- 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.
Marchand did indeed omit speculations about Byron’s sexual predilections. Yet, as is not often acknowledged, he made clear enough in his annotations to Byron’s correspondence the documentary evidence of the poet’s homosexual experiences, decoding the references in his letters to his sexual encounters with various youths. Byron’s favourite was ‘Plen. And optabil.-Coit.’, an abbreviated phrase from Petronius’ Satyricon: ‘coitum plenum et optabilem’. Marchand translates this as ‘complete intercourse to one’s heart’s desire’, adding that ‘in Petronius the narrator tells how he overcame the reluctance of a boy.’ Such references are commonest in Byron’s letters to his undoubtedly homosexual (code word ‘methodiste’) Cambridge friend Charles Skinner Matthews. When, writing from Falmouth before setting out on his Mediterranean tour of 1809-10, Byron talks of being ‘surrounded by Hyacinths’, Marchand duly explains that Hyacinth was a youth beloved by Apollo and that, as used by Byron, it has ‘definite homosexual associations’. It is made clear enough to any reader of the relevant volumes that on his travels to the Levant, and especially while in Greece, he had sexual relationships with a series of teenage boys.
This aspect of Byron’s life has become more and more prominent in recent biographies and MacCarthy believes that his affairs with women were merely ‘diversions’. English Literature’s greatest womaniser was hiding something. ‘Byron liked the chase, the reassurance of heterosexual conquest.’ Yet she is sure that his ‘relations with boys’ were his true ‘emotional focus’. It was not just a phase. ‘Byron’s male loves seem to have deepened and flourished with the years.’ She is convinced that, in romantic recollection, he became skilled at concealing ‘sexual feelings towards boys’ behind embroidered tales of early heterosexual love. Persuaded of this, she can treat the poet’s anecdotes of his youthful romantic disappointments as proof of his homosexual nature. He told stories of women who had let him down ‘to distract attention from his real sexual predilections’.
At Harrow he found romantic friendships ‘through which he discovered a male-orientated sexual identity’. With incautious candour, MacCarthy confesses herself guided here by Another Country, Julian Mitchell’s 1980 play (later a film). She decides to re-interpret the well-known episode in 1804 when Lord Grey de Ruthyn, who had leased Newstead Abbey, is commonly supposed to have attempted to seduce the 16-year-old Byron. What is known is that, after months of friendship, Byron left Newstead suddenly, telling Augusta that he now detested Grey for reasons that he could not state, even to a sister. The very vehemence of his expressions of dislike convinces MacCarthy of a story different from the one usually told: ‘The most likely explanation is that Byron allowed himself to be seduced by Lord Grey and reacted with alarm only after the event.’ ‘Likely’ only because of her convictions about Byron’s ‘nature’. The actual and the imagined are thoroughly muddled.
Certainly Byron encountered a homosexual subculture at Cambridge, where he fell in love with the 15-year-old chorister John Edleston, the disguised addressee of some sugary verses. MacCarthy concedes that Byron himself always described their relationship as chaste, and that there is no evidence to the contrary. Yet this suggests all the more strongly to her his real desires. When, in 1808, Byron began contemplating a trip to Greece and Turkey, it was ‘partly, if not mainly’ (a nice slippage there) because of permissive attitudes to homosexuality in the East. When he thinks of returning to Greece at various times later in his life it is because this is ‘where homosexual affections could be expressed freely’. The fact that his homosexual affairs ended after his return from Greece in 1811, as he himself clearly stated, means that he was ever under the pressure of a ‘constant battle with his instincts’. Yet the abiding hunger is all the biographer’s inference.
MacCarthy sometimes has to work hard to stick to her theory. She is not immune to scepticism, catching out scandal seekers who have misread an entry in Hobhouse’s diary to suggest that Byron feared discovery of a sexual relationship with Edleston – all nonsense, as she shows. Her determination to see through to Byron’s homosexual nature is tested by the careful fact-gathering of her own narrative. There is a wonderful moment when, having given a full account of Byron’s leading Venetian mistresses, and tried to do justice to his promiscuity during his first two years in the city, the biographer suddenly remembers her thesis: ‘There is something suspiciously insistent about the bravado of Byron’s narratives of his encounters with women in letters back to England.’ All those women: a sure sign of homosexuality. Certainly there is a libertine contempt in Byron’s listing of his conquests in a letter to his friends Hobhouse and Kinnaird: ‘some of them are Countesses – & some of them are Cobblers wives – some noble – some middling – some low – & all whores.’ But can this really constitute evidence that he was up to something else, that ‘his Venetian sexual exploits were a good deal more varied than he claimed’?
