about the boys
Kathryn Hughes finds Fiona MacCarthy's life of Byron as fascinating as the self-promoted myth
Saturday November 16, 2002
Byron: Life and Legend
by Fiona MacCarthy
640pp, John Murray, £25
One of the main tasks that Fiona MacCarthy sets herself in this new biography of Byron is to excavate his historical life, which lasted a swift but noisy 36 years, from two centuries' worth of sentimental myth-making. Long before he died fighting for Greek independence at Missolonghi in 1824, decked out in a flouncy uniform of his own design, Byron had become the stuff of both male and female fantasy.
There was the peerage, the ruined pile of Newstead Abbey, the soft face on the spoiled body, the deranged lovers and the intermittently brilliant poetry. Also crucial was the fact that for the previous eight years Byron had been somewhere else - usually hot, always exotic - which meant that it was easier to invent him than if he had been clumping round Piccadilly diddling his creditors.
Byron could have been forged on the Romantic template of the day (or perhaps, indeed, he was that template) - the authentic voice crying in the wilderness, the voluntary exile from the mediocrity of so-called civilised society. What's more, with a bit of tweaking, he could be made to stand for every subsequent bad-boy hero of popular history (James Dean owed the sixth Baron Byron more than he realised). He was, in short, pure rock'n'roll.
An inevitable product of Byron's weighty presence in English cultural memory has been the unprecedented number of books that continue to be written about him (there is even one forthcoming on his violent diet; he was pretty much bulimic). MacCarthy, however, for all her expressed intention to consider the way in which the Byron myth has been shaped by each new layer of biographical writing, has oddly ignored some of the most obvious.
The two recent full-length biographies, by Phyllis Grosskurth and Benita Eisler, are nowhere mentioned. Instead MacCarthy draws a line straight from Leslie Marchand's classic biography of 1957 to her own, ignoring anything in between (an impression reinforced by the fact that she includes no bibliography).
The thread linking MacCarthy to Marchand is, of course, the fact that both are published by John Murray, the firm most closely associated with Byron's life and work. It was in Murray's famous drawing room at Albermarle Street that Byron's executors gathered shortly after his death to burn his scandalous memoirs in a desperate attempt to protect him - and his publisher - from delighted outrage.
Leaving aside this oddly insistent attempt to create a particular pedigree for her biography - the Murray archive, after all, has already been made available to previous biographers, including Benita Eisler - MacCarthy has written an excellent book about Byron. Her main challenge is to retell a story that has a lulling familiarity about it without sounding as if she is simply going through the motions.
She deftly covers the most famous staging posts - the birth of the unpromising club-footed boy, the exhausting histrionics of Lady Caroline Lamb, the impossible marriage to Annabella Millbanke, the incest with Augusta Leigh, the ecstatic brilliance of "Childe Harold", the dash to exile - making them sound fresh without pretending that they are new.
Particularly impressive is her handling of the hoary old Annabella-Augusta saga, in which Byron played off his prissy bride against his sexy half-sister with a degree of cruelty that still takes the breath away. (He engineered a kissing competition between the two women and then forced Annabella to listen while he romped in bed with Augusta.) MacCarthy's convincing argument is that Byron was never more than fitfully interested in women. Indeed, his favourite word for them - "flumpity" - suggests that he found them soft, saggy and frighteningly plastic. Once they'd had babies, and were no longer able to indulge him in his favourite fantasy of dressing as a page (a particular speciality of Caroline Lamb's), he was turned off them for good.
With the possible exception of his last mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, Byron's primary focus was always on men or, more particularly, boys. The cruel sex games with Annabella, Augusta and a score of other unfortunate flumpities was never anything more than a drawing-room diversion, designed to distract from where his real interests - criminal interests, punishable by death - actually lay.
Rather it was those beautiful boys, from Clare at Harrow to Edleston at Cambridge and all those nameless sloe-eyed Portuguese and Greek youths, who were at the real centre of Byron's erotic life. Making clever use of the Murray archive, MacCarthy shows how it was this drive for male companionship, rather than the scandal over his separation from Annabella, that was the real force behind Byron's departure for Europe in 1816.
Refusing to be dazzled by Byron's claim always to be considered a special case, MacCarthy places him in the long and sad tradition of British homosexuals, from William Beckford to Oscar Wilde, who have been obliged to live out their true natures a very long way from home.
This is only one of several important new emphases in MacCarthy's thoughtful, scholarly book. Byron's position as a peer of a realm - albeit only a bankrupt baron with a few dirty coalfields - has tended in the past to blot out the class dramas that were swirling around him as he dawdled and flounced through Europe. MacCarthy writes these back into the record, showing, for instance, how Murray's squeamishness about Byron's scandalous reputation had a lot to do with his own desire to move from tradesman bookseller to gentleman publisher.
Likewise Leigh Hunt's capacity to annoy Byron, previously put down to his constant debt and mediocre poetry, is now seen as having more to do with his "Cockney" origins. Ever the crashing snob, Byron found Hunt's stock of pretentions, which included a wife who was uppity about Italians, tiresome and even rather common. Also suggestive, although MacCarthy doesn't elaborate, is the fact that Shelley's socially inferior situation as a mere heir to a baronetcy - albeit one with wealth attached - could have added an edge to the two men's already tense relationship.
Shelley may have been the lesser man in the eyes of the world, but Byron could never quite dodge the feeling that when it came to personal integrity, political commitment and perhaps even poetry there was really no competition.
Any biography worth its intellectual weight these days works on the assumption that the story doesn't end when the subject's heart stops beating (although in Byron's case this really was a definitive moment, since it was cut out immediately at Missolonghi). It is in the years of the afterlife that the real meaning of the life becomes clear.
MacCarthy doesn't have the room to embark on a full consideration of how the myth of Byron played itself out through the next two centuries (this would comprise a book in itself, something along the lines of Lucasta Miller's pathfinding The Brontë Myth). All the same, she is wryly excellent on the way in which Byron, more than any other subject in British history, has been subject to cultural necrophilia.
Even while he was still alive, day-tripping fans had a habit of turning up at Newstead in the hope of achieving some frisson of communion. After his death, urgent young men made a habit of tracking down and sleeping with his old mistresses - by now surely rather flumpity - in the hope that it might improve their souls, not to mention their poetry. And then there are all those artists, from Delacroix to Auden by way of Liszt and Ruskin, who as young men fortified themselves with the idea of Byron as a way of resisting the creeping forces of commerce, compromise and middle age.
MacCarthy, honourably, does not make fun of the hundreds of people down the centuries who have secretly felt that Byron was their imaginary friend. For it is quite clear that she believes, despite all the silliness, that Byron was indeed someone special. Not, perhaps, because of his poetry, which is hardly read now (most people would find it difficult to quote a single line), but because he was the first Briton to show his countrymen that there were other nations in Europe that were worth believing in and dying for.
Kathryn Hughes is writing a
biography of Mrs Beeton.
LORD BYRON (1788-1824)
"Who would write who had anything better to do?"
16 Holles St, London, England
Aberdeen Grammar School; home tutors; Harrow; Trinity College, Cambridge, where he kept a bear as the more usual pets were sternly prohibited.
Sat in the House of Lords, where he championed liberalism.
Did you know?
He created and published an Armenian dictionary.
"Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child," noted Goethe; contemporary opinion located his charisma in the man more than the poetry, with readers of Childe Harolde desperate for the next instalment of "his" adventures. Virginia Woolf, "much impressed" by the "extreme badness" of his poetry, admitted he had "force". Eliot concurred that "he added nothing to the language... discovered nothing in the sounds, and developed nothing in the meaning." The opposing school sees him as a radical freedom fighter and exuberant poetic force.
Childe Harold contains a buoyant mixture of wit, pathos, travelogue and appalling polysyllabic rhymes.
Byron took Pope's ironic detachment towards a more colloquial style.
Now read on
Byron is an irresistible character for many writers: try Paul West's Lord Byron's Doctor, written from Polidori's point of view, for a convincing portrait of an erotomaniac club-footed guru, while Byron's ghost looms throughout Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. And if you want vampires as well as Romantics, indulge in Tim Powers's The Stress of her Regard or Tom Holland's Lord of the Dead.
Don Juan and The Corsair were both filmed in melodramatic black and white; the Byronic hero spawned a thousand celluloid imitations - Gabriel Byrne is convincingly Byronic as Byron in Ken Russell's hallucinogenic and slightly laughable Gothic (1986).
Child of Passion (Benita Eisler), The Flawed Angel (Phyllis Grosskurth): the titles demonstrate our take on the Byron legend. His letters and journals - many written with an eye towards publication - vividly conjure the life and times of an inimitable self-dramatiser ("Every day confirms my opinion on the superiority of a vicious life - and if Virtue is not its own reward I don't know any other," he declaimed). In the absence of the "shocking" memoirs burnt after his death, Leslie Marchand's Byron is the classic biography.
Michael Foot's The Politics of Paradise: A Vindication of Byron (1988)
Poet of all the passions
He was an icon of his age, then he fell from grace and was hounded into exile. Fiona MacCarthy, in her new biography of Byron, reveals that the real reason for his ostracism was his homosexuality
Saturday November 9, 2002
Shortly after nine in the morning of April 25 1816, the poet George Gordon Lord Byron left England for the continent. On board the Dover packet, he watched the white cliffs receding, knowing in his heart he would not be returning. He departed in a stormy atmosphere of scandal, separated from his wife after just a year of marriage. Did he leave of his own free will or was he forced?
Byron's loyal friends insisted he left England voluntarily: "There was not the slightest necessity even in appearance for his going abroad," wrote the stalwart John Cam Hobhouse. The facts of Byron's exile have been glossed over by most of his biographers. Proliferating accusations of cruelty, adultery and Byron's incest with his half-sister Augusta have been taken as explanation enough - although incest was punishable by the ecclesiastical courts but not a criminal offence. It was the much more serious allegation of sodomy, a crime bearing the death sentence in homophobic early 19th-century England, that led to Byron being virtually driven out.
He was to be forever haunted by the scenes of hostility during his final weeks in England: "I was advised not to go to the theatres, lest I should be hissed, nor to my duty in parliament, lest I should be insulted by the way; even on the day of my departure my most intimate friend told me afterwards that he was under apprehension of violence from the people who might be assembled at the door of the carriage." It was feared he was in danger of lynching by the mob. In the Dover hotel some women went so far as to disguise themselves as chambermaids to get a closer look at him, as if he had become an exhibit in a freak show. The violence of this public reaction resembles the hatred that, 80 years later, was hurled at Oscar Wilde.
Byron's ignominy was the more bitter because it followed a phase of unparalleled success. In 1812, the publication of the first two parts of his philosophical travelogue Childe Harold's Pilgrimage brought instant accolades. Byron described how he awoke one morning and found himself famous. Four exotic eastern tales, based on his own travels in Turkey, Albania and Greece, confirmed his popularity. In 1814, 10,000 copies of The Corsair were sold on the day of publication - "a thing perfectly unprecedented" beamed his publisher John Murray. In his sudden fall from grace Byron was a victim of the hysterical opprobrium that often succeeds extreme celebrity, a cycle wearyingly familiar to us now.
The young Byron had revelled in his success. Fame at first had been sweet to the only child raised by his mother in relative obscurity in Aberdeen. His absentee father, a glamorous but dissolute ex-army captain known to his cronies as "Mad Jack" Byron, had died in penury in France when his son was only three, a suspected suicide. At 10, Byron had succeeded his great uncle, the fifth lord, and inherited the vast Gothic pile of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. But even this was a mixed blessing: the building was dilapidated; there were no funds for its upkeep. Byron, acutely conscious of status, was aware that compared with, say, the future Duke of Devonshire, his school fellow at Harrow, he could be regarded as only a minor peer.
Byron had been born with the deformity his contemporaries referred to as a club-foot, and his hunger for approbation had been heightened by this physical disability. Modern medical experts have preferred to view Byron's malformation as a dysplasia, a failure of a bodypart to form properly. Byron's purpose-made boots, still in the archive collection at John Murray, were built up to counteract his abnormally small and inward-turning right foot and padded to disguise his grotesquely thin calf. His foot had attracted cruel derision from the other boys at Harrow, later recalled by Byron with a shudder.
"The Morning Post in particular has found out that I am a sort of Richard the third - deformed in mind & body - the last piece of information is not very new to a man who passed five years at a public school."
Byron's attraction to adolescent boys had first become evident at Harrow, where he referred to his entourage of adoring younger pupils as his Theban band. At Cambridge, Byron fell in with a sophisticated group of like-minded friends fascinated by the theory and practice of sodomy. Their hero was William Beckford, author of the libidinous eastern dream novel The Caliph Vathek, who had been forced to flee the country rather than face possible criminal charges related to a homosexual scandal. They called themselves by the codename Methodists. In autumn 1805, when he was 17, Byron met and fell in love with John Edleston, a Trinity College chorister, and wrote some of his most beautiful lyrics of lament to his "musical protégé", using the deceptive female name of Thyrza, after Edleston died young.
It is clear from Byron's correspondence of this period that one of his main motives in setting out on extended travels in 1809-10 was his hope of homosexual experience. In Greece and Turkey, sex with boys was more or less accepted as the norm and he found willing partners. There was Eusthathius Georgiou, the volatile Greek boy with "ambrosial curls" whose parasol, carried to protect his complexion from the sun, made Byron's valet cringe. There was the Franco-Greek Nicolo Giraud, with his limpid eyes, who taught Byron Italian in Athens, taking a whole day to conjugate the verb "to embrace". By the end of Byron's stay in Greece he was boasting to his Methodist friends that he had achievedmore than 200 "pl and opt Cs", their code for unlimited sexual intercourse, taken from Petronius's Satyricon "coitum plenum et optabilem".
When Byron arrived back in England in summer 1811, prejudice against homosexuals was on the increase after a police raid on the White Swan tavern in Vere Street, London. Of the men charged with "assault with the intention to commit sodomy", six were sentenced to be pilloried in the Haymarket, where they were pelted with mud and excrement by a savage crowd. Byron was lectured about the need for caution by Hobhouse, who had already persuaded him to burn his early journal, which presumably included an account of his love for the choirboy Edleston. Byron later said the loss of this manuscript was "irreparable".
From 1812 to 1815, Byron's "curl'd darling" years of literary fame, he was swept up in the whirl of London social activity. For its readers in that period of moral and political uncertainty, two decades after the upheavals of the French revolution, the subversive energy of Byron's Childe Harold had struck an extraordinary chord. Its success was entwined with the mysterious persona of its author, the 24-year-old Lord Byron, the handsome, lame young aristocrat recently returned from the east. When Lord Holland, at a soirée at Holland House, bore in a metal vessel looking like an incense burner, exclaiming to Thomas Campbell "Here is some incense for you," the older poet replied a little huffily, "Carry it to Lord Byron, he is used to it."
Byron acquired an almost royal charisma in the period he would later refer to as his "reign". All doors were open to him: he frequented the great Whig houses of the period, mingling with the Hollands, the Melbournes, the Jerseys. He was lionised by the leading London hostesses, whose eagerness was intensified by Byron's remoteness, the "sort of moonlight paleness" manifested in some of his most famous portraits. His translucent white face and high domed forehead was compared by one of his contemporaries to an alabaster vase lit up from within.
Byron's admirers were by no means only aristocratic ladies of a certain age. As women later swarmed around the also bisexual Rudolph Valentino, fans from all social classes pursued Byron: young and old, uneducated and bluestocking, unloading their secret fantasies, excited and emboldened by Byron's poetry to seek out its originator. Hundreds of these women wrote to Byron, often anonymously, furtively, entreating him for a sample of his handwriting, signed copies of his work, a curl of his dark auburn hair, a clandestine meeting, "an occasional place in your Lordship's thoughts". Many of these frantic letters are still in the Byron archives. Why did he hoard them? Such proof of his power over women freed him from his consciousness of being the derided cripple and distracted him from the homosexual instincts he was, at this period, trying to repress.
Byron worked at his image. He disciplined his tendency to plumpness by vigorous dieting and the use of purgatives. He controlled the uses of his portrait in marketing his poetry, instructing his publisher John Murray to destroy any version of which he disapproved. Theatrically and gleefully, Byron camped it up, hovering malevolently on the edges of the ballroom, sneering at the fashionable waltzers, in the guise of the glamorous malcontent. He made himself available and then retreated. His tendency to depression made him prone to the mood swings that still afflict celebrities, dependent on the signs of adulation yet detesting them.
With false Ambition what had I
Little with love, and least of all with fame!
And yet they came unsought and with me grew,
And made me all which they can make - a Name.
