Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life

Overview

From one of our greatest novelists comes this luminous portrait of the world’s first literary rock star.
Acclaimed biographer of James Joyce Edna O’Brien has written an intimate biography that suits her fiery and charismatic subject. She follows Byron from the dissipations of Regency London to the wilds of Albania and the Socratic pleasures of Greece and Turkey, culminating in his meteoric rise to fame at the age of twenty-four on the publication of Childe Harold. With her ...

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Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life

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Overview

From one of our greatest novelists comes this luminous portrait of the world’s first literary rock star.
Acclaimed biographer of James Joyce Edna O’Brien has written an intimate biography that suits her fiery and charismatic subject. She follows Byron from the dissipations of Regency London to the wilds of Albania and the Socratic pleasures of Greece and Turkey, culminating in his meteoric rise to fame at the age of twenty-four on the publication of Childe Harold. With her prismatic eye and novelistic style, O’Brien eerily captures the spirit of the man and creates an indelible portrait of Byron that explodes the Romantic myth. From his escapades with John Edleston, the fourteen-year-old Cambridge choir boy, to those with a galaxy of women that included his half-sister, his wife of one year, and the Italian countess who forsook her satyr-like husband for “the peer of England and its greatest poet,” Byron scandalized the world and inspires “Byronmania” to this day. Byron, as brilliantly rendered by O’Brien, is the poet as rebel, imaginative and lawless, and defiantly immortal.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In this jaunty biography, O'Brien eschews considerations of Byron's poetry to examine his amorous adventures, offering her reader the kind of fabulous anecdotes that made the poet a celebrity throughout Europe.
Publishers Weekly

Celebrated novelist and biographer O'Brien (The Country Girls trilogy) is a keen cicerone to the strange and insatiable love life of "the lame poet with the features of Adonis." Drawing on Marchand's three-volume biography of Lord Byron, while adding to this her immersion in letters and journals, O'Brien presents a figure we can see all-around. With a perennial worry about his weight, not to mention his right clubfoot, Byron, O'Brien says, compensated by indulging in homosexual relationships, most notably with John Edleston, and heterosexual trysts. Indeed, Byron always seemed to be in love and on the run, traversing Europe from Spain and Portugal to Albania and Greece. His travels and his loves inspired Manfred, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and, above all, Don Juan.Of interest as well are Byron's hot-and-cold relations with publisher John Murray, the Shelleys (who were largely appalled by Byron's lifestyle) and Dr. Polidori, whose novel on "the vampyre" would inspire an industry. At times a bit breathless, this compact life sets the emotional background for a poet who today is more famous for his life story than his work. 8 pages of illus. (June 15)

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Library Journal

O'Brien, best known for her stories and novels exploring the condition of women in male-dominated societies (e.g., The Light of Evening; The House of Splendid Isolation), was, perhaps unsurprisingly, "immediately drawn to" Byron. For this biography, she "immersed [her]self in the miraculous tomes of his letters and journals" in order to follow the man on his journey through love and his brief life. Certainly, she has written an accessible account of the famous poet's life, though it is more of a biography on the level of secondary school-aged readers than a scholarly work. Considering the thousands of available works on the life and writings of Byron, libraries with literature collections would be happier with Benita Eisler's Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame or Leslie A. Marchand's Byron and Byron: A Portrait. For libraries interested in Byron's correspondence, Andrew Nicholson's The Letters of John Murray to Lord Byron would be a better bet. Worth considering for public and secondary school libraries; optional for academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/09.]
—Felicity D. Walsh

Kirkus Reviews
A concise, humorous analysis of Lord Byron as archetypal lover and "embodiment of Everyman."Novelist O'Brien (The Light of Evening, 2006, etc.) revels in describing the excesses of the poet's larger-than-life personality. The precocious George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was translating Horace at the age of six, read the entire Old Testament before he was eight and went on to attend Harrow and Cambridge. From an early age he assumed a hedonistic, profligate approach to life that unceasingly attracted both men and women. His early loves included the Earl of Clare at Harrow ("a love interrupted only by distance . . . he could never hear the word ‘Clare' without a murmur of the heart"), Mary Chaworth back home during vacations and the "chiselled and beautiful" choirboy at Cambridge, John Edleston, in whose memory Byron wrote "Thryza," a series of elegies that disguised the subject's gender. O'Brien contends that Byron's continual need to be in love is what propelled his creative genius, allowing him to create the bawdy yet erudite poems "Don Juan" and "Childe Harold," which he composed while traveling through Greece and Turkey. Remarkable amorous conquests followed Byron's success-a swooning, hysterical Caroline Lamb, who stalked Byron once he broke off their relationship; Lady Frances, who Byron seduced in full view of her husband; and his half sister Augusta Leigh, with whom he could not desist from an incestuous love, and which led to his shaming and exile from England. All are described in delicious detail by O'Brien. The key architect of Byron's public infamy was Annabella Milbanke, the fastidious heiress who married Byron to find herself in a love triangle with Augusta. Once separated,she made it her life's mission to destroy his name. Byron sought respite in Italy, finding more lovers, including Countess Teresa Guiccioli, his muse for "Don Juan." He died at the age of 36, amid a "deathbed scene that many an artist would have painted . . . but only Rembrandt would have caught the fear and bewilderment in the eyes of those onlookers, all of whom venerated Byron but in their zeal and their helplessness differed as to what could or should be done."An apt rendering of the life of a charismatic man whose smile Coleridge compared to "the opening of the gate of Heaven."
The Barnes & Noble Review
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" (Don Juan II, 180), 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" ("Ode to a Nightingale").

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 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. --Benjamin Lytal

Benjamin Lytal is a contributor to the Barnes & Noble Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393070118
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/15/2009
  • Pages: 228
  • Sales rank: 1,007,033
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Edna O’Brien, the author of The Country Girls Trilogy, The Light of Evening and Byron in Love, is the recipient of the James Joyce Ulysses Medal and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London.

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