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Byron the Romantic

He really was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know.’

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By JOHN SIMON
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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.

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