A lovelier toy sweet Nature never made;
A serious, subtle, wild, yet gentle being;
Graceful without design, and unforeseeing;
With eyes—Oh! speak not of her eyes! which seem
Two mirrors of Italian heaven.
In these Wordsworthian lines Shelley describes Lord Byron's little daughter, Allegra, then under two years of age; and the word "toy"—so keenly suggestive of both the poetic and the masculine point of view—has in this case an unconscious and bitter significance. Allegra was a toy at which rude hands plucked violently, until death lifted her from their clutches, and hid her away in the safety and dignity of the tomb. "She is more fortunate than we are," said her father, with a noble and rare lapse into simplicity, and the words were sadly true. Never did a little child make a happier escape from the troublesome burden of life.
In the winter of 1816, a handsome, vivacious, dark-eyed girl sought the acquaintance of Lord Byron, and begged him to use his influence in obtaining for her an engagement at Drury Lane. She was the type of young woman who aspires to a career on the stage, or in any other field, without regard to qualifications, and without the burden of study. She wrote in her first letter (it had many successors): "The theatre presents an easy method of independence." She objected vehemently to "the intolerable drudgery of provincial boards." She wanted to appear at once in London. And she signed her name, "Clara Clairmont," which was prettily alliterative, and suited her better than Jane.
It was an inauspicious beginning of an unhappy intimacy, destined to bring nothing but disaster in its train. Miss Clairmont's stepfather, William Godwin, had confessed, not without reason, "a feeling of incompetence for the education of daughters." His own child, Mary, had fled to Europe eighteen months before, with the poet Shelley. Miss Clairmont accompanied their flight; and their inexplicable folly in taking her with them was punished—as folly always is—with a relentless severity seldom accorded to sin. To the close of Shelley's life, his sister-in-law continued to be a source of endless irritation and anxiety.
No engagement at Drury Lane was procurable. Indeed, Miss Clairmont soon ceased to desire one. Her infatuation for Lord Byron drove all other thoughts and hopes and ambitions from her heart. She wrote to him repeatedly,—clever, foolish, half-mad, and cruelly long letters. She praised the "wild originality of his countenance." She sent him her manuscripts to read. There is something pathetic in Byron's unheeded entreaty that she should "write short." There is something immeasurably painful in his unconcealed indifference, in his undisguised contempt. The glamour of his fame as a poet gave a compelling power to that fatal beauty which was his undoing. When we read what men have written about Byron's head; when we recall the rhapsodies of Moore, the reluctant praise of Trelawney, the eloquence of Coleridge; when we remember that Scott—the sanest man in Great Britain—confessed ruefully that Byron's face was a thing to dream of, we are the less surprised that women should have flung themselves at his feet in a frenzy of self-surrender, which a cold legacy of busts and portraits does little to explain. Miss Clairmont—to use one of Professor Dowden's flowers of speech—"was lightly whirled out of her regular orbit." In the spring she travelled with Shelley and Mary Godwin to Switzerland, and at Sécheron, a little suburb of Geneva, they met Lord Byron, who was then writing the splendid third canto of "Childe Harold." His letter to his sister, the Hon. Augusta Leigh, bears witness to his annoyance at the encounter; but the two poets became for a season daily companions, and, in some sort, friends. Shelley thought Byron "as mad as the winds" (an opinion which was returned with interest), and deeply regretted his slavery "to the vilest and most vulgar prejudices;"—among them a prejudice in favour of Christianity, for which ancient institution Byron always entertained a profound though unfruitful reverence. Indeed, despite the revolutionary impetus of his verse, and despite the fact that he died for revolting Greece, the settled order of things appealed with force to his eminently practical nature. "Sanity and balance," says Mr. Morley, "mark the foundations of his character. An angel of reasonableness seems to watch over him, even when he comes most dangerously near to an extravagance."
Miss Clairmont did not confide to her guardians the secret of her intimacy with Lord Byron until after the meeting at Geneva. When her relations with him were understood, neither Shelley nor Mary Godwin saw at first any occasion for distress. They cared nothing for the broken marriage bond, and they believed, or hoped, that some true affection had been—as in their own case—the impelling and upholding power. It was the swift withering of this hope which filled their hearts with apprehension. They carried Miss Clairmont back to England in the autumn ("I have had all the plague possible to persuade her to go back," wrote Byron to his sister); and in Bath, the following January, her little daughter was born.
