“She lost her virginity in a graveyard”

This podcast is an out-take from David’s Hampstead & Hampstead Heath Virtual Tour. It’s got “a wider range” than any other podcast we’ve done so far. From Hampstead to Italy to Germany to the Alps to Java to Niagara Falls to Madagascar. It’s got a jaw-dropping cast of characters and an “almost defies belief” tiara of vignettes.


London Calling. 

David here. 

It’s out-take time. 

That’s out-take as in a scene that ends up on the cutting room floor. Recorded but not included in the final version.

In this instance, a scene from my Hampstead Virtual Tour. Which, 11 months in the making, is now ready to go. The second dress rehearsal was yesterday. Talking it over afterward with our friends who watched it, I said I was a little concerned that it’s maybe pushing it length-wise – it runs to about 70 minutes, I’d like to bring it in at just over an hour.

They said, well, if you wanted to make a cut you could take out – even though it sure was fascinating – the bit about Leigh Hunt and Byron watching Shelley’s body being cremated on that beach in Italy. I’d put that episode in because of Leigh Hunt lived in Hampstead – in the village within a village – the Vale of Health, as it’s known – and he plays a major supporting role in the John Keats story. And of course – Keats and Hampstead, well, that’s hand in glove territory. And of course all along I had in the back of my mind Edouard Fournier’s famous painting, The Funeral of Shelley – showing the cremation. And Leigh Hunt is of course depicted in that painting. As was Byron. They were both there. And inevitably my thinking was, this medium – virtual tours – it is so visual – it’d be criminal negligence not to show that image. And talk a bit about that episode when we’re there in the Vale of Health, where Leigh Hunt lived. So in it went. But, yes, it’s a three or four-minute episode – and I was concerned the length of the virtual tour – so snip snip, onto the cutting room floor it went.

But it is such a fabulous tale – indeed, the whole Leigh Hunt story is a rich feast – I thought, I’m not keeping what I’ve found out to myself, that material deserves an airing. A story that’s got Byron, Shelley, Hunt in it. A story that’s got a young woman losing her virginity in a graveyard.  A story that’s got a heart that survived a cremation and ended up wrapped in the page of a love poem in a desk drawer. A story that’s got the Niagara Falls rapids being swum. A story that’s got a vegetarian eccentric who refused to wear overcoats and underwear. A story that’s got a grown man marrying the 13-year-old daughter of a Greek warlord and neither husband nor teenage (barely teenage) bride spoke a word of the other’s language. A story that’s got people periodically digging up the corpses of their relatives and dancing with them. 

How do I keep that story to myself? 

And then of course the penny dropped – for god’s sake, you can at least get a podcast out of it. So here we are. That’s what this is. This is an out-take from my Hampstead Virtual Tour.

We’ll start with Leigh Hunt. He’s the point of incision. Both in terms of narrative and location. He’s got a blue plaque there in Hampstead. 

Now most people probably haven’t heard of him. Unless, like me, they “majored in English”, as we used to say.

What did I know about Leigh Hunt from that English Lit background. Very little, really. I knew that he was a crusading journalist and minor poet. I knew that he’s chiefly important for discovering and nurturing talent. And that he discovered and nurtured a huge talent. John Keats. He published Keats’ first volume of poems. He introduced Keats to his circle of friends – poets and artists. He introduced Keats and Shelley. Those three went for walks on Hampstead. Those three walked where we walk on my Hampstead Walk. I knew that Leigh Hunt helped Keats bear up against the vicious criticism that his verse drew from certain quarters. Some of it extremely ad hominem. Keats was very short, barely 5’ tall. Height was very much a class consideration in those days. Crowded, unsanitary living conditions, poor diet – the poor almost never had the commanding figure of the rich. They seemed stunted in comparison. John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the very imposing Lord Ribblesdale sums up the matter perfectly.

Keats was from a humble background, son of a stable keeper. Keats was a surgeon’s apprentice. And here you have to make a mental adjustment. Today, being a surgeon is a prestigious profession. Two hundred years ago it was anything but prestigious. Really, the only thing that made surgery socially acceptable was the invention of anesthesia. Prior to that the socially grand regarded it with something like sneering derision. Just one step above butchering hogs.

These were, if you will, the cultural wars of the early 19th century. Those on high regarded poetry as their property, it wasn’t to be sullied by the touch of a stable-keeper’s son. That attitude – and that viciousness – was crystallised in one reviewer’s summation: “Get back to your blood and your bandages, little Johnny Keats.”