Any amount of heterosexual promiscuity can be evidence of hampered homosexuality. When his attentions to women became ‘frenetic’ after his return from Greece, this was ‘with an element of cruelty engendered by the knowledge that he was being false to his heart’. Psychological hypotheses quickly harden into facts. Yet the relationship with Teresa Guiccioli finally defeats the hypothesis. The man who could never preserve an attachment was thoroughly attached. It was a physical attraction that lasted beyond the first heady weeks into months and years. The ‘amatory business’ proved irresistible, but so, too, did Teresa’s company. Byron candidly expressed his sexual satisfaction and also willingly followed her around, more or less devotedly. ‘I only meant to be a Cavalier Servente and had no idea that it would turn out a romance, in the Anglo fashion,’ Byron remarked with mock-helplessness to Tom Moore.
The ‘Byron was gay’ thesis won the book plenty of airtime. In fact, it is a small part of what is mostly a skilled and intelligent retelling. John Murray, the direct descendant of Byron’s publisher, published MacCarthy’s book in hardback, and she makes a good deal of her access to their Byron archive. Others have been here before, but she has probably spent more time than previous biographers in Albemarle Street, looking through the letters and locks of hair that the poet was sent. Even though she passes by Byron’s poetry with not much more than gestures of appreciation, she is hot with the evidence of its instant appeal. Her book’s subtitle proclaims her interest in measuring his impact, especially after his death. It includes a final 50-page section called ‘The Byron Cult’.
Perhaps this is really the material of another book. It is worthwhile for its entertaining accounts of the attempts of notable Byronists to sleep with women who had once slept with Byron and, at its conclusion, for a gripping narration of the opening of Byron’s coffin in 1938 (Byron’s embalmed features were, according to the vicar, perfectly preserved). Yet much of this last section is a list-like collection of European writers who have been considered ‘distinctly Byronic’, without very much sense (beyond their hairstyles and choices of epigraphs) of what that might mean. Byron’s ‘legend’ is not much explained.
This is also the impression made by MacCarthy’s painstaking account of the extraordinary progress of Byron’s coffin from London to Nottinghamshire, after his lying in state in rented rooms in Westminster. Among the witnessing crowd in Oxford Street was John Clare, who remembered how the young girl next to him ‘gave a deep sigh and utterd poor Lord Byron’ and reflected that ‘the common people felt his merits and his power.’ Mary Shelley watched from her window as the cortège passed through Kentish Town. Lady Caroline Lamb’s husband, William, met the hearse by accident while out riding in Hertfordshire. You try to resist the implicit Princess Diana parallel, but it is hardly possible. After three days the procession reached Nottingham, where there were more huge crowds and another lying in state. Then there was the progress to the church at Hucknall Torkard, next to the Newstead estate that Byron had sold, where the churchyard was thick with people.
We have become skilled at claiming to know the significance of mass displays of sentiment, but MacCarthy, after years of research and near the end of her book, is rather at a loss as to what the public interest meant:
How were these ordinary people mourning Byron? As the hero of Greece? The author of Don Juan? Or as some less clearly defined celebrity whose life, impinging on their own lives, had given it more meaning? In mourning Byron surely people were regretting the loss of a fearless and sympathetic voice.
Clearly she believes, like Clare, that the crowds were mourners rather than mere gawpers, though the motives she suggests seem unlikely or unintelligible – how ‘impinging on their own lives’? The ‘voice’ that she is talking about here must mean his poetry and the appeal of this remains uninvestigated.