Byron wrote these lines in 1816. The pitiless satirist saw the sardonic humour of his casting as the heartthrob of his age.
His sexual conflicts impelled Byron into wild behaviour. His relationships with women needed the extreme, the risqué, to fan them into life. Cross-dressing was a feature of these complicated sex games. The arousing innuendoes of his summer with "blue-eyed Caroline", a prostitute passed off in Brighton as Byron's brother Gordon, were recreated on a more sophisticated level in his perilously public affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. The gamine, crop-haired Caro was already a page-fancier and needed no encouragement to dress in page's uniform for Byron's delectation, their increasingly hysterical liaison being sustained by a creaky assortment of Gothic props. The incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta allowed Byron the new frisson of the familiar yet outré. He was her "baby Byron". She spoke his childhood language. In a sense Augusta was the mirror image of himself.
It was the incomparably versatile Lady Caroline who doomed him. Early in 1815 Byron had made an unenthusiastic marriage to Caro's husband's cousin, Annabella Milbanke. Caro had predicted that he would "never be able to pull with a woman who went to church punctually, understood statistics and had a bad figure". The claustrophobia of conventional married life in Piccadilly Terrace prompted Byron to behave badly with a thoroughness only he could have achieved, flaunting his relations with Augusta, throwing out dark hints of his homosexual past and (in his favourite role of the stage villain) shooting the tops off his soda-water bottles while his wife was in labour in the room upstairs.
On January 15 1816 Annabella and their infant daughter left London, taking refuge at her parents' country house in Leicestershire. Three weeks later her father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, wrote formally to Byron to request a separation. Rumours of marital violence, adultery with actresses and his incest with his sister began to circulate. In early February the "villainous intriguante" Lady Caroline began spreading her own version of these stories, perpetrating the worst possible revenge of the woman scorned. "Accused B of - poor fellow, the plot thickens against him," reported Hobhouse. The dash in his diary stands for sodomy. Byron's sexual predilections, up to then known only to his confidential inner circle, were becoming public property. On February 12, Hobhouse brought Byron the alarming news of what he had been hearing "in the streets" that day.
Byron was "astounded indeed". He understood just how serious these allegations were in the repressive sexual climate of the day, becoming "dreadfully agitated" and threatening to blow his brains out. A few days later a panicky Augusta wrote to Lady Byron to let her know of "reports abroad of a nature too horrible to repeat... Every other sinks into nothing besides this MOST horrid one". She quoted Byron as admitting, on the previous evening: "Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction & ruin to a man from which he can never recover." In a postscript to her sister-in-law she added, "I think you will not misunderstand to what I allude."
Suspicions of marital sodomy now entered the equation, evidently convincing to Byron's former patron Lord Holland, who told Hobhouse that Byron had "tried to -" Lady Byron. The possibility of anal intercourse between the Byrons was to paralyse some of Byron's best known 20th-century biographers. "I fear I cannot complete that sentence," wrote Harold Nicolson in 1924, while in 1974 Doris Langley Moore ridiculed the idea that Annabella could ever have submitted "responsively to a perversion that was then a felony - and which would still, I fancy, repel any woman of delicacy".
Having intended to defend himself in court, denying responsibility for the ending of his marriage, Byron was now persuaded that this would be unwise, since evidence of "something horrid" might be brought against him. The separation was negotiated privately. The curl'd darling had now become a social outcast. Early in April, he and Augusta were cold-shouldered when they appeared together at a London soirée given by Lady Jersey.
Byron's humiliations were by no means at an end with his crossing of the Channel later in the month. "I withdrew," he wrote, "but this was not enough - In other countries - in Switzerland - in the shadow of the Alps - and by the blue depths of the Lakes I was pursued and breathed upon by the same blight. - I crossed the Mountains - but it was the same - so I went - a little farther, and settled myself by the waves of the Adriatic - like the Stag at bay who betakes him to the waters."
In Geneva, English tourists spied on Byron across the lake through hired telescopes. Conversely, encountering Byron on the rooftop of St Peter's in Rome, Lady Liddell gave instructions to her daughter to avert her eyes: "Don't look at him, he is dangerous to look at." The ordeal of what he called his "ostracism" confirmed Byron in his hatred of the English. Only in England, he argued, did pre-eminence so inevitably and cruelly give way to "envy, jealousy, and all uncharitableness". His sentiments were echoed by Macaulay in an 1831 essay on Byron: "We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality."
But anger was also a stimulant. "It is odd, but agitation or contest of any kind gives a rebound to my spirits," Byron once remarked. His fury and his grief at what he saw as the vindictive injustice of his banishment impelled him into a new phase of creative energy. He had started on the third canto of Childe Harold while still on board ship, not long after leaving Dover. The years of his exile, as he shifted his ramshackle households from Venice to Ravenna to Pisa to Genoa, were enormously productive. He completed Childe Harold, embarked on Don Juan, wrote the anti-monarchical satire A Vision of Judgement, works we now regard as the quintessential Byron, morally trenchant, hilariously funny, revealing his great empathy, the depth of his humanity. They show a triumphant rebound from his despair.
The bitter experience of rejection made Byron more inventively reckless in his writing. When John Murray and London friends remonstrated with him over controversial politics and sexual explicitness - " Don Juan is exquisite - it must be cut for syphilis" - Byron was defiant in defending his authorial integrity. "I will not give way to all the Cant of Christendom. I have been cloyed with applause and sickened with abuse." With the publication of Cain, denounced as blasphemous from pulpits all over England and its author described as "a cool, unconcerned fiend", the disagreements with Murray escalated. Byron moved to the more radical publisher John Hunt.
A further effect of Byron's exile was the seriousness of his new political involvements. Back in England, a hopeful young recruit to the Whig party, he had taken his seat in the House of Lords. His debut speech in 1812, in opposition to the Tory frame-breaking bill, had been a passionate plea for sympathy for the Nottinghamshire stocking weavers whose livelihood was jeopardised by increasing mechanisation of the trade. But in those days Byron had been easily distracted, likely to leave the debating chamber if a society ball was in the offing. Now, chastened by experience, conscious of his own ambivalent social position, he allied himself wholeheartedly with Europe's oppressed minorities.
His first foray into resistance politics was as a member of the Ravenna Carbonari, one of a network of insurrectionist groups in the Romagna aiming to cast off Austrian domination. Byron controlled his own troop, the Cacciatori Americani, originally a troop of forest fighters. He saw the freeing of Italy as "a grand object, the very poetry of politics". After the shame of exile, his acceptance into the camaraderie of revolution seemed an exoneration.
Byron's involvement in the Greek war of independence has sometimes been viewed as the culminating episode in his yearning for celebrity, and while it is true that his role as agent of the London Greek committee in the war against the occupying Turks allowed him to fulfil his boyhood dream of emulating the Emperor Napoleon, ordering resplendent uniforms and plumed Homeric helmets, anyone who needs to be convinced of his firmness and good judgment in the conduct of the war should read his correspondence of this period. In embattled western Greece he found a situation as complex and explosive as that recently prevailing in Afghanistan. With admirable coolness he weighed up the pros and cons of the clamorous tribal chiefs and rival warlords, all eager for a handout. His unflamboyant death at 36, not in action but from fever, created for Byron another kind of fame: the respect that attached to the writer who had harnessed his talents to a humanitarian cause.
The news was slow to reach England. Despatches from Corfu, though sent express via Ancona, did not arrive in London until May 13 1824, almost a month after Byron's death. His friends' initial shock and grief soon gave way to panic in a country where, as Byron so memorably put it, "the Cant is so much stronger than Cunt". Hobhouse noted in his diary his determination "to lose no time in doing my duty by preserving all that was left to me of my dear friend - his fame".
The first casualty was Byron's memoirs, the self-justifying and reputedly erotic story of his life he had written while in Italy and given to his impecunious friend Tom Moore, to be sold to John Murray for posthumous publication. Murray had gladly paid Moore £2,000. Hobhouse had not read the memoirs, but he was taking no chances. He may have feared that a recurrence of the scandals relating to sodomy and incest would devolve on the now important public figure of John Cam Hobhouse, MP for Westminster. He was determined the memoirs must be destroyed. Hobhouse bullied and implored until, in the most famous sacrificial scene in literary history, Byron's manuscript went up in flames in the drawing-room grate of Murray's premises in Albemarle Street, watched by a balefully self-righteous publisher and an agonised Moore.
Hobhouse, as executor, followed through this triumph by suppressing two love poems written by Byron to his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, during his final weeks in Missolonghi and returned to England with his other papers. To one of them Hobhouse appended the obfuscating words, "A note attached to these verses by Lord Byron states they were addressed to nobody and were a mere poetical scherzo." It is likely the zealous Hobhouse tore to pieces a further Lukas poem.
The confusion that greeted Byron's corpse when it finally reached England at the end of June 1824 reminds one irresistibly of the disarray that followed the return from Paris of Diana, Princess of Wales. What to do with the body? Byron's friends and supporters had envisaged a hero's welcome for him, a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, a prominent place in Poets' Corner. But the British establishment was not so forgiving. Dr Ireland, Dean of Westminster, suggested that instead the best thing to be done was "to carry away the body, & say as little about it as possible".
However, the spontaneous reaction of the public took the authorities by surprise. The river banks were crowded with spectators as the undertaker's barge brought Byron's coffin up the Thames late in the afternoon of July 5. For the following week his body lay on view at 20 Great George Street in Westminster, a house his executors had hired for the purpose. The room in which the coffin lay was hung in black, with the Byron arms daubed roughly on a deal board. For two days, July 10 and 11, the public was admitted by ticket. In contrast to the mood of official disapproval there were now displays of near-hysterical emotion. London police sergeants had to be called in and a wooden frame erected round the coffin. It was reported that "Of the crowded visitors the number of ladies was exceedingly great".
The working-class poet John Clare watched Byron's funeral procession as it made its way down a thronging Oxford Street. He was immensely moved, writing later in his journal: "The common people felt his merits and his power and the common people of a country are the best feelings of a prophesy of futurity."
Byron's reinstatement has been a long time coming. One of the first signs of official recognition was in 1959 when the Queen Mother unveiled a memorial statue of Lord Byron at the Villa Borghese in Rome. The dowager queen was partial to amusing queers. But it is doubtful if anybody told her Byron's real history, in those discreet days before a 1967 change in English law decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults, following the recommendations of the Wolfenden report.
Leslie Marchand, working on his monumental three-volume biography of Byron in the same period, recalled how he was under instructions from Sir John Murray, the then head of the firm, to censor his account of Byron's recurring love for adolescent boys, despite the fact that the evidence was there. A precise account of Byron's sexual history and its reverberations in his marvellous, challenging, insinuating poetry, drawing on the whole rich resources of the Murray archive, is only now becoming possible.
Fiona MacCarthy's Byron: Life
and Legend is published by John Murray, price £25.
bad and gay
In her exhaustive biography, Fiona MacCarthy lets the life of Byron speak for itself
Sunday November 10, 2002
Byron: Life and Legend
by Fiona MacCarthy
John Murray £25, pp640
Just gay enough, or really gay? Fiona MacCarthy's new biography of Byron reminded me of Talk magazine's notion of the perfect man who would be 'just gay enough' to appreciate cookery, fashion and your new haircut, but would also know how to mend the car and unblock the sink - 'culturally homosexual but genetically straight'.
This is very much the way Byron's previous biographers have seen him, with a touch of bisexuality providing the necessary frisson of mystery and excitement to make him supremely attractive to the women who were his main emotional focus. MacCarthy, however, argues the opposite.
Although 'Byron liked the chase, the reassurance of heterosexual conquest', she claims, 'his erotic imagination brought him back inevitably to the idealised image of the boy'. Her version of the story has Byron living a double life, using straight sexual behaviour as a way of distracting himself and others from his exclusively homosexual instincts.
This is a bold claim. It involves playing down so many of Byron's relationships, including his five-year liaison with Contessa Teresa Guiccioli and his tortured affair with his half-sister Augusta - 'the union of all passions and of all affections', as Byron described it. MacCarthy links Byron's hidden homosexuality with 'the multiplicity of voices in his writing that connects him to the dislocated attitudes of the present age'.
In Byron's day, it was the vicious anti-sodomy laws rather than Freudian theories of sexual repression that provided the framework for most English understanding of sexual behaviour. 'I have not done an act that would bring me under the power of the law, at least on this side of the water,' Byron told his wife. (Louis Crompton's 1985 Byron and Greek Love concludes that Byron's physical relationships with boys took place only in contexts that were - literally as well as literarily - Greek.) 'I could love anything on earth that appeared to wish it,' Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne, acknowledging that 'my heart always alights upon the nearest perch.'
MacCarthy shows how Byron's irresistible attraction to both men and women lay exactly in this mobility, this ability to attune himself to his companions or his audience, whoever or wherever they were, deploying his often devastating charm and wit while at the same time maintaining an integrity and sense of self that left people slightly in awe of him.
The effect of Byron's hidden sexuality is linked by MacCarthy to the 'dazzling obfuscations' of his writing. But overall, Byron's poetry is rather sidelined in this version of his life. Readers are dissuaded at the outset from seeking Byron's brilliance in his verse by the claim that 'Goethe was right when he judged that Byron as a thinker was almost on the level of a child'. Goethe did not read English fluently and was hardly in a position to judge.
Jerome McGann's edition of Byron's poetical works seems to be the only literary criticism that is quoted or acknowledged in the book, and MacCarthy is rather sparing overall in her source acknowledgments. Other current biographies of Byron receive no mention, although McCarthy's passages discrediting the idea that Byron had sexual relationships with children are clearly responding to recent claims in this regard.
Even in his own time, when what his wife called 'Byromania' first took hold, Byron's life was thoroughly chronicled. The 'Byron' we have now is less a real person than a construct made up of an enormous number of portraits, eye-witness accounts and, of course, the poet's own disarming self-exposures.
Reports of Byron were, and still are, formulated for the reporters' own purposes, and MacCarthy is adept at weighing the motivations behind the evidence of, for example, the vindictive Lady Byron, Byron's adoring Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli, or of his friend John Cam Hobhouse, grimly protective of Byron's reputation at the time but leaving in his own frank diaries and shrewd marginal scribblings comments that reveal more than almost anything else.
Byron: Life and Legend is highly authoritative. Published by the seventh John Murray, direct descendant of Byron's publisher John Murray, it is based on five years' almost exclusive access to the Murray archives whose contents include not only Byron manuscripts but also memorabilia and fan mail addressed to Byron, the miniatures and locks of hair he collected, and a poignant pair of boots made to correct his lameness.
MacCarthy's biography is also highly readable and beautifully illustrated (except, oddly, for the front cover where a poor copy of Thomas Phillips's 'Albanian' portrait of Byron has been used instead of the original in the British Embassy at Athens or the good copy in the National Portrait Gallery). It highlights Byron's lifelong commitment to liberty which the appallingly reactionary conditions of post-Napoleonic Europe forced many Romantics to seek and express in personal rather than political ways.
Unlike other recent biographies which have taken a resolutely adversarial view, MacCarthy seems to like Byron and aims to allow him to speak for himself. This is a splendid achievement and deserves to be the definitive single-volume biography of Byron for many years to come.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous: The Cult of Lord Byron is at the
National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 from 20 Nov till
16 Feb 2003
Yes, and he was a poet too
Jonathan Bate reviews Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy
Biographies of Lord Byron have become like London buses. You wait for two decades without there being a single one and then you get three - each of double-decker proportions - in quick succession. Fiona MacCarthy's Byron: Life and Legend trundles into print behind Benita Eisler's fat and vulgar effort, which was more notable for its treatment of its subject's shopping habits than his poetry.
This time, the auguries were good. MacCarthy is the author of highly acclaimed biographies of Eric Gill and William Morris. Her publisher is none other than Byron's own: the family firm of John Murray. This is the first Murray-authorised biography since the three volumes of Leslie Marchand back in the 1950s, which put Byron scholarship on to a modern footing.
Indeed MacCarthy's principal new contribution follows from her full access to the Murray archive in 50 Albemarle Street, the house purchased by the publisher with the proceeds of Byron's first best-seller, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. She has read the full run of John Murray II's letters to Byron, enabling her to paint a fuller picture of the turbulent relationship between poet and publisher than we have had before.
There is an especially good account of the turning-point late in Byron's career when Murray found certain cantos of the comic masterpiece Don Juan so "outrageously shocking" that he would not publish them, with the result that Byron moved to John Hunt, a far less respectable and more politically radical publisher.
