Newstead Abbey: Home of Byron

The first time I came across Newstead Abbey was when I received my second-hand copy of Leslie Marchand‘s “Byron: A Portrait”. In the middle of the biography, as usual, there is a section with pictures and portraits, one of them, of a beautiful building, with a footnote that read “Newstead Priory, Nottinghamshire”. I didn’t know how, or when, but I knew that I would, eventually, visit it. Several years after, last month, I finally stood in front of it, and I was even able to wander its rooms! The following is a brief account of the history of Newstead Abbey and Byron.

First of all, Newstead Abbey was never an Abbey. As Marchand noted, it was a Priory. So, what is the difference between the two? Well, an abbey is a catholic convent managed by an abbess or an abbot, whereas a priory is managed by a prior or a prioress -a lower rank than abbess or abbot-, and it is a subsidiary of an abbey. That being clarified, let us get into some historical background. Newstead was founded by Henry II in 1163 as an Augustinian Priory, and dissolved 400 years later by another Henry (VIII) in 1539 during the English Reformation. The king granted the building to Sir John Byron, who had to demolish the church, but was given permission to keep the façade, which turned into the iconic image we now know.


Notably, the Madonna that you see on top was the only religious icon to survive.

Now, Sir John Byron left the state to his son, also John, who left it to his son, named, in a creative strike, also John. This third John, who was an MP and a Royalist commander, was granted the title of Baron Byron of Rochdale for the first time in 1643. Flash forward to 1798, when, -after a Richard and two more Williams- William Byron (The Wicked Lord), uncle of our Byron‘s father , dies. George Gordon, fatherless and a student at Harrow at the time, inherits the title and the state and becomes Lord Byron the sixth. Marchand explains that the news caused Byron much embarrassment in school and that at one point he burst into tears in class. After all, he was ten years old.

When Byron, accompanied by his mother and her maid, arrived at Newstead, he was confronted with a reality far from what he probably had expected. The Wicked Lord had sold most of the contents of the house, including structural parts of the building. The result was that Newstead was in ruins when it became Byron‘s. However, the poet decided to move there and invest in repairing part of it, enough to make it habitable.


Bust of the man himself. It can be found next to Caroline Lamb’s. I don’t know who thought that was a good idea.

In a letter from November 2nd, 1808, Byron writes to his mother about the repairs at Newstead:

I am furnishing the house more for you than for myself, and I shall establish you in it before I sail for India […] I am now fitting the green drawing room, the red (as a bedroom) and the rooms over as sleeping rooms, they will be soon completed, at least I hope so.

Indeed, if you book a tour of the house, you will be able to visit the aforementioned rooms, which contain the furniture that Byron himself used, including his bed in Cambridge, his writing table, and even his coffee machine and his famous cranium-cup (see below). There are also most of the most well-known paintings of the poet and his relatives, a couple of busts (see above), several first editions of  his works and other curiosities, such as the helmet he was to wear in Greece, his jacket (which is very beautiful, so much that I would totally wear it every day), his ring, his fencing and boxing equipment or his shoes and pistols.

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The gardens are another of the elements of the state. They are divided into sixteen zones and occupy the enormous extension behind the house and next to the Garden Lake. Although there has always been gardening activity in Newstead, each family added a new zone, with new kinds of flora. As for the Byrons, they were responsible for the Great Garden and the ornamental ponds, canals, waterfalls and cascades. There is a field between the Garden Lake and the house, where Byron planted an oak in 1798, the protagonist of his poem To an Oak at Newstead, written ten years later. The oak became a tourist attraction after Byron’s death. The tree had to be cut down in 1915, and its remains are now an ivy-covered stump. In 1988, the Earl of Lytton planted another oak next to the original one to commemorate Byron‘s 200th anniversary. Another curiosity is that behind the façade of the church there is a monument, placed where Byron thought the altar would have been. This monument is the tomb of his dog, Boatswain, and it was intended to eventually become the poet’s resting place as well. Sadly, Byron‘s wish was not fulfilled, and he is buried in the family vault in Hucknall.


Pilgrimage to Boatswain’s tomb.

Due to money issues, Byron had to sell Newstead in 1818. It was purchased by Thomas Wildman, who devoted time and money to the restoration of the place. After his death, William Frederick Webb bought it, and it was during that time when his friend Dr Livingstone spent time in the state in the 1860s. When Webb died, he left it to his children, and eventually his grandchild, Charles Ian Fraser, sold it to Julien Cahn, who gave it to the Nottingham Corporation in 1931 and became Sir Julien Cahn.

A final anecdote: the remains of the first Byrons can be found in the house’s gift shop. For real.

If you are interested in visiting the house and/or gardens, you can book a private tour in Newstead Abbey’s official website.


  • Lansdown, Richard. A New Selection: Byron’s Letters and Journals. Oxford: OUP. 2015.
  • Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Portrait. London: Random House. 1993.
  • “Newstead Abbey: Historic House and Gardens. A Tour of the House” Nottingham City Council.
  • “Newstead Abbey: A Tour of the Garden” Nottingham City Council.

Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets

When Goodreads recommended me Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets , I was taken aback by both its title and its cover. It looked like the kind of badly written, cheap novel I do not like reading nor being seen with. However, fighting against my first impression, I decided to read some of my Goodreads’ friends’ reviews. They were extremely positive, and coming from people with what I believe is a good taste in literature, and a high critical spirit. So, what is this book about? Why was it recommended to me in the first place? The summary reads as follows:

In the turbulent years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, three poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats—come to prominence, famous and infamous, for their vivid personalities, and their glamorous, shocking, and sometimes tragic lives. In this electrifying novel, those lives are explored through the eyes of the women who knew and loved them—intensely, scandalously.

Four women from widely different backgrounds are linked by a sensational fate. Mary Shelley: the gifted daughter of gifted parents, for whom passion leads to exile, loss, and a unique fame. Lady Caroline Lamb: born to fabulous wealth and aristocratic position, who risks everything for the ultimate love affair. Fanny Brawne: her quiet, middle-class girlhood is transformed—and immortalized—by a disturbing encounter with genius. Augusta Leigh: the unassuming poor relation who finds herself flouting the greatest of all taboos.

I know, right? At this point I was torn between wishful joy at having found that novel on the Romantics which gave voice to the female side of the set and years of disappointments that translated into cynical skepticism. Encouraged by its positive reviews, I decided to give this 536 pages long novel a chance. And girl, was it worth it.


Do not be fooled by the terrible cover! It’s actually very good.

Passion is a wonderfully written (and I mean, really, really well written), extremely detailed and well documented fictionalised biography of the lives of Mary W. Shelley, Fanny Brawne, Augusta Leigh and Caroline Lamb, not without the appearance of other women of the set such as Claire Clairmont, or Annabella Milbanke. The novel begins with Mary Wollstonecraft, pregnant with her first child, and ends after Byron’s death. It covers, in detail, the childhood, youth and mature age of all of the aforementioned women, as well as their relationships with the men in their lives. Much in the style of Hilary Mantel‘s excellent fictionalisation of the French Revolution A Place of Greater Safety, the novel combines monologues with playwriting, letters and prose narration, which gives the author the change to offer a different perspective into the action or into certain characters.

If you know little about the Romantics but are curious to learn more, this is the book for you. If you know a lot about the Romantics and want to spend your leisure reading time with a novel about them, this is the book for you. If you expect to find a biographically accurate fictionalisation of your favourite characters that will not make you cringe, this is the book for you. 

Young Romantics, by Daisy Hay. Best of.

Last month I read Daisy Hay’s biography of the Romantics, one of the most recent accounts of the lives of the Romantic circle. This book had been in my to-read list for six years, since its publication in 2010, and I finally decided it was time for it. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (Bloomsbury, 2010) explores “the interlinked lives of a group of writers, all of whom were characterised by their youth, by their idealism, and by a particular passionate engagement with politics, art, and the romance of intellectual adventure.” (xvi). Hay’s work differs from other Romantic biographies I have read in four main points. First, its scope is not limited to Byron and Shelley or their immediate circle, it dedicates a considerable space and well-researched attention to other personalities such as Leigh Hunt and his extended family, the Novellos, Jane and Edward Williams, John Keats, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Hazzlit, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, John Cam Hobhouse,  Thomas Love Peacock, or Edward John Trelawny. This allows the author to consider the so-called second Romantic generation not as a “tightly coherent group of individuals” (xiv), but as group of people who draw inspiration from one another and found solace in their company, dismantling the idea that the Romantic writer’s creativity relies on isolation. It is refreshing and interesting to read a biography with this thesis, and not only does it make the book more engaging, but it also contributes to the field of research with an original approach. Thirdly, Hay devotes the same amount of consideration to the men as to the women. Not only does she discuss at length celebrated authors such as Mary W. Shelley, she also considers the life and works of women usually relegated to the shadows of the men in their lives, such as Bess Kent, who was not only the sister in law of Leigh Hunt but an author herself; Marianne Hunt; Claire Clairmont, Maria Gisborne, Mary Cowden Clark, or Jane Williams. Moreover, Hay also examines these women not only as individuals and in their own merits, but also in interaction with each other, demonstrating that emotional and intellectual ties and conflicts were not exclusive to the Romantic men. A final divergence from other biographies is that Hay does not finish her narrative when Shelley and Byron die. She continues her narrative until the latest member of the coterie is gone, so the reader gets to know Claire Clairmont and Edward J. Trelawny in their old age. Especially interesting is the approach to Claire Clairmont’s later years. Being the last surviving, she is able to review her life and her relationships with the perspective of time: “Claire idealised neither the individual nor the group, but instead presented a more complicated version of a  shared history” (304). All in all, Daisy Hay offers a well-written, well researched, detailed account of the lives of several members of the Romantic coterie and explores with an acute insight how companionship, love, admiration, conflict and quarrels were at the core of the intellectual and artistic development of the Romantic circle.


