Marilyn Butler

  • The Trouble of an Index: Byron’s Letters and Journals, Vol. XII edited by Leslie Marchand
    Murray, 166 pp, £15.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3885 8
  • Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals edited by Leslie Marchand
    Murray, 404 pp, £12.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3974 9
  • Byron by Frederic Raphael
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £8.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 500 01278 4
  • Byron’s Political and Cultural Influence in 19th-Century Europe: A Symposium edited by Paul Graham Trueblood
    Macmillan, 210 pp, £15.00, April 1981, ISBN 0 333 29389 4
  • Byron and Joyce through Homer by Hermione de Almeida
    Macmillan, 233 pp, £15.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 333 30072 6
  • Byron: A Poet Before His Public by Philip Martin
    Cambridge, 253 pp, £18.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 521 24186 3

Byron is one of the first international successes of the literature industry. From the Renaissance on, sculptors and painters could get into the big money in any of the richer economies of Europe; throughout the 18th century, musicians poured out of Germany, Austria and Italy. But writers, because of the language barrier, had to wait for a large leisured readership, as well as for the late 18th-century boom in the printed word, which included among its manifestations the rise of the literary review.

By the 1800s opportunity called, and Byron was there to answer. Part of his extraordinary success can be put down to luck: he was good-looking, and a lord, and he wrote in English, a language which was already, for non-literary reasons, on the way up. But Byron also had the right gifts, a quick, strong intellect and a forceful turn of phrase. He had an unprecedented flair for getting his sexual presence into his writing. And he had a curious rootlessness that simplified his image for the international audience. He wasn’t from Edinburgh or Ayr, Grasmere or Olney; instead of writing about such provincial places, he could set his poems all over Europe. Byron had no family, no estate, no tenants, no predetermined niche and thus no followers to lead to anywhere in particular. This was an admirably unencumbered inheritance for a media hero.

The trouble about Byron’s prodigious success is that posterity has found it synthetic. His reputation plummeted in England shortly after his death and has remained relatively low since. One reason the Victorians had for disliking him – the flagrant sexual impropriety of both his life and his writings – now, if anything, works in his favour; another characteristic, worldliness, remains a liability. We have taken to demanding idealism, especially from poets, and nothing fails like success. Byron lived at a time when literature was not merely booming as an industry: it was also developing a rhetoric to obscure the fact that it was an industry. Money-making was what the vulgar nine-tenths of the population got up to, that silent majority which Matthew Arnold dubbed the philistines; Arnold’s articulate minority, the intellectuals, were supposed to live for culture and high seriousness. Byron’s approach to literature is as embarrassing in the 20th century as it was in the 19th because it is cynical. Even if his career didn’t give the game away, his words about what should have been his vocation would do it: ‘I do think ... the mighty stir made about scribbling and scribes, by themselves and others – a sign of effeminacy, degeneracy, and weakness. Who would write, who had anything better to do?’

Leslie Marchand’s great edition of Byron’s Letters and Journals, now complete with the publication of an index, brings Byron the man and Byron’s story to the fore. Byron has certainly not emerged from Marchand’s labours as a vulgar careerist: on the contrary, the letters have been acclaimed as letters, the prose as prose, and Byron’s personal charm and intelligence seem harder than they once did to resist. Admirably, Marchand also makes them available to what ought to be a wide readership, in a new one-volume selection. Both the Selected Letters and the index volume include Marchand’s 36-page anthology of snippets from the 11-volume edition, a testimonial to the poet’s wit and, if not wisdom, at least cleverness and variety. Among these quips, however, are enough demystifying observations on the arts, painting as well as literature, to remind us that Byron’s favourite form of his favourite sport was swimming against the tide. Marchand has immensely enlarged our knowledge of Byron the man, but some of the elucidations may be plunging critics of Byron the poet into further disarray.

In a clutch of new studies of Byron, it is bound to be the biography that has it easiest. It is a story set glamorously among rich and famous people, and spiced with sex, scandal and more sex. Even if Byron had written no best-sellers, he would have lived one. Frederic Raphael’s re-telling in Byron makes, predictably, a good read, but not by taking the easy course, which would have relied on Byron’s own racy descriptions of his life and loves. On the contrary, Raphael rises to his task and tells the story in a witty, epigrammatic style which ambitiously invites comparison with Byron’s prose. Byron for example has: ‘From that moment I began to grow old in my own esteem – and in my esteem age is not estimable.’ Raphael writes of ‘a smart touch of heterodoxy, the most consistent of all Byron’s doxies’. He quotes Byron’s own reminiscence of his cousin, Margaret Parker, ‘one of the most beautiful of evanescent beings’, only to round off the paragraph by observing that Margaret Parker ‘took evanescence to the limit by dying’. Biographer and subject could hardly be closer in step than they seem while Byron is pursuing his fashionable conquests in England, and debonairly describing them to his Cambridge men friends and to his favourite woman confidante, Lady Melbourne.

Raphael writes best about this first half of Byron’s career. He gets very close to his hero, not sentimentalising him or obscuring his weaknesses. Hobbled with a withered foot, a ridiculous mother, and an encumbered estate, Byron fought tenaciously while at Harrow for status. Inheriting a title without a suitable income at the age of ten could have been mortifying, but Byron spent his puberty acting the part of a peer for all it was worth. His respect for his own rank earned him the school nickname of ‘the Old English Baron’.

Raphael is good on Byron’s affectations, and shows how his career as a lover must have been partly shaped by his early vulnerability. After one youthful snub, from another cousin, Mary Chaworth, he avoided putting himself again into a position where he needed to trust a woman’s sincerity. (The women in his poems do not establish any hold over the heroes – who are haunted figures, but driven by some internal demon, never by the power of anyone else.) Women of course loved this show of strength, and came to him in droves. Byron was very willing to pay for their services, and at times preferred to, but they came without inducements. ‘I should like to know who has been carried off,’ he complained in 1819, ‘except poor dear me – I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan war.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in