Fine de­tails ex­posed in love let­ter to By­ron

Richard King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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