Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life

Lord Byron’s popularity has been waning for more than a century. The temptation to revive him no longer attracts poets, or even critics of poetry, so much as novelists and biographers. Byron’s life was a scandal, a transcendent scandal that helped form our modern notion of celebrity — and so we pride ourselves on fathoming his fame and dismiss his poems as superficial.

Byron, the thinking goes, cannot compete with the lyrical concentration of Keats or the deep self-examination of Wordsworth (two contemporaries he despised). In the rich garden of English Romantic verse, he comes off as pale and rootless. “Ring for your valet, bid him quickly bring / Some hock and soda water” , Byron recommends, companionably enough. But Keats is intoxicating, wishing “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim / Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget” .

What Keats wanted to forget — the weariness of modern life — has of course become the necessary evil that inspires much modern poetry. Byron belongs to an older literary tradition, one that doesn’t take the disconnect between life and fantasy quite so hard. The wickedly playful 18th-century poet Alexander Pope inspired Byron’s best poems, and if anything about Byron is Romantic, it is said to be his life, or at least the immediacy with which he set his life down in verse. Like another 18th-century forebear, Tristram Shandy, Byron’s poems are instantly self-referential; his 19th-century innovation was to live a life of adventure, so that the in-jokes of his own epic, Don Juan, embroidered not countryside tablecloths but Turkish divans. One of his most ambiguous legacies is the notion that a writer should live to the hilt, like Hemingway, if he wants to have anything to write about. Byron’s greatest descendents have not been poets but passionate novelists like Hemingway, Stendhal, or Dostoevsky.

All this could have been expertly coursed by Edna O’Brien, herself a novelist sometimes suspected of autobiography. But in her new book, Byron in Love, O’Brien turns a simpler trick: changing life into gossip. She accepts as given the claim that poetry has nothing to do with the individual, perhaps because she prefers this individual to his poetry. O’Brien claims, with an unconvincing relish, that as soon as she read in a lady’s memoir that Byron was “the most extraordinary and terrifying person,” she herself was “immediately drawn to him.” (Or, as she puts it in the final and revised copy of this hastily finished book, the same remark “whetted my interest.”) Whatever the true degree of her initial attraction, she makes it carry the weight of this book — as if a 19th-century crush were still the smartest way to respond to Lord Byron, in 2009.

Sex symbols do not necessarily make good biographies. O’Brien has to sustain a kind of scandalized sensationalism that neither does justice to Byron’s very sophisticated era nor answers our 21st-century concerns. In describing “Almack’s club, where heiresses went in search of husbands and married women in search of dalliances to avenge their ever-faithless husbands,” she lets impressive-sounding generalization stand in for atmospheric detail. In depicting another of Byron’s haunts, the Cocoa Tree, she draws on a staid quote from the historian Edward Gibbon and then provides Byron’s “more bibulous” anecdote: “We clareted and champagned till two…” O’Brien does not source this or any other quote, but Fiona MacCarthy’s 2002 Byron: Life and Legend, which foregrounds the same quote from the poet, reveals that it postdates Gibbon’s death by 20 years. So much for historical context.

A contrast in tone between Gibbon and Byron would mean little, anyway — but O’Brien writes with an eyebrow permanently arched. She wants to share in Byron’s mischief. But when the real trouble begins, this approach proves insufficient. Byron did commit a few crimes that were truly awful: besides being an ungrateful and spendthrift son, a poor student, and a promiscuous and unreliable dandy, he slept with his half sister, making love brazenly to her in front of his own wife, whom he soon abandoned along with their one-year-old daughter. After wresting another daughter from the custody of another mistress, he deposited her, at four years of age, in an Italian convent, where she soon died.

These actions do not entirely resist human understanding; indeed, they open wide windows onto the poet’s manic, needy nature. But O’Brien has not amassed the web of thoughtful cross-reference that a real biography, like MacCarthy’s, uses to stitch inexplicable cruelties back into the texture of a plausible personality. O’Brien is more comfortable paraphrasing the epistolary negotiations between Byron and his lovers, or taking potshots at his relatively prudish publisher.

Byron in Love feels like a missed opportunity. A highly accomplished novelist like O’Brien could have taken liberties with the historical record and written a speculative life that would hazard answers to some of our big questions about Byron: To what extent did the author of Don Juan take himself seriously in his early, most creakingly poignant poetry? Why did he marry a woman he never loved, when he had passionately loved so many others? And how did the failure of that marriage, and his subsequent exile, open up into the elastic reactions of Don Juan?

This is the story that O’Brien misses, and that could make Byron mildly relevant again: Byron’s “separation scandal” and his exile from polite society is the inflection point we need to understand today. Though he pretended not to care, Byron responded to this final, greatest dose of opprobrium by becoming a greater poet. Something unpredictable — a combination of shame and exasperation, or desperate humor — must have motivated him. Work that today interests only dedicated readers gave way to Don Juan, the embodiment of airy, self-compromising delight, a recognizable sire to the winking, worldly, undying strength of British humor.