Byron the Romantic
He really was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know.’
Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By JOHN SIMON
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).