- Published: 21 January 2020
- ISBN: 9781784709952
- Imprint: Vintage
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $19.99
A Love Story
Lake Geneva, 1816
Reality is water-soluble.
What we could see, the rocks, the shore, the trees, the boats on the lake, had lost their usual definition and blurred into the long grey of a week’s rain. Even the house, that we fancied was made of stone, wavered inside a heavy mist and through that mist, sometimes, a door or a window appeared like an image in a dream.
Every solid thing had dissolved into its watery equivalent.
Our clothes did not dry. When we came in, and we must come in, because we must go out, we brought the weather with us. Waterlogged leather. Wool that stank of sheep.
There is mould on my underclothes.
This morning I had the idea to walk naked. What is the use of sodden cloth? Of covered buttons so swollen in their buttonholes that I had to be cut out of my dress yesterday?
This morning my bed was as wet as if I had sweated all night. The windows were misty with my own breath. Where the fire burned in the grate the wood hissed like a dejection of nature. I left you sleeping and I trod silently down the filmy stairs, my feet wet. Naked. I opened the main door to the house. The rain continued, steady and indifferent. For seven days now it had fallen, not faster, not slower, not increasing, not abating. The earth could swallow no more and the ground everywhere was spongy – the gravel paths oozed water, and several springs had burst through the orderly garden, eroding soil that deposited itself in thick black puddles at our gate.
But this morning it was behind the house I went, higher up the slope, hoping for a break in the clouds, where I might see the lake that lay below us.
As I climbed, I reflected on what it must have been for our ancestors, without fire, often without shelter, wandering in nature, so beautiful and bountiful, but so pitiless in her effects. I reflected that without language, or before language, the mind cannot comfort itself.
And yet it is the language of our thoughts that tortures us more than any excess or deprivation of nature.
What would it be like – nay, what would it be? There is no like, no likeness to this question. What would it be, to be a being without language – not an animal, but something nearer to myself?
Here I am, in my inadequate skin, goose-fleshed and shivering. A poor specimen of a creature, with no nose of a dog, and no speed of a horse, and no wings like the invisible buzzards whose cries I hear above me like lost souls, and no fins or even a mermaid’s tail for this wrungout weather. I am not as well-found as that dormouse disappearing into a crack in the rock. I am a poor specimen of a creature, except that I can think. In London I was not so content as I am here on the lake and in the Alps, where there is solitude for the mind. London is perpetual; a constant streaming present hurrying towards a receding future. Here, where time is neither so crammed nor so scarce, I fancy, anything might happen, anything is possible. The world is at the start of something new. We are the shaping spirits of our destiny. And though I am not an inventor of machines I am an inventor of dreams.
Yet I wish I had a cat.
I am now above the roofline of the house, the chimneys poking through the damp cloth of steaming rain like the ears of a giant animal. My skin is covered in beads of clear water as though I have been embroidered with water. There is something fine about my decorated nakedness. My nipples are like the teats of a rain-god. My pubic hair, always thick, teems like a dark shoal. The rain increases steady as a waterfall and me inside it. My eyelids are drenched. I’m wiping my eyeballs with my fists.
Shakespeare. He coined that word: eyeball. What play is it in? Eyeball?
Crush this herb into Lysander’s eye
Whose liquor hath this virtuous property
And make his eye-balls roll with wonted sight.
Then I see it. I think I see it. What do I seem to see?
A figure, gigantic, ragged, moving swiftly on the rocks above me, climbing away from me, his back turned to me, his movements sure, and at the same time hesitant, like a young dog whose paws are too big for him. I thought to call out but I confess I was afraid.
And then the vision was gone.
Surely, I thought, if it is some traveller who has lost his way he will find our villa. But he was climbing away, as though he had found the villa already and passed on.
Troubled that I had indeed seen a figure, equally troubled that I had imagined him, I made my return to the house. I crept in softly, this time through a side door, and, shivering with cold, I made my way up the curve of the staircase.
My husband stood on the landing. I approached him, naked as Eve, and I saw the man of him stir beneath the apron of his shirt.
