do not want to risk another of your fits.
I’ve got a great idea for a ghost story – I’m going to call it The Vampyre
@PhysiciantotheFamous You stole that conceit from me, you scoundrel -
@MadBad&Dangerous You’ve been sitting on it for days – if you can’t be fagged to finish it I’ll have a go
@PhysiciantotheFamous *waves a hand jadedly* Oh if you must
@MadBad&Dangerous Actually, I think vampires could be the next big thing. That whole sex and death shtick. Chicks go crazy for that y’know
@PhysiciantotheFamous You mean, like this?
@HotVampGirls @DarkestPassions @TheGothicBabes and 1,985,245 others retweeted you
I am SO DYING – OMG OMG OMG OMGdid u see that?!!!!!! that is SO HOT #Byron #vampire #blood
Someone told me he's a member of some secret Order that meets at midnight and drinks blood from a skull #true #Byron #Gothic #hero
@MadBad&Dangerous Can this be true? You actually drink from a human skull?
@ClaireClairmont Oh that – the gardener dug it up. Some monk’s, no doubt. I had it mounted as a claret cup. I even composed a verse upon it
‘In me behold the only skull From which unlike a living head, Whatever flows is never dull’ Ha!
0 out of 5 stars to Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Read it twice and still haven’t the slightest idea what it was supposed to be about
The doctrine of equality and liberty, and unbelief in religion. Free love, the labour theory of value, tyranny, vegetarianism Hahahahahaha!
*butting in * @MadBad&Dangerous My Lord – why do you not inspire us in our efforts – read to us from your own ghost story
@TheRealMrsShelley I have a better idea – I will declaim from Christabel by @SamuelTColeridge
@JohnMurrayEsq It’s all kicking off here… Shelley’s giggling like a madman and Byron’s standing on a box in a big black cloak shouting some poem. Blimey
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around –Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropped to her feet, and full in view
*in horror* Look – look at Mary!
@UnackLegislator What – what is the matter?
Behold! her bosom and half her side-Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue –
Aaargh! Her nipples – she has eyes for nipples! *runs shrieking from the room*
@JohnMurrayEsq Hold up – looks like my professional services are required -
*Looks around* Was it something I said?
My poor Shelley – I must go to him!
@TheRealMrsShelley *preventing her* You would do better to leave him to Polidori. It’s a doctor he needs, not a wailing so-called wife
God damn the man and his endless hysterics – he’s worse than a confounded schoolgirl
@MadBad&Dangerous My Lord you are unfair! Shelley is – sensitive. He sleepwalks - has waking visions -
*drily* Indeed. I begin to see why his father tried to put him in that madhouse
@MadBad&Dangerous Might this be an opportune time to retire, my Lord? I might come discreetly to your chamber while Polidori is engaged elsewhere
*wearily* What am I to do? A man cannot exactly play the Stoic to an 18-yr-old girl who has scrambled 800 miles across Europe to his bed
@FurnitureVillage @SilentNight @MattressesDirect and @RyanAir followed you
Panic over. I’ve given him ether and chucked water over him. He’s babbling a bit but there’s nothing actually wrong with him #dramaqueen
@PhysiciantotheFamous *anxiously* What is he saying? What did he tell you? Nothing about his own past? Nothing – untoward?
@TheRealMrsShelley Nah. I didn’t catch all of it - something about being an outcast and saving him from some monster that’s after him
After monster #savings? Up to 50% off at our Emporium of Scientific Apparatus -everything for the student thirsty for knowledge #deals #kit
@TheRealMrsShelley I reckon Shelley’s been at the cooking sherry again. Load of old cobblers if you ask me
@PhysiciantotheFamous *thoughtfully* Perhaps. Perhaps not.
@TheRealMrsShelley Mary – where are you suddenly rushing away to?
@ClaireClairmont I must find my writing desk. I have thought of a story….
Lynn Shepherd’s novel A Treacherous Likeness is inspired by the lives of the Shelleys and is available from Corsair. It was published as A Fatal Likeness in the US in August. Her website is www.lynn-shepherd.com and her Twitter ID is @Lynn_Shepherd. The Pride & Prejudice post can be found here.