It was a blue-eyed baby of exceptional loveliness. Mrs. Shelley (Mary Godwin had been married to the poet on the death of his wife, two months earlier) fills her letters with praises of its beauty. Miss Clairmont wrote to Byron in 1820 that her health had been injured by her "attentions" to her child during its first year; but she found time to study Italian, and to write a book, for which Shelley tried in vain to find a publisher, and the very title of which is now forgotten. The little household at Great Marlow was not a tranquil one. Mrs. Shelley had grown weary of her step-sister's society. Her diary—all these young people kept diaries with uncommendable industry—abounds in notes, illustrative of Claire's ill-temper, and of her own chronic irritation. "Clara imagines that I treat her unkindly." "Clara in an ill-humour." "Jane gloomy." "Jane for some reason refuses to walk." "Jane is not well, and does not speak the whole day."
This was bad enough, but there were other moods more trying than mere sulkiness. Miss Clairmont possessed nerves. She had "the horrors" when "King Lear" was read aloud. She was, or professed to be, afraid of ghosts. She would come downstairs in the middle of the night to tell Shelley that an invisible hand had lifted her pillow from her bed, and dumped it on a chair. To such thrilling recitals the poet lent serious attention. "Her manner," he wrote in his journal, "convinced me that she was not deceived. We continued to sit by the fire, at intervals engaged in awful conversation, relative to the nature of these mysteries;"—that is, to the migrations of the pillow. As a result of sympathetic treatment, Claire would wind up the night with hysterics, writhing in convulsions on the floor, and shrieking dismally, until poor Mrs. Shelley would be summoned from a sick-bed to soothe her to slumber. "Give me a garden, and absentia Claire, and I will thank my love for many favours," is the weary comment of the wife, after months of inextinguishable agitation.
There was no loophole of escape, however, from a burden so rashly shouldered. Miss Clairmont made one or two ineffectual efforts at self-support; but found them little to her liking. She could not, and she would not, live with her mother, Mrs. Godwin;—"a very disgusting woman, and wears green spectacles," is Charles Lamb's description of this lady, whom, in common with most of her acquaintances, he cordially disliked. When Byron wrote, offering to receive and provide for his little daughter, Shelley vehemently opposed the plan, thinking it best that so young an infant should remain under its mother's care. But his wife, who was at heart a singularly sagacious woman, never ceased to urge the advisability of the step. Claire, though reluctant to part from her baby, yielded to these persuasions; and the journey to Italy in the spring of 1818 was undertaken mainly as a sure though expensive method of conveying Allegra to her father.
That Byron wanted the child, there is no doubt, nor that he had been from the first deeply concerned for her uncertain future. Three months after her birth, he wrote to his sister that he had resolved to send for her, and place her in a convent, "to become a good Catholic, and (it may be) a nun,—being a character somewhat needed in our family." "They tell me," he adds, "that she is very pretty, with blue eyes and dark hair; and although I never was attached, nor pretended attachment to the mother, still, in case of the eternal war and alienation which I foresee about my legitimate daughter, Ada, it may be as well to have something to repose a hope upon. I must love something in my old age; and circumstances may render this poor little creature a great, and perhaps my only, comfort."
It is not often that Byron's letters reveal this grace of sentiment. Never, after Allegra's arrival, does he allude to any affection he bears her, and he once assured Moore that he did not bear any;—a statement which that partial biographer thought fit to disregard. On the other hand, he dwells over and over again, both in his correspondence and in his journal, upon plans for her education and future settlement. He was at all times sternly practical, and pitilessly clear-sighted. He never regarded his daughter as a "lovely toy," but as a very serious and troublesome responsibility. The poetic view of childhood failed to appeal to him. "Any other father," wrote Claire bitterly, "would have made of her infancy a sweet idyl of flowers and innocent joy." Byron was not idyllic. He dosed Allegra with quinine when she had a fever. He abandoned a meditated journey because she was ill. He dismissed a servant who had let her fall. He added a codicil to his will, bequeathing her five thousand pounds. These things do not indicate any stress of emotion, but they have their place in the ordinary calendar of parental cares.