The covers of the different editions (at least three) are a thing of beauty.

Best of: curiosities and personal favourites

My paperback edition of Young Romantics is filled with a rainbow of sticky bookmarks, so this best-of promises to be long. I will, however, select the absolute favourites. Let us start at the beginning, with Leigh Hunt, incarcerated for two years at Surrey Gaol, accused of libel due to his radical publications in The Examiner. It is certainly curious, to the modern reader, that Hunt was allowed to live in the house of the master of the prison -a common practice amongst gentleman criminals charged with offences such as Hunt’s, Hay tells us-. He was, moreover, permitted to decorate his rooms and to receive visitors: “I papered the walls with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows were screened with Venetian blinds…” (5), bookcases, flowers and a pianoforte completed the picture. I found it significant, and particularly revealing of Hunt’s emotional comfort strategies that when he left prison he decorated his studio in the same way his gaol headquarters were. An amusing anecdote involves Marianne Hunt and her letters to her husband, who she missed very much: “fancy were you would  like to have me most, and you will know that I’ve dreamt of , &c., &c., &c.!!!” (18). With three exclamations points, no less. It is no surprise that after Marianne came to live in the prison’s room with him, she immediately fell pregnant (Hunt himself acted as midwife months later on that birth).

But enough of the Hunts, let us now see what the Shelleys were up to: In one of my favourite footnotes of all time, Hay quotes Miranda Seymour and suggests that Mary and Percy’s first sexual encounter (this is getting monothematic) may have taken place in St Pancras churchyard, Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave being “presiding over their union […] conveniently shaded by willows” (36). I… will cherish this theory forever as a conversation opener at any party I might attend in the future.

The Novellos were a family of (11 children!) musicians. One of the Novello daughters, Clare, became one of the most celebrated sopranos of her time. Vincent Novello, the father, was one of the founders of the London Philharmonic Society, the objective of which was to bring music to the masses. The Novellos believed in treating their children as equals, which created an harmonious, happy household in which poets and journalists found themselves at peace. Hay mentions one particular party at the Novello’s in which Vincent Novello would play the piano, Hunt would sing, and Keats would play an unnamed instrument: “leaning against the instrument, one foot raised on his knee and the smoothed back between his hands” (113) while Shelley and Lamb listened. It’s a Romantics as musical band AU dream come true.

NPG 5686; The Novello Family by Edward Petre Novello

Painting by Edward Petre Novello, oil on canvas, circa 1830. Tag yourself.

Byron was not the only one interested in the movements of independence struggle in Greece. Mary W. Shelley is said to have followed the developments of Mavrocordato’s battle with much interest: “she was thrilled that yet another Mediterranean country had thrown off the yoke of imperial rule” (212). In fact, her second novel, Valperga, is set in Renaissance Italy and explores, using parallels between the past and the present, the nationalist revolutions of the 1820s. Mary claimed that “Italy needed to rise out of political letargy in order to achieve its independence.” I was ignorant of Mary’s interest and involvement in politics and national independence movements, and I think it is a very interesting point I’d like to read more scholars engaging with in the future.

The group decided to perform Othello at Byron‘s palazzo. To nobody’s surprise, Byron wanted to play Iago.

When, after Percy’s death, Mary W. Shelley returned to London, she found herself famous. The Lyceum Theatre had staged a production of Frankenstein and Mary went to see it. The staging made the novel popular again, and with it, Mary as well. Her new status provided her with a little money and a certain respect and attention in the literary circles.

Hay writes that one of the Novello daughters, Mary Victoria Novello (who would later become Mary Crowden Clarke), thirteen-years old, had a crush on Mary W. Shelley. Mary W. S. brought her a necklace of coral beds and a copy of Frankenstein, and Mary Victoria expressed her admiration by writing a pen-portrait of the author (288).

Jane Shelley, wife of the only surviving child of Mary and Percy is described as having “transformed the reputations of Shelley and Mary through the sheer force of her personality” (302). Jane created a shrine for her deceased in-laws and made the bodies of Mary’s parents -William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft be disinterred and brought to where Mary was buried. When the vicar refused to allow her move them, she stood with the coffins outside of the cemetery until he relented.

Edward John Trelawny, best known for having an incredible imagination and lying more than he talked, left detailed instructions about his burial wishes. He had his ashes be buried next to Percy Shelley’s in Rome’s protestant cemetery. On his headstone, he had had inscribed four lines of Shelley’s poetry on friendship. This would not be surprising if it weren’t for the fact that Trelawny had known Shelley for less than a year and there is no evidence that in that time Trelawny was crowned with the honour of being the poet’s BFF.


Image from Trelawny’s wikipedia page. The cane belongs to his biographer.