The impact of the first two Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which made Byron famous when they were published in 1812, will remain obscure to many of this book’s readers who think his celebrity so fascinating. MacCarthy uses the Murray cache of letters from admirers as evidence of the poem’s extraordinary appeal to women. A young woman who signed herself only MH was typical in telling Byron that, after reading Childe Harold, she found herself ‘as it were animated by a new soul, alive to wholly novel sensations and activated by feelings till then unknown’. Lady Caroline Lamb was, as MacCarthy notes, merely ‘the fan to end all fans’. Samuel Rogers gave her a proof copy of the poem. ‘I read it, and that was enough.’ But what was it in the poem that produced such rapture and that so completely made the poet’s reputation? Is it something that we can still find there? Or must we only guess at what titillated Regency tastes?
Lady Morgan declared that it had ‘more force, fire and thought than anything I have read for an age’, and fiery it certainly is. Here, we might say, is the Romantic poem: self-absorbed yet cosmopolitan; exotic yet passionately topical; fashion-sensitive yet written in a voice of delicious archaisms. The use of a hero ennuyé with the delights of Regency society, and ready for any kind of satanic diversion, now seems a trick – but a good one.
With pleasure drugg’d he almost longed for woe,
And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.
Better to journey to hell than stay home in heaven. The poem turns travel into an expression of every sort of restlessness and appetite for stimulation. Autobiography is part of it, but important mainly because the poet must have been to these places. Even when he invokes the Muse in the first stanza, he has to tell us that he has been to Greece, and to the foot of Mount Parnassus, ‘where I’ve wander’d by thy vaunted rill’.
The fire that Lady Morgan relished was not only there in the delight in foreignness – from the excitement of a Spanish bullfight to the exotic characters and landscapes of Albania. It was also in the poet’s pleasing discontent – with London society, with British foreign policy, even with Anglican Christianity. Byron knew that he should only go so far with this. When the ruins of Athens provoke the poet to grand melancholy, ruminating on how ‘Even gods must yield – religions take their turns,’ Byron originally attached a note that was aggressively relativist about the qualities of different religions (including all versions of Christianity). His flatterer and agent Robert Dallas (himself a clergyman) advised him against including it and he agreed. A little touch of atheism, one suspects, was calculated to tickle a readership that badly wanted to be sophisticated.
The form was also part of the poem’s immediate appeal. Critics have rarely favoured Byron’s mock-archaic Spenserian stanza, but the poet called it ‘the measure most after my own heart’. The Spenserian diction allowed him to manage a sometimes humorous, sometimes wistful, distance between the narrator and his gloomy pilgrim. The verse form fits a poem dedicated to ruins and remnants and sad recollections of past glories. It also fits the peculiar tone that Byron made his own – that melancholy final line stretching into rumination, sententiousness or worldly-wise lament. It is a verse form that lingers over things, so we get a travel narrative at once exotic and dawdling (not least because it suits the inclusion of interpolated lyrics). It keeps stopping for a while. Each stanza is its own pause of regret or melancholy indulgence (though the stanzaic form seemed more a limitation in the later Cantos III and IV, where Byron keeps trying to burst its confines).
Byron made his tourist destinations places of the imagination for his polite readers, and sex was implicitly part of this. ‘The cold in clime are cold in blood,/Their love can scarce deserve the name,’ Byron’s Giaour announces, in the poem that immediately followed Childe Harold. This was to become comedy in Don Juan, where a hot sun brings out what is foolish as well as what is natural in humanity:
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.
His two bestselling ‘Turkish Tales’, The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos, had this subtitle to refer not just to their location but also to their release of sexual passion. Nowadays this usually earns Byron an uninteresting niche in accounts of Orientalism (a word that he used himself with notable self-mockery in Don Juan). Yet his first readers would never have so completely fallen for it had he not also offered so many lovingly accumulated details of the East.
