This weekend is the first annual Festival of Words at Byron’s beloved Newstead Abbey. As a way of participating in the occasion without actually being present in Nottingham I’ve returned to a novel I’ve worked on off and on for a few years: Wild Ghost Chase which features Lord Byron’s ghost in a key role. It’s a lighthearted romp that I’ve enjoyed working on but for some reason it stalled out awhile back. Since I estimate I’m within two or three chapters of finishing (yeah, right) I’ve diving back into the thick of things.
Here is a scrap of Chapter One:
“Damn, Allegrina, there’s still time to change your mind before you end up on a talk show – but not in a good way,” said Dana, uncorking a bottle of two-dollar merlot.
“It probably won’t come to that,” I said, hoping I was right.
I threw another log on the fire and watched a blizzard of firefly sparks circle up the flue. Outside, the bamboo grove thrashed the windowpane. A nasty storm was blowing in from Puget Sound. What else was new? May was poised to go out like a lion. As had March and April. I was beginning to think spring had decided not to show up before summer was making way for fall.
“If what this so-called spirit guide says is true you’ll be pulling the plug on an archetype – an icon,” continued Dana, pouring the wine. “Jeeze, girl, the English Department is going to crucify you. You’ll be lucky if all they do is throw you out of the masters program. They might have you committed as a danger to yourself.” A worried frown played over my friend’s otherwise model-perfect face.
“Look, sweetie,” I said. “You may be right but I didn’t come up with this out of thin air – well maybe I did – still, it could turn out to be a good thing. I’ve been floundering in the program for quite some time. Chessman appeared in a bright green flame on Beltane and practically threw this idea in my face. How can you second-guess a manifestation that powerful? I’m thinking of following up on it.”
“How can you? You have nothing to go on, just the word of a willow-the-wisp. You can’t submit a paper consisting of speculation and fantasy.”
“Of course not, but Chessman assures me the materials will be in my hands before the end of next month. The direct quote was: ‘by the next full moon you will have what you need’. That gives me plenty of time.”
“And that’s another thing,” said Dana. “What kind of a spirit guide has a name like Chessman? Sounds like the name of a butler in an Agatha Christie novel. How can you trust this guy? Or whatever it is.”
“You’re probably thinking of Jeeves – and that wasn’t Christie, it was P. G. Wodehouse. And the entity is feminine, not masculine – at least as far as an incorporeal being can be said to have gender. You aren’t far wrong about the butler thing though. According to her, she was a housekeeper for the rich and famous in many of her past lives.”
“Terrific. An ectoplasmic housekeeper tells you she can produce proof the poet Lord Byron was a fraud and you hop on like a tick on a wolfhound.”
“I haven’t committed myself to this yet but I think this could be just what I’ve needed, Dana. My blog, Speaking of Witch, is going nowhere and the Glenarvin thesis paper probably won’t to be done until the end of summer. Something like this is exactly what I’ve needed to generate more traffic to the blog and set me apart from the rest of the English Department. It could make my career.”
“Or send you straight into living out of a shopping cart under the I-90 overpass.”
“You want to bet?”
“The truth is, the paper on Glenarvin may meet graduation requirements but it’s only going through the motions. No one but the committee will ever read it. Hell, if I can’t even get excited about it what chance does it have of interesting anyone else?” I said. “No, either I come up with a blockbuster scoop on Byron or my career is stillborn. I’ll be teaching English 101 in some rural community college until dementia sets in. The committee isn’t going to hire yet another dreamy English Romantic poets major. They are looking for someone more politically edgy who’ll draw grants and students to the department – something along the lines of feminist literature, African American literature, Gay literature – not someone who is doing her thesis on an abominable novel written by an ex-lover of Lord Byron, of all topics.”
“So why did you choose that for a topic if it’s such a snore?”
“After a hundred years of scholars picking over the good topics that’s pretty much all that’s left. It was the only proposal I came up with that the committee would okay.”
“Yeah, I can relate. I ran into a little of that with my committee too.” said Dana. “So you’ve decided to spice things up by shooting holes in a legend? You love that Lord Byron guy, you know you do. How can you even consider trashing him?”
“Personally,” she continued. “I think it’s a bit creepy and borderline neurotic getting so caught up in a guy who’s been dead a couple of hundred years but it’s your life. What I’d like to know is how can you suddenly betray the guy, for God’s sake on the say-so of a spirit who is probably all too familiar with spirits of the bottled variety. Speaking of which . . .” She chucked her wine and poured herself another glass.
Outside, something heavy hit the side of the house. I entertained a fleeting image of Dorothy sucked into the cyclone.
“But I wouldn’t be ‘betraying’ Byron,” I said. “Technically you can’t betray a dead man. When you look at it in a certain light, I’d be resurrecting him as a human being. History sees him as no longer relevant. A cartoon. Even boring. He’s a poet who has been done to death in literary journals, graduate dissertations, and biographies since the Victorian Era, leaving nothing seemingly of any importance left to say. I’d make them all sit up and take another look at the man.”
I slopped some more wine into my glass and took a large gulp. This was a three-glass night if ever there was one. At this rate the bottle wasn’t going to last long. I wondered if I should send Dana up to the corner store for another before the storm got too intense. And before either one of us was too slozzled to drive. Plenty of time for that, I thought.
“Lord Byron became larger-than-life, Dana,” I continued, feeling myself shift into a tipsy version of my English teacher person. “Mythic. A mythic character that is still a stock in trade of the Romantic novel, the ‘Byronic hero’. Enough said, in the committee’s view. This is the 21st Century, they would say – era of the anti-hero, the common man/woman. Who cares anymore to read about a titled pistol-shooting womanizer swashing and buckling in a floppy shirt ala Fabio around Regency London? Gone are the days and good riddance, in their opinion. But I’m going to show them the real Byron, sweetie, the vulnerable man behind the great lover persona. I’m going to show the world what he really was – an insecure man-child who nevertheless wrote like an angel. Either that or I’m screwed.”
I finished my wine with a shaky flourish, setting the glass down on the coffee table a little more forcefully than I had intended.