Paralysing posterity

Dan Jacobson

  • Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England by Louis Crompton
    Faber, 419 pp, £17.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 571 13597 8

Times change. If, at the beginning of the 19th century, you wanted to suggest that the pillory and the gallows were inappropriate punishments to inflict on those found guilty of committing homosexual acts, you had to make it clear that you did so in spite of your horror at the moral abominations you were speaking of. Nowadays, if you want to express misgivings at the news that the Modern Languages Association of America has a Division of Gay Studies, you have to be at pains to insist that your misgivings are purely literary and intellectual in character.

We are told on the dust-jacket of his book that Professor Crompton is a founder of the Gay Caucus for the Modern Languages. The ‘Greek Love’ which preoccupies him is not to be confused with Byron’s philhellenism – with his denunciations of those Scots and Englishmen who had carried back to Britain whatever Greek antiquities they could lay their hands on, and his final fatal espousing of the cause of securing the independence of Greece from Turkish rule. Rather, Crompton tells us, it was one of the many terms, some euphemistic, others decidedly the reverse, which were used in Byron’s day to indicate homosexuality. The author introduces us to another unusual term – a brand-new one, this time – in the subtitle to his book. Its appearance notwithstanding, ‘homophobia’ is not supposed to describe an unreasoning hatred and fear of one’s own kind or sex, but the adoption of these attitudes towards homosexuals.

The subtitle is clearly intended to serve as a sort of splint, holding together a book which has a fracture or fissure running right through it. Most of it is about Byron’s secret or semi-secret life as a lover of boys and young men; two long chapters, however, are devoted almost exclusively to a discussion of some hitherto unpublished writings by Jeremy Bentham on the subject of homosexuality and the laws relating to it. (There is also another rather ragbag chapter devoted to Shelley’s views on the topic, and to an account of two great public scandals of the day, involving Castlereagh, the Foreign Minister, and the Irish bishop, Clogher.) Crompton justifies his inclusion of the Bentham material by in effect arguing that if so austere and highly respected a figure as Bentham was afraid to let his liberal views on this particular subject become known, then it is no wonder that Byron and his cronies were terrified into silence about their homosexual activities: a silence so deep that only now have the poet’s biographers begun to come to terms with what it concealed. The trouble with this procedure, though, is that the Bentham chapters are simply too long, too detailed, and too remote from the Byronic intimacies discussed elsewhere, to be conveniently thought of as mere ‘background’. Accordingly, a reviewer seems to have little choice, if he is to do justice to an interesting and contentious book, but to treat the two parts of it separately: first Bentham, then Byron.

Among the Bentham papers stored in the library of University College London, Crompton has discovered no less than five hundred pages devoted to his reflections on homosexuality. About half of them were written relatively early in Bentham’s career; the other half towards the end of it. Throughout Bentham reveals himself in a light surprising to someone like myself who knows of him only as the absurdly ambitious and yet absurdly unimaginative ‘founder of the greatest happiness system of morals’, as he described himself in his will: the calculator, or would-be calculator, of human felicity. What is surprising is not that he writes so reasonably and humanely on the subject at a time when official expressions of moral outrage went comfortably hand in hand, as they so often do, with displays of public cruelty. Nor does one’s surprise spring wholly from the pertinacity he showed in returning again and again to this profitless, unpublishable theme; or from the psychological acuity with which he analyses both the persecutors of homosexuals and the response of homosexuals to their persecution. More impressive and unexpected even than these is the sardonic passion of his writing, its remarkable combination of sociological curiosity, personal observation and Swiftian scorn.

By the eyes with which this pen is guided an instance of this sort was once seen in the person of a Judge. He had just come from the Circuit. For an offense of the sort in question he had just been consigning two wretches to the gallows. Delight and exultation glistened in his countenance; his looks called for applause and congratulations at the hands of the surrounding audience. The recollection he awakened was that of Jeffries, upon his return from his campaign relating the history of his exploits.

Or this, more Swiftian still, in which he speaks of the finding of scapegoats (e.g. homosexuals) to sacrifice before a vengeful deity: ‘This is a species of sacrifice in the making of which an incomparably better bargain is made with the Almighty than by any other: in the ordinary case, the pleasure sacrificed is a man’s own pleasure: in this case it is another man’s pleasure. Giving meat of one’s own to be roasted for a dinner to God and Priest would cost money: taking a man and roasting him costs nothing: and moreover it makes a spectacle.’

As for the Byron material: here, too, Crompton has made some discoveries, though these are much less consequential and more indirect than the cache of Bentham papers produced for him by the University College librarians. The new material printed here consists of no more than two letters to the poet from his Cambridge friend, Matthews, in which tidbits of information about the homosexual scene at home are given to Byron, and arch requests are made for news in return about the traveller’s successes among the youths of Greece, Turkey and Albania. For the rest, Crompton relies on previously published biographies (those by Leslie Marchand and Doris Langley Moore especially), and on Professor Marchand’s multi-volume edition of Byron’s letters.

What he does with these, in the light of the Matthews letters, and in the light of the picture he draws of the extreme secrecy and danger surrounding homosexual activity in Regency England, is to try to shift the centre of gravity, as it were, of our understanding of Byron. Instead of regarding him as the great, Romantic lover or rifler of women, Crompton wants us to see him as a man who for much of his life was at least as much preoccupied with homosexual love, especially in its pederastic form, as he was with the love of women.