I was out walking, I said.
Naked? he said.
Yes, I said.
He put out his hand and touched my face.
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
We were all around the fire that night, the room more shadows than light, for we had few candles, and none could be fetched until the weather bettered.
Is this life a disordered dream? Is the external world the shadow, while the substance is what we cannot see, or touch, or hear, yet apprehend?
Why, then, is this dream of life so nightmarish? Feverish? Sweatish?
Or is it that we are neither dead nor alive?
A being neither dead nor alive.
All my life I have feared such a state, and so it has seemed better to me to live how I can live, and not fear death.
So I left with him at seventeen and these two years have been life to me.
In the summer of 1816 the poets Shelley and Byron, Byron’s physician, Polidori, Mary Shelley and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, by then Byron’s mistress, rented two properties on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Byron enjoyed the grand Villa Diodati, while the Shelleys took a smaller, more charming house, a little lower down the slope.
Such was the notoriety of the households that an hotel on the farther shore of the lake set up a telescope for their guests to watch the antics of the supposed Satanists and Sexualists who held their women in common.
It is true that Polidori was in love with Mary Shelley but she refused to sleep with him. Byron might have slept with Percy Shelley, if Shelley had been so inclined, but there is no evidence of that. Claire Clairmont would have slept with anyone – on this occasion she slept only with Byron. The households spent all their time together – and then it started to rain.
My husband adores Byron. Each day they take a boat out on the lake, to talk about poetry and liberty, whilst I avoid Claire, who can talk about nothing. I must avoid Polidori, who is a lovesick dog.
But then the rain came, and these downpouring days allow for no lake-work.
At least the weather allows no staring at us from the farther shore either. In town I heard the rumour that a guest had spied half a dozen petticoats spread out to dry on Byron’s terrace. In truth, what they saw was bed linen. Byron is a poet but he likes to be clean.
And now we are confined by innumerable gaolers, each formed out of a drop of water. Polidori has brought a girl up from the village to entertain him, and we do what we can on our damp beds, but the mind must be exercised as well as the body.
That night we sat around the steaming fire talking of the supernatural.
Shelley is fascinated by moonlit nights and the sudden sight of ruins. He believes that every building carries an imprint of the past, like a memory, or memories, and that these can be released if the time is right. But what is the right time? I asked him, and he wondered if time itself depends on those who are in time. If time uses us as channels for the past – yes, that must be so, he said, as some people can speak to the dead.
Polidori does not agree. The dead are gone. If we have souls, they do not return. The cadaver on the slab has no hope of resurrection – in this world or the next.
Byron is an atheist and does not believe in life after death. We are haunted by ourselves, he says, and that is enough for any man.
Claire said nothing because she has nothing to say.
The servant brought us wine. It is a relief to have a liquid that is not water.
We are like the drowned, said Shelley.
We drank the wine. The shadows make a world on the walls.
This is our Ark, I said, peopled here, afloat, waiting for the waters to abate.
What do you imagine they talked about, on the Ark, said Byron, shut in with the hot stink of animal? Did they believe that the entire earth sat in a watery envelope, like the foetus in the womb?
Polidori interrupted excitedly (he is a great one for interrupting excitedly). In medical school we had a row of just such foetuses, at varying stages of gestation, all abortions; fingers and toes curled against the inevitable, eyes closed against the light never to be seen.
The light is seen – I said – the mother’s skin stretched over the growing child lets in the light. They turn in joy towards the sun.
Shelley smiled at me. When I was pregnant with William, he used to get on his knees as I sat on the edge of the bed and hold my stomach in his hands like a rare book he hadn’t read.
This is the world in little, he said. And that morning, oh I remember it, we sat in the sun together and I felt my baby kick for joy.
But Polidori is a doctor, not a mother. He sees things differently.
I was going to say, he said, a little resentful at being interrupted (as interrupters are wont to be), I was going to say, that, whether there is a soul or there is not a soul, the moment of consciousness is mysterious. Where is consciousness in the womb?
