Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (London: John Murray, 2003)
Lord Byron was an old-fashioned English libertine: already a precocious expert in the theory and practice of pederasty while at public school; rampant with servants, female and male, in the seclusion of private houses; married, but only for the sake of dynastic propriety; a seducer of other men’s wives. His life was punctuated by frenetic bouts of pugilism, duelling, gambling and whoring. Yet, although he was a fearless and promiscuous fighter and a heroic long-distance swimmer, he was also anxious and fussy, self-consciously crippled, an obsessive dieter and user of purgatives.
He was that rare creature, like Pushkin, a Romantic poet with a sense of humour. Yet he was also deeply sentimental, a constant carver of initials on tree-trunks and etcher of window-panes. The archives are full of locks of hair, his own and his lovers’. When humans proved unreliable he gave his affections to large dogs; his residences were often stocked with absurd menageries. Even his rages and griefs demonstrate a passionate love of life, yet all of his noblest exploits were riddled with farce. Fiona MacCarthy rightly calls them ‘Heroic and mock-heroic’.
Annabella Milbanke married him with the intention of reforming him, so I suppose she got what she deserved. The account of his wedding is, as ever, whoopingly funny. His friend Hobhouse said of him, on the way to meet his fiancée, ‘Never was a lover in less haste’. At the wedding ceremony, when he had to utter the words ‘With all my worldly goods I thee endow’, Byron grimaced. The newlyweds had not a honeymoon but, in the words of the groom, a ‘treacle moon’. The marriage soon settled into a pattern of abuse and neglect. But when Annabella’s patience finally snapped and she demanded a separation, Byron was astonished and felt hard done-by.
As usual, Lady Caroline Lamb comes across as madder, badder and more dangerous to know than Byron ever was. During their affair she had threatened to expose him as a sodomite. By 1815 she was actively spreading rumours that were designed to ruin him. With a growing reputation for both sodomy and incest, and increasingly subjected to press abuse, veiled threats and anonymous letters, he had little choice but to go abroad.
He left England with the bailiffs snapping at his heels. Although he rather grandly associated his misfortunes with those of Napoleon, he approached exile with a certain lightness of heart. From Ostend, he wrote a cheerful letter to Hobhouse, who was due to join him in Switzerland. ‘Don’t forget the Cundums,’ he wrote. But like Oscar Wilde after him, such was his notoriety that he was pursued across Europe by the tut-tutting of high-minded English tourists—they even trained their telescopes on his Swiss house from across the lake.
For me, the test of a biographer of Byron comes when she has to describe the complexities of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkish rule. The subject cannot be glossed over, since Byron immersed himself in it. Indeed, you might say he sacrificed his life to the cause. MacCarthy manages the task reasonably well, constructing her version around sketches of the key personalities involved, and gives a vivid impression of the mephitic atmosphere of Missolonghi. When he arrived there he was given a hero’s welcome; when he left, to be shipped in a box back to the country which had rejected him, he was mythologised as the hero his actions had never quite made him.
England disposed of him with its customary pettiness. He was refused a national burial on moral grounds. His memoirs were destroyed unread; and several of his last poems, expressions of love for his last boyfriend, went the same way. Yet from London to Hucknall Torkard, where he was buried, his funeral cortege was watched by silent crowds. Thousands of ordinary people turned out to pay homage, remembering, among other things, his support for the rioting Nottingham stocking-weavers. (It is as if Diana Windsor had supported the miners.) There was also, of course, a widespread love of his poetry.
Press reviews of MacCarthy’s book have typified the down-dumbed, barrel-scraping, craven populism of even our ‘quality’ media. The Guardian headlined its piece ‘Mad about the boys’, thereby placing Byron on a par with Noël Coward. One reviewer who should have known better loftily pronounced that Byron’s poetry is ‘hardly read now’—meaning, I guess, that she never reads it herself and should not have been reviewing this book in the first place. Perhaps, though, MacCarthy unwittingly invites such trivial responses herself. She starts her book with the silly question ‘Does Byron matter?’ (To those to whom culture is important, of course he does. To the rest, of course he doesn’t.) And there is hardly a word here about poetic technique, which is odd, considering he was one of the sharpest technicians in English literary history. Come to think of it, there is very little about the poetry at all. Which is odd, considering he was a poet.
Biographies of Byron cannot fail to entertain, but they are only of much use if they lead the reader back to the poetry. Having read MacCarthy, I went straight back to that mad epic Don Juan. Alternately tragic and hilarious, lofty and trashy, it is the perfect book for reading in chunks while commuting by train or tram.
[This review first appeared in County Lit 14 (Spring 2003), pp.4-5. The closing point about commuting seemed important at the time, but I can’t remember why.]