This biography's opening is equally auspicious. It begins with an image of Lord Byron in 1816, exiled from England following the scandal of his broken marriage and his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta. He is travelling in a "purpose-built coach, a de luxe version of the Emperor Napoleon's own celebrated carriage captured at Genappe". In the manner of a Hollywood star's stretch limousine, it contained "not only Byron's lit de repos but his travelling library, his plate-chest and facilities for dining".
From here, MacCarthy proceeds to a bravura comparison of Byron and his hero Napoleon: ambition, dissidence, arrogant glamour, a sweeping sense of history, flamboyance - all these Napoleonic qualities were also Byronic ones. MacCarthy has the gift for telling quotation and the ability to bring a scene alive.
But as soon as the main body of the narrative gets under way, we run into problems. For MacCarthy, the formative factors in Byron's childhood and youth were the deformity in his foot, his mother's extreme mood swings, the depressive influence of the Aberdeen weather, sexual abuse at the hands of his nurse, and above all his homosexual attractions - first to fellow-Harrovian the Earl of Clare and then, while a Cambridge undergraduate, to the choirboy John Edleston. All very spicy, but not much to do with the art of poetry.
Because the definitive Leslie Marchand biography was written in the 1950s, when homosexuality was still illegal, it glosses over Byron's clearly attested bisexuality. But MacCarthy over-compensates for her predecessor's modesty: she makes pederasty into the central theme of Byron's life. The evidence that she gathers is compelling, but the idea that it is the hidden key to Byron's poetry is very dubious. "Greek love" was a philosophical and political pose every bit as much as a sexual proclivity.
Byron was a deeply literary poet and yet MacCarthy has no interest in his relationship to the literary tradition. It is little short of scandalous that an "authorised" biography of him should have 25 index entries under the heading "homosexual predilections" and one - yes, one - under the heading "reading".
A central episode in Byron's literary life was his virulent dispute with the minor poet William Bowles over the merits of Alexander Pope, but this is not so much as mentioned by MacCarthy. One cannot begin to understand Byron's poetry without a sense of his loyalty to Pope - which was the flipside of his antipathy to Wordsworth - but MacCarthy cares nothing for this. Her treatment of nearly all the major poems is brief and superficial.
The biography is entitled "Life and Legend". The latter was as spectacular as the former. Byron's pan-European fame throughout the 19th century surpassed that of every British writer save Shakespeare, whereas in England in the 20th century his reputation took a nose-dive. There is a terrific book waiting to be written about this phenomenon. MacCarthy's final 50 pages on "The Byron Cult" make a good start at covering the ground. We meet an array of Byron fanatics such as the Italian and Polish freedom fighters Mazzini and Mickiewicz, and the French and Russian poets Lamartine and Pushkin.
The treatment of "the Byronic Englishman" is, however, more limited because it is confined to his Lordship's well-to-do admirers. A much more interesting story is that of his influence on, say, the working-class Chartists or the labouring poet John Clare, who witnessed Byron's funeral and went on to identify with him so obsessively that he ended up in a lunatic asylum writing astonishing poems entitled Child Harold and Don Juan.
A truly innovative Byron biography would be one that explained how he came to exert as great a spell on his posthumous admirers as on the women who threw themselves at him during the 36 energetic years of his life. It will not, alas, be published by John Murray: after over 200 years of independence, the family has sold the business.
Jonathan Bate is King Alfred Professor of English at Liverpool University.
December 19, 2002
Knopf, 290 pp., $26.95
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 674 pp., $35.00
Although Delia Bacon is said surreptitiously one night to have approached the vault beneath Stratford's Holy Trinity Church armed with a crowbar and shovel before losing her nerve, no one has yet succeeded in disinterring William Shakespeare. Byron, who had wanted to be buried without fuss in Greece, where he died in 1824, and who lacked Shakespeare's foresight in composing an epitaph cursing anyone who disturbed his grave, has been less fortunate. On June 15, 1938, a small, oddly assorted group of people broke open the Byron family vault in the church at Hucknall Torkard, near Nottingham, for reasons that ranged from a spurious need to establish the existence of a medieval crypt to the voyeuristic and fanciful. (The then Lord Byron had visions of hidden treasure, while the vicar, Canon Barber, claimed improbably to have been told many times that the remains of the sixth Lord Byron were no longer there, but had been mysteriously spirited away, and it was necessary to ascertain the truth.) After opening the last of the three coffins in which the embalmed body had been placed, they were able to look upon the well-preserved corpse of Shelley's "pilgrim of eternity," lying defenseless in his shroud, and to take excited notes, one churchwarden being particularly struck by what seemed to him the "abnormal" size of the dead poet's "sexual organ." After saying a brief prayer, they restored the status quo.
In the following year, Barber produced a small pamphlet, Byron and Where He Is Buried, including an account of his somewhat tasteless investigation. Although Leslie Marchand must certainly have read it, it was scrupulously ignored by him, both in 1957 when he published his magnificent three-volume Byron: A Biography, and again in 1970 when he brought out Byron: A Portrait, a one-volume condensation of the earlier work which, significantly, also incorporated new material about its subject's bisexuality that had been too risky to present thirteen years before. Even Doris Langley Moore, in The Late Lord Byron (1961), although she listed Barber's pamphlet in her bibliography, avoided any reference to it in her book, as more recently have both Phyllis Grosskurth and Benita Eisler in their biographies Byron: The Flawed Angel (1997) and Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999). It is striking then that Fiona MacCarthy should choose to end her important new life of Byron—the only one since Marchand's to be authorized by Byron's own publishers, John Murray—with just this episode.
It is, in 2002, an understandable decision. The deluge of works attempting in one way or another, and with varying degrees of success, to exhume Byron and assess his life, his personality, and the impact he had on others continues unabated. If anything, it has increased during the almost half-century since Marchand published his initial three volumes, spilling over into books about people who on the whole would scarcely be remembered at all were it not for their connection with Byron: his mother Catherine Gordon, his early Southwell friend Elizabeth Pigot, his half-sister Augusta, his wife Annabella, his confidante Lady Melbourne, his lovers Lady Caroline Lamb and Claire Clairmont, and his daughter Ada. Not all of these investigations belong, strictly speaking, to the category of biography. It is often observed that Byron liked to fictionalize himself in his poetry and even his letters, but his own, often wryly self-deprecating, personal myth-making has for long been dwarfed by that indulged in by others on his behalf.
It was a process that began during his own lifetime, with Caroline Lamb's roman à clef, Glenarvon (1816), and Thomas Love Peacock's witty caricature of Byron as the gloomy Mr. Cypress in his novel Nightmare Abbey (1818):
Sir, I have quarreled with my wife; and a man who has quarreled with his wife is absolved from all duty to his country. I have written an ode to tell the people as much, and they may take it as they list.
Byron himself was amused by Peacock's satire, and sent its author a single rose, less amused by Lady Caroline's vicious portrait of him, but still capable of being funny about it: "I read Glenarvon too, by Caro. Lamb/ God damn!" He did not live to read the celebrated courtesan Harriette Wilson's ecstatic and patently imaginary description in her Memoirs (1825) of their encounter at a London masquerade in 1814, and he was mercifully spared all the other "recollections" and reported "conversations" with which the reading public was inundated in succeeding years.
When Mary Shelley introduced Byron, thinly disguised under the name Count Raymond, as a leading character in her novel The Last Man (1826), she could at least claim to have known the original. Time gradually reduced, and at last swept away, the people of whom that had been true, without greatly diminishing the impulse to resurrect Lord Byron—usually the one Caroline Lamb had caricatured as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." He was even to find an infamous role in vampire literature. The nature, however, of these posthumous resuscitations has altered over the years, and not just because of their extension into a series of "Byron" films. (All of them, to a greater or less degree, dreadful.)
It has been a long time now since anyone attempted to complete Byron's great unfinished poem Don Juan, although such continuations—a few pretending to be Byron's own, discovered among someone's papers after his death—appeared sporadically throughout most of the nineteenth century. For this, the effort and skill required to master Don Juan's metrical form must be held partly responsible. The poet Edwin Morgan did attempt ottava rima in his dramatic monologue "Lord Byron at Sixty-Five" (1985), but the results were less than happy. Even W.H. Auden, consummate poetic craftsman though he was, avoided it in his verse "Letter to Lord Byron" (1937), confessing that "I should come a cropper," and settling for rhyme royal instead as being quite "difficult enough to play."
Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron" is one of the most distinguished and successful attempts to communicate with the long-dead poet, and to imitate his voice. That is so partly because of Auden's own poetic gifts, but also because of his genuine understanding and admiration of Byron's genius as a writer. Significantly, most other twentieth-century ventriloquists have focused, not on Don Juan, but on the less demanding task of trying to re-create the poet's lost prose Memoirs: the manuscript burned in John Murray's Albemarle Street premises on May 17, 1824, through the agency of friends and family variously motivated by jealousy, prudishness, and fear. These contributions have fluctuated between relatively straightforward imaginings of what that irretrievably destroyed work may have been like (such as Robert Nye's 1989 The Memoirs of Lord Byron: A Novel) to Amanda Prantera's extraordinary Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years after His Lordship's Death (1987), in which a computer functions as the medium through which the poet's voice becomes audible from beyond the grave. Although the notion of dictation from Byron's ghost was one already exploited in the nineteenth century, the enabling services of a computer are new. So, on the whole, is what has now become the grossly disproportionate interest in Byron's life, physical appearance, and personality at the expense of his poetry.
During the century just ended, biography in general has come to merge more and more with the novel—a phenomenon astutely explored by several contributors to a recent collection of essays, Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography. Biographers, arguably, have always been prone to this kind of distortion. It springs from their need to shape something explicable and coherent from existences which, as actually lived, were seldom either of these things. Some, however, of the recently published lives of Byron seem, in particular, so contaminated by novelistic invention as to call their very status as biography into question. At the lower end of the scale, this tendency may involve little more than the elevation of some cherished authorial hypothesis to the condition of fact, usually by ignoring or misrepresenting historical evidence—as with Benita Eisler's conviction that Byron was a ruthless pedophile, or Phyllis Grosskurth's simplistic and condescending overview: "a basically decent man who was destroyed by the expectations and projections of an incomprehensible world into which fate had thrust him." In more extreme cases, distinction between biography and the novel dissolves, to the point of creating a composite and dubiously legitimate form, neither one thing nor the other. Such drastic blurring of the boundaries between fiction and fact in attempts to portray Byron is a new phenomenon, certainly not at all the same as what Peacock was doing when he invented Mr. Cypress in Nightmare Abbey, Mary Shelley in The Last Man, or Caroline Lamb in Glenarvon.
Both Sigrid Combüchen's Byron: A Novel, translated from the original Swedish in 1988, and David Crane's The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons begin (significantly) with a fascinated account of the exhumation of Byron at Hucknall Torkard in 1938. Combüchen then enters into the imagination of various enthusiasts (one of them supposedly present at that event) as they eagerly prepare papers on various important episodes in Byron's life—and afterlife—for delivery to their local Byron Society during the 150th anniversary of the poet's birth. In the process, historical fact— some of it is accurate, some skewed— becomes dizzyingly entwined with fabrication. (Mary Shelley, for instance, is made to talk with her stepsister Claire Clairmont at Byron's funeral, although the latter was in Russia at the time.) Combüchen calls her book a novel. Crane describes his as a new kind of Byron biography: his life and character illuminated by way of his half-sister Augusta and Annabella, his wife. It is alarmingly difficult, however, to detect much generic difference between them.
At the heart of Crane's book lies his detailed reconstruction of the last meeting between Lady Byron and Augusta at the White Hart in Reigate on April 8, 1851. That this encounter actually occurred, in that place, and on that date, is incontrovertibly true. It is also true that Annabella's brief, scribbled memorandum of what she meant to discuss then survives, and has been pondered by Crane—who has steeped himself as well in what other documentary evidence there is about Byron's disastrous marriage and the troubled relations of the two women who were still obsessed with him a quarter-century and more after his death. Yet the sixty-odd pages of dialogue he has put into their mouths, interspersed with stage directions of almost Shavian particularity—"She pauses for a moment in front of the bird in the cage, looking at it with a remote detachment," "Her voice a cry of pain as she collapses back into the chair," or "She breaks off and turns suddenly to face Augusta, looking at her intently, as if seeing her for the first time"— come across as irritatingly phony. (So do Crane's notions that Annabella was attracted sexually to Augusta, or that Byron himself was a perennial and tragic outsider.) Less than fascinating if considered purely as a fiction, the conversation pretends to another kind of validity, one that it does not and cannot have. And Crane's grandiose asservations in his "Prologue" about dissolving "the barriers between past and present," or how "the most compelling truths of this narrative lie in regions for which the traditional tools of history or biography are simply not enough," fail to improve matters. How is his account of the Reigate meeting to be distinguished from that of Combüchen's fictional character? When is a biography not a biography but a work of fiction?
Fiona MacCarthy's Byron: Life and Legend is unmistakably a biography, and on the whole a good one. Balanced, fair, thoroughly researched, and beautifully written, with a certain amount of new material to offer (including two new Byron letters, and further light on his relations with his publisher Murray), this is a worthy, updated successor to Marchand: the most nearly complete and satisfactory life we have. Many readers will take issue with some of MacCarthy's particular emphases—upon Byron, for instance, as fundamentally homoerotic in his sexual orientation, rather than evenly ambidextrous, or with her view of Claire Clairmont as an entirely sympathetic and victimized figure—but a biographer can be allowed this degree of personal response.
The strength of the book lies in its scrupulous amassing of detail about Byron's life and times, and in its ability to order and clarify a wealth of diverse material—seeing the wood as well as the trees—without calling undue attention to the biographer rather than to the life under review. MacCarthy returns again and again to what she calls Byron's "particular gift for empathy," something, she feels, that accounted in part for his attractiveness to women. She traces it too in his lifelong obsession with Napoleon, with which her book begins, and in the ease with which he could understand and communicate with Italians, Greeks, and Albanians, countesses and bakers' wives, soldiers and poets, adults and children, aristocrats and gondoliers. It was one of the reasons why so many people—including William Fletcher, his personal servant for twenty years —were devoted to him. Her own empathy with Byron as a troubled, complicated, but essentially honest man is evident throughout, and makes a welcome change from recent biographies which have attempted to psychoanalyze or mother him, or have gradually revealed an antipathy so deep-rooted as to make some wonder why they were undertaken at all.
There are inevitably some errors in MacCarthy's book. By not reading the manuscript diary of Byron's friend and traveling companion John Cam Hobhouse (large sections are still unpublished in book form, but gradually emerging now on the Internet) with sufficient care, she perpetuates Marchand's mistake in supposing that the two men visited the Cyanean Sym-plegades—Jason's mythical "clashing rocks"—together on May 31, 1810. In fact, they did not. The young Byron, affronted by what seemed to him the lack of proper respect for his rank shown by the British ambassador in Pera, had been sulking and withdrawn for several days, which is why he missed the opportunity to accompany Hobhouse on his expedition. It would be a fortnight before he arranged to be taken there alone, scrambled perilously up the rocks, and composed his parody of the opening lines of Euripides' Medea. Meanwhile, he had quarreled with Hobhouse, abjured his friendship—and then made it up. The details may be small, but they are for a number of reasons telling, and they deserve inclusion in a biography conceived on this scale.
Again, Hobhouse was never in the "army," only the militia, nor was he ever, as stated on page 377, "aligned" as a radical with William Cobbett and Henry Hunt—both of them men whose company he shunned. Teresa Guiccioli, Byron's last mistress, did not marry Count Guiccioli again in 1826. They separated but were never divorced. Byron began his last play, The Deformed Transformed, not in "Genoa," but, as Jerome McGann has established, in Pisa, before Shelley's death. Canto IV of Childe Harold, not Canto III, contains the famous passage beginning, "I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs"; the wild horse that bears Mazeppa away in Byron's poem of that name is not an "Arabian steed" but, as Byron explicitly says, "a Tartar of the Ukraine breed" (which is why it is frenziedly trying to return to its homeland there); the exhortation to the reader in Canto II of Childe Harold to contemplate the ruin of "Ambition's airy hall,/The dome of Thought, the palace of the Soul" is provoked by a human skull, and had nothing whatever to do with the state of the buildings on the Acropolis. Sir Giles Overreach is not the "beleaguered hero" of Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts but its repulsive villain, and Tasso would be amazed to discover that his Gerusalemme Liberata was a "great erotic poem."