A delicate baby, not yet sixteen months old, was a formidable and inharmonious addition to the poet's Venetian household. The Swiss nurse, Elise, who had been sent by the Shelleys from Milan, proved to be a most incapable and unworthy woman, who later on made infinite mischief by telling the foulest of lies. Byron was sorely perplexed by the situation: and when Mrs. Hoppner, the Genevan wife of the English consul-general, offered to take temporary charge of the child, he gladly and gratefully consented. One difficulty in his path he had not failed to foresee;—that Claire, having relinquished Allegra of her own free will, would quickly want her back again. In fact, before the end of the summer, Miss Clairmont insisted upon going to Venice, and poor Shelley very ruefully and reluctantly accompanied her. Byron received him with genuine delight, and, in an access of good humour, proposed lending the party his villa at Este. There Mrs. Shelley, who had lost her infant daughter, might recover from sorrow and fatigue, and there Allegra might spend some weeks under her mother's care. The offer was frankly accepted, and the two men came once more to an amicable understanding. They were not fitted to be friends,—the gods had ruled a severance wide and deep;—but when unpricked by the contentiousness of other people, they passed pleasant and profitable hours together.
Meanwhile, the poor little apple of discord was ripening every day into a fairer bloom. "Allegra has been with me these three months," writes Byron to his sister in August. "She is very pretty, remarkably intelligent, and a great favourite with everybody. … She has very blue eyes, a singular forehead, fair curly hair, and a devil of a Spirit,—but that is Papa's." "I have here my natural daughter, by name Allegra," he tells Moore six weeks later. "She is a pretty little girl enough, and reckoned like Papa." To Murray he writes in the same paternal strain. "My daughter Allegra is well, and growing pretty; her hair is growing darker, and her eyes are blue. Her temper and her ways, Mr. Hoppner says, are like mine, as well as her features. She will make, in that case, a manageable young lady."
Other pens bear ready witness to Allegra's temper. Mr. Jeaffreson, who has written a very offensive book about Lord Byron, takes pains to tell us that the poor child was "greedy, passionate, and, in her fifth year, precocious, vain and saucy." Mr. Hoppner, after the publication of the Countess Guiccioli's "Recollections," wrote an agitated letter to the "Athenæum," assuring an indifferent public that he had no acquaintance with the lady, and that his own respectability was untarnished by any intimacy with the poet, of whose morals he disapproved, and whose companionship he eschewed, save when they rode together,—on Byron's horses. "Allegra was not by any means an amiable child," he added sourly, "nor was Mrs. Hoppner nor I particularly fond of her."
It could hardly have been expected that the daughter of Byron and Claire Clairmont would have been "amiable;" nor can we wonder that Mr. Hoppner, who had a seven-months-old baby of his own, should have failed to wax enthusiastic over another infant. But his warm-hearted wife did love her little charge, and grieved sincerely when the child's quick temper subsided into listlessness under the fierce Italian heat. "Mon petit brille, et il est toujours gai et sautillant," she wrote prettily to the Shelleys, after their departure from Venice; "et Allegra, par contre, est devenue tranquille et sérieuse, comme une petite vieille, ce que nous peine beaucoup."
Byron was frankly grateful to Mrs. Hoppner for her kindness to his daughter; and after he had carried the child to Ravenna, where the colder, purer air brought back her gayety and bloom, he wrote again and again to her former guardians, now thanking them for "a whole treasure of toys" which they had sent, now assuring them that "Allegrina is flourishing like a pomegranate blossom," and now reiterating the fact which seemed to make most impression upon his mind,—that she was growing prettier and more obstinate every day. He added many little details about her childish ailments, her drives with the Countess Guiccioli, and her popularity in his household. It was to the over-indulgence of his servants, as well as to heredity, that he traced her high temper and imperious will. He consulted Mrs. Hoppner more than once about Allegra's education; and he poured into her husband's ears his bitter resentment at Miss Clairmont's pardonable, but exasperating interference.
