Hidden Consequences

John Mullan

  • Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy
    Faber, 674 pp, £9.99, November 2003, ISBN 0 571 17997 5

The trailer for the recent BBC dramatisation of Byron’s life made no bones about the poet’s appeal. ‘Everything you’ve ever heard about him is true,’ the husky female voice-over promised. Here was a story that would excite us because of what we already thought we knew. Judging by the immediate critical response to Fiona MacCarthy’s biography, the appetite for Byron’s life is indeed sharpened by all the stories we already have. In the Guardian the historian Kathryn Hughes thought that ‘Byron was indeed someone special,’ but ‘not, perhaps, because of his poetry, which is hardly read now.’ Coinciding with this biography, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Cult of Lord Byron, confirmed the allure of the poet’s ‘life and legend’. Everyone seems to agree that the making of a celebrity (somewhere he must have been called a ‘cultural icon’) is fascinating enough in itself. Never has a dead poet lived on so successfully without his poetry.

Yet MacCarthy’s Byron: Life and Legend inspires just the opposite thought: that there is so much that one does not want to hear again. Is it only a few of the eccentrics who enjoy Byron’s poetry who might think that we already know enough about his passionate relationship with his half-sister, Augusta, the breakdown of his marriage, his affairs and conquests, his apparent abandonment of his daughter Allegra, the nature of the strange ménage that he shared in Ravenna with his lover Teresa Guiccioli and her husband, and so on? Are we still interested in the tempests with Lady Caroline Lamb? It is all the worse realising that it will end with the expedition to join the Greek War of Independence, uncomfortably like the scheme of a fantasist. ‘Writing, even with genius, did not appear to him to fulfil a great man’s duty: it had to be linked with action,’ Guiccioli wrote, idealistically commemorating Byron’s idealism. Now no honest biographer can exclude the buffoonish aspects of that final adventure, what with Byron’s commissioning of bespoke scarlet and gold uniforms, his design of huge gilt helmets, plumes and all, for himself and Trelawny.

It is true that any biographer of Byron will find their subject frequently recommending life before poetry. Unlike his friend and contemporary Shelley, with his ideas about the secular holiness of poetry, Byron was lordly in his dismissal of verse, which he invariably described as a diversion from more important matters. ‘Poetry should only occupy the idle,’ he declared a few months before his death (recalling the title of his first volume of verse, Hours of Idleness). Perhaps appropriately, then, MacCarthy is rather enthused by Byron’s ill-starred Greek expedition, to which she gives very detailed attention. In her treatment, the poet becomes more resourceful than usual, an intelligent organiser and diplomat rather than an interloping dreamer. Here she seems to admire him most. Much of what has gone before, however, seems dispiriting rather than scintillating – dispiriting because it is a chronicle of self-indulgence and sometimes callousness, dispiriting all the more because it is being repeated. It could, to be sure, have been a little less depressing. MacCarthy readily misses opportunities to doubt any of his wife Annabella’s accusations and insinuations in the wake of the couple’s acrimonious separation. Byron’s side of the story went up in smoke in John Murray’s grate when the poet’s publisher presided over the burning of his memoirs.

If we want Byron’s relationships with those who knew him, why should we not just read his often wonderful letters? One answer might be that Leslie Marchand’s 12-volume edition does not provide the other side of Byron’s correspondences. Yet, like biographers before her, MacCarthy has little space for this. We get snippets. There are interesting bits of John Murray’s letters, worldly and sprightly much of the time, despite his later fame as the man who dared censor Don Juan. When Byron gives the third instalment of Don Juan to John Hunt, Murray sounds agonised. MacCarthy calls it ‘heartbreak’. The pained letters of Byron’s women are often mentioned but rarely quoted. There are odd, telling exceptions. When MacCarthy transcribes a nostalgic pencilled note from Byron’s former servant and cast-off lover Susan Vaughan, sent with a lock of her hair, and apparently written just before emigration, we glimpse suddenly a whole world of hidden consequences.

It is not that MacCarthy’s is a bad book. On the contrary. Not only is it conscientiously researched, it is also notably well written (and generously illustrated). It is to be preferred, I think, to the two most recent large-scale attempts at a Life of Byron, by Phyllis Grosskurth and Benita Eisler. MacCarthy, while happy to recommend, for instance, the virtues of Tom Moore’s highly selective Life of Byron of 1832, hardly acknowledges modern biographies, apart from Marchand’s three-volume account of 1957. Marchand is a safe ancestor, being a mix of impeccable scholarship and old-fashioned reticence: a perfect authority to acknowledge and yet to supplement. Biographers with a new psychological ‘picture’ of Byron are always deferential to Marchand, whose biography has long been safely confined to academic libraries.

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