Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
"Shades of the Dead! Have I Not Heard Your Voices?"
On Monday, May 17, 1824, near noon, six men gathered in the high-ceilinged drawing room at 50 Albemarle Street, off Piccadilly, in a house that served as both home and office to the publisher John Murray. For days the group had been quarreling among themselves. Alliances shifted. Messages flew back and forth, and meetings between pairs continued through the morning. Once they were finally assembled, an argument flared between two of their number, John Cam Hobhouse, a rising young parliamentarian from a wealthy Bristol family, and Thomas Moore, a Dublin-born poet and grocer's son. Angry words threatened to turn into physical violence. Finally, the decision of the host prevailed, and calm was restored. Murray then asked his sixteen-year-old son to join them. Introduced as heir to his father's business, the boy was invited to witness a momentous event. A servant appeared, carrying two bound manuscript volumes. While the group drew closer to the fire blazing in the grate, two others, Wilmot Horton and Colonel Doyle, took the books and, tearing them apart, fed the pages, covered with handwriting familiar to all those present, to the crackling flames. Within minutes, the memoirs of George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron, were reduced to a mound of ashes.
Byron had been dead for one month to the day. The ship carrying the poet's embalmed body (vital organs removed and packed separately) had taken four weeks to sail from Greece to England. In the interval, furious debates had exposed enmities old and new among those who were to be present at the burning of the manuscript. Quarreling had flared over the ownership of the manuscript, intensifying with arguments about potential damage to the poet's already seamy reputation and the pain his unexpurgated memories would cause his former wife, their daughter, and his half sister. Each of the six men had his own stake in the dispute. John Cam Hobhouse, a Whig M.P. and Byron's executor and oldest friend, wanted only to sanitize the poet's name for posterity. In the last years of his life, Byron had given his memoirs to his fellow poet Tom Moore. The needy Moore had, with Byron's approval, promptly sold the copyright to Murray. Then, at the burning, he tried to save the manuscript. But it was too late. Finally, Horton and Doyle, the two responsible for the actual destruction of the volumes, represented the interests of Lady Byron, the poet's estranged wife and the mother of his child, and his half sister, Augusta Leigh, respectively.
"The most timid of God's booksellers," Byron had once called Murray, his publisher and now enthusiastic host of the auto-da-fe. Still, the decision to destroy the most personal words of his best-selling author (which, in the event, Murray had not even read), weighed against the enormous profit potential of publishing the memoirs, underlines the fear that the known facts of Byron's life inspired in those who loved himand their horror of revelations yet unknown.
Byron's fame as a poet and his notoriety as a man were one; the scandals of his lifewhoring, marriage, adultery, incest, sodomybecame the text or subtext of his poems, made more shocking by the poet's cynicism shading into blasphemy. The heroes of the poems might be pirates or princes, but Byron's voicethe passionate sorrowing youth turned world-weary libertinemade his works instant best-sellers. Editions of his first advertisement for himself, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, sold out within three days. And this was not even the most frankly autobiographical of Byron's works. Penned from self-imposed exile in Italy, published in eagerly awaited installments, Don Juan delighted London gossipmongers with plentiful allusions to the scandal surrounding the poet's divorce from his young wife of one year and his subsequent flight from English "hypocrisy and cant." In the few years left to him, Byron added the glamour of revolutionary politics to his erotic and literary engagements. In exile, he joined the underground secret society called the Carbonari in the struggle to rid Italy of the Austrians, before dying at Missolonghi, bled to death by his doctors, while training troops for the liberation of Greece. Mourned throughout the world, the poet would not have shared the belief that his end was untimely. He had lived so hard and fast, he said, that before his death at age thirty-six, he felt himself to be an old man.
Indeed, the brief arc of his life spanned an era whose turbulence mirrored the poet's own stormy existence. In 1788, the year of Byron's birth, George III succumbed to the first attack of madness, the violent symptoms of which required the appointment of his oldest son, the Prince of Wales, as Regent. The King regained his reason the following year and resumed power, but already the high living "Prinnie" and his dissolute friends had changed the tone of the court. Twenty years before he was officially declared Prince Regent, George Frederick Augustus of Hanover's indulgences in food, drink, gambling, and women, along with more durable interests in architecture and decor, ushered in the glittering froth of brilliance, luxury, and vice we know as the Regency. Its sensibilityat once restless, sensual, melancholy, and exuberantmight be characterized by a term invented a hundred years later to describe a strangely similar spirit: fin-de-siecle.