Most of these and other similarly small factual slips can be rectified in a second edition. It is only the "literary" ones toward the end of this list that cause real disquiet, not so much in themselves as because they are symptomatic of the central weakness of this book: MacCarthy's seeming lack of interest in poetry generally, and Byron's in particular. With her earlier, splendid biographies of Eric Gill (1989) and William Morris (1994), this had not mattered, nor had her apparent complete lack of a sense of humor. Neither's creativity was primarily verbal or allied in any significant way with the comic. Byron's, however, was. A man who may have hankered after political action, and sometimes pretended to a dislike of literary men, he nonetheless declared categorically in Canto IV of Childe Harold that "I twine/My hopes of being remember'd in my line/With my land's language," and that prophecy is (or ought to be) true. His laughter, often directed at himself, sometimes a defense (in order that "I may not weep") is a crucial component of Don Juan, his greatest poem.
It has to be said that Marchand's biography also underplayed the poetry. (Although he did try to compensate later with a book specifically addressed to it and, of course, between 1973 and 1982 produced the indispensable twelve-volume edition of Byron's letters and journals.) That has also been true of almost all his successors, including Grosskurth, Eisler, and Crane—Crane's casual assertion that a lack of any sense of "place" is "a glaring weakness of [Byron's] descriptive verse" being a particularly grotesque example of ignoring things that leap out from the page: Juan's first sight of London from Shooter's Hill, in Canto X, Byron's wonderful evocations of Rome or Venice, or a storm over Lake Leman, in Childe Harold. It seems a paradoxical fate for someone whose life and poetry were so intimately bound up with each other, and whose fame among his contemporaries was inseparable from his verse. There were, after all, other Englishmen of his time who traveled even more adventurously than Byron (his friend William Bankes, for instance, who managed to smuggle himself into Mecca disguised as a half-witted pilgrim, or Robert Wilson, who followed Napoleon with the Russian army on the retreat from Moscow), and some (like Michael Bruce) whose amatory exploits were notorious. But they were none of them great poets, and that, now as then, is what makes all the difference.
Because MacCarthy pays only perfunctory attention to Byron's verse, she finds it difficult really to account for the "Legend" of her subtitle: the continuing fame and influence outlined rather too sketchily in her final chapters, "The European Byronists" and "The Byronic Englishman." When she does venture on the poetry, she tends to be inadequate or wrong. No one who had not read The Corsair, for instance, would guess from her account that Gulnare actually murders the Pacha, and that this is the pivotal event of the poem. Sardanapalus, in Byron's play about that Assyrian king, is most certainly not "an amiable villain, a self-consciously evil character with the daredevil charm and charisma of Shakespeare's Richard III."
It is, difficult, moreover, to detect either what she describes as the "macabre eroticism" or the "uncertain balance between tragedy and farce" in Mazeppa, or the "virulent satire against Southey" in The Vision of Judgement. The latter poem is as effective as it is partly because of its unruffled good humor. No one is punished: even poor old George III slips into Heaven at the end, while the turncoat Southey merely gets dumped into his Cumberland lake where, we are carefully assured, "he did not drown." "Darkness" does not imagine our planet "laid waste by war," but by the kind of cosmic disaster —here, the sudden death of the sun and extinction of light in the entire solar system—that seems all too plausible now. For a savage and genuinely angry indictment of wars of conquest, it is necessary to go to the siege of Ismail cantos in Don Juan, where again the conflict and misunderstanding between Christian and Islamic worlds comes uncomfortably close at present to home.
McCarthy's minimizing of Don Juan itself is probably the most disappointing feature of Byron: Life and Legend. That is not only because it is, after all, with Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth's The Prelude, one of the very greatest long poems in the English language. The things most frequently said about it—that it is the epic of modern life, the most original, funniest, but saddest of poems, one that never relinquishes its faith in what Helen Gardner once called "the salutariness of being undeceived"—are all true. If no one can write about Don Juan without writing about Byron himself as an overwhelming narrative presence, it is also limiting to write about Byron's life without writing about Don Juan: that "versified Aurora Borealis," as Byron himself described it in Canto VII, "which flashes o'er a waste and icy clime," a restless, "ever varying rhyme." This, even more than Childe Harold, and certainly more than the vault at Hucknall Torkard, is the place where the person who so mesmerized contemporaries not only in England but across Europe remains tangible and undimmed.
No one has explored the complex relationship between Byron's life and work—with both of which most of Napoleonic Europe was entangled— better than Jerome McGann, editor of the Oxford Complete Poetical Works, in his brilliant essay "The Book of Byron and the Book of a World." Biographers, on the other hand, given how much there is (despite Byron's early death at thirty-six) of both life and work to assimilate, have tended to make a Yeatsian choice between them —usually in favor of "perfection" of the former. (Caroline Franklin's Byron: A Literary Life (2000) is an honorable exception.) The bias is understandable. But it is also true, to invoke Yeats again, that with Byron at his best and most characteristic, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the dancer from the dance.
 Edited by Peter France and William St Clair (Oxford University Press, 2002).
 Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate (London: Heinemann, 1988).
 Edited by Peter Cochran; see www.hobby-o.com.
 In The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1985).
John Murray £25, 674pp
Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy
A thorough inspection of Byron's closet does scant justice to great poetry, says Duncan Wu
02 November 2002
Scandal and intrigue made Byron a star in his own lifetime – and in ours. Fiona MacCarthy's is the sixth biography to appear in as many years. And who can begrudge such an extraordinary life its enduring fascination? Born with a club foot, Byron was the victim of what we would now call childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his nurse. He kept a tame bear in his rooms at Cambridge (there were rules against dogs); had an affair with his half-sister Augusta and countless other liaisons with members of both sexes; swam the Hellespont and the Tagus; exiled himself from England when stories of his homosexual past leaked out; and led his own army to the Greek War of Independence, where he died at 36. Oh yes, and he wrote some of the greatest poetry in the language.
Fiona MacCarthy's biography is published by John Murray, a firm whose fortunes were built on Byron's early success. It was in the grate of the fire in Murray's drawing-room that the manuscript of one of the biggest potential money-spinners in literary history was burnt shortly after Byron's death: his memoirs. However misguided, that act guaranteed the success of the countless biographies that have followed, which continue to speculate on their likely contents.
MacCarthy doubtless tells us much that Byron would have omitted. As she points out, the advantage of writing in an age comparatively relaxed about homosexuality is that she can, unlike many predecessors, discuss Byron's sex life frankly. She has enjoyed the run of the Murray archive, which contains hair mailed to him by admiring women, Byron's bust, many manuscripts and other relics. She describes the "patchwork" of scraps comprising the manuscript of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: evidence of its piecemeal composition as Byron travelled across Europe in 1816.
As a research document, this is a thorough and accurate account of the life. MacCarthy deals best with Byron's childhood and early manhood, and is a good sceptic when confronted by hearsay, especially his alleged boyhood passion for his cousin, Mary Chaworth (a cover for his burgeoning homosexuality), and his paternity of Medora, Augusta's daughter. Some set-pieces are memorable: she is good on the incompetence of the doctors at Byron's death-bed, and produces comic moments describing his wedding-day in a doom-laden tone more suitable for a public flogging. And she is shrewd when dealing with Byron's mother and Lady Caroline Lamb, both of whom were clearly monsters.
What lets this book down is MacCarthy's tendency to be summary: lining up the main players, putting them through their paces, and then returning them to their box without comment. The most glaring example is the chapter dealing with Byron's brief but intense friendship with the Shelleys on the shores of Lake Geneva in summer 1816. From this came some of the greatest poetry (and fiction) any of them would compose; it was a crucial moment in their lives, informed by a considerable body of evidence on what happened.
For instance, Byron and Shelley's first meeting, when they shook hands on the shores of Lake Geneva, is one of those mythical events that actually took place. MacCarthy does not mention it, nor Shelley's famously well-intentioned attempts to "dose" Byron with "Wordsworth physic" (by reading Wordsworth's poetry to him). And the ghost-story competition at the Villa Diodati is described less as it must have been experienced by those present than as a historical event that gave rise to several works of literature.
The failure to exploit the drama inherent in this story is evident in flat descriptions of the supporting cast. Byron's acquaintance George Ticknor is "a young American in London" (rather than the future publisher of many Romantic and Victorian writers); Henry Crabb Robinson a "lawyer and literary hanger-on" (rather than Germanist, diarist, and intellectual); while even the likes of Claire Clairmont, and Mary and Percy Shelley remain shadowy figures, fuzzily drawn, rather than the remarkable men and women they were. Likewise, Ravenna, Pisa and Rome (to say nothing of Cheltenham) are seldom more than sketches, hardly the exotic locations they must have seemed to the expatriate literati.
Because her characters and their environment lack clarity and depth, MacCarthy is often not in a position to make judgements about them. She is alarmingly reticent when it comes to Byron's conduct towards the child he fathered with Claire Clairmont. Allegra died in the convent to which he confined her, where, despite her pleas, she was prevented from seeing her mother. If MacCarthy doesn't regard that as an insane act of cruelty, her first duty as biographer is to say why. Byron's treatment of his wife, unprovoked rage towards monks at Theotokos Agrilion, and avowed fear of "growing fat and going mad" attest to a long-term psychological instability that requires discussion by any serious biographer.
The impression that she handles her subject with sugar tongs extends to his poetry. "Scott – Southey – Wordsworth – Moore – Campbell – I – are all in the wrong", he is quoted as saying, but without any explanation that this takes us to the heart of his poetic theory. Don Juan is now regarded as a literary masterpiece, but you wouldn't know it from this book. There is nothing here about the formal triumph of ottava rima, Byron's use of metre and rhyme for comic purposes, or any detailed account of the poem's reception. MacCarthy's endorsement of it as "a rollicking amatory narrative" does it scant justice, and doesn't suggest much feeling for its true quality.
Her grounds are surer when she says that "Darkness" "projects domestic grief into the cosmic", but the statement is too cryptic not to require commentary. The suggestion that "Sardanapalus" contains "no love interest" is simply wrong. In fairness, hers is not meant to be a critical biography, but neither does it seem to have the foggiest idea why Byron is now held to be one of our greatest poets.
MacCarthy's forte is her deployment of the facts, assembled skilfully, accurately, and usually in the right order. This book will tell you that Byron helped write an Armenian-English grammar, used "cundums", and bit his nails. And MacCarthy's conjectures about Byron's sex life are probably right. But it is a sad comment on our culture that a fully researched biography such as this has little to say about what made Byron a great poet, while devoting several hundred pages to proving that he was a closet homosexual whose cover was the exaggerated number of female conquests which were his chief boast.
Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature at Oxford University; his critical biography 'Wordsworth' is published by Blackwell
Limping devil escapes
John Mullin looks at why Byron's biographers struggle to capture him
Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame by Benita
837pp, Hamish Hamilton, £25
Saturday June 5, 1999
No biographer of Byron is short of materials. There is his copious correspondence, alive with irony and mischief. There are the memoirs that poured from the press after his death in 1824, many offering preserved fragments of his conversation or recollections of his character. And there is his self-dramatising poetry, packed with apparent confessions and teasing autobiographical allusions. Tellingly, the very subtitle of Benita Eisler's biography is a self-description of one of Byron's poems.
The problem for the biographer is exactly that Byron styled himself so brilliantly for posterity. In one of his letters to Lady Melbourne, the correspondent to whom he wrote most freely and knowingly, an aside in the midst of gossip catches this self-consciousness. 'I never laughed at P- (by the bye, this is an initial which might puzzle posterity when our correspondence bursts forth in the 20th century).' Burst forth it has, and puzzled the annotators have duly been.
Biographical sympathy for those variously seduced by what a contemporary reluctantly admitted was an 'irresistible attraction in his manner' does not mean vindication. Byron's half-sister Augusta, 'amoral as a rabbit' in Leslie Marchand's authoritative life of Byron, is made fully responsible for her incestuous and mutually destructive affair with the poet. Byron's wife, Annabella, is not absolved from vengefulness and stupidity, but she is shown as rational in her determination to blacken her husband's character.
Annabella's letters and 'narratives', not available to Marchand, but now deposited by her descendants in the Bodleian Library, have persuaded Eisler that she was understandably labouring to ensure her custody of her child, Ada. (After all, as Eisler points out, Byron was later to separate another daughter, Allegra, from her mother, Claire Clairmont, and to allow her to die neglected.) So Annabella collected the testimonies of servants to Byron's 'deranged' behaviour in their last weeks together - threats, drunkenness, violent sexual advances only a few days after she had given birth. Eisler makes the accounts seem like plausible glimpses of a hellish marriage.
She allows others to emerge from the gloom of Byron's glamour: his closest friend, John Cam Hobhouse, comic and admirable in his loyalty; his publisher, John Murray, endlessly lambasted in Byron's letters but a man of surprisingly liberal tastes; his confidante, Lady Melbourne, whom Eisler calls Byron's 'satanic Other'. She was mother-in-law to Byron's most notorious lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, and aunt to Annabella Milbanke, who, partly through her machinations, would become Byron's wife. Clever and infinitely worldly, she becomes in this book a representative of the liberal and libertine Whig aristocracy to which Byron belonged. From this class Byron learned his elegant ennui, turned to exotic melancholy in Childe Harold, the bestseller that made him famous overnight. His resentment at its influence seems one of his most genuine passions.
His sense of being wounded and tormented was poetically useful, but in his own eyes he was indeed a disabled debauche, ever aware of his club foot. According to his friend Tom Moore, he blamed his mother, whose insistence on corsets or dislike of obstetrical examinations had somehow made him, as he called himself, le diable boiteux: the lame devil. No one can doubt the bitterness who reads his sour satire 'The Waltz', where the fleetness of foot required for this exciting new dance becomes a metaphor for the licentiousness of the entire beau monde. The disability made for Byron's obsession with swimming, water being the element that freed him and made him strong; along the Thames from one side of London to the other, over the Tagus at Lisbon, across the lagoon and down the grand canal at Venice, and, most famously, across the Hellespont.
Eisler's digressions into the details of Byron's obsessions make this a readable book as well as a long one. She has room for what is odd and characteristic, from his peculiar starve-binge eating habits, to his anxious earnestness about matters of dress, to his failures of taste in interior decor. Occasionally she leads herself into suspect psychologising in order to explain his behaviour. His mother's tempestuous changes of mood 'convinced him of the unreliability of women'. He enjoyed the rigours of his travels in Albania because, 'troubled by evidence of the feminine in his character', he sought 'to confirm his manhood'. He hated Lord Elgin because he was Scottish, like his mother, and had a facial deformity which was the counterpart of Byron's lameness. Even Byron's dogs are not immune from psychological insight, their scraps with his mother's pug being confidently diagnosed as 'a projection of their owner's hostility'.
More convincingly, Eisler emphasises his intermittent homosexuality. This too was a matter of self-fashioning. Byron belonged to a gay subculture while in Cambridge, communicating with fellow 'Methodists' (as they liked to call themselves) in high-camp code. His half-sister apart, his expressions of deepest feeling were reserved for boys. It was the Trinity College chorister John Edleston ('Thyrza') who inspired his most agonised love poetry. The travels that he turned into Childe Harold and a series of poetic Eastern tales became a pursuit of 'Greek love'. A famous portrait of Byron as Romantic Wanderer shows him with his 'page', Robert Rushton, in attendance; Eisler confirms Lady Caroline Lamb's report that Rushton was another whom Byron had seduced. In all things he styled himself a crosser of boundaries.
All this might become mere tittle-tattle, as it was during Byron's own life, but Eisler recognises that the narcissism and libertinism are interesting because they were transmuted into the 'sad merriment' of his best writing. This is truest in his greatest poem, Don Juan, where, both comically and poignantly, 'The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone'. Byron's life gave him the stuff of his poetry, but the poetry - in its ruefulness and self-mockery - escaped the life.
The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley In Their Time
Chatto and Windus, £25, 402 pp
Crazy mixed-up poets
Caroline Moore reviews The Making of the Poets by Ian Gilmour
"Do we need a new biography of X?" is apt to be the response of jaded critics to many new works of literary scholarship. But this is the wrong question. "Reason not the need": books are there for pleasure, not from necessity; and Ian Gilmour's double biography of the early lives of Byron and Shelley is remarkably pleasurable: elegantly written, witty, and unostentatiously well-informed.
This joint biography ends in 1812, when Byron was 24 and Shelley only 19, four years before the two poets met. Gilmour's biography rightly and constantly reminds us of their youth, and early deaths: "when Byron left Harrow, almost half his life was over; and when Shelley left Eton, only two fifths of his life remained". Gilmour's approach is fatherly, even superior, though sympathetic warmth filters through every thoroughly justified criticism.
