Life and Legend.
By Fiona MacCarthy.
Illustrated. 674 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.


January 12, 2003

'Byron': I Love Not Woman the Less, but Man More



It is startling to consider how many modern cultural cliches originated with George Gordon, Lord Byron, who lived and died roughly two centuries ago. Vampires, to begin with. Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat, currently the dean of the undead, owes his existence to the villain of the first English-language vampire tale, ''The Vampyre,'' an aristocratic sexual predator modeled on Byron, the most notorious ladies' man of his day. (The author was the poet's estranged former doctor.) Then there is the image of the poet as fop, dangling his curled locks and high-camp witticisms before a fawning, then a snarling, public. (Oscar Wilde was an admitted Byron imitator.) The bohemian affinity for the demimonde has roots, in part, in Byron's penchant for slumming. In reality, his debauchery cost him dearly, but he imbued it with bubbly charm, as in the famous stanza scribbled on a manuscript page of his comic masterpiece, ''Don Juan'':

I would to Heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling --
Because at least the past were pass'd away -
And for the future -- (but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say -- the future is a serious matter --
And so -- for God's sake -- hock and soda-water!

To these old standbys, we can now add another: the libertine as closeted queen. Fiona MacCarthy, Byron's latest biographer, distinguishes herself from the more than 200 who preceded her by arguing that he was essentially gay, rather than merely sexually omnivorous, which has been the prevailing view, and that women served as a distraction from his true desires, which under the British laws of the time were punishable by public hanging. The love of his life, she says in ''Byron: Life and Legend,'' was not the Mary pined for in several elegies, the half sister celebrated in ''Epistle to Augusta'' or the young married Italian countess who became his consort toward the end of his life. It was an impoverished choirboy named John Edleston, for whom Byron conceived, as he put it, ''a violent, though pure love and passion'' while a student at Cambridge. (MacCarthy struggles to explain ''pure,'' which she interprets as ''chaste,'' as a self-protective lie, but it could just as well have hinted at Byron's disgust at heterosexuality, which at that point he knew mostly through prostitutes.) Edleston was the most beloved though only the first (or possibly the second) of the many boys and pages Byron patronized and worshiped over the course of his life. MacCarthy, who has also written biographies of William Morris and of the painter Stanley Spencer, adds a footnote to Byron's rather sordid early sexual history. Much has been made of the nanny who took Byron into her bed when he was 9, but MacCarthy believes he was also seduced as a young teenager by the lord who rented his mansion until he was old enough to inherit it. Byron's tortured account of that incident set the pattern for a lifetime of doublespeak, providing a rich cache of secret messages for a clever biographer to decode.

It's hard to put much stock in the theory that Byron was really homosexual, rather than bisexual, given the hundreds if not thousands of women he seduced. But recasting Byron as gay does give 21st-century readers a set of fresh cliches with which to reanimate the by now rather tired legend. Thinking that Byron was forced to hide his innermost nature turns his compulsive exhibitionism, his courting of scandal, into a new source of pathos. (Byron was chased out of England in 1816 largely as a result of his own indiscretions: he regaled his young bride with tales of incest and sodomy, and when she fled, horrified, she told her parents, and her parents told the world.) And it helps us to reposition the cult of Byron as part of the perennial fascination with sexual ambiguity. Byron turns out to have been a familiar variety of pop icon, a late Regency version of Madonna or Prince.

A man of apparently irresistible beauty and deflationary wit, Byron could start a trend just by walking into a room. He populated literature; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Emily Bronte's Heathcliff and Wilde's Dorian Gray were all, in their monstrosity, ill temper and narcissism, respectively, identifiably Byronic. He inspired revolution; his death in Greece at 36 while waiting to lend military support to the Greek war of liberation against Turkey turned him into one of the most swoonworthy martyrs of all time, and two of the 19th century's nationalist leaders, the Italian Giuseppe Mazzini and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, styled themselves after him. Byron's affection for travel in the Orient -- essentially a taste for sexual tourism, since Turkey was a place where sex with boys was not only not criminal but commonplace -- was taken up by Delacroix and Baudelaire, among others, and repackaged as the artistic and literary mode known as Orientalism.

The danger of MacCarthy's thesis is that it will lull us into thinking we have solved the mystery of Byron, rather than having reconceptualized it in the sexual categories of our time. The Romantics saw outsize personalities like his as imbued with a touch of the diabolical or divine -- not, as we do, as psyches to be broken down into constituent parts. MacCarthy is nothing if not modern. Though more admiring of Byron than two recent biographers, Benita Eisler and Phyllis Grosskurth, she has a fondness for deterministic explanations -- she claims, for instance, that Byron's homosexuality was ''innate'' -- that would leave any lesser figure fatally diminished. And yet her detailed chronicle of Byron's complicated romantic history and her close analysis of his madly mismanaged financial affairs do not have the usual reductive effect. Instead, they bring us a little closer to the awe in which he was held by his contemporaries.