For Claire, clever about most things, was an adept in the art of provocation. She wrote him letters calculated to try the patience of a saint, and he retaliated by a cruel and contemptuous silence. In vain Shelley attempted to play the difficult part of peacemaker. "I wonder," he pleaded, "at your being provoked by what Claire writes, though that she should write what is provoking is very probable. You are conscious of performing your duty to Allegra, and your refusal to allow her to visit Claire at this distance you conceive to be part of that duty. That Claire should have wished to see her is natural. That her disappointment should vex her, and her vexation make her write absurdly, is all in the natural order of things. But, poor thing, she is very unhappy and in bad health, and she ought to be treated with as much indulgence as possible. The weak and the foolish are in this respect the kings,—they can do no wrong."
Byron was less generous. The weak and the foolish—especially when their weakness and folly took the form of hysteria—irritated him beyond endurance. The penalty that an hysterical woman pays for her self-indulgence is that no one believes in the depth or sincerity of her emotions. Byron had no pity for the pain that Claire was suffering. She was to him simply a young woman who never lost an opportunity to make a scene, and he hated scenes. On one point he was determined. Allegra should never again be sent to her mother, nor to the Shelleys. He had views of his own upon the education of little girls, which by no means corresponded with theirs.
"About Allegra," he writes to Mr. Hoppner in 1820, "I can only say to Claire that I so totally disapprove of the mode of Children's treatment in their family, that I should look upon the Child as going into a hospital. Is it not so? Have they reared one? Her health has hitherto been excellent, and her temper not bad. She is sometimes vain and obstinate, but always clean and cheerful; and as, in a year or two, I shall either send her to England, or put her in a Convent for education, these defects will be remedied as far as they can in human nature. But the Child shall not quit me again to perish of Starvation and green fruit, or be taught to believe that there is no Deity. Whenever there is convenience of vicinity and access, her Mother can always have her with her; otherwise no. It was so stipulated from the beginning."
Five months later, he reiterates these painfully prosaic views. He has taken a house in the country, because the air agrees better with Allegra. He has two maids to attend her. He is doing his best, and he is very angry at Claire's last batch of letters. "Were it not for the poor little child's sake," he writes, "I am almost tempted to send her back to her atheistical mother, but that would be too bad. … If Claire thinks that she shall ever interfere with the child's morals or education, she mistakes; she never shall. The girl shall be a Christian, and a married woman, if possible."
On these two points Byron had set his heart. The Countess Guiccioli—kindly creature—assures us that "his dearest paternal care was the religious training to be given to his natural daughter, Allegra;" and while the words of this sweet advocate weigh little in the scale, they are in some degree confirmed by the poet's conduct and correspondence. When he felt the growing insecurity of his position in Ravenna, he determined to place the child at a convent school twelve miles away, and he explained very clearly and concisely to all whom it might concern his reasons for the step. "Allegra is now four years old complete," he wrote to Mr. Hoppner in April, 1821; "and as she is quite above the control of the servants, and as a man living without any woman at the head of his house cannot much attend to a nursery, I had no resource but to place her for a time (at a high pension too) in the convent of Bagnacavallo (twelve miles off), where the air is good, and where she will, at least, have her learning advanced, and her morals and religion inculcated. I had also another motive. Things were and are in such a state here, that I have no reason to look upon my own personal safety as insurable, and thought the infant best out of harm's way for the present.
"It is also fit that I should add that I by no means intended nor intend to give a natural child an English education, because, with the disadvantages of her birth, her after settlement would be doubly difficult. Abroad, with a fair foreign education, and a portion of five or six thousand pounds, she might and may marry very respectably. In England, such a dowry would be a pittance, while elsewhere it is a fortune. It is, besides, my wish that she should be a Roman Catholic, a religion which I look upon as the best, as it is assuredly the oldest, of the various branches of Christianity. I have now explained my notions as to the place where she is. It is the best I could find for the present, but I have no prejudices in its favour."
Both Mr. and Mrs. Hoppner were strongly in favour of a Swiss, rather than an Italian school; and Byron, who never doubted the sincerity of their affection for his child, lent a ready ear to their suggestions. "If I had but known your ideas about Switzerland before," he wrote to Mr. Hoppner in May; "I should have adopted them at once. As it is, I shall let Allegra remain in her convent, where she seems healthy and happy, for the present. But I shall feel much obliged if you will inquire, when you are in the cantons, about the usual and better modes of education there for females, and let me know the result of your inquiries. It is some consolation that both Mr. and Mrs. Shelley have written to approve entirely of my placing the child with the nuns for the present. I can refer to my whole conduct, as having spared no trouble, nor kindness, nor expense, since she was sent to me. People may say what they please. I must content myself with not deserving (in this case) that they should speak ill.
