The ‘Year Without a Summer’ was 1815: the aftermath of unusual volcanic activity led to a bitingly cold year and the lowest crop yield on record. However, economic crisis, malnutrition and disease were not the concerns of Lord Byron in the summer of 1816. After Byron’s exile from Britain, the most celebrated Romantic poet left for Switzerland accompanied by his equally talented contemporaries Percy and (soon to be) Mary Shelley. The months that ensued were saturated with creativity and literature, leading to the creation of works such as Frankenstein. This is the setting but by no means the focus of Andrew McConnell Stott’s enthralling new biography A Summer in the Shadow of Byron.
Unlike many of Byron’s biographies, Stott throws us into the world of excess and artistry, but changes the lens through which we experience the account. Instead of fawning over the trio’s literary prowess, Stott introduces a darker to side to the Romantics and their inner circle of (for want of a better word) friends. Instead we are given John Polidori and Claire Claremont: two figures from the summer on Lake Genève whose tragic stories have been blotted out by the towering fame of their company, despite both having a profound impact on Byron’s character and poetry.
It is precisely the thought of being forgotten or living in Byron’s Shadow that drives Stott’s book. By weaving the pair’s respective pasts throughout, Stott’s paints a picture of Clairemont and Polidori as desperately, unattractively ambitious; clinging to an unresponsive Byron, whose actions lead to Polidori’s suicide and Claire’s ruin.
The use of two marginalised figures as the focus of Stott’s biography gives a refreshingly indirect insight into Byron’s character. Rather than a story exploring the influences and reasoning behind Romantic literature, Stott’offers an insight into the damage that Byron inflicted upon those who lived in his shadow. He portrays this towering literary celebrity not as a poetic protégé but as a volatile and arrogant boy, whose success was the result of clever P.R and marketing.
This unconventional angle into historical figures not only alters the reader’s understanding of Byron as a person, but charges a recycled tale with energy. With the more minor figures of this period brought to the foreground, Stott is able to embellish and extend facts, without losing any truth to the story. What Stott has created is a book that appeals to those fascinated with Byron, as well as readers in search for a thrilling novel rife with sexual tension and outrageous scandal.