Highlighting Historical Romance this week over Christmas in Venice.
Romance stories come together in a variety of ways, an astounding alchemy of life experience, reading, fantasy, and, in my case, history and travel. I do know you can’t force it. The stories just bubble up once I drop enough elements into the caldron. A good example is one of my favorite novellas, Lady Charlotte’s Christmas Vigil.
If I sat down at my desk in the urban wilds and asked myself what sort of holiday novella I might conjure out of my imagination. I might have come up with a ball at a Regency House Party, or a starving orphan in London, or a cynical Lord living alone in need of redemption. I might. Those stories have all been told in hundreds of ways. Considering I would ask myself that in June in order to publish by November, I might come up with nothing at all.
When I sat at a café in Venice, on the other hand and wondered whether, realistically, I could put English Regency era characters into a story in Venice, it was June, but Christmas was miles from my thoughts. I had a vague memory of that some famous Englishmen traveled to Italy, but nothing came to mind. A couple of days later a casual ramble through a bookstore uncovered a little gem, In Venice and the Veneto with Lord Byron. Byron in Venice? Of course he was. Silly me. I devoured it.
Byron arrived in Venice in 1816 and was in residence until 1819. I discovered that the Venice of that era was somewhat dreary and far from its heyday, having been first conquered by Napoleon and then given to the Austrians like some sort of awkward regifting at one of those Christmas parties at work. It doesn’t sound like Byron’s cup of tea, but come he did and stay he did.
Byron always impresses as one who works as hard as he plays. During his stay he published Manfred, Beppo, and parts of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage among other works, and began Don Juan. He also carried on at least two major affairs, socialized widely both with Venetians and visiting colleagues, and revealed he had gonorrhea. At some point in 1818 his daughter Allegro (whose mother was Mary Shelly’s stepsister) came to live with him. He did two other things that show not only his astonishing stamina but his breadth of interests.
At some point he became fascinated with the Armenian monastery on the island of San Lazzaro in the Venetian lagoon and traveled out regularly to learn the Armenian language. He said, “I go every day to take lessons of a learned Friar and have gained some singular and not useless information with regard to the literature and customs of that Oriental people…” He also assisted in the publication of an Armenian grammar. How on earth did he find time to write? Or conduct his affairs?
The second astounding accomplishment involved swimming the Grand Canal. I assumed he swam across it. I assumed wrong. Byron swam from the Lido to the entrance of the Grand Canal (about 25 minutes by boat) and then the entire length, He wrote, “I was in the sea from half past 4 to quarter past 8.” It would be no small feat in clean, clear water. I strongly suspect the canal was neither. He did not, however, have any ill effects. Luckily he had the good sense to do it in June. Me? I stuck to the water taxi, but I went past Byron’s palazzo a few times.
My little book not only gave me a wealth of information about the poet, it included maps and information about buildings, canals, squares, streets, and travel as they were in 1818. I tucked it away, along with my own memories, interest in the Regency, and impending Christmas. What ultimately bubbled to the top was Lady Charlotte’s Christmas Vigil, in which the heroine’s very foolish younger brother happens upon Venice while Byron is there and inserts himself into the circle around the man only to end up mocked and ill after trying to keep up. Enter a handsome Italian Doctor. Her life is about to take a turn!
Stir in some research into fevers and medical practice in Venice in the early 19th century (did you know, for example that many doctors were Jewish and that Jews were allowed only a few professions—medicine and rag merchant for example) and about Christmas customs in Italy in general and Venice in particular and a gem of a polished book emerged.
It is less than a dollar. How can you go wrong? https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0758NLYV2/
They dropped her brother on the threshold, wet and stinking of fish, long after midnight. It took all of Lady Charlotte Tyree’s strength to haul him across it. It took all of her powers of persuasion to convince the landlady to allow it.
No doubt to preserve her parlor and best guest rooms, the landlady, Signora Rossi, bent to help Charlotte drag his worthless carcass to the kitchen and stretch him out on the stone floor.
“Do not soil the hearth rug with this wretch,” she ordered and left in a flurry of fastidious hand wiping.
“Dear God, David, what have you done now, and where is Charles Douglas?”
A moan was the only response. Charlotte began to systematically strip her brother of his sodden and odiferous clothing. Signora Rossi’s overworked maid opened the door and skittered to a stop, blushing at the sight of a man being stripped to his smallclothes. Charlotte sent her for towels and a blanket. The girl disappeared as if she were fleeing the Devil himself.
“Ninny,” Charlotte grumbled, working with efficiency and speed.
Her brother began to shiver uncontrollably; his personal linen would have to come off. She left him naked and shaking on the stone floor and went to set a kettle to boil. She put his clothing outside the door on the stones lining the canal. If she couldn’t convince a laundress to clean them for the poor box, she would burn them.
She put some warm water in a basin and returned to the boiling kettle. Whether David would drink tea to ward off his chill or not, she would need a cup when she finished dealing with him. She found kitchen rags and began to sponge his face with the warm water. He murmured something unintelligible, and she leaned in to hear him. The smell of drink on his breath, mixed with the stench of fish and polluted water, assailed her nostrils.
“What is it, David?” she asked, trying not to gag.
“Failed. George laughed.”
“Canal. Water too damned cold.” He moaned again and turned his head.
The maid hesitated when she stepped in, covering her eyes with a pile of towels. Charlotte yanked them from her hands.
“Put the blanket on the table and get out,” Charlotte demanded. This chit is no help whatsoever.
Charlotte laid half of the towels on the floor and rolled her brother onto them, then covered him with the rest. The girl interrupted her, calling from the door, eyes on the ceiling.
“I forgot! I brought this.” She pulled a bar of soap from her dress.
“Grazi,” Charlotte said grabbing the soap. “Now go.”
“Signora Rossi said if towels don’t come clean, you must pay,” the girl said in a rush, before she scurried out.
Charlotte poured hotter water into the basin and began to bathe her brother, as if he were a baby and not a man of twenty. He certainly acts like an infant. He continued to mumble incoherently, but she could only make out a few words here and there: cold, Rialto, canal, George, swim.
George swim. Merciful angels. Byron should pay for this. Rage filled her. The poet had swum the length of the Grand Canal in June. The entire town buzzed about the improbable feat. It would be just like David to try to imitate his idol.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, had been leading her brother into ruin since the day they had reached Venice the previous month, David spent his nights drinking, gaming, and God knew what else at Palazzo Mocenigo, Byron’s palazzo on the Grand Canal.