"The place is a country town, in a good air, where there is a large establishment for education, and many children, some of considerable rank, placed in it. As a country town, it is less liable to objections of every kind. It has always appeared to me that the moral defect in Italy does not proceed from a conventual training,—because, to my certain knowledge, girls come out of their convents innocent, even to ignorance, of moral evil;—but to the society into which they are plunged directly on coming out of it. It is like educating an infant on a mountain top, and then taking him to the sea, and throwing him into it, and desiring him to swim."
Other letters to Mr. Hoppner, to Shelley, and to Moore are equally practical and explicit. Byron writes that he has regular reports of Allegra's health; that she has mastered her alphabet; that he is having her reared a Catholic, "so that she may have her hands full;" that he meditates increasing her dowry, "if I live, and she is correct in her conduct;" that he thinks a Swiss gentleman might make her a better husband than an Italian. Pamela the virtuous was not more set upon her own "marriage lines" than was Lord Byron upon his daughter's. Respectability was the golden boon he coveted for the poor little pledge of an illicit and unhappy passion. No one knew better than he how well it is to walk a safe and sheltered road; and no correct church-going father in England was ever more concerned for the decent settlement of his child.
There were others who took a more impassioned view of the situation. Miss Clairmont was spending her Carnival merrily in Florence, when word came that Allegra had been sent to school. It was a blow, says Professor Dowden, "under which she staggered and reeled." In vain Shelley and his wife represented to her the wisdom of the step. In vain Byron wrote that the air of the Romagna was exceptionally good, and that he paid double fees for his little daughter, to insure her every care and attention. Claire, piteously unreasonable, answered only with frenzied reproaches and appeals. She taunted the poet with his unhappy married life,—which was applying vitriol to a raw wound; she inveighed against the "ignorance and degradation" of convent-reared women, she implored permission to carry her child to England. "I propose," she wrote, with maddening perversity, "to place her at my own expense in one of the very best English boarding-schools, where, if she is deprived of the happiness of a home and paternal care, she at least would receive an English education, which would enable her, after many years of painful and unprotected childhood, to be benefited by the kindness and affection of her parents' friends. … By adopting this plan, you will save yourself credit and also the expense; and the anxiety for her safety and well-being need never trouble you. You will become as free as if you had no such tie."
As an example of the purely exasperating, this letter has few peers in recorded correspondence. "At my own expense," meant at Shelley's expense; and Byron, loving or unloving, had never sought to shirk his paternal responsibilities. The alluring prospect of freedom from all concern offered little temptation to a father who had his child's future very seriously at heart. Miss Clairmont was surrounded at this time by a group of eminently foolish counsellors, the most prominent of whom were Lady Mountcashell, Mr. Tighe, and Miss Elizabeth Parker. Lady Mountcashell had a venerable husband in England, but preferred living in Italy with Mr. Tighe. There she employed her leisure in writing a book upon the training of children,—a work which her friends highly esteemed, and which they held to be an ample compensation to society for any irregularities in her own life. The couple were known as Mr. and Mrs. Mason. Miss Parker was an orphan girl, sent from England by Mrs. Godwin to be a companion to Lady Mountcashell, and profit by her example. These people kept alive in Claire's heart the flame of resentment and unrest. Mr. Tighe dwelt mournfully upon the austerity, as well as upon the degradation of convent life, until the mother's grief grew so excessive that in August, 1821, the long-suffering Shelley made a pilgrimage to Ravenna and to Bagnacavallo, to see how Allegra was placed, and to assure himself of her health and happiness. His charming letter—too long to be quoted in full—gives us the prettiest imaginable picture of a little school-girl, not yet five years old.