Certainly, the pair were nightmarish teenagers: but then, as Gilmour makes abundantly clear, the advantages of an aristocratic background were for each of them offset by the deficiencies of their upbringing.
Byron was the son of a profligate Scottish aristocrat, who funded his excesses by preying upon heiresses. Catherine Gordon was his second rich wife; and by the time Byron was born, "mad Jack" had squandered her fortune. She gave birth in cramped lodgings in Edinburgh; and brought up her son as a single mother. And though loving, she would swing unpredictably into violent rages - a "damnable disposition" inherited by her son, who, as a child, would bite chunks out of saucers and rip his clothes from top to bottom in his tantrums.
His nurse was even less suitable: a sexually abusive Calvinist, who filled his head with the terrors of damnation, yet would at night "come to bed to him and play tricks with his person". Byron later attributed his "melancholy" to having never had a proper childhood, "having anticipated life".
Beyond all this, of course, there was the poor boy's deformity - his famous "club foot" (which seems to have been withered and failed to grow). His mother, in her rages, would taunt him for it, unforgivably.
If the reasons for Byron's psychological scarring are pitiably obvious, the roots of Shelley's neuroses and rebellion are muffled and obscure. He was the son of a dull baronet; but, as Richard Holmes perceptively remarked, "Perhaps the most remarkable single fact of Shelley's childhood is that while both parents comfortably outlived him, neither left a single word of reminiscence about his childhood." There is so little to go on, indeed, that one can only guess, as Gilmour does, that Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley were "cold, unresponsive, even neglectful" parents.
Byron inherited his title in 1798 - and spent the rest of his life both inveighing against rank and displaying inordinate pride in his own. At 13, he went to Harrow, which, he said, he "hated until the last year and a half"; and as a fat, proud schoolboy fell in love with Mary Chaworth who, two years older, naturally snubbed him. Schoolboy homosexuality offered some compensations.
Poor Shelley, an obvious outsider, with his squeaky voice and tiny, feminine features, hated his schooldays at Eton. A popular sport was "Shelley-baiting": the cry would go up, "The Shelley! Shelley! Shelley!", and a mob would hound him through the streets. By the time he left Eton, Shelley was infected in body and mind: suffering (or so at least he feared) from venereal disease caught from a prostitute. An even more insidious intellectual infection had entered his febrile brain: the half-baked radicalism of William Godwin's Political Justice.
Byron went on to Cambridge; Shelley to Oxford. Neither profited academically. Noblemen were exempt from examinations, so Byron was undistracted from a crash course in debauchery. College, he told a friend, "is not the place to improve either Morals or Income". But vanity imposed self-discipline in one area: Byron began his life-long obsession with dieting, losing 35 lbs in four months. Violent exercise while "wearing seven waistcoats and a great coat" was backed up by starvation so severe that his hair changed colour from lack of protein (is that a side effect for every Slimmer of the Year?).
Despite his behaviour (which included the purchase of a tame bear, since dogs were banned under college statutes), Byron, when he left, did so voluntarily, after three terms. Shelley was expelled after less than two.
Shelley's dissipations were intellectual. At Oxford, he found a soul-mate, whom he loved with extraordinary intensity, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who egged him on in his ravings against fathers, schools, matrimony, meat-eating, the monarchy and, of course, every form of recognised religion. In March 1811 Shelley was sent down for distributing a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism.
At this point in his life, as Gilmour suggests, he was so overwrought as to raise doubts about his sanity. He quarrelled violently with his father, flinging wild accusations at him and hinting darkly of parricide; and then eloped to Scotland with a 16-year-old, Harriet Westbrook. Shelley, though vehemently against marriage, did eventually recognise that Harriet might be the one to suffer most from his principles; and married her in Edinburgh. She might well, however, have been startled to discover that her new husband had invited his beloved friend Hogg on honeymoon.
Though Shelley, unlike Byron, regarded homosexual acts as "detestable", there is no doubt that his feelings for Hogg were hysterically strong. In York, apparently with Shelley's connivance, Hogg attempted to seduce Harriet. Rather creepily, he had already tried to win the interest of Shelley's sister; and would go on to seek sexual relations with Shelley's next wife, too.
Perhaps Shelley's philanthropic urge to share his women did spring, as Gilmour suggests, from suppressed homosexual feelings. Byron never repressed his. Fighting his melancholy "post-University blues", he undertook a grand tour of Portugal, Spain, Malta, Greece and the Levant. Boys were plentiful: but his excesses "seem to have got homosexuality almost out of his system", for he became markedly more heterosexual upon his return to England.
And it was on this tour that he began the poem that was to make him famous overnight, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Gilmour's genial tolerance pervades this book; and by cutting off when he does, allows one to like Byron and Shelley more than one usually does. But as I closed the book I could not quite forget the shadows of the future: the miseries to be inflicted upon both poets' wives and mistresses. Poor Harriet, abandoned, would drown herself in the Serpentine four years after this book ends, when barely in her twenties.
Tuesday January 7, 2003
Book review: Byron - Life and
By Fiona MacCarthy. Illustrated. 674 pages. $35. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Reviewed by Dinitia Smith (The New York Times)
Monday, January 6, 2003
Lord Byron was the Mick Jagger of his time, "mad, bad and dangerous to know," in the words of his tragic admirer Caroline Lamb. He was a curly-haired, pouty-lipped heartthrob, though inclined to plumpness and a dieter and exerciser worthy of the 21st century, according Fiona MacCarthy's new biography. Byron was a celebrity entertainer if there ever was one.
The first edition of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" was a sensation and sold out in three days. Like any modern entertainer controlling his press, Byron carefully tailored his image, urging his publisher to destroy unattractive portraits of him.
It is nearly impossible today to imagine the shadow Byron cast across the literary landscape with "Childe Harold" and "Don Juan." Byron was the very model of the Romantic hero and the poet as man of action. His idol was Napoleon, and he campaigned on behalf of Italian liberation and unification and Greek independence.
Today, though, he is little read, remembered mostly in snatches of divine verse. Byron has been the subject of scores of books, including Leslie Marchand's three-volume "Byron: a Portrait," in 1957, and recently Benita Eisler's biography. So why does the world need another one? Well, it probably doesn't, except for the sheer fun of reading about Byron's life again.
Born in 1788 into minor nobility, with a club foot, Byron was the son of a ne'er-do-well former captain, John (Mad Jack) Byron, of the Coldstream Guards. Byron's mother, Catherine, was adoring. Byron hated her, but when she died, he mourned her terribly. He was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he kept a pet bear. While at Cambridge he published his first major volume of verse, "Hours of Idleness," which was savaged by The Edinburgh Review. To punish his critics, he wrote a satiric poem, "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." After Cambridge he began his extraordinary journeys to the untraveled reaches of Albania and to Greece where, ahead of his time, he decried the removal of Greek treasures by Lord Elgin. He returned to England and to the House of Lords, allying himself with Catholic emancipation and with the Nottingham weavers who were near starvation because of the introduction of more efficient looms. Then, with the publication of the first two cantos of "Childe Harold" in 1812, as he famously said, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."
In 1813 he began an affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and she bore a child, Medora, though MacCarthy is not persuaded that Byron was the father. He married Annabella Milbanke, plain and adept at math, whom he called "Princess of Parallelograms." "Never was a lover in less haste" to get married, Byron's best friend, John Hobhouse, said. Byron abused her, and in 1816, hounded by rumors about his homosexuality and incest with Augusta, he abandoned Annabella and their baby, Ada. (Before she died in 1852, Ada asked to be buried next to the father she never knew.)
MacCarthy says in her introduction that she wrote this biography because the extent of Byron's homosexuality had been suppressed, and new letters on the subject were available from the archives of John Murray, Byron's, and her own British publisher. MacCarthy says that Byron was repulsed by women's physicality, that his greatest loves were the young Earl of Clare at Harrow and John Edleston, a choirboy.
After Byron left Annabella, he traveled with Shelley in Europe. It was of course during their Swiss stay that Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein." Byron impregnated Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who bore him a daughter, Allegra. He took Allegra to live with him in Venice, but when she became difficult he put her in a convent. When Allegra died at the age of 5, he was heartbroken, though he hadn't seen her in a year.
He died in 1824 in Missolonghi on the Greek mainland, probably from Mediterranean tick fever, MacCarthy says. Byron's corpse was taken to England. As it was borne on a hearse festooned with sable plumes, drawn by six black horses, to his family seat at Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, crowds lined the road, hysterical with grief.
When the news of Byron's death reached Pushkin, he wrote to a friend, "You are sad about Byron, but I am very glad of his death, as a sublime theme for poetry."
Voiceless Shore / Byron in Greece
by Stephen Minta
292pp. Marion Wood / Henry Holt. $25. 0 8050 3778 0
When they were at Malta in September 1809, Byron and his friend Hobhouse took eleven lessons in Arabic from the Abbate Giacchino Navarro, Librarian at the Valletta Public Library. This seems a sure sign they had arrived with no firm intention of going either to Greece or to Constantinople, for in neither place would Arabic be of any use. They bought an Arabic grammar on September 2nd, and started their lessons on the 3rd. Also on the 3rd, however, they met a man who, seeing two young, impressionable and directionless Englishmen, one of whom was of striking beauty, decided to charm them into his circle, and to send them to Albania, to Ali Pasha.
The man was Spiridion Foresti, sometime English Consul on Corfu, but now out of a job. By a secret clause in the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit, the Ionian Islands been restored to the French, and he’d had to leave. He was now assisting Admiral Collingwood, C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet, in a plan to take the Islands back. This would not be difficult, for the French were very unpopular there, and the islanders were anxious to put themselves under English protection (some of their merchantmen had forced the Foreign Office’s hand in April, by raising the Union Jack in Constantinople harbour). The difficulty lay with Ali Pasha – the criminal parasite and mass-murderer often described as the Third Most Unpopular Man in Modern Greek History, after Hitler and Stalin. Ali had been casting a favourable eye on the Ionians for years – particularly on Santa Maura, and the coastal town of Parga. If the English were to take the Islands, he needed sweetening.
In the twenty-one-year-old Byron, Foresti had found his sweetener. A smooth cosmopolitan, he (together with his son George) took Byron and Hobhouse bathing, entertained them at the theatre, and regaled them with salacious rumour and gossip about the courts of Europe, about Angelica Catalani, and about Napoleon. On September 4th he introduced them to Constance Spencer-Smith, with whom Byron started an affair. By September 15th Byron and Hobhouse had succumbed to his persuasions, and were ready to go to Prevesa, and thence to Tepellene, Ali’s Albanian H.Q. They’d no other plans, and Ali sounded exciting. They sailed on the 19th. Whether or not they knew that an English force of 1800-plus men was only three days behind them, aiming at the Ionians, is a point on which both men kept quiet for the rest of their lives.
Compromised by all this was the English Consul at Ioannina, William Martin Leake, topographer, archaeologist, numismatist, and secret agent. He had been instructed by Collingwood to encourage Ali in his lust for Santa Maura and Parga. Now he would have to carry the can for Albion’s perfidy. The plan for the English to take the Ionians, wrote Admiral Collingwood to the Foreign Office, “… will at least preserve them, from a fate more dreaded, than their present condition, – but is diametrically opposite to the assurance Captain Leake is directed to give him [Ali]”. On September 24th Ali sent Leake a letter, full of sadness and subtextual threat. “You haven’t written me anything new,” he wrote. “Especially now with the coming of these English I was waiting for some news from you after everything we had talked about all this time.” When Byron and Hobhouse arrived at Ioannina, Leake refused to see them – but when their political innocence became clear he thawed a bit, and was more hospitable.
Such was the speed of communication even in 1809 that Ali was expecting his guests. His agents welcomed them in Ioannina, and provided transport for the difficult journey to Tepellene. Leake had told Ali that “an Englishman of great family” was in his dominions – a flattering description of Byron, whose family had never been great, and who had become a lord by accident, but who had the style to carry it off. As they approached Tepellene, Hobhouse drew parallels between Ali and the eighteenth-century reformist Portuguese tyrant, the Marquis de Pombal. It was wishful thinking. Ali reformed roads, but nothing else. Mostly he just killed people, horribly. But he knew a fait accompli when he saw one, and congratulated Byron and Hobhouse on the conquest of the Islands, saying how happy he was to have the English for his neighbours.
Exactly what else happened at Tepellene between Ali and Byron, no-one will know – and no-one is anxious to think about it. Part of Byron’s motive in travelling was to satisfy his homosexual needs, upon which English law and custom frowned, and Ali’s bisexuality was notorious. I doubt very much whether they hit the sack together, but Byron was probably entertained by Ali’s Ganymedes, while Ali looked on benignly, and Hobhouse snored away down the passage. Cecil Y. Lang would have us believe that the event was the single most important in Byron’s life, and that his poetry – Don Juan in particular – is an encoded confession of the guilt he felt when later political sophistication made him realise how he’d been used.
Six weeks after leaving Tepellene, Byron, waiting at Patrass for a favourable wind to cross the Gulf of Corinth, and climb Parnassus, shot an eagle. On the same day (December 10th) Hobhouse recorded, as if with surprise, “… we have observed the profess’d hatred of their masters to be universal amongst the Greeks”. Byron was often to use the eagle in his poetry as an image of freedom, either exercised or denied – it is as if his killing the eagle, and the dawning of political awareness for both him and Hobhouse, coincided. His conscience was to be pricked at intervals by various islanders, especially the Karvellas brothers from Zante, whom he met at Geneva and at Pisa, and who told him of the brutal maladministrations of “King Tom” Maitland, the drunken English Governor-General. I find it hard to believe that Byron’s shame at the way he had allowed himself to be prostituted by Foresti was not an important ingredient in his motive for returning to Greece at the end of his life. He certainly atoned then.
Stephen Minta’s On A Voiceless Shore is an excellent book, concentrating on Byron in Greece, but acting in effect as a complete biography of the poet. As such it is much more skilfully written, and has its subject much more clearly in focus, than the recent, regrettable Byron The Flawed Angel, by Phyllis Grosskurth. The poetry is kept on the book’s periphery, as in Grosskurth, but, as is not the case in Grosskurth, is valued as it should be. Minta’s narrative is interspersed with accounts – discreetly anticlimactic for the most part – of his own experiences in the modern Greek locations. But, expert as he is on every other aspect of Byron’s Greece, he has nothing to say about the politics of the Ionians, or about Byron’s feelings relating to the “mission” Foresti sent him on, to keep Ali Pasha happy.
Child of Passion, Fool of Fame.
By Benita Eisler.
Illustrated. 837 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
Lord Byron had affairs with men, women, children and relatives.
In popular imagination, Byron is often seen as the textbook Romantic, with his revolutionary politics, his scandalous private life, his lameness paraded as the mark of Cain. A darkly brooding outsider, an exile from his native land, a swashbuckling hero of foreign wars of liberation, he comes across as a heady poetic amalgam of James Dean and Che Guevara. But Byron was also a coolly arrogant English lord, whose espousal of popular causes expressed a lofty patrician radicalism and who despised the foreigners whose struggle for independence he led (without seeing much fighting) from above.
Being a lord was more important than being a writer, as Benita Eisler points out (not, of course, for the first time) in this lively biography. He regarded other Romantic poets as lowborn hacks, ''would-be wits and can't-be gentlemen,'' as well as political conservatives and turncoats. Though always strapped for money, he at first refused payment for his writings, as unlordly behavior. He later relented, when he needed what he called ''brain-money . . . what I get by my brains'' to finance his overloaded love life.
His poems and plays reflect a similar split. On one side, there are the so-called Byronic heroes, satanic figures blighted by secret sorrow or guilt, exiled in lonely places, given to excess or revolt: poetic projections of the scandal-ridden, congenitally deformed outsider, the Byron whose locks of hair and miniature portraits were coveted by generations of star-struck female adorers.
On the other side is the poet of ''Beppo'' and ''Don Juan,'' whose flip urbanity and hard-edged precision make him the master of serious light verse, of a colloquial tradition in English poetry that derives from Butler and Swift and looks forward to T. S. Eliot's vers de societe and some of Auden's best poems. Byron gave to this style a special patrician spin, a lordliness that was both a class gesture and a uniquely personal flourish. It is this manner that perhaps corresponds most closely to the Byron of the personal letters and journals and has some claim to be more expressive of the ''real'' Byron, except that there would be no real Byron to express without the dark Romantic side. The two overlap, but do not really blend. Byron practiced both styles more or less simultaneously in different works, but normally kept them well apart, and faltered when he failed to do so.
