Shadowbox: In Byron’s Shadow

“There is something pagan in me that I cannot shake off. In short, I deny nothing, but doubt everything.”John William Waterhouse - a mermaid

SHADOWBOX begins in 1832. The young Louis Beauregard flees London to escape a crime he cannot forget and seeks to drown his memory in debauchery and revels.

He wouldn’t be the first man to do so.

Lord George Gordon Byron, accompanied by his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Polidori, Mary Shelley and a few hangers-on, set the tone for many adventurers of the upper class when they escaped public outrage and landed on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Others followed.

A peculiar fashion arose in the salons of London. Borne out of the tragic loss of the Colonies in North America to independence, the wealthy of London sought adventure elsewhere.

France and Italy, the twin states ruled by Bourbon kings, were at peace with the rest of Europe, for a little while at least. Internal strife might cause problems, but tourists were hardly impacted. And following on from the lack of ability to travel to north America, the wealthy of Britain – England – spread their adventuring to Europe on the Grand Tour.

The nation’s public schools (actually fee-paying and not at all like public education, especially public education of the time) emphasised Greek and Latin scholarship.

There was also a lack of reading material. Back in the early 19th century there was no publishing business to speak of.
Many homes had no access to a book. Many more had access only to a single Bible, and while the religious reformers taught in English, a grounding in Latin was seen as the basis for understanding the great poetry and literature of the time.

Who’s to say that Greek epic poetry isn’t worth keeping? And so the schools taught Greek, the stories of Homer and Troy, of Penelope and Odysseus and Helen. Still stirring today.

But the wealthy of the 19th century took advantage of the political peace across Bourbon regions and headed off to see Rome for themselves. The more adventurous disregarded the rebellion and the bandits in Greece and set off to find Athens, Sparta, Corinth, all happily trundling along with much the same sort of lifestyle they imagined had been borne by the ancients.

Except they plundered the places they visited.

Lord Elgin stole the marble statues from the plinth of the Parthenon, ostensibly to save them from the Turkish troops taking potshots or from the gunpowder stored inside blowing them up.

When he returned to London with them, Robert Smirke was commissioned to build the first hall of the British Museum to house them, along with all the Egyptian antiquities we’d hoarded since Giovanni Belzoni began bewitching women with stories of dead princes and painted tombs.

Napoleon Bonaparte stole treasures from Egypt while his army occupied the country.

Britons followed, continuing a fascination which had begun centuries earlier and continues to this day.

Germany, too, although not yet a nation state, sent its archaeologists to acquire antiquities.Ottoman Empire

Uprisings against the Ottoman Empire tinged these adventures with a smidgeon of danger, always a thrill to recount back in the comfortable drawing-rooms and parlours of one’s home nation.

Into this foment of passion, exploration, revolution and liberty, I pitched the young Louis Beauregard with a price on his head and a past he cannot escape.

In the shadow of Byron he set off for Greece and the wild hills of Olympus. But he stopped off in Paris on the way, and there the story really catches up with him.
Next in the SHADOWBOX series: Rogues Gallery.
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