A Short Daring Life
by Edna O’Brien
Norton, 240 pp., $24.95
The Irish novelist and story writer Edna O’Brien is to be congratulated: Byron in Love compresses Lord Byron’s 36 event-crowded years into 200-plus loosely packed octavo pages, hardly more than a generous novella. Terse but untruncated, it stands out in an age where a movie star or sports figure’s life easily commands 600 or more pages. Leslie A. Marchand’s authoritative Byron: A Biography (1957) is in three sturdy volumes; his condensation, Byron: A Portrait (1970), still runs to 338 more capacious pages than Edna O’Brien’s. Let us hope that this short but daring book will not be deemed too much for the mere author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan, and some exquisite lyrics, as well as some of the finest letters written in the English language.
But of course, George Gordon Byron is more frequently remembered as one of the great, often scandalous, seducers in English history, incestuous lover of his half-sister Augusta, and sacrificer of his life fighting for Greek independence from the Turks. A Romantic poet, he was anything but romantic in his treatment of most women, whether mistresses, casual pickups, or a wife. Bisexual, he was rather better to some male lovers, or would-be lovers.
The title is something of an understatement. Though concentrating on Byron’s sex life—more often in lust than in love—Byron in Love succinctly covers all the major and many minor nonamatory aspects of the life. Only the work gets very short shrift. Byron bequeathed to the English language the adjective “Byronic,” which O’Brien defines as excess, diabolical deeds, and a rebelliousness answering to no one. He gave Casanova a fairly close run having (unlike the Italian) a beauty irresistible to almost all women and not a few men. One look at him and women fell in love, not to mention over backward. He, in turn, went for all kinds, aristocrats or servants, intellectuals or ninnies, older or much younger, more often than not married, and of assorted nationalities. Also some handsome youths.
He did have one disadvantage: a deformed right foot and scrawny lower calf. These he kept fanatically concealed by every conceivable means, from special boots to walking on tiptoe. Vain and competitive as he was, the defects may have stirred him on to dedicated sexual depredations. Most characteristic of Byron, in love or out, was his dual nature. He was prone to sudden uncontrollable rages and verbal, or even physical, abuse. But he could also be charming, amusing, and seductive as he oscillated between being a good companion and destructive monster.
His dark side has been variously attributed to a wretched childhood—a mad absentee father and an unattractive, unintelligent, unloving mother—or to a violent heritage on both parents’ sides, and even to begetting, at a very early age, bastards on two servants. Also to falling in boyish love with some young cousins and being humiliatingly rejected by the most mature, Mary Ann Chaworth. Likewise blamed have been the bad foot that Byron called the mark of Cain and, more inclusively but vaguely, an innate bad temper.
To me, Lord Byron seems a typical case of bipolarity—a drinker, brawler, miser, arrogant show-off, but also a wit, sometimes amazingly generous, astute observer, and delightful traveling companion good at picking up languages. Becoming a lord at age 10 encouraged superciliousness and, eventually, constant money troubles. There was reckless spending on clothes, ostentatious arms (loaded pistols and sword even at his bedside), numerous horses and a menagerie of sundry animals and birds regularly traveling with him along with inordinate baggage, and gifts to sundry friends and husbands of wives he seduced.
He did have very close friends: the Irish poet Tom Moore; Cambridge chums like John Cam Hobhouse, the future Lord Broughton and favorite traveling companion; his banker, Douglas Kinnaird; fellow toper and wit Scrope Davies; a true admirer, the Earl of Clare, and a few others. Unusually for an author, he maintained a lifelong correspondence with his publisher, John Murray—mostly very warm, except when Murray tried to censor him, sometimes successfully.
As O’Brien shows, Byron needed to be in love, but needed the chase after new love even more. Rarely did he stay with a woman for long. I would postulate four categories, lowest of them one-night (or one-hour) stands. Thus, upon arrival on foreign soil in Ostend, in what turned out to be his final exile, he fell upon a chambermaid in his hotel “like a thunderbolt.” Next up were the flings, as exemplified by the 16-year-old prostitute Caroline Cameron, whom the very young Byron dubbed Dahlia, paraded before his friends on the Brighton waterfront in boy’s clothing, and for a week or so considered marrying. A much later fling is typified by the Drury Lane actress Susan Boyce, with whose “sylphlike figure” he shamed wife and visiting sister, threatening to move her to the conjugal apartment. (She was to be dismissed from Drury Lane for the syphilis she contracted from Byron. Puzzlingly, we don’t hear of other women being similarly infected.)
Higher up the scale were the affairs. These could last as long as several months, as with Caroline Lamb, who famously dubbed him “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” which describes her just as well. Being the daughter in law of his esteemed confidante, Lady Melbourne, this bisexual tomboy, his “little volcano,” was particularly appealing to him. She often dressed in the livery of her pages, her boyish good looks topped by bobbed pale gold hair, her voice bewitching even in its intermittent lisp. She collapsed in hysteria at her wedding to “a flagellist” who, she claimed, “schooled her in the most unusual sexual deviations and sabotaged the few virtues she had possessed.”
She was ready to elope with Byron, but her very eagerness began to pall on him. This included stunts such as climbing in heavy masculine garb the back stairs to Byron’s digs, with elaborate strategies needed to get her out of there. A letter to Caro from Byron contains the sentence (overlooked by O’Brien), “I never knew a woman with greater or more pleasing talents, general as in a woman they should be, something of everything, and too much of nothing.” But there was too much persistence, and Byron escaped to 38-year-old Lady Oxford, his “Armida,” who may have been the most beautiful of his women. But he developed an unhealthy passion for her 11-year-old daughter, Lady Charlotte, which the mother promptly scotched.
