Fine details exposed in love letter to Byron
IN Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia ( 1993), a literary scholar called Bernard Nightingale attempts to establish that George Gordon, Lord Byron, left England for Europe in 1809 not to broaden his horizons and partake of the continental crumpet but in an effort to escape the consequences of having killed one Ezra Chater. Staying at the fictional Sidley Park, Bernard treats a modest audience, which includes a rival literary scholar, to an advance reading of his sensational paper:
Bernard: Without question, Lord Byron, in the very season of his emergence as a literary figure, quit the country in a cloud of panic and mystery, and stayed abroad for two years at a time when Continental travel was unusual and dangerous. If we seek his reason — do we need to look far?
( No mean performer, he is pleased with the effect of his peroration. There is a significant silence.) Hannah Jarvis: Bollocks. Bernard’s theory is indeed bollocks: Chater died not by Byron’s hand but of a monkey bite sustained in Malta. But it is less Bernard’s mistake than his professional ambition that constitutes the comedy here. This, as it were, is his original folly: the folly of the academic desperate to make a name for himself in an area of study so well excavated that only a sensational discovery has any chance of causing a stir.
In Byron in Love , Edna O’Brien offers no sensational new discoveries about the man whom many regard as the prototype of the modern celebrity. Nor does she change the angle on her subject in the manner of Hannah (‘‘ Bollocks’’), who has written a book on Caroline Lamb, with whom Bryon had a turbulent affair.
Nor, indeed, has she adopted the method employed by Lamb herself and treated of her subject in fiction, though her reputation as a novelist is such that many would have been pleased if she had. Rather, she has produced a work that is, in many regards, traditional, while being in various subtle ways original and even experimental. It is a short book but by no means a small one.
‘‘ Disappointment,’’ wrote poet Thomas Moore, met Byron ‘‘ on the very threshold of life’’. Born with a badly malformed right foot and descended from a long line of brutes and lunatics — the latest of whom was his father, ‘‘ Mad Jack’’, a fugitive from responsibility — his early years were indeed no picnic.
His relationship with his mother, Catherine, was, by any measure, atrocious, she referring to him as a ‘‘ lame brat’’, he to her, or to her conduct, as a ‘‘ happy compound of derangement and folly’’.
Even in these early years it was clear that Byron was going to be a handful and, to one acquaintance at least, that he was going to be something rather special: according to his headmaster at Harrow, the fastidious young aristocrat had ‘‘ mind in his eyes’’.
In 1808 he installed himself at the family pile in Nottinghamshire and the insatiable libertine whose notoriety was to peak with the publication of Don Juan began to take recognisable form. O’Brien’s picturesque, often lavish prose is a match for the tyro poet’s flamboyance. Here she is on Byron’s taste in decoration and furnishings: [ It] inclined towards the ostentatious, draperies, frills, tassels, valances, gilded four-posters, coronets, and true to his penchant for the macabre, he had skulls which had been found in the crypt, mounted on silver to be used as drinking cups. It was what went on on those gilded fourposters ( and, indeed, what went down on them) that lies at the heart of O’Brien’s book. By any standards you wish to employ, Byron was a prodigious lover, swapping locks with aristocrats ( enough hair is exchanged to stuff a sofa) and sexually transmitted diseases with prostitutes, while writing to friends that he intended to relieve a 15-year-old boy ‘‘ of his last inhibition’’.
The publication of Childe Harold ( 1812-18) appears to have been a catalyst, as women, conflating protagonist and poet, threw themselves at Byron’s feet. The love affair with Lamb, the marriage to Annabella Milbanke and the weeks of madness that followed it, the incestuous relationship with Augusta Leigh, the disgraceful treatment of young Claire Clairmont: all this is covered in fascinating detail. Nor is the detail lurid or gratuitous; Byron’s lovemaking is the key to his character and you don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to see it as a form of compensation for feelings of inadequacy.
Sometimes a sketch set down in a flourish can reveal more soul than the most laboured portrait, and O’Brien’s little book does indeed breathe life into this most done-to-death of subjects. The key to her success is her reading of the letters, to which she brings a novelist’s subtlety, recognising that Byron’s correspondence is not just a storehouse of information but an ongoing exercise in self-dramatisation.
His first letter is ‘‘ arch and self-possessed’’, the letters to his solicitor ‘‘ peremptory and defiant’’, his epistolary courtship of Milbanke a ‘‘ marvel of eloquence, verisimilitude and staggering deception’’. So utterly steeped is O’Brien in her subject that she almost seems to become her characters, changing from the past to the present tense at important junctures in Byron’s life. Empathy is one thing; sympathy is another.
‘‘ The more Byron is known, the better he will be loved,’’ Teresa Guiccioli said in 1873. But the countess never felt the brunt of Byron’s astonishing capacity for malice. For Byron had a genius for cruelty almost as impressive as his poetic genius, and these two things, when taken together, make O’Brien’s rather brisk conclusion that the poet was a sort of everyman look unconvincing to say the least.
Nevertheless, her book brings Bryon alive in a way that is rare in biography, especially literary biography, which often gets lost in labyrinthine explication of the relationship between the work and the life. Beautifully written, it is lively and absorbing and, save for Byron’s hyperactive pair, entirely free of bollocks.
Richard King is a Perth-based critic.