Lord Byron's Great Insight
Mad, bad, and dangerous, he understood what women wanted.
By Katha Pollitt
Updated Monday, July 13, 2009, at 9:29 AM ET
Not many writers furnish enough material for a biography focused entirely on their love lives.
In his short life (1788-1824), George Gordon, Lord Byron, managed to cram in just about every sort of connection imaginable-unrequited pinings galore; affairs with aristocrats, actresses,
servants, landladies, worshipful fans, and more in almost as many countries as appear on Don
Giovanni's list; plus countless one-offs with prostitutes and purchased girls; a brief, disastrous marriage; and an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. And that's
just the women! It's a wonder he found the time, considering everything else on his plate. He
composed thousands of pages of dazzling poetry, traveled restlessly on the continent and in the
Middle East, maintained complex relationships with friends and hangers-on, wrote letters and
kept diaries and read books constantly, boxed and
took fencing lessons and swam, drank
(prodigiously), suffered bouts of depression and paranoia and physical ill-health, and, in his later years, joined in Italian and Greek
liberation struggles. Just tending the menagerie that he liked to have about him-monkeys, parrots
and macaws, dogs, a goat, a heron, even, while he was a student at Cambridge, a bear-would have
driven a lesser man to distraction.
But, then, Byron was exceptional from the beginning. His childhood was like something out of a Gothic novel. His mother, Catherine Gordon,
a Scottish heiress, married "Mad Jack" Byron, a rackety aristocrat who quickly ran through her money and fled to France. She gave birth to
George, her only child, alone, in rented rooms in London. Temperamental and imprudent, Catherine
gets a bad rap from biographers, as most mothers do; she was certainly no match for her high-strung, willful son, who hated her, unfairly
blaming her corseting during pregnancy for his withered left leg and club foot.
At 10, upon the death of his great-uncle, a supposed murderer known as the Wicked Lord (where's Ann Radcliffe when you need her?), he
became the sixth Baron Byron and owner of Newstead Abbey, a grand semi-ruin in Nottinghamshire, complete with monkish ghosts.
One of the many contradictions in his deeply divided nature was that the world-famous champion of liberty took extraordinary pride in his rank:
He was forever commissioning ostentatious furniture with the family crest and motto ("Crede
Byron") and stormed out of a dinner party abroad because local protocol demanded that a lower-born
diplomat precede him into the dining room.
From an early age, Byron had established what
was to be a romantic pattern: "mooning love for
cousins" and a neighbor, Mary Chaworth, and sex
with varying degrees of emotional intensity-from
extravagant passion to callous brutality-with
pretty much anyone ready to hand, beginning with
Newstead servants of both sexes and fellow students at Harrow and Cambridge. Once the
publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage made him a celebrity, at the age of 24-"I awoke one
morning to find myself famous," he quipped-"the fugue of women," as Edna O'Brien cleverly calls it in her brief new biography, began in earnest.
There was the piquant and capricious Lady Caroline Lamb, who famously described him as "mad-bad-dangerous to know," which is just what
he would come to say about her. As his ardor cooled, she became obsessed and vindictive, staging public scenes and persecuting him with letters, sudden visits, and, eventually, a
scandalous roman à clef. He escaped Lady Caroline by flinging himself into the arms of Lady Oxford,
a powerful free-thinking political hostess and beautiful 38-year-old mother of six. "We lived
like the gods in Lucretius," he would say of the seven or eight idyllic months they spent in her country house.
But these affairs (and others) paled beside his incestuous affair with Augusta, Mad Jack's daughter, five years older, married, the mother
of four, whom he came to know for the first time in London in 1813: "And so it is Guss and Goose and Baby Byron and foolery and giggles, Augusta
wearing the new dresses and silk shawls he has bought for her, the thrill of showing her off to
the acerbic hostesses, home in his carriage at five or six in the morning ... and somehow it
happened, the transition from affection to something dangerous. Never, he said, 'was seduction so easy.' "
Why, given all this excitement, Byron chose to marry Lady Caroline's prim, religious cousin, Annabella Milbanke, is a mystery. Perhaps he hoped marriage would quiet rumors-incest was a bit much even for the cynical Regency grandees among whom he moved. Perhaps it was a gesture of
despair, with a bit of fortune-hunting thrown in. In any case, the marriage was a nightmare, beginning with the bridegroom pacing the halls
with loaded pistols on his wedding night and culminating in Annabella's departure, newborn infant Ada in tow, after only 16 months. In her
legal case for a separation she accused Byron of ongoing incest with Augusta and appalling
maltreatment of every kind, culminating in anal rape two days after she gave birth.