Take Byron's capacity to behave badly. He spent his childhood as a clubfooted, impoverished relative of peers, the son of a Scottish noblewoman in reduced circumstances (Byron's father spent all his wife's money, then left her, then died), and inherited his title when he was 10. That experience appears to have turned him into a thoroughgoing snob, though he had some compassion for outsiders and outcasts, provided they were picturesque. Byron exploited his mother, who was of lesser nobility than he was, to keep himself in liquor, prostitutes and fine clothes. His highhandedness toward other members of the less august classes included pressing them, too, into service as guarantors or creditors for the huge debts he ran up and rarely paid. His radicalism in sexual matters excluded liberal ideas about women, about whom his views were snide and conventional, in contrast, say, to those of his friend Shelley, who lived with the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft.

In most respects, in fact, Byron's much-vaunted liberalism was more theatrical than real, at least until the last year of his life, when he found a new sense of purpose in the Greek revolution. Naturally, his seriousness didn't stop him from parading around Ithaca dressed like a Scottish Tatar ''with his high feather and his silver epaulets'' or making sure, on landing in western Greece, to greet the admiring throng in an extravagant scarlet military coat. Even his poetry, some of which would later become required reading for would-be revolutionaries, hints at a foot-stomping hauteur. Hazlitt once observed that ''English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,'' the satire that Byron wrote after one of his books of poetry was panned, substituted dismissal for critique, in the manner of a lord ''who is accustomed to have all his whims or dislikes taken for gospel, and who cannot be at the pains to do more than signify his contempt or displeasure.''

It is when MacCarthy itemizes Byron's exploitation of another aspect of his seigneurial privilege -- the sexual favors of his young servants, male and female -- that we begin to intuit what was genuinely gargantuan about the man. Byron was kinder than some in that he did not turn pregnant chambermaids out of doors. He even settled an annuity on one maid who bore his child. But the insatiability of his appetite for married ladies, hotel maids and pages, as well as for expensive rental real estate, jumbo-size carriages and large retinues, can't help appearing, in comparison with today's tamer mores, Don Juanesque. His neglect of another natural daughter, Allegra, whom he took away from her mother at the age of 2 and who died at the age of 5 in the convent he'd sent her to, pleading to the end for a visit from her father, is almost impossible to stomach. At the very least, you can't imagine how Byron, with his devouring sexual appetite, multiple emotional entanglements, bizarre entourage (his menagerie included, at various times, a bear, monkeys and a fox), wild mood swings, hair-raising spendthriftiness and night after night in elegant salons or out on the town, could have had the time or concentration to write the poetry he did.

But he did, and though some of it now seems trite by dint of having been too frequently imitated, it also includes the funniest seriocomic epic in the English language. Byron's Don Juan couldn't have been less like the impious hero of Da Ponte and Mozart's opera -- or less like himself. Juan was one of Byron's pretty boys: passive, innocent and sweet, the pawn of libidinous princesses and queens (it has been argued that Byron's heroines are among the most sexually empowered in British literature). Drifting from Spain to Greece to Turkey to Russia to England, Don Juan is made the occasion for a hilarious sendup of the manners of many countries -- something Byron claimed, quite rightly, that he could never have written had he not led quite so itinerant a life.

The contents of Byron's poetry don't interest MacCarthy much; she's the sort of biographer who would rather relate where he was when he wrote it, what Continental sights he put into it, how famous it made him and the nervousness with which his publisher later greeted his increasingly blasphemous and sexually suggestive works. (Her biography was commissioned by John Murray VII, the successor to Byron's publisher John Murray II, and she makes ample use of the company archives.) There is a virtue in her narrating only the circumstances of the poetry's composition, rather than trying to interpret it in any but the most obviously biographical light. Byron's accomplishments become all the more remarkable for having been achieved against a backdrop of almost complete chaos.

Still, without a fair estimation of Byron's poetry, it's hard for us to feel our way back into his age, because to empathize with the intense passions aroused by Byron we have to understand the impact his writing had on its readers, whatever we may think of it now. Byron was the Romantic poet who most preferred the artificial world to the natural one, yet his minute observations of society paved the way for the realism that would dominate the 19th century. (Stendhal, recalling how he once met the poet-in-exile at the opera at Lake Como, wrote, ''Had I dared, I would have wept and kissed Lord Byron's hand.'') The escape from the conventions of poetic speech implied by Byron's droll conversational tone, most consistent in his letters but evident also in the comic poetry, began to have its full liberating effect around the turn of the century, in part because Wilde perfected the style. The nihilism of Byron's plays, particularly ''Cain,'' in which criminality is depicted as the necessary condition for art, appealed particularly to Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, but continues to attract adherents today. Maybe Byron did have something of the Devil about him, at least in the Mick Jagger sense of having been a dandified figure of perpetual and not altogether salutary appeal. It seems equally plausible that Jagger's image of the sympathetic Satan was indirectly derived from Byron, who if he could be reincarnated would surely come back as a rock star.

Judith Shulevitz writes the Close Reader column for the Book Review.



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