After seven or eight idyllic months, a seeming pregnancy (the lady already had five children by various lovers) and her husband’s debts precipitated the Oxfords’ departure for the Continent—and Byron’s involvement with one of his two inamoratas (the highest category), his five-years-older half-sister, Augusta. They had had very little contact before; but now, escaping the gambling and horse-betting debts of her husband, Colonel George Leigh, she sought out brother Byron. Despite her three children, she paid daily visits to his book-and-saber-lined rooms, “where women were rarely admitted.” As O’Brien writes:
Augusta . . . chatty, pliant and silly with her large grey eyes and her baby talk . . . seems to understand him as no woman previously had. It’s crinkum and crankum and laughter, pulling him out of his grumps, and the lame foot that he had so determinedly hidden from others, not hidden from her and christened by them “the little foot.” And so it is Gus and Goose and Baby Byron and foolery and giggles.
They thought of eloping, possibly to Sicily. When Augusta wanted to bring one of her daughters along, Byron, who detested children, refused and pointed out that a child could be made wherever they ended up. But joint travel plans faltered, and Byron resumed a warm correspondence with Lady Melbourne’s niece, Annabella Milbanke, his future wife. Meanwhile, to escape Augusta, he visited an old Cambridge friend, Sir Wedderburn Webster, recently married to young, pretty, aristocratic Lady Frances. While the husband fatuously displayed an ostentatious uxoriousness, Byron slowly undermined the wife’s naïve piety—but, at the moment of her surrender, spared her in “a burst of chivalry he [came] to regret.”
Back with Augusta, he spent a rapturously incestuous month at Newstead Abbey, his huge, ramshackle property, where her being wife and sister to him gave him four of “the happiest [weeks] of his life.” A daughter, Medora, would be born. Nevertheless, the epistolary courtship of Annabella proceeded, and after remarkably dilatory wooing and even near-fainting upon receipt of her letter of acceptance, the wedding (during which he thought about Mary Anne Chaworth) finally took place.
The carriage journey to the wedding-night destination was the first chapter of the horror story that is their 13-months’ marriage. In what he was to call the “treacle moon,” he sang boisterously in the coach, told his bride he would prove to her he was the devil, boasted of crimes her “catechizing could not redeem,” and threatened vengeance for her having refused him two years earlier. He did not help her out of the carriage, and ravished her on the sofa before dinner.
By morning, Annabella had experienced the “deadliest chill” upon her heart, and despite some better moments, the marriage proved a disaster. As Peter Quennell put it, Annabella was “a blue-stocking debutante . . . a high-minded, slightly pretentious, maybe rather frigid girl.” With her pride as heiress (though much less lucratively so than Byron had hoped) came that of mathematician, philosopher, and versifier—all undesirable to Lord Byron.
When, during Augusta’s two-month stay with the young couple, Annabella in her lonely bed heard through the walls brother and sister having reckless fun, she began to suspect the truth. While Annabella was giving birth to daughter Ada, Byron went off to the theater and expressed the hope that mother and daughter would both die. Two days after the accouchement he locked himself into the bedroom with Annabella and, with utmost brutality (as she was later to tell in a sworn statement to her lawyer), he sodomized her. Scandal, which Byron’s indiscretions helped precipitate, forced him to flee England—definitively, as it turned out.
His adventures as an amorist continued in Italy. He greatly enjoyed it when two fetching women, his landlord’s wife and a baker’s tempestuous spouse, fought assiduously over him. Finally, though, he settled into a steady nexus with the teenaged, very beautiful (although short-legged!) Countess Teresa Guiccioli, married to the 40-years-older Count Alessandro, who sometimes impeded and at others times facilitated the relationship. Of this four-year intimacy with a spunky inamorata Iris Origo has written a splendid book, The Last Attachment (1949). But Byron’s truly last attachment, albeit strictly one-sided, was for 15-year-old Loukas, a soldier in his private army in Greece.
The Italian years involved him in anti-Austrian revolutionary activities with Teresa’s liberal and persecuted family, the Gambas. There was also a pertinacious ex-mistress, Claire Clairmont, whom Byron cruelly banned from seeing their daughter Allegra. Allegra, in turn, was placed in a convent by Byron where, not yet six, she died, causing him serious (but transitory) grief.
For Byron, being a hugely successful poet, adored by countless women, was not enough. He craved heroic action, which he undertook by joining the Greek fight for liberation from the Turks. He knew that he wouldn’t emerge alive. He also knew that he wouldn’t die heroically in battle, but in the throes of a painful illness in the swamplands of Missolonghi, with a handful of doctors unable to agree on a diagnosis.
Fascinatingly recurrent throughout Byron in Love are instances of women giving to (or getting from) Byron some hair as a souvenir. Usually it was a single lock, although from one minor paramour he got three feet of it. At his death, Byron had a curl of Augusta’s chestnut hair in a carefully preserved packet he had labeled “La Chevelure of the one I most loved.” But around his neck, according to Iris Origo, he wore in death a locket containing Teresa’s hair, swapped for one containing his.
Was there ever a more ironic, or Byronic, ending?
John Simon is the author, most recently, of John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005 (Applause Books).