"I went the other day to see Allegra at her convent, and stayed with her about three hours. She is grown tall and slight for her age, and her face is somewhat altered. She yet retains the beauty of her deep blue eyes and of her mouth; but she has a contemplative seriousness, which, mixed with her excessive vivacity which has not yet deserted her, has a very peculiar effect in a child. She is under strict discipline, as may be observed from the immediate obedience she accords to the will of her attendants. This seems contrary to her nature; but I do not think it has been obtained at the expense of much severity. Her hair, scarcely darker than it was, is beautifully profuse, and hangs in large curls on her neck. She was prettily dressed in white muslin, and an apron of black silk, with trousers. Her light and airy figure and her graceful motions were a striking contrast to the other children there. She seemed a thing of a finer and a higher order. At first she was very shy; but after a little caressing, and especially after I had given her a gold chain which I had bought for her at Ravenna, she grew more familiar, and led me all over the garden, and all over the convent, running and skipping so fast that I could hardly keep up with her. She showed me her little bed, and the chair where she sat at dinner, and the carozzina in which she and her favourite companions drew each other along a walk in the garden. I had brought her a basket of sweetmeats, and, before eating any of them, she gave her friends and each of the nuns a portion. This is not like the old Allegra. … Her intellect is not much cultivated. She knows certain orazioni by heart, and talks and dreams of Paradiso and all sorts of things, and has a prodigious list of saints, and is always talking of the Bambino. This will do her no harm; but the idea of bringing up so sweet a creature in the midst of such trash 'till sixteen."
Shelley's content with Allegra's situation (the little tempest-tossed bark had at last sailed into quiet waters) failed to bring comfort to Claire. The convent walls rose—a hopeless barrier—between mother and child; and the finality of the separation weighed cruelly upon her spirits. One of her most bitter grievances was the fear that her daughter was being educated with the children of tradespeople,—an unfounded alarm, as we see from the list compiled by Signer Biondi of the little marchesas and contessas who were Allegra's playmates. Another, and a reasonable anxiety, came with the approach of winter. Miss Clairmont then thinks less about the ignorance and immorality of Italian women, and more about the undoubted cold of Italian convents. She is afraid, and naturally afraid, that her child is not warm enough. There is one piteous letter in which she says that she cannot look at a glowing fire without a sorrowful remembrance of her little daughter in the chilly convent halls.
All these sources of disquietude were strengthened the following year by a new and unreasoning terror. Miss Clairmont appears to have actually persuaded herself that Lord Byron meant to leave Allegra at Bagnacavallo, in the event of his own departure from Italy. We know now from his letters that it was his settled purpose to take her with him, wherever he went. Even when he meditated—briefly—an exile to South America, the child was to accompany his flight. But his persistent silence, his maddening refusal to answer Claire's appeals or remonstrances, left her in painful ignorance, and a prey to consuming fears. She conceived the mad design of stealing Allegra from the convent,—a scheme which was warmly supported by those discreet monitors, Lady Mountcashell and Mr. Tighe. Together they discussed ways and means. Mr. Tighe was of the opinion that the time had come for extreme measures; and the ardent Miss Parker assured Miss Clairmont that, were she Allegra's mother, she would not hesitate to stab Lord Byron to the heart, and so free his unhappy offspring from captivity.
In the midst of this melodramatic turmoil we hear Mrs. Shelley's voice, pleading vainly for patience and common sense. She points out in an earnest letter to Claire that Lady Noel's death will probably compel Byron to go to England, and may even lead to a reconciliation with his wife. In that event he will be more willing to give back Allegra to her mother; and for the present, there is no cause for apprehension. "Your anxiety about the child's health," she writes reassuringly, "is to a great extent unfounded. You ought to know, and any one will tell you, that the towns of Romagna, situated where Bagnacavallo is, enjoy the best air in Italy. Imola and the neighbouring paese are famous. Bagnacavallo especially, being fifteen miles from the sea, and situated on an eminence, is peculiarly salutary. Considering the affair reasonably, Allegra is well taken care of there. She is in good health, and in all probability will continue so."
One fact she strives to make clear. Her husband has no money for the furtherance of any plots that Miss Clairmont and Mr. Tighe may devise. On this score, Shelley himself is equally explicit. He had never wanted Allegra to go to her father, and he cannot resist the temptation of saying, "I told you so," though he says it with grave kindness. But he was even less willing that, having been given up, she should be stolen back again. His letter of remonstrance proves both the anxiety he felt, and his sense of shame at the part he was expected to play.