''Don Juan,'' his masterpiece, shows how determined he was to keep them apart. The hero, a genial, comically fictional self-projection, is the antithesis of the demonically transgressive Don Juans of European tradition. Byron's Juan shares with the others his irresistibility to female admirers, but nothing else. He is no sexual predator. He seldom initiates his liaisons, and lets the women call the shots. He is passive (in pursuit, not in performance), more wooed than wooing, a guileless version of the laid-back aristocrat whose satisfactions come without effort. This English version of the good-hearted seducer, seduced into seducing, derives from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones rather than from the adventurer Juans of dramatic and operatic tradition, who appear lumbering upstarts by comparison.
Byron's life was lordly and rakish. In the family seat of Newstead Abbey, the young lord imitated the blasphemous and orgiastic practices of the Hell-Fire Club. He and his friends, wearing monkish dress, drank Burgundy from a human skull and, ''after reveling on choice viands, and the finest wines of France,'' one of his guests wrote, proceeded with unmentionable ''evening diversions'' until the small hours. In addition to several renowned and high-profile heterosexual romances, as well as a string of humbler amours with maidservants and prostitutes, he had a series of homosexual attachments. Pedophilia, incest, masochism, cross-dressing (he danced in woman's dress with a Greek boy and liked his women to wear men's clothes) were part of his repertory. His most scandalous mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb, married to a future prime minister, liked to dress as a pageboy. He appears to have told her she reminded him of John Edleston, his most beloved homosexual lover, a Cambridge choirboy who had died of consumption.
His liaisons were extraordinarily complex. Lady Melbourne, Caroline Lamb's mother-in-law and enemy, worked hard to divert Byron's attentions to her own niece Annabella Milbanke, whom he married. While courting her, he pursued several other affairs, including an incestuous liaison with his half sister, Augusta, and apparently bedded the elderly Lady Melbourne to boot. These practices continued into his marriage, which ended in a spectacular separation and Byron's permanent exile in a cloud of allegations about incest and sodomy. Each of the women got to see Byron's correspondence with the others, which created a network of bizarre complicities and mutual power plays as well as jealousies and bruised egos. When his wife gave birth to their daughter, Byron had a nervous breakdown, threatened to kill them both and ordered them out of the house. He accepted with greater equanimity the births of his daughter by his sister and of another daughter by Shelley's stepsister-in-law, Claire Clairmont (the true fathers may have been Augusta's husband and Shelley himself, though Byron seems to have been reasonably satisfied of his paternity in both cases).
Eisler's account of Byron's appalling marriage and its termination is a page turner. The seesawing moods and volatile allegiances of Byron, his wife, Annabella, and his paramour half sister, Augusta, are reported with sensitive understanding. On Byron's treatment of women and his often cruel and intensely neurotic behavior she nothing extenuates nor sets down aught in malice. Some writers on Ted Hughes might do well to emulate her refusal to resort to cheap shots of the vengeful pack. Eisler brings out not only the importance of homosexual activity in Byron's life but its sheer dailiness, taken for granted as a natural complement to a highly active heterosexuality. The ease with which he and some of his friends switched from one to the other would be thought extraordinary today. Their sexual freedom was striking in its ''disregard for gender,'' an attitude that Byron admired in Greece and Turkey but that seems also to have been well developed in his school and undergraduate (Harrow and Cambridge) circles, if not in English society at large, well before he traveled to those countries.
This book astutely identifies links between Byron's defiance of prevailing moral codes and his political radicalism, distinguishing him from Rousseau and from his fellow patrician Shelley, whose moral and political rebellion was part of a principled opposition to society. Unlike Shelley, who sought to abolish authority rather than transgress against it, Byron ''would never propose living outside society, and he had no real interest in reform; he wanted to break laws, not change them.'' He belongs broadly to the class of aristocratic rebel, whose lordly ways claim as his birthright freedoms that the lower-born can aspire to only through successful rebellion. Like the lordly libertines of the old regime, Byron needed social codes in order to establish his contempt for them, and he had a soft spot for dictators who used absolute power as the enabling condition for unfettered gratification or sweeping conquest: the sensualist boy-loving despot of Albania, Ali Pasha (with whom he formed a mutually admiring friendship), or Napoleon, for whom Byron nursed an ambivalent hero worship not uncommon among intellectuals of the Romantic period.
Byron briefly entertained fantasies of becoming a Whig leader. His maiden speech in the House of Lords was praised as ''the best speech by a lord since the 'Lord knows when,' ''but his patron Lord Holland predicted that he would never ''excel . . . in Parliament.'' Meanwhile, on March 10, 1812, ''Childe Harold'' created an instant sensation, and Byron was famous overnight. Poetry, not politics, was to be his access to the limelight.
The weakness of the book is
its skimpy treatment of Byron the writer. There is too little about his
intellectual life, the literary traditions to which he belonged, the other poets
(English, classical, Italian) who shaped the various styles of his poems.
Eisler's comments on the poems themselves are banal and sometimes imprecise. For
example, her description of some lilting Byronic rant as ''savage Swiftian
irony'' suggests a sloppy reading of both writers (Eisler seems accident-prone
on the subject of Swift), and her view of ''Don Juan'' as ''the 'War and Peace'
of English poetry'' will hardly do.
Claude Rawson is the Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale. His most recent book is ''Satire and Sentiment 1660-1830.''
SOUTH ATLANTIC REVIEW
SOUTH ATLANTIC MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION
Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. By Benita Eisler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. xii + 837 pp. $35.00.
A central principle of the Platonic philosophy of love (of whatever variety) is that physical sex is little more than foreplay, a gratifying of bodily necessity as a brief prelude to the far more essential meeting of minds and souls. This credo is obviously not taken very seriously by Benita Eisler, or by her immediate predecessor in Byron biography, Phyllis Grosskurth (Byron: The Flawed Angel), or by a host of other writers of recent "popular," trade-published examinations of literary lives, including Henry Hart's recent excoriating "life" of James Dickey. The study currently under review leads one to wonder how Byron's alleged persistent omnisexuality left him any time to write, or at least to write about anything other than sexual obsession or tension or release or revenge. The sort of priority set in this pervasively psychosexual biography is reflected, as a first example, in the fact that, given the length and complexity of their relative discussions here, a reader might assume that Byron's long, acknowledged masterpiece, Don Juan, is no more significant a life episode than the youthful lord's flings with his servants May Gray and Susan Vaughan. Other important works (for instance, The Two Foscari and Werner) are barely mentioned, but we are spared no detail of Byron's homosexual affairs with his Harrow classmates, with John Edleston, and, late on, with the Greek boy Loukas Chalandritsanos (nothing new—those details have long since been made public by Leslie Marchand, Louis Crompton, and others, sources that Eisler raids liberally, with sketchy attribution). Only sporadically is she concerned with the meetings of minds and souls.
The problem I see in this sort of emphasis is that it tends to regard an author's works as a minor, perhaps even the least important part of his life, or as a part whose importance does not go much beyond its relationship to often-superficial biographical, not infrequently sexual contexts. One fallacy that Eisler's approach, thankfully, primarily avoids is that, since life and work are inseparable, "bad" people cannot create great literature (Philip Larkin, for one, has suffered from that idiotic notion). Biographies of authors should be, in the best sense, critical biographies, ones that place a canon in historical and aesthetic as well as personal context. Perhaps we have been spoiled by Walter Jackson Bate (John Keats and Samuel Johnson) and, more recently, Richard Holmes (on Shelley and Coleridge), with their ability to juxtapose strong literary criticism with careful biographical scholarship. (Bate's discourse on Keats's negative capability is the model of how the former can coexist with the latter.) In a biography such as Eisler's, however, a play such as Byron's Manfred holds little interest beyond its reflection of the poet's feelings about his half-sister and wife, and a brief lyric, "Fare Thee Well," with little substance beyond the superficially biographical, gains more attention than a major tragedy whose implications to the author's non-literary life may be subtle, if present at all.
At this point, I fear I may be criticizing Eisler's biography, at least in part, as a book that its writer never intended it to be. Popular literary biography is generally short on hard aesthetic analysis. However, there is a more serious side to the privileging of the life over the work, the sense, as I see it, that Eisler feels that that work can be treated in a less careful fashion than the details of biographical incident. When literary criticism does appear in Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, it is often highly speculative, sometimes eccentric, and not infrequently factually incorrect. The commentary on Manfred is a case in point. There, the personal implications of Manfred's (Byron's) incestuous relationship with Astarte (Augusta Leigh) are obvious. With no convincing support, however, Eisler also sees the poet's wife, Annabella, as a potent presence in the play, one that equally shares "[Augusta's] place" as the object of Manfred's torment and remorse. Her major evidence for this view is a stanza in one of the play's spirits' incantations in act 1 (1.l.242-51), which she describes as Byron's "curse on Annabella" (534). Conveniently, Eisler has elided two of the eight lines in the key stanza, one of which refers to the subject of the curse's "brotherhood of Cain" (1.l.249)—a reference that has convinced just about every other reader of that stanza, especially given the close relationship between Cain and the Byronic hero, that it and the entire incantation, like most everything else in scene l, expresses the spirits' early contempt for Manfred, the "Child of Clay" who has audaciously requested their aid. In addition to such poorly supported speculations, there are many small but serious factual errors in Eisler's book: saying "as Don Juan would observe" (264) about a comment clearly made by the ottava rima poem's omnipresent narrator; missing completely the irony in the voice of the speaker of the puff-piece "The Waltz" (367); calling Don Juan's father Don Alphonso, even though a quotation in the next line correctly identifies him as Don Jose (612). There are a number of similar errors in, especially, the book's concluding section, "Afterlife," where, in a discussion of artistic reactions to Byron after his death, critical accuracy truly suffers. In the space of just a few pages, Eisler calls "The Corsair," a narrative, a drama, and places the character Selim in "The Giaour" rather than, properly, in "The Bride of Abydos." She further claims, rather bizarrely, that Delacroix's painting "The Death of Sardanapalus" "was based on a scene Byron left out of his tragedy" (757). Not true. While the ancient Assyrian king , his retainers, and his possessions are not literally torched on stage (that would insure only one performance), the imminent immolation which provides Delacroix's subject is elaborately prepared for and anticipated (see 5.l.275ff.) And at the end of the play, the character Myrrha "fires the pile," according to a late stage direction. All these instances of carelessness must stem from a relative lack of interest in the works and in accuracy in their representation. Apparently, getting the details of Lady Caroline Lamb's page outfit right outweighs the responsibility to assign characters to their proper poems.
To give this book its due, though, and, again, to try not to criticize it too harshly for not being what it never may have aspired to be, most of the biographical material is meticulously researched and convincingly presented. The discussion of Byron's complex religious views (297–98) is especially careful and convincing, and the descriptions of the supporting players in his life's drama—Augusta, Annabella, Hobhouse, Murray, Teresa Guiccioli, among many others—are rich and accurate, if occasionally compromised by a penchant for melodrama in interpreting their roles in Byron's life: "The next day, installed in Byron's roomy coach, [the poet and Augusta] set out for Newstead on the only real honeymoon he would ever know" (413); "In important ways, our first love remains the only one. Byron's passionate attachment to an older female relative [Mary Duff]—at once a mother, sister, and twin soul—was a primal scenario that would play itself out again" (28). (Strangely, a footnote to that passage informs us that Byron and Mary were exactly the same age). Also, much to Eisler's credit, the narrative style and pacing here are crisp and swift, save for her habit of over-using exclamation points to force emphasis. That practice always reminds me of Frederick Exley's claim in A Fan's Notes that he was saved from marriage to the beautiful but too emphatically optimistic midwestern girl Bunny Sue by her fondness for similar punctuation: "I was saved . . . by the dash—and the exclamation point!"
Near the end of her study, Eisler oddly complains that "No twentieth-century biographer has troubled to examine Byron's art, as though the breathless excitement of the life had obscured the work" (752). That is not the case. Leslie Marchand's 1957 biography contains much good criticism, and Jerome McGann's influential Fiery Dust blends biography and criticism in a sophisticated way that almost makes them seem inseparable, to cite just two examples. More, though, it is strange to find a book lamenting what might be seen, with some qualification, as its own chief failing. Had Eisler listened to her own words here, steeped herself more thoroughly in the fine critical studies of Byron that have appeared in recent decades, read the poet's work more carefully and critically, and learned from the example of writers such as Walter Jackson Bate, this book might have become the major new critical biography of Byron we have been waiting for. Her research and writing skills are certainly up to the task of creating it. Again, whether the elements that would succeed at that task are missing because of Eisler's definition of popular literary biography and its audience, I do not know. As it stands, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame would make excellent reading for someone who, properly warned of the superficialities and errors in its comments on the poet's works, has been intrigued by Byron's life and character and wishes a rich, detailed, and generally reliable account of them. As literary criticism, even biographical literary criticism, though, it falls very short. Nonetheless, if it brings an audience to Byron that might not have been willing to find him in the more "scholarly" treatments of his life and works, it will have served the end it meets and, in all likelihood, the end it seeks.
Frederick W. Shilstone, Clemson University
Byron's spectacular family feud
Reviewed by Martin Rubin
Sunday, October 27, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.
The Kindness of Sisters
and the Destruction of the Byrons
By David Crane
In our scandal-ridden age, pundits are fond of asking whether a particular brouhaha has legs. Is it a mere flash in the pan or nine days' wonder, or rather a genuinely shocking event with an enduring ability to generate seismic waves?
There can certainly be few stories to compete with the scandal unleashed by the separation of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron from his wife, Annabella, in 1816. Rumors of abuse, rape and sodomy ebbed and flowed, but the incestuous relationship between the aristocrat poet and his older half-sister, Augusta Leigh, was soon an all-but-open secret. Small wonder then that there should have been a tidal wave of gossip and innuendo, but equally remarkable is the longevity of the whole business, which was as hectic in the Victorian heyday of the 1870s as it had been in Regency England a half-century earlier.
British writer David Crane, the author of a previous book on Edward John Trelawny, that most unreliable of Byron's colleagues, has written a gripping account in "The Kindness of Sisters" of the exceedingly strange relationship that bound Lady Byron to her sister-in-law Augusta. Focused though he is on these two vastly different characters -- the wronged wife, a stern Christian moralist, and her nemesis, an amoral, passive enabler -- Crane is nonetheless careful to clue the reader in to the wider picture. This involves not only the evocation of zeitgeist and general atmosphere as the louche Regency period evolves into the more straitened world of Victorian England but also the huge effect that the character and reputation of Byron had both on those involved with him and on society at large.
It is hard for us today to comprehend the huge fame of George Gordon, Lord Byron. One would have to combine the best-known rock star, movie actor, classical musician, sports figure and political superstar to approximate the giant shadow he cast. No writer in our own time -- not even Norman Mailer -- has attained the kind of fame that was Byron's. Crane's attempts to show this get off to a rocky start when he reaches for a simile, strained at best, linking Lord Byron's funeral procession in 1824 with that of the Princess of Wales in 1997. Both headed north from London, he tells us, but the superheated prose of this section may put readers off:
"There was something else about Byron's death, however, something alien and atavistic, that not even the politicised guilt and pseudo-Catholic trappings of Princess Diana's funeral can quite match. Some years ago there was a documentary film of a Bengali village terrorised by a man-eating tiger, and in the ritual celebrations that greeted its killing, the frenzy of hands that stretched up in a bizarre mixture of fear and reverence to touch the garlanded corpse, we probably come as close as we can to the mood in which England awaited the return of Byron's body."
But such excesses fade as the narrative progresses and Crane unfolds a tale of profound bitterness, anger and sour, fermenting hatred.
At the heart of the book is a re-creation of the last occasion on which Lady Byron and Augusta Leigh met, a few months before the latter's death in 1851. A kind of council of war set up by the vengeful widow, this encounter took place at an inn about halfway between their respective homes of London and Brighton. Although Annabella Byron came armed with notes, documents and at least one piece of devastating news, it is the dying, unrepentant, stubborn Augusta who unexpectedly gains the upper hand. Told entirely through dialogue with stage directions, it is a play within a book and is indeed highly dramatic. As it stands, it would in fact make a strong one-act play.
"LADY BYRON: But wasn't that all he [Byron] ever wanted? All that he was born for? To be destroyed? An outcast? He knew that I could bear with his actresses and his drunkenness, but that wasn't enough for him -- (she looks at Augusta) wasn't enough for him even to have you but he had to fling you in my face until I could blind myself no longer -- had to drag you out before his public -- His Astarte! -- Goddess of Love . . .
"AUGUSTA: How does it feel, Annabella, to enjoy all the pleasures of revenge and call it duty? To watch your husband pilloried and humiliated -- severed from his child -- branded with every nameless crime and yet remain blameless?
