Byron in Love
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.