I suppose you could say that every year is a year of important anniversaries. Every year in April, for example, I have a quiet drink to Francesca Woodman:
for no other reason than that remembering is kind of what we’re here for. We come from memories of one place and progress into memories of another.
This year is obviously and manifestly dominated by William Shakespeare [1564-1616], a man who basically could turn up and introduce himself thus: “Darlings, how do you do? I’m William Shakespeare and I AM literature!”
I mean if anyone were going to it would be him…he’s kind of a big deal.
I am, however, unfortunately me, so my frothing joy of this year is not that Shakespeare died four centuries ago…but that 200 years ago, in the gloomy depths of The Year Without A Summer, a supremely damaged collection of literary hipster geniuses all gathered together in the same rambling Italian villa and changed the landscape of literature. Admittedly they changed it to the kind of landscape where you think “The bastard GPS has really landed me in it this time…That does NOT look like a Travelodge.” but if you are looking for the perfect storm of death, sex, darkness and indeed dorkiness, not necessarily in that order…then 1816 at the Villa Diodati is the eye of that storm.
A recap is hardly necessary, but in view of the point of this post I’ll keep it brief:
Byron annoys everybody (especially his wife), mostly by having an affair with his half-sister which is tragic and dumb, and by no means the only example of those two states of being in this story. He has to ditch England and head for somewhere such behaviour is less frowned upon (apparently Norfolk wasn’t an option), he does this in fine Byronic “Check me out I’m an extremely complicated narcissistic shitlord.” style in a massive carriage accompanied by a 20 year old physician, hired at the last minute, called John William Polidori. There’s a bunch of other Byronites (Hobhouse etc.) that flit in and out en route as His Lordship progresses across Europe (“progresses” in this context being a word that should suggest a journey made up almost entirely of shagging everything that moved and fetishizing Napoleon), Polidori totters along in his wake with all the confidence of a baby horse on a skateboard and Europe loudly laments Byron’s lusty, sexy darkness whilst simultaneously bending over a lot and fluttering its eyelashes. Byron, Polidori, possibly a couple of STD’s and certainly a hangover, arrive in Italy around April. Byron meets Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who invented hipster before it was popular, and the two of them fall into an epic poet-bro swoon. Polidori is jealous, no-one cares. Byron rents the Villa Diodati in June, Shelley moves in round the corner with Mary “Jesus, who are these buffoons?” Godwin soon to be Shelley.
Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister arrives so that she can be traumatised whilst playing the role of “Byron’s Unfortunate Ex #632”. Polidori is jealous, nobody cares. Everybody gets drunk and falls in a heap…it’s cold and dark and gloomy because volcano, they stay in and amuse themselves by writing ghost stories. History is made, tragedy ensues, The Sisters of Mercy can happen.
Mary Shelley, coincidentally the only person present who is not a demented, flailing freak-show, is also the only one to arrive home wits intact, although the same could not be said for her heart.
The purpose of this comparatively bland recap is to point out to all you who have any interest that the theme of this year’s London Antiquarian Book Fair is this very occasion, what led up to it and what spilled forth from it. There will be lectures and guided tours…one of them by me…and you will be able to see a lot of delicious bits and pieces related to the sprawly gothic and indeed all the other chaotically beautiful things that normally show up at this most transcendent of bibliophilic events. So there. If anyone needs tickets, I have many, if anyone has questions, I have answers. I am very much looking forward to it, and I am eagerly anticipating seeing you all there.