Stag at Bay

Adam Phillips

  • BuyByron in Geneva: That Summer of 1816 by David Ellis
    Liverpool, 189 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 1 84631 643 2

Byron looked at his own tumultuous life with an Enlightenment gaze: empirical, sceptical, agnostic, hedonistic. He was an ironic rationalist, who, like all rationalists, had an irrational personal history. He was interested in what, if anything, the two things – the tumultuous life and the Enlightenment gaze – might say about each other, but he never assumed that one could be used to explain the other, or that explanation could ever be sufficient; as he has Cain say, ‘I look/Around a world where I seem nothing, with/Thoughts which arise within me, as if they/Could master all things.’ All this has a bearing on the before and after story that David Ellis wants us to take more seriously as the real story of Byron’s life.

In Ellis’s view the summer of 1816, which he spent in Geneva, marked a turning point in Byron’s life. He was, Ellis tells us, acutely unhappy there, though the unhappiness had a long history, to do with his famously deformed foot, his abandonment virtually at birth by his profligate father, ‘Mad Jack’, his temperamental mother and the sexual attentions of a Calvinist nursemaid. When he wrote in the preface to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that he wanted to ‘show that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures and disappointment in new ones’, he was both pointing up a (modern) moral, and more than hinting at a personal experience. He moved a lot as a child between friends and members of his extended family, never able to settle anywhere for long, which left him with a moody restlessness that he found a way of making himself known for: ‘My restlessness tells me,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘I have something within that “passeth show”.’ As an adolescent at Harrow, and then at Cambridge, he was actively bisexual at a time when homosexuality was a greater crime in England than incest. What he was to refer to many years later as ‘a propensity to be governed’ (‘set a pretty woman or a clever woman about me – with a turn for political or any other sort of intrigue – why – they would make a fool of me’) meant that getting himself governed and seeing if he could get away without being made a fool of became one of the stories of his life.

In a biography published in 1830, six years after Byron’s death, Thomas Moore reported a conversation between the schoolboy Byron and his tutor ‘Dummer’ Rogers. Witnessing the terrible treatment the boy was given for his club foot, Rogers remarked, ‘It makes me uncomfortable, my Lord, to see you sitting there in such pain as I know you must be suffering,’ to which Byron replied: ‘Never mind, you shall not see any signs of it in me.’ He couldn’t conceal his lameness, but he could conceal his feelings about it. If you have a physical disability, secrecy becomes a kind of freedom: a way of making what people think they know about you not matter so much (‘never mind’). Byron dealt with his propensity to be governed by never showing any sign of being governed, by not giving anything away, not letting on. Guardedness became his theme, and for this you need a talent for display, which Byron had from a very young age. He had the theatricality, and the love of theatricality, of the extremely shy; people were surprised and touched by just how awkward and tentative he could be on first meeting (he is a great poet of first meetings and first impressions). He was unusually determined, all his biographers agree, to perform himself as he would prefer to be seen, despite and because of his lameness.

By the time he left England for Europe in the spring of 1816, he had become famously famous overnight as the author of Childe Harold, and notorious for his many affairs with servants, actresses and duchesses, culminating in the debacle with the unstable Lady Caroline Lamb and his ‘incestuous’ relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. He was well known as a ‘regency rake’ and a virulent anti-Tory in the House of Lords, a combination barely imaginable now. He was an admirer of the French Revolution and of Napoleon when this was an unpatriotic thing to be.

Early in 1816, his cover had been blown. His determinedly debauched life had become a scandal and he was suffering a catastrophic disillusionment with himself and with the corrupt hypocrisy of the English ruling class – reflected, he believed, in the fashionable disgust with which his private affairs were treated. ‘I have been more ravished,’ he would write in a letter in 1819, ‘than anybody since the Trojan war.’ That he needed to get away was not a surprise. He was, he wrote, ‘like the stag at bay who betakes him to the waters’, but he wasn’t sure, when he set out for Geneva, whether he was going to a spa to recover, or to his death from the ‘envy, jealousy and all the uncharitableness’ of the English he had grown to hate. The Byron Ellis describes wanted to see the sights rather than to be one.

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[*] John Mullan reviewed Fiona MacCarthy’s Life of Byron in the LRB of 6 November 2003.