And that was about all I knew about Leigh Hunt. Except that he had financial problems all his life. He needed looking after. There was something childish and irresponsible about him right across the trajectory of his life. For a time he lived in Chelsea. At 4 Upper Cheyne Row. The house is still there. His friend and neighbour was Thomas Carlyle. In fact, Hunt put the Carlyles onto their house, 24 Cheyne Row, just round the corner from Hunt’s house. The Carlyle’s lived for years. Today, Carlyle’s House is one of the wonders of the National Trust treasure chest. Famously, Thomas Carlyle only visited the Hunt’s once at their house. Carlyle was fastidious. The Hunt’s had a huge family. Hunt’s wife Marianne was an alcoholic. Carlyle came away disgusted. He said, “the Hunts are living in studied squalor.”

And just two other Hunt notes that I carried forward from my Keats seminar at the University of Wisconsin all those years ago.

  1. Enter Charles Dickens. And one of his great masterpiece novels, Bleak House. In the novel there’s a preposterous character named Harold Skimpole. A self-described man-child, Harold Skimpole is a parasitical aesthete. That’s right, you got it in one. Dickens based the fictional character Harold Skimpole on his friend Leigh Hunt.
  2. Hunt did time – at Horsemonger Lane Jail – for libeling the Prince Regent. Called him “a fat and foolish Adonis of 50.” That seven-word put-down was Hunt pulling his punches. Here’s the full-on onslaught. Well, part of the full-on onslaught. Hunt said the Prince Regent was – and here I’m quoting – “a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity.”

The palace just couldn’t turn a blind eye to that. A prosecution for libel followed in no time. The charge sheet read: “intention to traduce and vilify his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Regent of the United Kingdom, and to bring his Royal Highness into hatred, contempt and disgrace.”

Hunt was found guilty of, quote, “a foul, atrocious and malignant libel.”

Into the slammer he went. With a £500 fine – a lot of money then – as the cherry on the sundae.

In the end, though, the prison sentence maybe wasn’t too onerous. Hunt’s wife and their little boy moved into prison with him. They let him put rose-patterned wallpaper on the cell walls and clouds and blue sky on the ceiling. He furnished the “accommodation” with a piano and his bookcases. He was visited by a lot of the leading lights of the literary, artistic and intellectual world of the day. Jeremy Bentham, William Hazlitt, Charles and Mary Lamb, Thomas Moore. It was Thomas Moore, incidentally, who penned one of the all-time great lines about London: “Go where we may, rest where we will, eternal London haunts us still.”

No question about it, Hunt was a leading radical of the day. Three years earlier, in 1810, the government had tried to get him – tried to shut him up (shut his mouth – ok, his pen – and shut him up bodily) – tried to shut him up over an article he’d written that denounced military flogging. The article was titled “One thousand lashes.” Think about that quantification: not one lash, not ten lashes, not 40 lashes – one thousand lashes. Anyway, Hunt was prosecuted. And that time he was successfully defended. That case – the hoopla surrounding it – was what led to the Shelley-Hunt friendship. Shelley – yes, that Shelley, the great Romantic poet, who, like Keats and Byron, died ever so young – Shelley was a student at Oxford. Word of Hunt’s liberal sensibilities and courageous stand – taking on the government – reached that young Oxford undergraduate. When Hunt was acquitted Shelley introduced himself, sent Hunt a congratulatory note and just like that the friendship was underway.

Anyway, that’s about the extent of it – that’s pretty much what English types know about Leigh Hunt. For my Hampstead Virtual Tour, I did a bit more digging. And was amazed – and indeed, delighted – to find out that Leigh Hunt was an American. His father was a Philadelphia lawyer; his mother the daughter of a Quaker Philadelphia merchant. And so we come to the rub: Leigh Hunt’s father was an outspoken British loyalist. These were the 1770s. That British loyalist had to fly the coop – he came here – in 1776. The year of the Declaration of Independence. It was a close-run thing. Leigh Hunt’s father narrowly avoided being tarred and feathered. 

And maybe these things run in families. Leigh Hunt’s radicalism – opposition to the powers that be – almost certainly was learned at the knee of his father. And it turns out his father was not good with money. Was feckless. Pursued by debt collectors. And sure enough, locked up in the King’s Bench Prison because of his debts.

So many threads come together here. Hunt’s father being locked up for debt – well, a generation down the line Charles Dickens’s father would be locked up for debt. And the Dickens family moved into prison with John Dickens. There’s just a whole lot of reverberations in the Leigh Hunt story.

But to get to the precise moment of my virtual tour that ended up on the cutting room floor, we have to jump to Shelley’s death by drowning on July 8, 1822. Off the northwest coast of Italy. 

Leigh Hunt was there. He’d been summoned by Shelley. They were going to meet up with Byron. The three of them collaborate on a new periodical called The Liberal. English for an English-speaking audience, but conducted there in Italy.

