Good Reading : May 2016
GOOD READING MAY 2016 17 WRITER’S HOUSE was not one to stay put for long; while his mother lived in the crumbling property, he undertook his Grand Tour in 1809, a rite of passage for young men at the time. The Napoleonic Wars were raging in most of Europe, the traditional destination of a young man’s Grand Tour, so Byron instead travelled to the Mediterranean in order to flee the debts as well as avoid his former lover Mary Chaworth. He returned from his adventures in 1811, but only four years later Lord Byron was forced to flee England due to his scandalous lifestyle. A string of affairs, including one with his half-sister Augusta Leigh – with whom he was rumoured to have had a child – led to the exile. But it was on these travels that he wrote most prolifically, including the epic Don Juan. On these travels he met Mary and Percy Shelley. Accompanying the group one summer was John William Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, and they all stayed at Lake Geneva, where they wrote together. Byron completed the third canto to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage while staying at the lake. After the weather turned sour, Byron suggested they write ghost stories to pass the time. Mary Shelley, unable to think of anything, retired early. It was that night that she dreamed of a ‘pale student of unhallowed arts’ and ‘the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out’. She immediately began to write, and what was intended to be a short story turned into the first science fiction novel – Frankenstein: or, the modern Prometheus. In 1818, Lord Byron sold Newstead to Thomas Wildman, whose family had amassed great wealth in Jamaica. He lavished vast sums on the abbey, reviving some of its greatness. Wildman’s widow then sold it in 1861 to William Frederick Webb, an African explorer. The abbey now contains many items owned by these two families in the Victorian era. Byron died in Greece in April 1824 at the age of 36. He was hailed a hero by the Greeks for his support of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. His body was embalmed and sent back to England. His heart, however, is said to have been kept by the Greeks. After being refused burial at Westminster Abbey (the traditional burial site of British people of note) on the grounds of his ‘questionable morality’, Byron’s body was buried in the family vault near Newstead Abbey. It wasn’t until 1969 that a memorial for the poet was finally placed in Westminster Abbey. Today the gardens and the house are open to the public, and the life of Lord Byron is celebrated. In the grounds of the Abbey stands Byron’s Oak, a tree that the writer planted when he was only 10 years old. Nearly a decade after inheriting the property, Lord Byron returned to Newstead to find the oak tree in poor health. He wrote the poem ‘To an Oak at Newstead’ to honour the great tree. But after he wrote the poem the tree miraculously recovered and became an attraction for Victorian visitors. But in 1915, almost a century later, the tree died. Now an ivy-covered stump, the tree was remembered alongside Lord Byron in 1988 when a new small oak was planted in the poet’s honour by one of his descendants, the Earl of Lytton, to mark the 200th anniversary of the great writer’s birth.