Scars run deep

Bri­tish jour­nal­ist and au­thor Antony Peat­tie traces the con­di­tion of anorexia in Eng­land’s cel­e­brated poet, Lord Ge­orge By­ron, in his soon-to-be-re­leased book

The Hindu - - HEALTH - :: Sweta Akundi

Lord By­ron, the 18th-cen­tury, Ro­man­tic era poet, was known as much for his flam­boy­ant af­fairs, as he was for his lit­er­ary ge­nius. How­ever, it is only in the past decade, that de­tails of his health — his eat­ing disor­der, anorexia, in par­tic­u­lar — are be­ing talked about.

This is what ac­claimed Bri­tish au­thor Antony Peat­tie has been re­search­ing for the past 14 years. The re­sult is a book,

The Pri­vate Life of Lord By­ron,

set to be pub­lished soon. On his In­dia tour, he nar­rated what he learnt about Lord Bryon’s past that may have led to him de­vel­op­ing the disor­der. Edited ex­cerpts:

What did you dis­cover about Lord By­ron’s con­di­tion of anorexia?

1873 was when anorexia was first recog­nised by the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion, 49 years af­ter By­ron’s death. His own con­di­tion was di­ag­nosed ret­ro­spec­tively in 1982. But go­ing through his cor­re­spon­dences and bi­ogra­phies now sug­gests that he was se­verely anorexic. His Ital­ian lover, count­ess Teresa Guic­ci­oli (who was with him dur­ing the pe­riod that he wrote de­scribes, that for him, fast­ing was a philo­soph­i­cal en­deav­our. Ac­counts say that he ate only six bis­cuits, along with soda wa­ter, in one day, in the lat­ter part of his life.

Don Juan), When is it that the first symp­toms of anorexia be­gan ap­pear­ing in Lord By­ron?

Like all eat­ing dis­or­ders, his anorexia was also psy­cho­log­i­cal. To un­der­stand that, we’ll have to look at his child­hood his­tory. His father Jack By­ron mar­ried his mother Cather­ine Gor­don, who was the heiress of the Gight es­tate in Aberdeen­shire, Scot­land. They met at Bath, which by the way, was the in­for­mal mar­riage mar­ket of that time. Jack By­ron, un­for­tu­nately, was a ‘rake’ — he tended to gam­ble away his money, and also had af­fairs with other women. Cather­ine soon lost her es­tate pay­ing off Jack’s debts.

Cather­ine moved to France, along with Jack, to get away from the cred­i­tors, re­turn­ing to Eng­land to give birth to By­ron. Lord By­ron was only three-anda-half years old when his father passed away; he was raised by his mother, alone. She was said to treat him coldly. She also scorned him for his lame­ness. They were poor for six years, un­til he turned 10, and in­her­ited some prop­erty.

By­ron’s anorexia be­gan when he was 18. He was over­weight as a child, and was ad­vised by doc­tors to diet. How­ever, even af­ter he reached his tar­get weight, di­et­ing was some­thing that he con­tin­ued to do, through­out his life. He had found that he could live with­out eat­ing much.

Did psy­chol­o­gists throw any light on the causes of By­ron’s anorexia?

I did speak to psy­chol­o­gists to un­der­stand the con­di­tion. In By­ron’s case, he was trapped in debt, and liv­ing alone with his mother, who he wasn’t on great terms with. He never saw his father af­ter the age of two- anda-half, but idolised him. But he blamed his mother, and re­jected her for be­ing over­weight. He was also born with a stiff right an­kle that drew ridicule. Be­ing thin, for him, be­came a way to ex­ert con­trol over his body.

As an adult, By­ron has been de­scribed as ‘an al­abaster vase lit up from within’. He felt proud of starv­ing him­self, and felt it ap­pealed to women. In his re­la­tion­ship with women as an adult, he tended to look to­wards ones who pro­vided him with ‘moth­erly’ love and care. He liked be­ing cod­dled; his half­sis­ter, also his lover, would call him ‘Baby B’.

Later in his life, he gave it a philo­soph­i­cal con­text, treat­ing fast­ing as a part of anti-ma­te­ri­al­ism, go­ing against the flesh. He re­mained ac­tive, how­ever, swim­ming in the Thames in Eng­land, the Ta­gus, the Grand Canal in Venice and across the Helle­spont in Turkey.

Why is it that when we think of anorexia, we tend to pic­ture a woman, and not a man? Are there any sanc­tions that so­ci­ety poses on ideal body types for women?

Anorexia in women is well doc­u­mented, but not in men. On an av­er­age, it is more likely for a woman to be anorexic. How­ever, the con­di­tion is not any dif­fer­ent in males: both are vic­tims of com­pul­sion. The cause for star­va­tion is the same.

It is pos­si­ble that women’s bod­ies sur­prise them more, and un­dergo big­ger changes, so the need to ex­ert con­trol over the body may be higher. It is also pos­si­ble that body im­age is more cen­tral in women’s lives.

But it would not be cor­rect to say that the so­ci­ety’s ideals are en­tirely re­spon­si­ble. In Lord By­ron’s time, in fact, the ideal body type for men was John Bull: the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of Eng­land, as a stout, sen­si­ble and cheer­ful man. Be­ing mean, or hav­ing mus­cles, was a sign of be­ing from the lower classes, and do­ing phys­i­cal labour.

On an av­er­age, it is more likely for a woman to be anorexic. How­ever, the con­di­tion is not any dif­fer­ent in males: both are vic­tims of com­pul­sion.

Antony Peat­tie

Weighty is­sues A paint­ing of Lord By­ron in an Al­ba­nian dress as painted by Thomas Phillips, and (ex­treme right) the book cover

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