Mad, Bad and Fad

Web-Ready-Byron-Private-DinnerReluctant to leave the warmth of Lord Byron’s library, I slipped into the hallway and headed for the study.  Periodic lightening strikes helped guide my way and kept me from tripping over any errant animal roving about the house.

From the looks of things upon my arrival in the study, Lord Byron seemed to be exceptionally talented at being messy. Stockings and “whatnot” were tossed about with abandon.  It appeared that Byron had not only enjoyed some company earlier in the evening, he was also afflicted with a lazy valet.  Well this was a tad awkward.  Was this the setting of a clandestine visit with Claire Clairmont perhaps?  After all, she had a raging crush on Byron so strong that it compelled her to travel to Lake Geneva with her stepsister, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, in order to spend time with him.

Lord Byron was dashingly good looking, knew it and worked it.  He exuded Regency hip.  So attractive was he that his name became a coveted adjective for gentlemen to be described with. Women swooned from his “Byronic”  good looks.   Perpetuating his image though prompted Byron to be obsessed with his weight.

Unfortunately, his appetite was a determined force to be reckoned with; he made excuses for it by saying he had a “morbid propensity to fatten”.  Not truly, Byron just really, really liked to eat and drink and was very good at it too.

There was one other thing in Byron’s life that really irritated him. He was born with a club foot and was mortified by it his entire life.  Not willing to be inconvenienced by either science or common sense, he was convinced that his club foot was the result of his mother refusing to give up her corset during her pregnancy – he never forgave her.  He was fixated with drawing the eyes of those who looked at him upwards and away from his foot.  He did not want any stares to pause at a robust waist.   Maintaining his raffish appearance drove him to be a vanguard of the “fad diet”.

With these thoughts in mind, I moved across the study to a small table set for private dining.  Only a desperate, yet intrepid, eater would taste what lay before me.  I leaned in and took one eye-watering sniff.  The boiled potatoes looked to be smashed down with the back of the fork and reeked of vinegar. It appeared that he had thrown caution to the wind and almost finished off the boiled cabbage that shared the plate.  A small carafe of white wine and plain crackers rounded off the unfortunate looking meal.  One of his ex-lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, described Lord Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.  Maybe he was just hungry?

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As I stood there considering the unpleasantness of this misguided Regency weight loss regimen, my toe kicked something under the table. A torpedo bottle!  A grand early design for a soda water bottle.  Its shape required it to remain on its side, thereby keeping the cork moist and sealing in the water’s effervescence.  Hmmm, soda water could further help dampen a zealous appetite.

Maybe it was true, Lord Byron preferred to eat alone and would fill up on such foods so as not to be hungry and eat at social gatherings.  Byron once wrote that he “found the sight of a woman eating as repulsive, unless she was eating Champagne and Lobster of course”.  The rogue!

Of Cheese Toast and Ghosts


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There is a well recognized adage – never deny an Englishman his Cheese Toast. Ever. It seems that Lord Byron was no exception to this rule. Somewhere in the massive quantity of luggage that he had hauled with him to Lake Geneva, he managed to find a small space to wedge this beautiful toasting fork that now lay in front of the fire. I wasn’t surprised. Lord Byron was an unapologetic over-packer. Overloaded with a vast quantity of must-have paraphernalia, his carriage chronically broke down as it made its way across Europe on the way to Lake Geneva. Apparently, you can take Lord Byron out of England, but couldn’t take England out of Byron – he needed his Cheese Toast.

And now this long-handled fork rested upon a trivet in front of the low flames and was quietly toasting a small, skewered piece of bread a delectable golden brown. It seemed a cozy choice for the poets to eat while listening to ghost stories.

A wedge of cheese (Raclette, I believe) sat nearby, softening to an optimal consistency. The melted side of the cheese closest to the fire would be scraped off and spread over the toast. Perfection in its simplicity. A decanter of Sack, or Sherry, rested close at hand as an excellent partner for the cheese. Alas, this charming treat had been completely forgotten when the group made their way upstairs to their beds.

It was hard to pass up such a delicious morsel, but I was curious to see what was in the room next door. I turned my back to the fire and made my way to the hall.

Fantasmagoriana

WP-Book3As I turned to leave the room on my way to Lord Byron’s study, my eyes drifted across the crowded library floor. So this unruly scene before me was the notorious origin of Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein – extraordinary, messy, but remarkable never-the-less.

Lying on the carpet near the fire was the book Fantasmagoriana. Known to the British as The Tales of the Dead, Lord Byron had been reading from it earlier to entertain his guests. This was a classic book of Gothic horror stories and undoubtedly one of the terrifying sources of Mary’s dreams occurring upstairs at this very moment.

The small but potent book lay there with its binding broken, no doubt trampled on in haste by Byron himself as he dashed to help his friend Percy Shelley. Mr. Shelley had bolted from the room in a terrified state after hallucinating that Mary’s chest had metamorphosed into two eyes staring at him.

I picked up the book and read the epigraph, “Falsis terrorizes implet” – Horace.  A rough translation from the Latin would be “he fills his (head) with imagined terrors”. That Roman could not have written a more prescient description of this evening’s events.

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The fire crackled. My eyes shifted, what was that resting on the hearth…?