Male children are conscious earlier than female children, said Byron. I asked him what caused him to think so. He replied, The male principle is readier and more active than the female principle. This we observe in life.
We observe that men subjugate women, I said. I have a daughter of my own, said Byron. She is docile and passive.
Ada is but six months old! And you have not seen her at all since shortly after she was born! What child, male or female, does more than sleep and suck when it is born? That is not their sex; it is their biology!
Ah, said Byron, I thought she would be a glorious boy. If I must sire girls, then I trust she will marry well.
Is there not more to life than marriage? I asked.
For a woman? said Byron. Not at all. For a man, love is of his life, a thing apart. For a woman, it is her whole existence.
My mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, would not agree with you, I said.
And yet she tried to kill herself for love, said Byron.
Gilbert Imlay. A charmer. A chancer. A mercenary. A man of mercurial mind and predictable behaviour (why is it so often so?). My mother jumping off a bridge in London, her skirts making a parachute for her falling body. She did not die. No, she did not die.
That came later. Giving birth to me.
Shelley saw my hurt and discomfort. When I read your mother’s book, said Shelley, looking at Byron, not at me, I was convinced by her.
I loved him for that – then and now – he first told me so when I was a young girl of sixteen, and the proud daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792.
Your mother’s work, said Shelley, shy and confident in that way of his, your mother’s work is remarkable.
Would that I might do something myself, I said, to be worthy of her memory.
Why is it that we wish to leave some mark behind? said Byron. Is it only vanity?
No, I said, it is hope. Hope that one day there will be a human society that is just.
That will never happen, said Polidori. Not unless every human being is wiped away and we begin again.
Wipe every human being away, said Byron; yes, why not? And so we are back to our floated Ark. God had the right idea. Begin again.
Yet he saved eight, said Shelley, for the world must be peopled.
We are a little half-ark here ourselves, are we not? observed Byron. We four in our watery world.
Five, said Claire.
I forgot, said Byron.
There will be a revolution in England, said Shelley, as there has been in America, and in France, and then, truly, we shall begin again.
And how shall we avoid what follows revolution? We have witnessed the French problem in our own lifetime. Firstly the Terror, where every man becomes a spy against his neighbour, and then the Tyrant. Napoleon Bonaparte – is he to be preferred to a king?
The French Revolution gave nothing to the people, said Shelley – and so they look for a strong man who claims to give them what they do not have. None can be free unless first he is fed.
Do you believe that if every person had enough money, enough work, enough leisure, enough learning, that if they were not oppressed by those above them, or fearful of those below them, humankind would be perfected? Byron asked this in his negative drawl, sure of the response, and so I set out to disaffect him.
I do! I said.
I do not! said Byron. The human race seeks its own death. We hasten towards what we fear most.
I shook my head. I was on firm ground now in this ark of ours. I said, It is men who seek death. If a single one of you carried a life in his womb for nine months, only to see that child perish as a baby, or in infancy, or through want, disease, or, thereafter, war, you would not seek death in the way that you do.
Yet death is heroic, said Byron. And life is not.
I have heard, interrupted Polidori, I have heard, that some of us do not die, but live, life after life, on the blood of others. They opened a grave in Albania recently, and the corpse, though one hundred years old, yes, one hundred years old (he paused for us to marvel), was perfectly preserved, with fresh blood visible at the mouth.
Write that story, will you? said Byron. He got up and poured wine from the jug. His limp is more pronounced in the damp. His fine face was animated. Yes, I have an idea: if we are to be kept here like Arkivists let us each record a story of the supernatural. Yours, Polidori, shall be of the Undead. shelley! You believe in ghosts . . .
My husband nodded – I have seen such, surely, but what is more frightening? A visit from the dead, or the undead?
Mary? What say you? (Byron smiled at me.)
What say I?
But the gentlemen were pouring more wine.
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low – for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love.
Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.
Dear young girls, Home again from the deserts and oases of the Sheikdoms I find your enthusiastic letters on my desk.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.