That Byron had had sentimental or quasi-erotic friendships, which had meant a great deal to him, with boys younger than himself at Harrow and in Cambridge has long been known; the same is true of the fact that he had taken full advantage of the opportunities for sexual adventure of all kinds which had been given to him by his Near Eastern travels. Crompton argues, however, that there was nothing fleeting, nothing marginal, nothing incidental, in these aspects or episodes of Byron’s sexual life. He does not deny that the poet’s ‘heterosexual impulses were fully as real as his homosexual ones’: at the same time he sees Byron’s homosexuality, together with the guilt it aroused and the fear of exposure it compelled him to live with, as central to the most crucial episodes of his life and his work. Thus Byron’s decision to travel in the Levant after coming down from Cambridge sprang directly from his eagerness to indulge his homosexual proclivities safely and freely. The secret, unnamed, tormenting guilt with which the heroes of his narrative poems are obsessed can be explained or at least illuminated by taking fully into the reckoning this side of his life. The break-up of his marriage owed at least as much to his wife’s learning about it as to his uncontrollable, incomprehensible behaviour towards her, or to her horror at his incestuous relationship with his sister, Augusta. His final disgrace and flight from England were precipitated, not by the fact that people were beginning to talk about his relationship with Augusta, but because word about his pederastic past – which could have laid him open to arrest, a public trial, conviction, the suffering of one or another form of barbaric punishment – was being spread about London.

What is one to make of all this? Rather more, I would suggest, than most of Byron’s recent biographers have done; rather less than Crompton would wish us to. For instance, it would be hard for any reader of this book to continue to believe that Byron’s homosexual adventures in the Levant were, so to speak, accidental; the evidence is strong that he went there rather in the spirit that took many Englishmen and Americans to parts of North Africa in the years after the Second World War. The problem is, however, that Crompton’s procedure inevitably commits him to following his hero’s career stage by stage throughout his life, and thus constructing an alternative biography for him. As a biography, his version of the life is a much thinner and less interesting one than he himself seems to grasp. To give an example: page after page is devoted to Byron’s relationship with the Cambridge chorister, Edlestone (‘a violent though pure love and passion’ was how Byron later wrote of it), and to the transmutation of that love into a series of weakish lyrics dedicated to a thinly disguised female figure called ‘Thyrza’. Yet truly catastrophic figures in the unfolding drama of Byron’s life, like Lady Caroline Lamb, Annabella Milbanke (the poet’s wife), and Augusta, come and go in the book with great rapidity; when they do appear they figure not primarily for their own sakes and in their own right, but more as knowers or not-knowers, as divulgers or preservers, of Byron’s pederastic secrets. The period of Byron’s relationship with Teresa Guiccioli, the longest-lasting and most stable of his sexual relationships, during which he wrote much of his masterpiece, Don Juan, earns perhaps half a dozen references altogether. On the other hand, Byron’s affair with a Greek-Italian youth, Nicole Giraud, whom he met on his travels abroad, is dwelt on at length and brought to a close with an extraordinary peroration:

We do not know what became of Giraud, who at this point disappears from the purview of Byron scholarship ... It seems a shame to lose sight of him. Perhaps the annals of Valletta or Naples or Athens will one day yield information. Did he ever come to identify his patron-lover with the famous poet and leader of the struggle for Greek independence? We do not know. But he may have remembered his liaison with the English lord as the happiest and most notable adventure of his boyhood. And Byron, who later managed to make the lives of so many women miserable, must have looked back on the affair with a certain satisfaction.

That ‘may have’ and ‘must have’ appear in many other places in the book, and in more subtle ways of handling the evidence. Byron writes in his ‘Detached Thoughts’:

If I could explain at length the real causes which have contributed to this perhaps natural temperament of mine – this Melancholy which hath made me a bye-word – nobody would wonder – but this is impossible without doing much mischief. – I do not know what other men’s lives have been – but I cannot conceive of anything more strange than some of the earlier parts of mine – I have written my memoirs – but omitted all the really consequential & important parts – from deference to the dead – to the living – and to those who must be both ...

I must not go on with these reflections – or I shall be letting out some secret or other – to paralyze posterity.

Crompton’s commentary then goes on to speak of Byron’s ‘hint’ that ‘his bisexuality, along with a hereditary predisposition, was the chief cause of the notorious “Byronic” personality.’ By the bottom of the page, however, this ‘hint’, if it is one, has been transformed into a quite explicit ‘singling out’ on Byron’s part of his bisexuality in the above passage, and into a flat diagnosis by the author: ‘Of all the occasions of guilt his homosexual inclinations must have tortured him most.’

So one could go on. What is ultimately at stake are issues that go much deeper than disputed interpretations of this or that passage, or of a multitude of passages, might suggest. The truth is that Crompton is colluding with Byron in supposing that there are ‘real causes’ for his ‘melancholy’, and that there are specifiable ‘occasions of guilt’ which account for the self-torments he went through. How much Byron himself wanted this to be the case his narrative poems reveal plainly enough: they reveal also just how much he wanted to believe, and wanted others to believe, that he was both the possessor of and possessed by a ‘secret’ that could never be revealed – so secret a secret, indeed, that its bearer did not himself know what it was. Yet if we turn these assumptions and assertions around – what then? What if Byron’s homosexuality was not the ‘occasion’ of his guilt, but rather that his guilt was the ‘occasion’ of his homosexuality? That his guilt was the ‘occasion’, too, of the debauchery with both sexes he plunged into in the Levant – not to speak of the incest he committed with his sister? Surely to try to think in terms such as these, difficult though they are, is to take seriously the evidence of the poems, and of what is good in them and what is preposterous, and not to allow Byron or the Byronic hero to determine (with that famous frown on his forehead) how we should read them. I am not suggesting that the questions I have asked provide us with a ‘key’ to an understanding of Byron as a man and a poet. On the contrary, what I want to do is to suggest just how open-minded we must be, how ready to subvert the usual categories of our understanding, if we are to respond adequately to what Crompton calls Byron’s ‘kaleidoscopic’ nature.