Give you an idea how difficult traveling conditions were 200 years ago. Hunt set sail for Genoa on November 15, 1821. Storm blew up, drove them back to port. They had to spend the rest of the winter in England. Finally, May 13, 1822 they try again. This time they make it, arriving nearly a month later, on the 15th of June. Shelley is ecstatic. He greets Hunt, “I am so inexpressibly delighted!—you cannot think how inexpressibly happy it makes me!”

They get to Leghorn on July 1. And then they go to Pisa. Byron has a castle there. They stay there with him.

A week later – July 8 – Shelley is dead. Drowned.

Another remarkable Englishman of that period – a man who’s now largely forgotten – Edward Trelawny – organises the search for the bodies.

Ten days later Shelley’s badly decomposed body washes ashore on a beach near Viareggio. Identifiable only by the clothing and a copy of Keats’ long poem Lamia in a jacket pocket.

Italian regulations at the time stipulated that the corpse has to be cremated almost immediately.

And that brings us to the painting that had a cameo role – before ending up on the cutting floor – in my Hampstead Virtual Tour.

It’s a painting by a French artist named Louis Edouard Fournier. It’s titled, simply, The Funeral of Shelley. The funeral being the cremation. And what I strongly recommend is that you bring up, online, a reproduction of the painting. So you can see what I’m talking about. And see why I felt I just had to put that image into this visual-centric medium of Virtual Tours. Just look at the Wikipedia page for Louis Edouard Fournier. Fournier spelled F O U R N I E R. 

What you see is Shelley’s corpse being cremated, smoke coming off it. The three men standing there are, left to right, Trelawny, Leigh Hunt and Byron.

The kneeling woman is Shelley’s widow, Mary.

It’s a very arresting image. Draws you right in. And holds you. 

And – wait for it – lies to you in just about every respect.

Not that it matters in the least. In fact, it’s better that he lies. The lies make it a much greater painting.

Let’s have a look. As the great painter Constable once said, “We see nothing till we truly understand.”

Let’s understand so we can see. See why Fournier did what he did. 

He painted the scene in 1889. That’s 67 years after the event. As you can see, Fournier depicts the day as gloomy and overcast. And cold. Those heavy overcoats the mourners are wearing. In real life, it wasn’t gloomy and overcast. This was Italy. In July. The sky was blue. It was hot and humid. Well, there’s a completely different feel to it, isn’t there, if he makes it a bright, breezy sky blue day. Secondly, Shelley’s corpse. It looks peaceful. It looks good. It wasn’t peaceful. It didn’t look good. It was terribly bloated. The bits of it exposed to ten days in the Mediterranean and the attention of the sea creatures – well, let’s be polite and say it was badly decomposed. And leave it at that.

As for Leigh Hunt, he was there. But he wasn’t there – not there on the beach. He stayed in the carriage. You can see the carriage there in the background.

As for Byron, he was so disgusted by the condition of Shelley’s corpse – the hot muggy day didn’t help – that he didn’t stick about. He almost immediately stripped down and went for a swim in the sea.

Nor was Mary Shelley, the widow, there. For health reasons. My god, what a summer she’d had. Just a month she’d had a miscarriage. She lost so much blood she almost died. Shelley had made her sit in a bath of ice. That’s what saved her.

Poor Mary Shelley. Five pregnancies. Only one child survived. Her own mother died when she, Mary, was a newborn. Eleven days old.

Anything else?

Well, yes, no harm in reminding one and all that Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein, the great prototype of the Gothic novel.

And to that I’d add – something that’s not widely known – Mary Shelley lost her virginity in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church. Just north and west of King’s Cross and indeed St. Pancras railway stations.

Let that sink in – if that’s the mot juste – Mary Shelley lost her virginity to the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in a graveyard. Shelley shagged Mary in a graveyard. Mary gave birth – so to speak – to Frankenstein. 

Personal story: Mary and I and other members of Mary’s family scattered the ashes, first of Mary’s father and then of her mum, in that graveyard. Why there? Because Mary’s dad, the legendary BBC producer and writer, played in that churchyard when he was a kid. He grew up a couple of hundred yards away, in Sandwich Street, in King’s Cross. I remember Mary’s brother Antony saying, ‘Dad was always a Londoner through and through. He always wanted to be part of London. Now he is. Eternally.” And that may have been the most layered moment I’ve experienced in half a century in London. Because the immediate event, the scattering of the ashes, was centre stage. But I was also – this is the simultaneity of London – thinking, on a couple of other channels in my mind – we’re scattering Charles’ ashes where Dickens sets that great grave-robbing scene in A Tale of Two Cities. And scattering them in the shadow of the Hardy Tree – the tree that has scores of old tombstones stacked up around its base. Because the railway was cutting a swath through there the burial ground had to be dug, the remains disinterred and relocated. Thomas Hardy who would of course become the great Victorian was then a 25-year-old apprentice to an architect. It was his job to retrieve and relocate those old headstones. And there they are, to this day, around the base of the tree. And scattering them where Shelley shagged Mary – where the creator of Frankenstein lost her virginity. Phew. London.