My dear Clare,—I know not what to think of the state of your mind, nor what to fear for you. Your plan about Allegra seems to me, in its present form, pregnant with irremediable infamy to all the actors in it except yourself;—in any form wherein I must actively coöperate, with inevitable destruction. I could not refuse Lord Byron's challenge; though that, however to be deprecated, would be the least in the series of mischiefs consequent upon my intervention in such a plan. I am shocked at the thoughtless violence of your designs, and I wish to put my sense of their madness in the strongest light. I may console myself, however, with the reflection that the attempt even is impossible, as I have no money. So far from being ready to lend me three or four hundred pounds, Horace Smith has lately declined to advance six or seven napoleons for a musical instrument which I wished to buy for Jane Williams in Paris. Nor have I any other friends to whom I could apply.
There was no need of heroics on the one side, nor of apprehension on the other. While Miss Clairmont was fretting and scheming in Florence, fever was scourging the Romagna, so seldom visited by infection, and the little English-born girl fell one of its earliest victims. Allegra died at her convent school in the spring of 1822. Byron admitted that death was kind. "Her position in the world would scarcely have allowed her to be happy," he said, pitying remorsefully the "sinless child of sin," so harshly handicapped in life. But he felt his loss, and bitterly, though silently, mourned it. The Countess Guiccioli was with him when the tidings came. In her eyes, he had always been a fond and solicitous father; yet the violence of his distress amazed and frightened her. He sent her away, and faced his grief, and his remorse—if he felt remorse—alone. The next day, when she sought him, he said very simply, "It is God's will. She is more fortunate than we are;" and never spoke of the child again. "From that time" she adds, "he became more anxious about his daughter Ada;—so much so as to disquiet himself when the usual accounts sent him were for a post or two delayed."
Byron's letters to Shelley, to Murray, and to Scott, bear witness to the sincerity of his grief, and also to his sense of compunction. He was still ready to defend his conduct; but to Shelley, at least, he admitted: "It is a moment when we are apt to think that, if this or that had been done, such an event might have been prevented." Indeed, of the four actors so deeply concerned in this brief tragedy of life, Shelley alone could hold himself free from blame. From first to last he had been generous, reasonable, and kind. It was his painful part to comfort Miss Clairmont, to restrain her frenzy of anger and wretchedness, to make what shadow of peace he could between the parents of the dead child. In all this he endured more than his share of worry and vexation. Two weeks after Allegra's death, he wrote to Lord Byron:
"I have succeeded in dissuading Clare from the melancholy design of visiting the coffin at Leghorn, much to the profit of my own shattered health and spirits, which would have suffered greatly in accompanying her on such a journey. She is much better. She has, indeed, altogether suffered in a manner less terrible than I expected, after the first shock, during which, of course, she wrote the letter you enclose. I had no idea that her letter was written in that temper; and I think I need not assure you that, whatever mine or Mary's ideas might have been respecting the system of education you intended to adopt, we sympathize too much in your loss, and appreciate too well your feelings, to have allowed such a letter to be sent to you, had we suspected its contents."
A dead grief is easier to bear than a live trouble. By early summer, Shelley was able to report Miss Clairmont as once more "talkative and vivacious." It was he who befriended her to the end, and who bequeathed her a large share of his estate. It was he who saw—or deemed he saw—the image of Allegra rise smiling and beckoning from the sea.
According to the Countess Guiccioli, Byron bore the "profound sorrow" occasioned by his little daughter's death "with all the fortitude belonging to his great soul." In reality his sense of loss was tempered by relief. Allegra's future had always been to him a subject of anxiety, and it was not without an emotion of joy that he realized the child's escape from a world which he had found bad, and which he had done little to make better. Two days after she died, he wrote to Murray: "You will regret to hear that I have received intelligence of the death of my daughter, Allegra, of a fever, in the convent of Bagnacavallo, where she was placed for the last year to commence her education. It is a heavy blow for many reasons, but must be borne,—with time."
A fortnight later he wrote to Scott: "I have just lost my natural daughter, Allegra, by a fever. The only consolation, save time, is the reflection that she is either at rest or happy; for her few years (only five) prevented her from having incurred any sin, except what we inherit from Adam.