The Giaour purported to be closer to a translation than an invention, Byron’s retelling of a story heard ‘by accident recited by one of the coffee-house storytellers who abound in the Levant, and sing or recite their narratives’. It is fragmentary, we are to suppose, because the poet could recall ‘so few fragments of the original’. As its success grew, so, artfully, did the poem, each new addition including new lines and passages. Because his tales were supposed to be woven from what the poet had observed, Byron’s notes were part of their appeal. Now it is often difficult to like their insouciance. In the opening passage, Byron takes us to the shores of Greece and likens his feelings to those of a person gazing at a recently dead corpse, ‘(Before Decay’s effacing fingers/Have swept the lines where beauty lingers)’. ‘’Tis Greece – but living Greece no more!’ We might take the lengthy analogy of ‘loveliness in death’ as earnest poeticism, were it not for Byron’s note. This remarks on the ‘singular beauty’ that often, for a few hours, ‘pervades the features of the dead’.
It is to be remarked in cases of violent death by gun-shot wounds, the expression is always that of languor, whatever the natural energy of the sufferer’s character; but in death from a stab the countenance preserves its traits of feeling or ferocity, and the mind its bias, to the last.
His genteel readers were apparently ready to take this on trust.
Byron’s notes took his readers through the customs and beliefs and rituals of the East. Frequently, with an ostentatious matter-of-factness, he will seal his information with some personal recollection – of the most skilful thrower of the Turkish javelin that he ever observed, or of the belief of Albanians in premonitions, or of the interior decoration of ‘Mussulman apartments’. Sometimes his interest in other cultures seems serious-minded, as when he celebrates the call to prayer from the highest gallery on the Minaret, ‘solemn and beautiful beyond all the bells in Christendom’. Sometimes his knowledge of the East allows for a mischievous relativism, as when he delights in detailing Islamic schemes of damnation.
But for all its exotic details, Byron’s narrative verse surely succeeded through its formal brio. After the Spenserian stanzas of Childe Harold, The Giaour has a buoyant rhythmic pace; its racing tetrameters, held or redirected by small variations of rhyme scheme, must have made his narrative irresistible. Embarrassingly for us silent readers, it rather depends on the thing being read aloud. In The Giaour, Byron played up the effects of performance, as if the poem really were being recited by one of those Eastern storytellers he claims to have heard in a coffee-house. The psychology of his Eastern tales is rudimentary: smouldering passion, insuperable pride, inconsolable desolation. Yet the rhythms are various and inventive. The Bride of Abydos, the follow-up to The Giaour, was written at speed and reads speedily, too, but it is a zestful sequence of metrical variations and tricks of rhyme. Each numbered section seems to try out some new pattern of metre, rhyme and line length; the sense of improvisation that was to become the whole aim of Don Juan is already being realised.
In Don Juan, the verse needs to be read aloud to discover the mock-casual ‘conversational facility’ of its ‘desultory rhyme’. This is rhyming ‘Which rings what’s uppermost of new or hoary,/Just as I feel the “Improvisatore”.’ It is the masterpiece that gives shape to his oeuvre, and in a way to his life, too. Even if the poem is never autobiographical in the manner of its only rival among Romantic poems, Wordsworth’s Prelude, here all the materials of Byron’s life are gathered and justified. Perhaps it is too much to expect any biographer to include Don Juan in the story of Byron’s life – yet ‘life’ was his favoured word for it. ‘Is it not life, is it not the thing?’ he asked Murray, rhetorically. ‘Life’ means what happens in the world, with the cant stripped away. ‘In Lord Byron, the real was never forgotten in the fanciful,’ as Moore put it in his Life of Byron. And ‘life’ means the sometimes giddy impression of improvisation, the liveliness of its digressions and changes of tone. ‘Ah! – What should follow slips from my reflection’ one canto begins, but on the hooks of his rhymes his wandering thoughts do catch, and it all does brilliantly, often bathetically, follow.
Good literary biographies are supposed to send you scuttling back to the works. This is a good biography, but it sent me to the poetry for relief rather than confirmation. ‘And never straining hard to versify/I rattle on exactly as I’d talk/With any body in a ride or walk.’ Given the poem’s delightfully far-fetched rhymes, this is an ironical self-description, yet it also quite honestly assures us that Don Juan is where Byron is to be heard. Having thrilled the readers of his age, he left them behind. Poetry made him a celebrity, and poetry finally enabled him to escape celebrity. Read Don Juan and you realise that the life is not necessary to explain the poem, the poem is necessary to explain the life.