Meanwhile Back at the Buffet…

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It was still a dark and stormy night.

With my foodie instincts on high alert, I reached the sideboard at last! What had this small group of five English free-thinking writers eaten tonight? The candles were burning low, but I was able to see what I had traveled there for.

Interesting…, it appeared that the Napoleonic wars and the cold weather caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora had little effect on with what Lord Byron entertained his guests, with one exception. I had hoped to find Fraise du Bois, but alas, no alpine woodland strawberries to be seen.

The fierce weather outside could not distract me from a glorious cheesy smell wafting up from a plate of rather innocent looking little puff pastries. Their aroma was braver than their appearance – mummmm, no mistaking the pungent, savory smell of Gruyere cheese. The cook wisely used plenty of it in baking them. They appeared to be Petits Choux Ramecains, a particularly delicious edible in the early 19th century.

Also sharing the table were plates of Sweetmeat and Jam tartlets, sliced ham, dried apricots, candied ginger and Gateaux Madeleines. Unfortunately, several plates were emptied of what they had once held, sigh.

So despite war, cold temperatures and stormy weather, Byron was still able to be a generous host. The rather simple cold buffet offerings looked to be inspired by a French chef cooking for an English nobleman plagued with a prodigious amount of debt. Not surprising, Geneva was only recently liberated from French control and Lord Byron was an enthusiastic Napoleon groupie. His private horse carriage was custom-made to duplicate one of Napoleon’s.

I noticed an abundance of sweets and only one choice of meat offered – unusual for a typical late-night meal during this overtly carnivorous period. It may be that the chef was mindful of the guest’s proclivities – Percy Shelley had a weakness for sweets and was also a vocal vegetarian. The choice still appeared limited though, perhaps due to Byron’s avoidance of eating with his guests? He remained exceedingly fixated on the degree of rotundity of his waist.

Had Byron eaten earlier? I think I will take a peek in his private writing room next door for any indication.

Laudanum Summons the Dreams

 

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It was a perilous trip to the sideboard across Byron’s library; stepping over piles of books, I successfully managed to keep my skirts out of harm’s way from the numerous lit candles in silver holders scattered about the floor. I made a mental note to myself that it would be healthier to wear trousers on successive voyages.

On my way, I happened to notice an unpretentious bottle resting on a small wooden table. Its cork unsuccessfully thrust into the bottleneck, it stood next to a diminutive wine glass that appeared half-full with a golden brown liquor.

The label read Laudanum. Hmmm, the tincture of opium – a potent drink of choice and particularly effective in inducing a soporific retreat for poets seeking visions, inspiration and a really good night’s sleep.

I picked up the tiny glass. In one quick whiff, I smelled brandy and just a trace of cinnamon. Laudanum is notoriously bitter and was often drunk diffused into a flavored liquor to help hide its wretched taste. Treacherous stuff this laudanum, it was considered the “cure all elixir” for a vast array of ailments ranging from flatulence to teething problems in infants. Percy Bysshe Shelley was known to depend on Laudanum’s languid effects and many believed that Lord Byron’s wild mood swings ensued from his use of the drug. I wondered if Mary’s horrifying dreams were summoned by the laudanum as well.

As thought-provoking this small bottle was, I turned around and continued across the room to my original objective, a table laden with midnight mouthfuls for Lord Byron’s guests. I followed my nose and my nose did not disappoint me…

A Bohemian Scene Greeted Me…

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My timing was perfect, although it was nearly dawn, I arrived just after Lord Byron and his guests had retired for the night.

Fortunately for me the candles were still lit, it seemed that the servants were unaware that everyone upstairs had finally drifted off to their beds. Those downstairs would be waking up soon enough for breakfast, no need to rush through their own dreams I suppose.

A bohemian scene greeted me in the library of the Villa Diodati. Silk pillows lay strewn about on a Persian rug in front of the fire. Claret and sack decanters sat haphazardly about and small, half-filled wine glasses teetered on vast piles of books.  A fitting scene for a group of young romantic poets determined to write something terrifying yet witty.

A cat sauntered by me.  As I absent-mindedly reached down to stroke its head, I was startled by a large bird that flew through the hallway across the open doorway. Apparently Lord Byron’s menagerie had settled in comfortably alongside him at the villa.

So, despite the exceedingly dramatic and monstrously electrifying dreams manifesting themselves in Mary’s head upstairs at that very moment, I decided to wander over and peruse the sideboard.

An Unbidden Vision and the Birth Of a Monster

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Mary Shelley went to bed that evening having accepted the challenge to write a ghost story.  Describing her sleeplessness during that stormy night at Lord Byron’s villa she wrote, “…my imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.  I saw, with shut eyes but acute mental vision.”

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts knelling beside the thing that he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…his success would terrify the artist.”

The Doctor “…would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken.  He would hope that, left to itself, the spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter. He hoped that he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of that hideous thing.”

Dr. Frankenstein sleeps “…but he is awakened, he opens his eyes, and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening the curtains and looking at him with yellow, watery but speculative eyes.”

Mary Shelley’s ghost story had begun and the tale of Frankenstein was born.   Now that her story has been told, I am ready to travel back to that blustery evening at the Villa Diodati.

It will be a dangerous night to travel to, but the food should be worth it.