It is amazing how research into one subject leads down some quite unexpected alternative avenues. We are currently in the process of writing up our journey in the footsteps of Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, with a view to it becoming a book, and in the process have uncovered the fascinating figure of Pryse Lockhart Gordon. The reader is completely forgiven for being in the dark about this man from Ardersier, Inverness, as, indeed, we were until a couple of weeks ago.
We began to reveal tantalising traces of his life when we realised that Gordon had received Byron and Polidori during their time in Brussels. The pair had stopped in the Belgium capital en route to Switzerland and Italy. Finding that their stay was somewhat prolonged owing to a faulty axle on their carriage, the aristocrat and his doctor looked around for amusement – step forward Mr Gordon.
The surname Gordon implies a familial connection with Byron, who was born George Gordon. In fact, it seems Pryse was a family friend and was only too happy to entertain the Lord and his entourage. He presented Byron and also possibly Polidori with copies of Casti’s novelle and allowed the poet to hold court, despite Byron’s initial reluctance to mix with his fellow countrymen.
The visit to Gordon’s house in Brussels is remembered differently depending on whose account you read. Polidori notes how he was pushed to the shadows, Byron clearly didn’t want to be there and Gordon recalled the evening, albeit years later, as a tremendous success. Much to our dismay and with words clearly tinged by the intervening bad publicity suffered by Polidori, he calls our young doctor a ‘venomous bat’ – a none too hidden reference to his role as writer of The Vampyre.
What has this all to do with Sicily? In reading around the subject of Pryse Gordon and his backstory, we discovered that he had moved to Brussels after a period of two years spent in Sicily. He had headed north because of a very serious case of sunburn. Our interest went from mildly captivated to intrigued in the space of one sentence. A little more investigation uncovered the fact that he had written A Companion to Italy in 1823 and, even better, a biography called Personal Memoirs, which was published in 1830. He had spent years in Sicily and had written a memoir, ipso facto, he must have written about the island.
Tombola! Gordon arrived in Palermo during the era of British involvement. He was swept from Palermo harbour to be presented to William Hamilton and Nelson. However, he seemed more interested in his first meeting with Hamilton’s wife and Nelson’s lover, the gorgeous Emma:
‘Our introduction to the fascinating Emma Lady Hamilton was an affair of more ceremony, and got up with considerable stage effect. When we had sat a few minutes, and had given all our details of Naples, which we thought were received with great sang-froid, the Cavaliere retired, but shortly returned, entering by a porte battante, and on his arm or rather his shoulder was leaning the interesting Melpomene, her raven tresses floating round her expansive form and full bosom.’
Gordon was housed in apartments belonging to the Duca D’Anjou on the Marina, specifically in the Palazzo Patrollo. The Scotsman wasn’t slumming it and even escaped paying any rent, the notion of which offended the duke. In his biography, Gordon is bewitched: ‘These delightful apartments consisting of eight rooms en suite on what is called in Italy the Mezzano, and in France the Entresol, opened on an extended terrace forty feet wide and sixty in length, looking full on the bay.’ In-fill from the bomb damage of World War II has now moved the Marina some distance from the sea and would have deprived Pryse of his spectacular view.
The revelations keep on coming in the Personal Memoirs. After a breathless retelling of the king’s debunk from revolutionary Naples, he moves on to the story of Prince Butera. The opulent waste of the prince’s court is laid before us: ‘The Prince who had just succeeded to his sixteen baronies and 60,000 ounces of revenue, lived quite en prince. Every day he had a dinner of a dozen covers, and his table was generally filled.’ Gordon claims that he was in the noble’s favour and recounts this little piece of aristocratic droit du seigneur.
It seems he visited Gordon unannounced in order to persuade him to intercede on his behalf with a certain ballerina: ‘”I am come, caro amico,” said he, “to take your advice on a subject in which I am much interested. You have seen the prima ballerina la signora Miller. I am desperately enamoured of her, but she has been ordered to quit the capital”…’ The signora in question had been a little too free with her political opinions and her detractors had denounced her. Butera’s plan was to persuade Gordon to contact Lady Hamilton who could then forestall the dancer’s exile. The prince had a wife of renowned beauty but was head over heels in lust with the ballerina. Gordon’s advice was to buy Emma Hamilton a few ‘trinkets’ and all would be well, which it proved. Nelson’s mistress was most happy to facilitate Butera’s intrigue.
Lady Hamilton features again whilst attending an ambassador’s dinner. A Turkish delegate, a little worse for the copious rum being served, began to tell Emma how he had despatched several Frenchman during the battle of the Nile, the scene of one of Nelson’s victories. Her Ladyship asked to see the weapon he had used, which he duly produced still encrusted with blood. Emma Hamilton then kissed the sword and handed it to the admiral. A dubious display of great pantomime that Gordon calls a ‘disgraceful act’. To top the melodrama, the consul-general’s wife fainted at the scene!
From the ambassador’s soiree we roll forward to Butera’s daughter by his first wife, the tragic Princess of Leon Forte. Gordon had learnt from Princess Paternò that this beautiful woman was imprisoned in a convent because of her husband’s jealousy. Needless to say, Pryse couldn’t resist a visit:
‘Her countenance could only be seen in parts, and her apartment into which we looked was obscure; but I saw lovely eyes, a Greek nose, pouting lips, and when they parted, teeth as white as ivory. A black veil shaded her brow, falling over her left shoulder; she was dressed in sable; and her raven hair arranged with care, though with simplicity. I could not well judge of her figure, but her friend told me she was tall and formed with symmetry. Her voice was tuned like a Cremona. Being educated in Tuscany, her Italian was pure, and charmed the ear.’
Princess Leon Forte had married a considerably older man of somewhat ugly appearance. After the birth of a child, the princess took a cavaliere servente who happened to be a Spanish nobleman. They managed to conduct things in private until a bribed chamber maid spilt the beans. The Spaniard had no option but to hot foot it back to Spain and the distraught princess sought a bitter form of refuge in the convent visited by a clearly smitten Gordon. This wasn’t his only visit, as the religious institution lay en route to his residence. He whiled away many an hour in conversation with the lady in the veil. Sadly, he fails to give us a happy ending, noting her petition to ‘retire’ to Tuscany had been declined.
Pryse Gordon’s tales are worthy of a period drama, a Sicilian Les liaisons dangereuses and are sadly too numerous to elaborate here. His book also contains much else to enjoy, locations from Scotland and Germany to Rome and Naples. The occasional phrase or concept grates on the modern ear, but the pages generally race along in a breezy whorl of anecdote and reportage. You could do far worse if you want to dip into the world of Anglo-Sicilian relations in the early nineteenth century.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
They are also authors of the newly released Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, endorsed by Jason Webster: ‘It is essential reading for anyone who has ever fallen for the charms, mystique and passion of southern Spain’ and Alejandro Luque: ‘An itinerary from which dreams are made.’