And that brings us to the mysterious fifth person – if you count Shelley’s corpse as one of the five – in the Fournier painting. Edward Trelawney, a now pretty much forgotten English writer and adventurer. Let’s just play a few of the cards in his extraordinary life. Trelawny’s a Londoner. He’s born on November 13, 1792. In, we believe, his grandfather’s house, No. 9 Soho Square. 

When he was 13, Trelawny joined the Navy. He circumnavigated the globe. Saw action, as the saying goes. In the English attack on Java in 1811 – he’s 18 years old – he’s wounded in the knee and the face. The musket ball stayed in his knee for 33 years. Talk about literary connections, the great poet Robert Browning witnessed the musket ball being cut out of Trelawny’s knee in 1844. Trelawny attracted lead. Fourteen years after the Java attack Trelawny would be shot twice a point blank range. Once in the jaw. He refused treatment. And healed up good as new. Trelawny married 19-year-old Caroline Julia Addison in 1813. Three years later she left him for a much older lover. The divorce proceedings went on for two years, were very public, very humiliating. Trelawny hunted in the Alps. Trelawny moved to Italy. That’s where he met Byron and Shelley. Trelawny was the last person to see Shelley alive. Through his telescope as Shelley’s schooner, the Don Juan, sailed off, disappearing into that squall off Leghorn on July 8, 1822. It was, as I’ve already mentioned, Trelawny who found the corpse. It was Trelawny who snatched Shelley’s unburnt heart from the flames. More on that in just a minute. It was Trelawny who fell in love with Mary Shelley’s half-sister, the mother of Byron’s deceased daughter Allegra. It was Trelawny who later proposed to Mary Shelley. She refused him. It was Trelawny

who married the 13-year-old daughter of a Greek warlord. Neither bride nor groom spoke the other’s language. It was Trelawny who purchased 15 women and set a harem. Which he soon grew tired of. This was in Greece. 

Trelawny got across the Atlantic. He swam the rapids at Niagara Falls. And that’s not the all of it with Trelawny. 

But let’s get back to our painting. Take another look at it. Trelawny and Leigh Hunt are shown wearing greatcoats. They weren’t. It was July, remember. July in Italy. It was very hot. But there’s more to it than that.  Trelawny eschewed overcoats. And underwear. Trelawny never wore overcoats. Trelawny never wore underwear. Trelawny was a stranger to personal hygiene. He wasn’t bothered by lice and dirt. Tolerating stuff like that, that was manly.

Also manly, to his way of thinking, I suppose, was having an affair with a teenage girl when he was 66.

And where is he today. Next to Shelley, in the protestant cemetery in Rome. He died in Sompting, near Worthing, in England. This was in 1881. He was 89 years old. In accordance with his wishes, his corpse was transported to Gotha Germany, where it was cremated. And then the ashes were taken to his final resting place, next to Shelley. In Rome.

As for Shelley’s heart. Why didn’t it burn? One theory is that it had calcified thanks to a bout of tuberculosis. Which of course was what killed Keats. Consumption they called it then. Trelawney gave it Leigh Hunt. Mary Shelley, Shelley’s widow, wanted it. Leigh Hunt wasn’t going to give it up. Byron leaned on him. Financial pressure. Leigh Hunt caved. Mary Shelley got it. She tucked it into a silken shroud and carried it around with her for years. Eventually she retired it. Wrapped it in the page of one of Shelley’s last poems, Adonais, and put it in her desk drawer. It was found when she died. It was eventually buried in the family vault with their son, Percy Florence Shelley, when he died in 1889. In Bournemouth. And that brings us to the end of this outtake. Except for maybe a moment to pause and wonder at the business of our relationship to our ancestors. Shelley’s heart. The Victorians would take locks of hair from the deceased and weave them into rings or bands. But hey, these things are relative. In some parts of Madagascar people dig up their dead relatives every few years and have a dance with them.

And on that, well, Gothic note. Good night from London. Good night from the cutting room floor – the out-takes closet – of London Walks. Sleep tight.

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2 responses to ““She lost her virginity in a graveyard””

  1. DEBRA Jacobs says:

    What a fascinating story, I’m sorry it’s on the cutting room floor. You have such a marvelous voice David, it’s always a pleasure to hear you expound on all things London.

  2. David Tucker says:

    Oh, you’re too kind, Debra. Many thanks for saying that. It’s brightened my day no end.

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