In 1789, the year after Byron was born, the French Revolution fired the dreamsand fueled the nightmaresof all Europe. Its bloody overthrow of the old order was the crucial event that continued to haunt Byron's generation, shaping his choice of heroes and villains among his elders. Charles James Fox, the leader of the radical Whig opposition and the idol of Byron's youth, had declared the fall of the Bastille "the greatest and best event in the history of the world." For the Tory government, however, in power for most of Byron's lifetime, the French Revolution gave legitimacy to the politics of reaction. The excesses of the Terror turned fiery young republican sympathizers among the first generation of Romantic poets, notably Wordsworth and Southey, into middle-aged monarchists, reviled by Byron as turncoat opportunists.
Fear of revolutionary contagion provided the excuse for repressive measures; in 1794 habeas corpus was suspended, the first in a series of acts amputating the civil rights of Englishmen. Censorship and spying became the order of the day; any form of association, especially among the dispossessed, could be prosecuted as a crime. Starting in 1793, when the Girondist government declared war on England, patriotism was invoked to justify further curtailing of individual freedoms. The political reality that permitted the Regency to waltz on unafraid was that England had become a police state. Byron, the newly crowned king of London drawing rooms in 1814, saw clearly that as a poet who was also a satirist and social critic, as a peer who spoke out for the rights of starving weavers or Irish Catholics, he would not long be indulged for his youth, talent, and title.
War with France began when Byron was five years old; it would continue until 1815, when he was twenty-seven. Like that of other ardent youths throughout Europe, the poet's political consciousness was shaped by an idealized image of Napoleon as the personification of heroic conquest in the name of republican principles. Besides, for the adolescent rebel, Tory England's demonized enemy was a natural ally. Less consciously, Byron absorbed another Napoleonic lesson: The little corporal who declared himself Emperor was the herald of a new era, the age of the self-made man.
In England, too, this new breed was increasingly prominent. The war with France had galvanized a sluggish economy, ushering in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, which would change the face of England. The first of England's dark satanic mills helped to float the Regency extravaganza. While the poor suffered more, a new class of entrepreneur-inventorsironmasters and coal barons, pottery manufacturers and bankersrode to dazzling fortunes. Their sons, like the two brilliant Peel brothers (one of whom became Prime Minister), were among Lord Byron's few commoner classmates at Harrow. And there would be more. Great landowning grandees were still the most visible stars on the brilliant stage of the Regency, but new money and talent were joining the featured players.
It was a febrile age. Social, political, and cultural certainties were shifting, like tectonic plates, under the feet of young men starting out in life. Mobility, then as now, had its price. The pressures of public life destroyed individuals as never before. Between 1790 and 1820, nineteen members of Parliament committed suicide and twenty others went mad; two of those who took their own lives, Sir Samuel Romilly and Sir Samuel Whitbread, were closely associated with Byron. "In every class there is the same taut neurotic quality," the historian J. H. Plumb observed, "the fantastic gambling and drinking, the riots, brutality and violence, and everywhere and always a constant sense of death."
Byron was a child of his age and subject to all its fissures. The great Regency portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence met the poet only once, but where others found simply beauty, the painter saw all the conflicts of Byron's character: "its keen and rapid genius, its pale intelligence, its profligacy, and its bitterness; its original symmetry distorted by the passions, his laugh of mingled merriment and scorn; the forehead clear and open, the brow boldly prominent, the eyes bright and dissimilar, the nose finely cut, and the nostril acutely formed; the mouth well made, but wide and contemptuous even in its smile, falling singularly at the corners, and its vindictive and disdainful expression heightened by the massive firmness of the chin, which springs at once from the centre of the full under-lip; the hair dark and curling but irregular in its growth; all this presents to you the poet and the man; and the general effect is heightened by a thin spare form, and, as you may have heard, by a deformity of limb."
Heir to instability, Byron clung to the certainty of inherited land and ancient title, even as he vowed to seize the rewards of talent and energy.
"The way to riches, to Greatness, lies before me," Byron wrote to his mother at age fifteen. "I can, I will cut myself a path through the world or perish."