Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land (P.S.)John Crowley’s novel Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land has its origin in a famous storytelling contest. In the Year Without a Summer (1816), Byron rented the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland and met up with friends Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont was traveling with the Shelleys, who had eloped together from England, and John Polidori, Byron’s doctor, was traveling with Byron, who was fleeing infamy. Unable to pursue outdoor recreations, the company grew bored and restless. Conversation turned to dark subjects such as ghosts and Erasmus Darwin’s experiments with galvanism. Byron suggested a supernatural story-writing contest. Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, while Dr. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which would later inspire Bram Stoker’s own vampiric tale, Dracula, and through Dracula, just about every other vampire story written. Polidori is believed to have based his vampire, Count Ruthven, on Byron himself. (Have you met a literary vampire who is not Byronic? I haven’t.) The two major poets, Byron and Shelley, are not believed to have produced anything of note. Crowley’s premise is that Byron did indeed produce a completed novel, The Evening Land, that was suppressed by his estranged wife Lady Byron. Crowley imagined that the novel was preserved by Byron’s daughter, Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace, who is widely acknowledged to be the first computer programmer (P.S. March 24 is Ada Lovelace Day). Crowley’s Lovelace is forced to burn the manuscript of The Evening Land by her mother, but she enciphers it first. Enter Alexandra “Smith” Novak, a web programmer for the website strongwomanstory.org. She and one of the website’s benefactors are given a mysterious bequest by a mysterious man. It turns out to be the enciphered novel. Smith engages her own estranged (and notorious) father, a former Byron scholar turned filmmaker exiled from the United States because of a past nearly as sordid as Byron’s, and her partner, Dr. Thea Spann, a mathematician, to help her decode the cipher. In the process, Crowley discusses the complex relationships between both fathers—Byron and Lee Novak—and their daughters—Ada and Smith.

This book is an amazing achievement. I’ve read enough Romantic-era novels and Byronic poetry to hear Byron’s authentic voice in the novel uncovered in the frame narrative of its discovery. Even Harold Bloom, that illustrious champion of Romantic poetry (and dead white males) enjoyed the novel and gave it a positive blurb:

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is an extraordinary confluence of High Romanticism and our Information Era: every note in it rings with authenticity. ‘The Evening Land’ is a novel Byron indeed might have written, and his daughter, Ada, as created by Crowley, is vividly memorable, worthy of her exuberant father.

If I can be allowed one quick digression, that last line smacks of all kinds of sexism to me, but that’s Harold Bloom for you. The fact is, Crowley’s Ada is “vividly memorable,” as is her “exuberant father.” The novel is a thinly veiled retelling of Byron’s own life in many respects, and through her preservation of the novel, Ada comes to make peace with her father. Crowley’s story certainly explains one of the great mysteries of Byron’s legacy—Why would his daughter, taught to hate her father by a mother poisoned by her own ill will for Byron, wish to be buried beside the father she had never met?

The emails between Lee and Smith, as well as between Smith and Thea, among other letters, form an epistolary frame in which Byron’s novel and Ada’s commentary are enclosed and share a similar story. Smith, like Ada, rediscovers her estranged father through his work, but the difference is that her father is still alive, and she has, if she chooses, the opportunity to end the estrangement.

I struggled with how to rate this novel because as an authentic Romantic novel, the parts containing Byron’s “writing” were dense, overblown, and worthy of Sir Walter Scott. Sometimes I had to plow through those sections even while admiring how much like Byron Crowley managed to write. The emails and letters were, on the other hand, quick reads. I like the format of the novel, the frame narrative and epistolary interchange. In the end, Byron’s novel was as good as any other Romantic novel I’ve read, and that’s saying something of Crowley’s achievement. I can’t think of too many writers who could pull off a feat like this, and whether I was able to put the book down at times or not, I have to tip my hat to his talent.

Rating: ★★★★★

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, the Gothic Reading Challenge, and the GLBT Challenge (Byron was bisexual, and this part of his character was expressed in the novel, and the characters Smith and Thea are lesbians). I have ten more books to go to complete the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and eighteen more for the Gothic Reading Challenge (I really bit off more than I can chew with that one). The GLBT Challenge has no set number of books, so if I were so inclined, I could call the challenge met, but I’m not so inclined.

Reading Update: Wolfe and Lovelace

Major-General James Wolfe
Major General James Wolfe
I am in the reign of George III in Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, and I read a wonderful story that I plan to share with my students next week when we read Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” During the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War), General James Wolfe took Quebec in 1759. Wolfe had been ill with consumption and forced to spend a great deal of time in his tent. Things looked bleak for the English serving under the dying general. As the summer waned, the troops became fearful they’d have to put off their assault on Quebec until after the winter. Wolfe tried, ineffectively, to lead from his tent, but none of his plans seemed to budge the French from their position. Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan.


At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Wow. The French and Indian War doesn’t get much press in American history classrooms, likely because it’s overshadowed by the American Revolution 20 years later, but this is the kind of story that makes history fascinating to me. Wolfe and Montcalm both died in the battle. George II commissioned a painting by Benjamin West to commemorate Wolfe’s death:

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West
The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West

The result of this battle was that the British wrested control of North America from the French. While the French still controlled Louisiana, the British were no longer inhibited from expanding westward.

The other book I’m reading is a combination of two of my main interests: reading and technology. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley is part detective story, part Romantic novel. The premise is that Byron really did write a novel in the famous gothic storytelling contest at Villa Diodati in Switzerland, the result of which was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which would later inspire Bram Stoker. The two major poets in the group, Byron and Percy Shelley, didn’t produce much of note. Crowley’s Byron did, but it was suppressed by Lady Byron. Smith, who works on a website celebrating women’s accomplishments, is on the trail of Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, and she thinks that Lovelace might just have saved her father’s novel by encoding it. Lovelace is famous for writing what many believe is the first computer program for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, a device which if built, might have become the first computer. It was Lovelace who saw the device’s potential. The computer language Ada is named for her.

So yes, I’m doing some fascinating reading. What are you reading?