Ostracized by those who had lionized him, Byron left England, never to return. Further adventures
and abuses followed, the worst of which was probably his cruelty toward Mary Shelley's stepsister, Jane Clairmont, who bore him a
daughter, Allegra. Rather than financially
assisting Jane in raising the child, which he
could easily have afforded to do, he took custody
and refused to answer Jane's increasingly
pathetic letters begging for news; he soon handed
Allegra off to assorted others before sending her
to a convent school, where she died, unvisited by
anyone but Shelley, at age 5. By then he had
settled down with the young, beautiful, married
Italian countess Teresa Guiccioli. Tellingly,
though, the last love of his life, as unrequited
as the first, was for Lukas-a teenager attached
to the ragtag army Byron raised in his botched
attempt to liberate Greece-who was with Byron at
his death at 36 of fever in Missolonghi.
O'Brien relates all this and much else in a
headlong sensuous rush, almost like one of her
own novels. It's fun to read, but I could have
done with more digging and thinking. Unlike Fiona
MacCarthy's terrific Byron: Life and Legend,
Byron in Love makes little of Byron's
homosexuality, which was far more extensive than
O'Brien chronicles. For MacCarthy, indeed, his
frenetic heterosexuality was due at least partly
to British sodomy laws, which carried the death
penalty; his passions for women were brief, and
his behavior to them cruel and capricious,
because he really wanted to be with teenage boys.
O'Brien also, inexplicably, mentions only on Page
186 that at the age of 9 or 10 Byron had been
repeatedly sexually abused, as well as
ferociously beaten, by his nanny, May Gray: "In
the daytime she fed him dire Calvinist sermons,
providing an uncomprehending brew of guilt and
desire, alternating with scenes of jealousy as
she brought home drunken coach boys from
Nottingham to carouse with." Whether or not this
weird coerced initiation lay behind Byron's
frequently expressed sense of lost youth and
jaded emotions, it certainly explains why he
thought religion was rubbish and women's supposed purity a lie.
It is easy to see Byron as a cad, a narcissist
and, at bottom, a misogynist. But that would be
unfair. Byron's great insight, in an era where
women were expected to be placid and insipid (not
that they were!), was to see that women were much
like men: They wanted sex and went after it
eagerly, if secretly. Don Juan, his great satiric
novel in verse, is a virtual catalog of
passionate women who are anything but bashful,
even if still virginal, and who are presented
without condemnation, as human beings doing what
human beings do. He understood, too, how limited
was women's scope for action. "Man's love is of
man's life a thing apart," writes Juan's first
love, the married Donna Julia, from the convent
to which she is confined when their affair is
discovered. " 'Tis woman's whole existence."
Byron's electrifying effect on women readers was
inspired not just by his handsomeness, his
woundedness, and the exciting hope of reforming
him, which was poor Annabella's undoing. It was
also due to his frankness, that sense his poetry
gave that he understood his reader's secret
rebellious thoughts and longings for experience,
pleasure, a life beyond tea tables. It wasn't
only the Greeks who found in him a champion of freedom.
One final note: O'Brien has little to say about
Byron's poetry, but without it, he would be just
another eccentric milord. To find out what all
the fuss was about, pick up a copy of Don Juan.
It's as fresh and sparkling and hilarious and
sexy as the day it was published, and will make
you wish the author was still around, so that you
could write him a letter proposing a discreet assignation.
Katha Pollitt new book of poems, The Mind Body
Problem, has just been published.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2222669/
The biography sounds like more of the same old rehashing of bits meant to appeal to prurient interests.
Byron was certainly no saint, but his letters present a different picture from that of most of the biographies which focus on sex.
I do hope that this biography has footnotes/endnotes supporting all the claims. I particularly want to see the proof of incest.
Also, Byron has been criticized by many for putting Allegra in a convent because the girl died. The Shelley children died without being in a convent.
Also, according to Byron's letters and diaries he ha Allegra with him often. he mentions some matter of childish greed one time. Byron was known to like children and animals. Allegra was put into a convent to be educated and to raised as a responsible, moral person. Allegra was illegitimate , a fact much more important in both Italy and England then than now.
John Cam Hobhouse said that far from claiming sodomy and rape, lady Byron did not let him or Byron know the grounds for her request for a separation.
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