(24) Chapter 3.

Bearing away a cherished corpse found in the wreckage, the survivors of the siege of Istanbul journey back to Greece.

Scene in the Large Cemetery of Scutari, James Robertson; salted paper print, 1857; National Gallery of Art, Washington

Though the beautiful James Robertson photograph depicts a Muslim cemetery on the Asian side of Istanbul, the cypresses are exactly what Mary Shelley had in mind for Raymond’s (sadly) temporary resting place. And though her lyrical eulogy for “the Lord Byron character” highlights this installment, I’ll begin with another poet’s work. Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats, published in 1928, read by a famous Irish actor and patriarch whose last name is misspelled here:  

Armchair travel writers (I’m one) have got to admire Mary Shelley’s audacious approach to the problem of Istanbul’s old city in this novel. A setting she’s never seen personally outside of drawings, prints, and books; her many well-traveled readers, though, might have spent enough time there to notice any mistakes she lets slip. First, then, she keeps her characters outside, either a mile up the Bosphorus or looking at the city from above, from a distance. And she sets a lot of activity immediately outside the massive walls that both protect and block the interior from view. At last, when it finally comes time to enter, she blows the whole place sky-high.

I have the impression that the stone step where Lionel winds up sleeping is supposed to be inside the ruined Hagia Sophia—though under the conditions described, he could hardly have gotten there, realistically. But given his dead friend’s obsession with replacing its crescent with a Greek flag and/or cross, where else but along its shattered dome could the high overhead flame that closed the last installment be burning?

Now his death has crowned his life, and to the end of time it will be remembered that he devoted himself, unflinchingly, a willing victim, to the glory of Greece. . .without hesitation, never turning back, he kept right onward to the mark he aimed to make on history and fame. While the earth endures, his actions will be called praiseworthy; his name will resound in patriotic hymns; in devotion, the youth of Greece will heap flowers on his tomb.

This excellent article by American poet A.E. Stallings, who lives in Athens, talks about how Lord Byron really did become a hero to the Greeks—just as Mary Shelley predicted he would in this passage. But even readers with no personal attachment to Istanbul have to be dismayed at what her fictional hero actually accomplishes. Lionel’s eulogy for his friend sounds half-insane. Read as Mary’s, for her friend Byron, it’s grand and true—only her novel’s plot gets in the way.

A little flaw, an interesting crack left by the hard fact of Byron’s actual death while she was in the early stages of writing this novel very much about him; as it continued to be. Once she began to view and study him in retrospect, the military adventure that opens Volume 2—and ends in an explosion that sends plague spreading through the entire planet’s atmosphere—took shape as a kind of speculative posthumous career episode.

Hence the strangely hopeless and circular quality of Raymond’s final campaign, down to the march returning his body to Athens. He’s a dead man at the core. Stuck in the past, he’s unable to lead the Greeks in anything more than a copy of Mehmet II’s conquest of 1453—he rides through the same gate and returns to the afterlife he came from.

The strange lords and ladies of Byzantium, whose world perished the first time, populate the pages of a book from 1680.

Pierre François Giffart, Engraved Illustrations from Historia Byzantina duplici commentario illustrata, Paris, 1680; Getty Research Institute via Internet Archive

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