"'Whom the gods love die young.'"
In a third letter, published by Mr. Prothero, Byron repeats these sentiments with even greater emphasis, and with a keener appreciation of their value. "Death has done his work, and I am resigned. … Even at my age I have become so much worn and harassed by the trials of the world, that I cannot refrain from looking upon that early rest which is at times granted to the young, as a blessing. There is a purity and holiness in the apotheosis of those who leave us in their brightness and their beauty, which instinctively lead us to a persuasion of their beatitude."
It was the irony of fate that, after being an innocent object of contention all her life, Allegra should, even in death, have been made the theme of an angry and bitter dispute. Her body was sent to England, and Byron begged Murray to make all the necessary arrangements for her burial. His directions were exceedingly minute. He indicated the precise spot in Harrow Church where he wished the child interred, and he wrote the inscription to be engraved upon her tablet.
IN MEMORY OF
DAUGHTER OF G. G. LORD BYRON,
WHO DIED AT BAGNACAVALLO,
IN ITALY, APRIL 20TH, 1822,
AGED FIVE YEARS AND THREE MONTHS.
I shall go to her, but she shall not return to me.
2 Samuel, xii. 23.
The funeral he desired to be "as private as is consistent with decency;" and he expressed a hope that his friend, the Rev. Henry Drury, would read the church service.
Murray found himself beset by unexpected difficulties. The vicar of Harrow, the Rev. J. W. Cunningham, objected strenuously to the erection of Allegra's tablet, and stated his objections at length;—not to Lord Byron (which was prudent), but to the unhappy publisher, who, all his life, had everybody's business to attend to. Mr. Cunningham declared that the proposed inscription "would be felt by every man of refined taste, to say nothing of sound morals, to be an offence against taste and propriety." He explained cautiously that, as he did not dare to say this to Byron, he expected Murray to do so. "My correspondence with his Lordship has been so small that I can scarcely venture myself to urge these objections. You, perhaps, will feel no such scruple. I have seen no person who did not concur in the propriety of stating them. I would intreat, however, that, should you think it right to introduce my name into any statement made to Lord Byron" (as if it could well have been left out), "you will not do so without assuring him of my unwillingness to oppose the smallest obstacle to his wishes, or give the slightest pain to his mind. The injury which, in my judgment, he is from day to day inflicting upon society is no justification for measures of retaliation and unkindness."
Even the expansive generosity of this last sentiment failed to soften Byron's wrath, when the vicar's scruples were communicated to him. He anathematized the reverend gentleman in language too vigorous for repetition, and he demanded of Murray, "what was the matter with the inscription,"—apparently under the impression that he had mistaken his dates, or misquoted his text. His anger deepened into fury when he was subsequently informed that Allegra's interment in Harrow Church was held to be a deliberate insult to Lady Byron, who occasionally attended the services there. He wrote passionately that of his wife's church-goings he knew nothing; but that, had he known, no power would have induced him to bury his poor infant where her foot might tread upon its grave. Meanwhile, Mr. Cunningham had marshalled his church-wardens, who obediently withheld their consent to the erection of the tablet; so that matter was settled forever. Two years later, Dr. Ireland, Dean of Westminster, refused to permit Lord Byron's body to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Even Thorwaldsen's statue of the poet, now in Trinity College, Cambridge, was rejected by this conscientious dignitary. "I do indeed greatly wish for a figure by Thorwaldsen here," he wrote piously to Murray; "but no taste ought to be indulged to the prejudice of a duty." The statue lay unheeded for months in a shed on the Thames wharf, and was finally transferred to the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. Comment is superfluous. Byron was denied a grave in Westminster Abbey; but Gifford, through Dr. Ireland's especial insistence, was buried within its walls.
Allegra lies in Harrow Church, with no tablet to mark her resting-place, or to preserve her memory. Visitors searching sentimentally for "Byron's tomb,"—by which they mean a stone in the churchyard, "on the brow of the hill, looking towards Windsor," where, as a boy, he was wont to sit and dream for hours,—seldom know the spot where his little daughter sleeps.
- Clara Mary Jane Clairmont was "Claire's" full name.
The Riverside Press
Electrotyped and printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A.