"LADY BYRON: I stood by you when a word could have destroyed you forever.
"AUGUSTA: Oh yes, you stood by me! And what a price you exacted! . . . [H]ow you bound me to you, held me fast by the fear of your displeasure -- the fear of exposure. How you broke me. Made me betray myself. Made me betray him."
Augusta exasperates. Annabella appalls. Although no one can know exactly what went on between Lord and Lady Byron, it is clear that whatever did happen -- and it must have been pretty horrible even if it was not originally as awful as it eventually became after a lifetime of dwelling on it -- warped an intelligent, passionate woman into a harsh, unbending icicle.
Crane tries his best to sympathize with her, but by the time one reads of her reaction to her only child's hideously painful death from cancer, how can one not recoil from what Lady Byron had become? "The 'greatest of all mercies' shown her, she wrote of what she called the 'blessing' of Ada's cancer . . . 'has been her disease, weaning her from temptation, & turning her thoughts to higher and better things.' "
When Annabella Byron died in 1860, nine years after Augusta Leigh, it was not without having done at least some genuinely good works, such as helping the poor and fighting slavery, as befitted a good Christian evangelical. After her death, a book defending her by her friend and admirer Harriet Beecher Stowe gave a fresh, posthumous currency to the scandal that had poisoned her long life.
Lady Byron's inability to forgive the wounds inflicted upon her body and psyche by Lord Byron are not only a failure of her Christian ethic but also one of the great cautionary examples in history of the consequences of not being able to move on with one's life.
Martin Rubin is a California biographer.
Life and Legend.
By Fiona MacCarthy.
Illustrated. 674 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.
January 12, 2003
By JUDITH SHULEVITZ
Read this review here
The first big exhibition on Lord Byron for 30 years will show that documents on the Romantic poet's affairs with young men were withheld from his biographer, Leslie Marchand, in the 1950s.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous, taking its name from Lady Caroline Lamb's description of her erstwhile lover, opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London on Wednesday. As well as documenting his bisexuality, it will also explore Byron's self-promotion in the light of contemporary culture.
With a surge of interest in the poet, who died in exile after fighting for the Greeks against Turkish rule, the organisers aim to show Byron was the forerunner of writers, performers and artists skilled in the art of self-promotion.
Fiona MacCarthy, author of the first full biography of Byron since Marchand in 1957 and curator of the exhibition, said much more was known about Byron than at the time of the British show at the V&A Museum in 1974. Much is based on documentation not made available to Marchand.
Ms MacCarthy said that Byron's bisexuality added a piquancy to how he used paintings and engravings to promote himself as a hero of the Romantic movement.
"The portraits and engravings were all part of his marketing operation. You can see the whole image of celebrity, that I think people find fascinating now, in Byron – the way he helped create his own image, the way he needed fame and yet he found it agony," she said.
Bisexuality was frowned upon by society and was therefore omitted from the creation of the Byron legend, she said. When allegations of sodomy circulated, thanks to Lady Caroline, Byron was forced to flee the country.
The flurry of interest in Byron stretches beyond the Portrait Gallery, whose exhibition runs until 16 February. The BBC has announced a television drama on Byron starring Jonny Lee Miller.
The curse of Byron
When Fiona MacCarthy began her life of the poet, she little knew what fate had in store
Saturday November 15, 2003
Is there a curse of Byron? He certainly believed in it, pointing to the early deaths of his friends, his dogs and his daughter with a doom-laden conviction that he contaminated anything and everyone with which he had close contact. Battered and scarred for life by eight years' work on his biography, I can say the curse of Byron is still alive and well.
Writing this book for John Murray (who brought out the hardback edition last year), the descendent of Byron's own publisher, brought me into unusual physical proximity with my subject. I did most of my research at 50 Albemarle Street, in the drawing room in which the poet's limping presence is still palpable. The famous Thomas Phillips portrait of him hung directly above the desk at which I worked. At first Byron's gaze seemed merely supercilious. But I soon began to feel that Caroline Lamb had been quite accurate in calling him "mad, bad and dangerous to know".
Byron's curse first struck me in the winter of 1998. I - until then a robustly healthy person who had not had a serious illness for years - woke to find myself covered in fiery spots, hideous on my face and extending to embarrassing extremities. The doctor said chicken pox. I cancelled the talk on Byron and biography I was due to give to the girls at my old school, Wycombe Abbey. Had she seen those spots, the matron would undoubtedly have put me in the sanatorium.
A few weeks later I keeled over in the shower and broke three ribs. The following autumn, I was walking across the inner courtyard to the Chatsworth library when excruciating pains shot through my legs and back and shoulders, leaving me as suddenly immobile as an Old Testament sinner. These symptoms, which baffled my physiotherapists, continued for the next two years.
What had at first seemed simply a small sequence of misfortunes by now began to look a bit more sinister. Was Byron operating a posthumous vendetta aimed at preventing me from finishing my book? Could he tell I was intent on revealing sexual histories carefully concealed in his own memoirs, which he admitted were so lacking in candour as to resemble Hamlet without the prince?
Was Byron's ire made more ferocious by the fact that I was female? Byron loathed all "scribbling women", of whom his wife was one, targeting them viciously in his poem "The Blues". One can see that cool appraisal by a professional 21st-century biographer might seem like the last straw to the man who had insisted that educating women "only served to turn their heads with conceit".
Early in 2001 I started writing. After so many debacles, the deadline for delivery, spring 2002, was worryingly imminent. It seemed as if Byron started stepping up the pressure as my words began accumulating on the page.
Ah me, what perils do environ
the man who meddles with Lord Byron.
The current John Murray could not resist recycling this favourite quotation of his father's when I next appeared at Albemarle Street with my arm in a sling. I had broken my wrist on my way to Buckingham Palace to watch my husband receive the CBE. I write by hand. The shattered wrist was, needless to say, the working one. I lost two and a half months of writing time. It was only through the heroic efforts of the copy editors and printers that the deadline, tied immovably to the Cult of Byron exhibition I was curating for the National Portrait Gallery, was met.
Was this the end of the ordeal? No, far from it. In June this year the Byron exhibition travelled on to the Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere. Byron had the sophisticate's resistance to both the Lakes and Wordsworth, "that pedlar-praising son of a bitch".
The curse of Byron descended with a double force of malice the night before the exhibition opened. Walking up from the restaurant to the Wordsworth Guest House I stumbled on a strategically placed slate step which lacerated my leg so badly that the blood began spurting over the top of my ankle boot. At 3am in Kendal hospital they put in 15 stitches and I vowed that my next subject would be a sweet, kind, dull one. I am open to ideas.
Byron: Life and
Legend is published by Faber.
the Dead! Have I Not
Heard Your Voices?"
On Monday, May 17, 1824, near noon, six men gathered in the high-ceilinged drawing room at 50 Albemarle Street, off Piccadilly, in a house that served as both home and office to the publisher John Murray. For days the group had been quarreling among themselves. Alliances shifted. Messages flew back and forth, and meetings between pairs continued through the morning. Once they were finally assembled, an argument flared between two of their number, John Cam Hobhouse, a rising young parliamentarian from a wealthy Bristol family, and Thomas Moore, a Dublin-born poet and grocer's son. Angry words threatened to turn into physical violence. Finally, the decision of the host prevailed, and calm was restored. Murray then asked his sixteen-year-old son to join them. Introduced as heir to his father's business, the boy was invited to witness a momentous event. A servant appeared, carrying two bound manuscript volumes. While the group drew closer to the fire blazing in the grate, two others, Wilmot Horton and Colonel Doyle, took the books and, tearing them apart, fed the pages, covered with handwriting familiar to all those present, to the crackling flames. Within minutes, the memoirs of George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron, were reduced to a mound of ashes.
Byron had been dead for one month to the day. The ship carrying the poet's embalmed body (vital organs removed and packed separately) had taken four weeks to sail from Greece to England. In the interval, furious debates had exposed enmities old and new among those who were to be present at the burning of the manuscript. Quarreling had flared over the ownership of the manuscript, intensifying with arguments about potential damage to the poet's already seamy reputation and the pain his unexpurgated memories would cause his former wife, their daughter, and his half sister. Each of the six men had his own stake in the dispute. John Cam Hobhouse, a Whig M.P. and Byron's executor and oldest friend, wanted only to sanitize the poet's name for posterity. In the last years of his life, Byron had given his memoirs to his fellow poet Tom Moore. The needy Moore had, with Byron's approval, promptly sold the copyright to Murray. Then, at the burning, he tried to save the manuscript. But it was too late. Finally, Horton and Doyle, the two responsible for the actual destruction of the volumes, represented the interests of Lady Byron, the poet's estranged wife and the mother of his child, and his half sister, Augusta Leigh, respectively.
"The most timid of God's booksellers," Byron had once called Murray, his publisher and now enthusiastic host of the auto-da-fé. Still, the decision to destroy the most personal words of his best-selling author (which, in the event, Murray had not even read), weighed against the enormous profit potential of publishing the memoirs, underlines the fear that the known facts of Byron's life inspired in those who loved him—and their horror of revelations yet unknown.
Byron's fame as a poet and his notoriety as a man were one; the scandals of his life—whoring, marriage, adultery, incest, sodomy—became the text or subtext of his poems, made more shocking by the poet's cynicism shading into blasphemy. The heroes of the poems might be pirates or princes, but Byron's voice—the passionate sorrowing youth turned world-weary libertine—made his works instant bestsellers. Editions of his first advertisement for himself, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, sold out within three days. And this was not even the most frankly autobiographical of Byron's works. Penned from self-imposed exile in Italy, published in eagerly awaited installments, Don Juan delighted London gossipmongers with plentiful allusions to the scandal surrounding the poet's divorce from his young wife of one year and his subsequent flight from English "hypocrisy and cant." In the few years left to him, Byron added the glamour of revolutionary politics to his erotic and literary engagements. In exile, he joined the underground secret society called the Carbonari in the struggle to rid Italy of the Austrians, before dying at Missolonghi, bled to death by his doctors, while training troops for the liberation of Greece. Mourned throughout the world, the poet would not have shared the belief that his end was untimely. He had lived so hard and fast, he said, that before his death at age thirty-six, he felt himself to be an old man.
Indeed, the brief arc of his life spanned an era whose turbulence mirrored the poet's own stormy existence. In 1788, the year of Byron's birth, George III succumbed to the first attack of madness, the violent symptoms of which required the appointment of his oldest son, the Prince of Wales, as Regent. The King regained his reason the following year and resumed power, but already the high living "Prinnie" and his dissolute friends had changed the tone of the court. Twenty years before he was officially declared Prince Regent, George Frederick Augustus of Hanover's indulgences in food, drink, gambling, and women, along with more durable interests in architecture and decor, ushered in the glittering froth of brilliance, luxury, and vice we know as the Regency. Its sensibility—at once restless, sensual, melancholy, and exuberant—might be characterized by a term invented a hundred years later to describe a strangely similar spirit: fin-de-siècle.
In 1789, the year after Byron was born, the French Revolution fired the dreams—and fueled the nightmares—of all Europe. Its bloody overthrow of the old order was the crucial event that continued to haunt Byron's generation, shaping his choice of heroes and villains among his elders. Charles James Fox, the leader of the radical Whig opposition and the idol of Byron's youth, had declared the fall of the Bastille "the greatest and best event in the history of the world." For the Tory government, however, in power for most of Byron's lifetime, the French Revolution gave legitimacy to the politics of reaction. The excesses of the Terror turned fiery young republican sympathizers among the first generation of Romantic poets, notably Wordsworth and Southey, into middle-aged monarchists, reviled by Byron as turncoat opportunists.
Fear of revolutionary contagion provided the excuse for repressive measures; in 1794 habeas corpus was suspended, the first in a series of acts amputating the civil rights of Englishmen. Censorship and spying became the order of the day; any form of association, especially among the dispossessed, could be prosecuted as a crime. Starting in 1793, when the Girondist government declared war on England, patriotism was invoked to justify further curtailing of individual freedoms. The political reality that permitted the Regency to waltz on unafraid was that England had become a police state. Byron, the newly crowned king of London drawing rooms in 1814, saw clearly that as a poet who was also a satirist and social critic, as a peer who spoke out for the rights of starving weavers or Irish Catholics, he would not long be indulged for his youth, talent, and title.
War with France began when Byron was five years old; it would continue until 1815, when he was twenty-seven. Like that of other ardent youths throughout Europe, the poet's political consciousness was shaped by an idealized image of Napoleon as the personification of heroic conquest in the name of republican principles. Besides, for the adolescent rebel, Tory England's demonized enemy was a natural ally. Less consciously, Byron absorbed another Napoleonic lesson: The little corporal who declared himself Emperor was the herald of a new era, the age of the self-made man.
In England, too, this new breed was increasingly prominent. The war with France had galvanized a sluggish economy, ushering in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, which would change the face of England. The first of England's dark satanic mills helped to float the Regency extravaganza. While the poor suffered more, a new class of entrepreneur-inventors—ironmasters and coal barons, pottery manufacturers and bankers—rode to dazzling fortunes. Their sons, like the two brilliant Peel brothers (one of whom became Prime Minister), were among Lord Byron's few commoner classmates at Harrow. And there would be more. Great landowning grandees were still the most visible stars on the brilliant stage of the Regency, but new money and talent were joining the featured players.
It was a febrile age. Social, political, and cultural certainties were shifting, like tectonic plates, under the feet of young men starting out in life. Mobility, then as now, had its price. The pressures of public life destroyed individuals as never before. Between 1790 and 1820, nineteen members of Parliament committed suicide and twenty others went mad; two of those who took their own lives, Sir Samuel Romilly and Sir Samuel Whitbread, were closely associated with Byron. "In every class there is the same taut neurotic quality," the historian J. H. Plumb observed, "the fantastic gambling and drinking, the riots, brutality and violence, and everywhere and always a constant sense of death."
Byron was a child of his age and subject to all its fissures. The great Regency portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence met the poet only once, but where others found simply beauty, the painter saw all the conflicts of Byron's character: "its keen and rapid genius, its pale intelligence, its profligacy, and its bitterness; its original symmetry distorted by the passions, his laugh of mingled merriment and scorn; the forehead clear and open, the brow boldly prominent, the eyes bright and dissimilar, the nose finely cut, and the nostril acutely formed; the mouth well made, but wide and contemptuous even in its smile, falling singularly at the corners, and its vindictive and disdainful expression heightened by the massive firmness of the chin, which springs at once from the centre of the full under-lip; the hair dark and curling but irregular in its growth; all this presents to you the poet and the man; and the general effect is heightened by a thin spare form, and, as you may have heard, by a deformity of limb."
Heir to instability, Byron clung to the certainty of inherited land and ancient title, even as he vowed to seize the rewards of talent and energy.
"The way to riches, to Greatness, lies before me," Byron wrote to his mother at age fifteen. "I can, I will cut myself a path through the world or perish."
Heroic words proclaimed by a poor scion of the peerage, they resonate like a battle cry. Throughout a dispossessed childhood, his blood thrilled to tales of the first Byrons, Radulfus (Ralph) de Burun and his brother, reputed to have arrived in Britain as liegemen of William the Conqueror:
Erneis, Radulphus—eight-and-forty manors
* * *
Were their reward for following Billy's banners;
he wrote of his ancestors, inventing the imposing number of residences out of whole cloth; no one knows precisely where the brothers settled. For their loyalty in the service of William I, they were, however, rewarded with landholdings in the north of England substantial enough to warrant mention in the Domesday Book. By the time of Henry II, the spelling of the family name had become for all time Byron, and with the reign of Henry VIII, the Byron settlement in Nottingham was recorded. That monarch's largesse accounted for the establishment of the first Lord Byron at Newstead Abbey, the site associated with the Byrons from then on.
Newstead Abbey had been founded four hundred years earlier by Henry II, the murderer of Thomas à Becket, for the Order of Canons Regular, known as the "black canons" after the color of their robes. In the course of the following centuries, the order had erected an elegant Gothic church of the soft, gray local granite, along with an adjoining priory, whose handsome cloister flanked an open court with a central fountain. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII sold the lands to John Byron of Colewyke for £810. Sir John, the first Byron proprietor, lost no time in transforming the cloistral into the baronial. He seems to have been in the vanguard of the later Romantic taste for ruins; he retained the southern side of the nave as one wall of his own residence, and using only what he needed of the Church and priory to repair his buildings, he allowed the remains to fall into picturesque disrepair.
