A Perpetual Love Affair by Lord Byron, Henry James and Jan Morris

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A Perpetual Love Affair by Lord Byron, Henry James and Jan Morris (2010). Prod. Christine Hall, Perf. Mark Meadows, Garrick Hagon, Selina Cadell. BBC Radio 4 Extra 25-27 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 30 Mar. 2015.

Three different views of Venice from three different historical periods, but all of them unified by the belief that living in the city is as much a state of mind as a physical habitation.

Lord Byron's letters reveal a personality captivated by the city's sensuous aspects; the ease with which he falls in love with the wife of his landlord suggests that his characteristic reserve has been dissolved in a city whose sights, smells and sounds combine to create a heady atmosphere. Sometimes Venice provokes him into doing eccentric things, such as the decision to learn Armenian from an immigrant professor. Maybe this is due to his love of the exotic, which also exhibits itself in his travels around Greece, Turkey and the Ottoman Empire; but maybe the city provoked him to do it, insofar as it encourages unreasonable behavior (at least by Victorian British standards).

Superficially it seems that Henry James adopts a more detached view of the city; in keeping with his character, he describes the ambience in a detailed manner, concentrating far more on the people as they go about their daily lives. Yet as Garrick Hagon's reading unfolded, we understood that the city had a similar emotional effect on James as Byron, prompting him to make minute speculations on individual motives, and how the cityscape influenced the way they react. He might not have been as preoccupied with the self as his illustrious British ancestor, but it's clear that the city had a profound effect on his view of life.

Coming to the present, Jan Morris offers a more detached, whimsically humorous view of the city. She obviously relishes the experience of walking around its streets, but focuses her attention more directly on the children (mostly from poor backgrounds) who inhabit the streets, and the cats who seem to live lives of their own, totally oblivious to the hordes of locals and tourists that surround them. Morris indulges in some imaginative speculation as to how and why the cats choose their specific way of life.

Listening to three such different pieces of writing, we are not only made aware of Venice's perpetual capacity to fascinate, but we understand its transhistorical significance. Whether in the past or the present, it seems that it will always draw out the romantic spirit in all of its visitors' minds.