A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Thursday, January 31, 2008

...a straggling, gloomy, depressive, partially-inhabited place the Abbey was. Those rooms, however, which had been fitted up for residence were so comfortably appointed, glowing with crimson hangings and cheerful with capacious fires, that one soon lost the melancholy feeling of being domiciled in an extensive ruin.

William Harness a friend of George Gordon, Lord Byron

In March 1988 I photographed William Gibson in his home. Having just read his novel Count Zero I attempted to make Gibson look a cyberspace count, a Dracula with a remote.

In 1990 he co-wrote with Bruce Sterling my favourite Gibsonian novel, The Difference Engine. It is a "what if" novel in which real life early computer pioneer Charles Babbage perfects in 1855 a steam driven Analytic Engine. History and the British Empire are irrevocably altered.

Somehow Lord Byron does not die young and is the Prime Minister, his mathematical genius daughter Ada lectures on some purported magical punch cards and their ability to solve Gödel's Theorem (in actual fact solved in 1931). An interesting character of the novel is Mori Arinori, Japan's first Ambassador to the United States who campaigns to abandon the Japanese language (including the written one) in favour of English so as to modernize Japan. Wellington is assasinated when he attempts to thwart the Difference Engine's rapid change of Victorian England. This is one of my favourite of all "what if" novels. It is as good as those other two, where Hitler wins the war, Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle , and Robert Harris's Fatherland (four-door VW Beetles and President Kennedy is not John F. But his father Joseph P.).

In the late 80s I went to Shropshire and visited Nottingham. I took a side trip to Newstead Abbey where Lord Byron lived for about a year where:

...he and his university friends practised fencing, boxing and pistol shooting. From his student rooms at Trinity College he brought his gilded bed and a tame bear.

The bear roamed the Abbey in the company of Byron's other pet animals, including several large dogs, tortoises and a wolf. The wine cellar was well-stocked with good claret and the library contained many fine books - for, Byron spent much of his time at Newstead reading and writing.

From the Newstead Abbey web site.

Newstead Abbey was a delight because it was not (and is not) a National Trust historical building or garden site. It is run by Nottinghamshire and this means fewer people. I arrived after spring so the extensive rhododendron collection had already bloomed. The inside of the living quarters were slightly gloomy in an "undead" way. I thought of vampires.

We know that the poet Percy Shelley, his young mistress, his sister Mary and Lord Byron spent time in 1816 in a house in the Italian side of Switzerland at the Villa Diodati. They dared each other to write a scary a novel. Byron began one on vampires but never finished it.

Only Mary Shelley delivered with Frankenstein. Byron's young doctor, John Polidori was also in attendance and three years later published Vampyre which was first attributed to Byron. This whole story of the summer at Villa Diodati is deftly novelized in another wonderful "what if" by Argentine Federico Andahazi in Las Piadosas. Just for once English readers can enjoy Alberto Manguel's translation The Merciful Women (2002). Vampires lurk at Villa Diodati and...

It was thus delightful to discover John Crowley's Lord Byron's Novel - The Evening Land as a hardcover at Chapters for $5.99. With my Chapters Reward card I was given an additional 10% discount.

This is a delightful "what if" novel in which Byron's daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace (who we know was into mathematics and learn here that she was a frind of Charles Babbage) discovers her father's (whom she never met) manuscript. Crawley's novel retells (publishes?) the long lost novel whose discovery is told by Ada who feels a longing for the father she never met. Meanwhile a young woman, and her father (who have a strained relationship) forward in the 20th century re-discover traces, but not the novel of the novel. Their relationship is restored through the adventures and in a way Ada finds Byron in the 20th century.

Of Newstead Abbey, Ada writes in Crowley's novel of the novel:

I had at that time reached what I may call an epoch in my feelings about my paternal ancestors. Not long before, my husband William, Lord Lovelace, and I accepted an invitation to visit Newstead, the ancestral seat of the Byrons in Notthinghamshire, now in the possession of Colonel Widman, once Lord Byron's schoolfellow at Harrow. There - amid scenes where the father I never knew was wont to roam and to make merry; where his forbears worthy and profilgate had lived, and whose incomes they had wasted, in former ages; where nearby stands the little parish church, in whose crypt my father lies with his people - I know not how, but all that I seemed once to have known concerning that troubled and tempestuous spirit, all that I had been taught to think about him - and to hold him guilty of - all vanished, or lifted as cloud; and I knew myself to be, with all my own faults, a Byron, too, as was he, with his: and if I could not love him without charges upon his soul, I could not love myself, or his grandchildren that were my children. In a letter that is quoted in the Life written by Mr. Thomas Moore, Lord Byron stated his belief that a woman cannot love a man for himself who does not love him for his crimes.

No other love says he is worthy the name. Whether or not my own soul is capable of so august an ideal of love, I hold it to be applicable as well to a daughter as to a spouse; and none my hinder me now from aspiring it.

Another fave "What If"


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