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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 6747

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Removes to Ravenna-The Countess Guiccioli

Although Lord Byron resided between two and three years at Venice, he was never much attached to it. "To see a city die daily, as she does," said he, "is a sad contemplation. I sought to distract my mind from a sense of her desolation and my own solitude, by plunging into a vortex that was anything but pleasure. When one gets into a mill-stream, it is difficult to swim against it, and keep out of the wheels." He became tired and disgusted with the life he led at Venice, and was glad to turn his back on it. About the close of the year 1819 he accordingly removed to Ravenna; but before I proceed to speak of the works which he composed at Ravenna, it is necessary to explain some particulars respecting a personal affair, the influence of which on at least one of his productions is as striking as any of the many instances already described upon others. I allude to the intimacy which he formed with the young Countess Guiccioli.

This lady, at the age of sixteen, was married to the Count, one of the richest noblemen in Romagna, but far advanced in life. "From the first," said Lord Byron, in his account of her, "they had separate apartments, and she always called him, Sir! What could be expected from such a preposterous connection. For some time she was an Angiolina and he a Marino Faliero, a good old man; but young Italian women are not satisfied with good old men, and the venerable Count did not object to her availing herself of the privileges of her country in selecting a cicisbeo; an Italian would have made it quite agreeable: indeed, for some time he winked at our intimacy, but at length made an exception against me, as a foreigner, a heretic, an Englishman, and, what was worse than all, a Liberal.

"He insisted-Teresa was as obstinate-her family took her part. Catholics cannot get divorces; but to the scandal of all Romagna, the matter was at last referred to the Pope, who ordered her a separate maintenance on condition that she should reside under her father's roof. All this was not agreeable, and at length I was forced to smuggle her out of Ravenna, having discovered a plot laid with the sanction of the legate, for shutting her up in a convent for life."

The Countess Guiccioli was at this time about twenty, but she appeared younger; her complexion was fair, with large, dark, languishing eyes; and her auburn hair fell in great profusion of natural ringlets over her shapely shoulders. Her features were not so regular as in their expression pleasing, and there was an amiable gentleness in her voice which was peculiarly interesting. Leigh Hunt's account of her is not essentially dissimilar from any other that I have either heard of or met with. He differs, however, in one respect, from every other, in saying that her hair was yellow; but considering the curiosity which this young lady has excited, perhaps it may be as well to transcribe his description at length, especially as he appears to have taken some pains on it, and more particularly as her destiny seems at present to promise that the interest for her is likely to be revived by another unhappy English connection.

"Her appearance," says Mr Hunt, "might have reminded an English spectator of Chaucer's heroine:

Yclothed was she, fresh for to devise,

Her yellow hair was braided in a tress

Behind her ba

ck, a yardé long I guess,

And in the garden (as the same uprist)

She walketh up and down, where as her list.

And then, as Dryden has it:

At every turn she made a little stand,

And thrust among the thorns her lily hand.

Madame Guiccioli, who was at that time about twenty, was handsome and lady-like, with an agreeable manner, and a voice not partaking too much of the Italian fervour to be gentle. She had just enough of it to give her speaking a grace-none of her graces appeared entirely free from art; nor, on the other hand, did they betray enough of it to give you an ill opinion of her sincerity and good-humour . . . Her hair was what the poet has described, or rather blond, with an inclination to yellow; a very fair and delicate yellow, at all events, and within the limits of the poetical. She had regular features of the order properly called handsome, in distinction to prettiness or piquancy; being well proportioned to one another, large, rather than otherwise, but without coarseness, and more harmonious than interesting. Her nose was the handsomest of the kind I ever saw; and I have known her both smile very sweetly, and look intelligently, when Lord Byron has said something kind to her. I should not say, however, that she was a very intelligent person. Both her wisdom and her want of wisdom were on the side of her feelings, in which there was doubtless mingled a good deal of the self-love natural to a flattered beauty. . . . In a word, Madame Guiccioli was a kind of buxom parlour-boarder, compressing herself artificially into dignity and elegance, and fancying she walked, in the eyes of the whole world, a heroine by the side of a poet. When I saw her at Monte Nero, near Leghorn, she was in a state of excitement and exultation, and had really something of this look. At that time, also, she looked no older than she was; in which respect, a rapid and very singular change took place, to the surprise of everybody. In the course of a few months she seemed to have lived as many years."

This is not very perspicuous portraiture, nor does it show that Mr Hunt was a very discerning observer of character. Lord Byron himself is represented to have said, that extraordinary pains were taken with her education: "Her conversation is lively without being frivolous; without being learned, she has read all the best authors of her own and the French language. She often conceals what she knows, from the fear of being thought to know too much; possibly because she knows I am not fond of blues. To use an expression of Jeffrey's, 'If she has blue stockings, she contrives that her petticoats shall hide them.'"

Lord Byron was at one time much attached to her; nor could it be doubted that their affection was reciprocal; but in both, their union outlived their affection, for before his departure to Greece his attachment had perished, and he left her, as it is said, notwithstanding the rank and opulence she had forsaken on his account, without any provision. He had promised, it was reported, to settle two thousand pounds on her, but he forgot the intention, or died before it was carried into effect. {255} On her part, the estrangement was of a different and curious kind-she had not come to hate him, but she told a lady, the friend of a mutual acquaintance of Lord Byron and mine, that she feared more than loved him.

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