The same Sir John continued his sacrilegious ways by getting with child a neighbor's wife. His illegitimate son from this union could only inherit Newstead by deed of gift, but the seigneur did what was needed to wipe the bar sinister from his heir's coat of arms by marrying the boy's mother. Three years after the lands had passed to his son, in 1576, the new owner was knighted by Elizabeth I. As the second Lord Byron, he was also the first to be immortalized—as "Little Sir John of the Great Beard."
The fourth lord married three times. His third wife was Frances Berkeley, the poet's great-grandmother. Lord Byron and Lady Frances's second-born, John, the poet's grandfather, joined the navy, rising from commodore to vice-admiral. He survived a shipwreck off Patagonia, and in his Narrative, published years later, he described the horrifying experience of being forced to eat the skin and paws of a favorite dog. Byron pillaged this last gruesome episode for the shipwreck scene in Don Juan. He predeceased his oldest son, William, the granduncle of the poet, who thus became the fifth Lord Byron at the age of fourteen. Following his father, he too joined the navy, but, after being rescued from a vessel that foundered with all other hands on board lost, he resigned his commission. Remaining on land, he soon acquired a less heroic reputation and sobriquet: the Wicked Lord. During his tenure at Newstead Abbey it became known as Folly Castle, after the model château he built on the lake, alleged to be the scene of licentious fêtes champêtres.
In his middle forties, the Wicked Lord added the notoriety of being a murderer to his reputation as a whoremaster. On January 26, 1765, in the course of a dinner in London at a tavern in Pall Mall, the Wicked Lord fell into a dispute with a neighbor and kinsman, Viscount Chaworth of Annesley Hall. Where the fault lay remains uncertain, but it is a matter of record that in an empty upper room of the tavern, lit by a single candle, Lord Byron ran his shortened sword through his opponent's belly.
From a brooding sense of guilt and grievance, the fifth lord descended into episodic madness. Dark tales were told in Nottinghamshire: how his lordship shot his coachman dead over a trifle, then, heaving the corpse into the carriage with his wife, took the lucklesss servant's place on the box and drove off. Other rumors claimed that, when displeased, he would throw Lady Byron into the pond.
When he sank into debt, he stripped what was left of the forests for salable timber. Then, in an illegal act that would cast a long shadow over his grandson's life, he leased the most valuable property in the Byron family holdings, twenty thousand acres of coal mines in Rochdale in Lancashire, for £60 annual rent.
John Byron, the first of the vice-admiral's nine children and the father of the poet, was born in 1756. Known as "Mad Jack," he seemed, from an early age, destined to turn his own father's strengths into weaknesses, and the elder's weaknesses into vices. When a few terms at Westminster proved him to be no scholar, he was sent to a military school near Paris; there he acquired the extravagant tastes that would keep him in lifelong debt. Heartless and swaggeringly handsome in his Guardsman's uniform, armed with elegant French and boundless sexual appetite and unburdened by scruples of any sort, he seduced chambermaids and countesses. Since his parents were no longer able or willing to pay his gambling debts, it was said that he turned his sexual prowess to good account, charging the better-off of his lovers for services rendered. This proved an uncertain way to finance his needs. It was time to find a rich and well-connected wife.
In the summer of 1778 the twenty-two-year old captain of the Guards met his match in one of the reigning beauties of the London salons. The Marchioness of Carmarthen, wife of the Marquess (later fifth Duke of Leeds), was born Amelia d'Arcy, Baroness Conyers, and Countess of Mertola. A coup de foudre struck Amelia when she first saw the alluring Jack Byron. Lunch in the country was followed by overnight flight, with the outraged Marquess in pursuit. When the lovers eluded him, he locked his wife out of their house in town.
Now that disgrace had made Amelia his responsibility, it might have been expected that Captain Byron's ardor would have cooled. His mistress, however, had attractions beyond the erotic. Only months before their first meeting, the death of her father, the Earl of Holderness, had left his only child an heiress with a lifetime income of £4,000 a year. As soon as Captain Byron found lodgings for them, the Marchioness sent for her clothes and jewels, requesting in the note to her husband that he include the new vis-à-vis he had recently given her; no gentleman would deprive even an errant wife of her carriage. After ordering his coach-maker to paint out his coat of arms, the vehicle was duly delivered along with Amelia's other belongings. The lovers settled in France, dividing their time between Chantilly and Paris, where they were married in 1779.
Of the three children born to Amelia and Jack Byron, only the last, Augusta, the poet's half sister, born in 1783, survived infancy. Shortly after her birth, her mother died, at the age of twenty-nine. Both the cause and even the place of Amelia's death remain mysterious. She is variously held to have died of consumption, of a fever contracted from going hunting too soon after childbirth, and, more ominously, of "ill-usage" at the hands of her husband.
Byron later defended his father, then long dead, against lingering rumors that his "brutal conduct" had been the cause of his first wife's death: "It is not by 'brutality' that a young Officer in the Guards seduces and carries off a Marchioness, and marries two heiresses. It is true that he was a very handsome man, which goes a great way," his son said knowingly.
The widower may have been grieved by the untimely loss of his wife and the mother of his daughter, then less than a year old. More certainly, he mourned the loss of Amelia's £4,000 income, which ceased immediately on her death. Disinherited by his father and accustomed now to grand living, his most pressing task was to land another heiress. Every fortune hunter knew where the pickings were best. In the spring of 1785 the expatriate returned to England and went to Bath.
Catherine Gordon of Gight, near Aberdeen, had been orphaned for three years. She came to Bath that spring at the invitation of her uncle, Admiral Robert Duff, and his wife, who had a house there. Now twenty, Catherine's corpulence made her look much older and gave her the rolling gait that some were unkind enough to describe as a waddle. Her education was even sketchier than that deemed necesary for most girls, and she was as socially awkward as she was plain. But as the thirteenth Laird of Gight, Catherine was the sole heir to a fortune worth close to £30,000 in Aberdeen bank shares, salmon-fishing rights, and lands, including a castle of her own.
From its primitive past to the sixteenth century, the history of the Gordons of Gight is drenched in bloodshed. By the eighteenth century, the violence of the males of the family seemed to have turned inward, becoming black depression. In January 1760 Catherine Gordon's maternal grandfather had drowned himself in the icy waters of the Ythan River rushing just below the castle walls. Thirteen months after the death of Catherine's middle sister, Abercromby, in 1777, her father's body was found in the Bath Canal. A year later in 1780, Margaret, the youngest, too, was dead. The deaths of her two sisters were so painful that Catherine Byron never told her son of their existence. Byron always believed his mother to have been an only child. Then, in 1782, two years after little Margaret's death, Catherine's mother died. Within five years she had lost her entire family. Admiral Duff's invitation to Bath early in 1785 seemed a timely one.
A few months after her arrival, on May 13, 1785, Catherine Gordon and John Byron were married by the rector of St. Michael's Church, Bath. Before their deaths, the bride's parents had included a clause in their wills stipulating that in the event of female succession to the Gight estates, their daughter must either marry a Gordon or her husband must take the Gordon name. Jack Byron might now be Jonn Byron Gordon, but he was, as ever, broke and hounded by creditors. For the moment, his wife could not withdraw from her inheritance the large sums needed by her husband to pay his debts. He tried dunning his father's bankers, to no avail; the vice-admiral, who was to die a few months later, had been in earnest when he disinherited his wastrel son.
Catherine's troubles were just beginning. Without a marriage settlement, her husband's debts had now become her responsibility. Lacking ready cash, she had no choice but to pay the most pressing of Jack's creditors by selling off part of the lands of Gight. One farm was sold; forests were cut down and their timber marketed. Shares in the Aberdeen Banking Company and the salmon fisheries went next; then another £8,000 mortgage was taken out on the estate. Jack Byron still harbored delusions of being a local grandee, attempting to influence district politics; as the final humiliation, in the parliamentary election of 1786 his vote was disallowed.
In March the following notice appeared in the Aberdeen Journal:
To be Selt
The Mains of Gight
Enquiries to Mr. Byron Gordon, Gight
Later that spring, possibly in April, the Byrons left for England.
As soon as Jack surfaced in London, he was seized for debt and hauled off to King's Bench prison, from which he was bailed out for £176 by his tailor. In August, the couple rented a house in South Warnborough, Hampshire, where Catherine remained with her maid while Jack kept moving to stay ahead of the bailiffs while attempting to pry money from his mother's family. The following year, the earl of Aberdeen bought the castle of Gight and all its lands for £17,850. But a relative of Catherine's reported that "Every penny of the purchase price ... except £1,222.10 and £3,000 reserved for Mrs. B's own use, and put out at mortgage, was swallowed up by Capt. Byron's creditors."
Fear of her husband seeps through Catherine's letters. "I should not wish [that] Mr. Byron should know that I wrote or spoke to anybody on this subject, because if he did he would never forgive me.
Soon she had further reason to be anxious. In April 1787 Catherine was pregnant. By July 18, the couple had settled in a house in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. True to form, Captain Byron did not linger in his new home; in July he set off for Paris. Before leaving, he had managed to pry from Catherine £700 out of £1,000 she had just received from her estate. Eight weeks later he had spent it all, leaving a new trail of debts in his wake.
Within months, the enormously pregnant woman journeyed to Chantilly to join her husband. Captain Byron may have welcomed his wife as a bearer of fresh supplies of cash. He also needed a stepmother for Augusta, his daughter by Amelia. And Chantilly was conveniently near Paris, making it an easy matter to leave for nightly diversions in town.
As her time drew near, Catherine, accompanied by her maid and Augusta, made her way slowly back to England. Still in danger of arrest, Jack Byron remained in France. Arriving in London, she delivered the four-year-old girl to her grandmother, the dowager Countess of Holderness—the first of a series of grand foster homes for Augusta, motherless and with a fugitive father.
Catherine Byron had no rich relations to welcome her and her unborn child. In mid-December, six weeks before her baby was born, she moved into a furnished first-floor back drawing room, above a perfumer's shop at 16 Holles Street, Cavendish Square. Knowing no one in London, Catherine only had her maid as company, and her condition, along with lack of space, made any prospect of social life unlikely. New Year's Day 1788, however, brought a surprise visitor, John Leslie. Describing himself as "a very near relation" (probably a first cousin), Leslie had just been appointed by the Edinburgh commissioners of the Gight estate to supply the Byrons with the minimum funds needed for their expenses, while a trust was being established to prevent further erosion of the principal. The commissioners also asked Leslie to report on the welfare of the twenty-two-year-old mother-to-be, whose finances, like the rest of her life, seemed to be in chaos. Catherine's state moved her visitor to immediate action: "She tells me that she expects to be brought to bed in two or three weeks & wished for some Money. I gave her a draft on my Banker for Twenty Guineas on your acct, ..." Leslie reported to Edinburgh, adding a skeptical postscript, "She tells me she expects Mr. Byron in London every day—and that he goes to Scotland on business with you." The next day Catherine herself wrote to the commissioners' London agent to assure but also to warn him: "I don't want much and if there was to be large sums, it would only be thrown away as it was before." The passive fatalism of her tone reveals that Jack Byron was back.
Just before the baby's birth, a family friend from Aberdeen introduced Catherine to a London lawyer. Her association with John Hanson, a solicitor practicing at 6 Chancery Lane, was to cast a long shadow over her unborn son's life.
On Tuesday, January 22, Catherine Byron was delivered of a son, named for her father, George Gordon. Her labor was long and difficult. The baby was born with a caul and a malformed right foot.
For Byron, his deformed foot became the crucial catastrophe of his life. He saw it as the mark of satanic connection, referring to himself as le diable boiteux, the lame devil. At the same time, he persisted in blaming his mother for the abnormality, citing her "excess of delicacy" during the period immediately preceding the delivery. This phrase has been taken to refer either to Catherine's insistence on wearing corsets in the last stages of pregnancy or to her modesty during the final obstetrical examinations. Byron's accusation seized on the most damning charge he could find to describe the damage inflicted upon him by his mother: She had cursed, crippled, and symbolically castrated her son. Physically painful in his early years, making him an object of mockery or pity in childhood and adolescence, Byron's deformity would cause him emotional injury beyond any other psychic wound he would ever sustain. Turned inward, his rage became depression, but also something more insidious: the sense that he had a special dispensation from the moral sanctions imposed upon others and a lifelong entitlement to the forbidden.
Since the baby was not born on the sabbath, with its debtors' amnesty, his father did not risk an appearance. But Jack Byron kept in close touch with Holies Street. Four days after his son's birth, he fired off a letter to the Edinburgh agent for his wife's estate: "Notwithstanding your writing to Mr. Leslie to furnish Mrs. Byron with money, he has not done it, and she has not any to go on with.... She was brought to bed of a Son on Monday last & is far from well...."
He might have gotten the day of his son's birth wrong, but where money was concerned, Captain Byron was ever the uxorious husband. In this instance, Catherine may have shrewdly neglected to tell him of a recent draft of £50; if Jack had gotten wind of it, there would have been nothing left to pay the midwife and doctors.
Once again, the commissioners dispatched John Leslie to Holles Street. Catherine was too weak to see him, Leslie reported to Edinburgh, but he noted that mother and son were doing well, making no mention of the infant's malformed foot. He left Catherine a message that he had from 10 to 20 guineas for her if she would send her maid to his office. For a few days he heard nothing, then word came from the maid that Mrs. Byron needed 100 guineas. Leslie forwarded her request to the Edinburgh executors who agreed, at the same time warning her against all further expenditures not deemed absolutely essential, and demanding an itemized list of Jack Byron's debts.
Catherine replied, in her rambling style with its uncertain grammar: "I shall make Mr. Becket [another lawyer] give you an account of all Mr. Byron's debts that we know of as soon as possible, but I hope the money wont [sic] be given to him but to have somebody to pay them for he will only pay what he is obliged to pay and there will be still more debts coming in & more demands for money. I am sorry he is getting a new carriage."
Jack Byron, for his part, never let poverty inhibit his spending habits. A fine new carriage was a necessity for him—just as it would later be for his son. Meanwhile, Catherine promised to give Watson an itemized list of her needs for the next two months—the period of time she planned to remain in London. Believing she had to leave Holles Street within days, she had found other lodgings, while anxiously waiting for her errant spouse to come for her: "I will not go to Bath nor will I leave this till Mr. Byron gets a house & is fixed for I am tired of so many journeys," she wrote to Edinburgh. "I hope by the time my little boy is able to travel Mr. Byron will have got a house in some cheap country whether Wales or the north of England."
None of her hopes was to materialize. Plans for the new quarters, at 2 Baker Street, Portland Square, fell through. Nor was Jack Byron ever to assume the responsibilities of a husband, father, or head of household. They never again lived together for more than a few months, and his only role in Catherine's life would be to continue badgering her for money.
On February 29, 1788, George Gordon Byron, then five weeks old, was christened at Marylebone Parish Chapel, at the top of Marylebone High Street. Seven years earlier, Hogarth had used the interior as the setting for the fifth scene of The Rake's Progress, in which the ruined spendthrift marries a rich old maid. If the rake of a father was present now, he did not emerge from hiding to risk arrest. The infant's sponsors (seemingly in absentia) were the Duke of Gordon and Catherine's cousin, Colonel Robert Duff of Fetteresso. The only official record of the event was inaccurate: The parish clerk forgot that 1788 was a leap year, noting the date as March 1 in the register.
By the middle of April, mother and son were still in the back drawing room at Holles Street, where Jack Byron appeared for furtive visits. At two and a half months, baby "Geordie"—in the broad Scots twang of his mother—would now be taken out on a fine day for a turn in Cavendish Square. Just around the corner on Oxford Street was a shop window whose beguiling display of children's and dolls' shoes could only have summoned his mother's most melancholy thoughts. The doctor had said that before her son began to walk he would require special boots. Where would the money be found to pay for such expensive articles?
Still, even the most rigorous demands of frugality couldn't dampen Catherine's pride in her baby. On April 19, she ordered nine yards of white lutestring, a thin, satiny fabric, from Roach and Coy, Pall Mall, silk weavers to Their Majesties, followed by an order for one yard of blue taffeta; the color and quantity of both suggest the traditional outfits of well-born young children of both sexes.
Shortly afterward the household left Holles Street, destination unknown. For the next year there is no trace of them. Then, in early August 1789, Jack Byron reappears in a rented house on the grounds of Sandgate castle, in Folkestone, Kent. From there he made brief trips to the coast of France. A longer junket across the Channel proved ill-advised; no sooner had Jack set foot on French soil than he came close to being imprisoned for debt. By 1790 he was established in Aberdeen; whether he came there just before or after the arrival of his wife and baby son is uncertain. For a few brief unhappy months, they were a family.