Byron: Life and Legend

Byron: Life and Legend

by James Howard Kunstler
Lord Byron in all his controversial splendor--the long-awaited, authoritative biography

With this brilliant book, Fiona MacCarthy has produced the most important work on Byron in nearly half a century. Granted unprecedented access to many documents and artifacts unexamined by previous scholars, the acclaimed biographer brings a fresh, engaging


Lord Byron in all his controversial splendor--the long-awaited, authoritative biography

With this brilliant book, Fiona MacCarthy has produced the most important work on Byron in nearly half a century. Granted unprecedented access to many documents and artifacts unexamined by previous scholars, the acclaimed biographer brings a fresh, engaging sensibility to a full appreciation of the poet's life and art.

Byron: Life and Legend explores heretofore unrevealed aspects of Byron's complex creative existence, reassessing his poetry, reinterpreting his incomparable letters, and reconsidering the voluminous record left by the poet's contemporaries: his friends and family, his critics and supporters.

MacCarthy's scope is comprehensive, giving due weight to each aspect of her subject's genius and covering the full range of his life, retracing his journeys through Italy, Turkey, and Greece and culminating in his heroic voyage to Missolonghi, where he died at the tragically early age of thirty-six. After his death, a pervasive Byronism swept Europe; presented here is the fascinating evolution of his posthumous reputation and its influence on literature, architecture, painting, music, manners, sex and psyche.

Full of energy and detail, subtlety and glamour, this vital new study reestablishes Byron as a charismatic figure in the forefront of European art.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In the summer of 1938, a hundred and fourteen years after Lord Byron's nearly mythic death at Missolonghi, an intrepid vicar at the parish church of Hucknall Torkard and a small band of stalwarts decided to pay a visit to the poet of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" and "Don Juan" where he lay in the Byron family vault. The vicar and his crew were pleased to find, upon gingerly raising the coffin lid, that Byron had weathered the intervening years remarkably well. "The slightly protruding lip and curly hair were easily recognizable," reported an awestruck church caretaker. The incident -- perhaps the most literal in a long line of Byronic exhumations and reassessments -- turns up in Fiona MacCarthy's whopping Byron: Life and Legend, an appropriately sprawling volume devoted to the "first European cultural celebrity of the modern age." Like his twentieth-century counterpart, Elvis Presley, Byron continues to exert a necrophilic hold on the imagination, with his colossal and contradictory public image. MacCarthy's account gives us Byron in all his twisted glory: keeping a pet bear while at Cambridge, crisscrossing Europe in a monumental carriage modelled after Napoleon's, drinking claret out of a human skull, swimming the Hellespont despite a lame foot, and constantly hounded by the open secret of his bisexuality.

As David Crane's The Kindness of Sisters makes clear, Byron was as maddening in love as he was in celebrity. Examining the understandably contentious relationship between Byron's wife, Annabella, and his half-sister (and lover), Augusta Leigh, Crane eloquently reminds us that there is "no English writer like him . . . no one who has so completely made his life the measure of his art."

(Mark Rozzo)
Publishers Weekly
While biographies of Byron have appeared with regularity since his death in 1824 at age 36, British author MacCarthy's (William Morris: A Life for Our Time) engrossing, coolly perceptive study of the Romantic poet is notable for its refusal to swoon over Byron's legend while still attuned to the evolution of his powerful personality and its impact on the world of art and literature. She notes how Byron went from being a mediocre student mocked by other boys to a charismatic leader of his peers and an extraordinarily well-read young man (though he read in secret, "to keep up his pose of anti-authoritarian idler"). She discusses how carefully he had to suppress his homosexual impulses in an increasingly conservative England, and how crucial his 1809-1810 travels in Greece and Turkey were to not only Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, but to his own life. The familiar arc of his fame covers an abortive career in English politics and a disastrous marriage (rent with rumors of incest with his half-sister), and the years of his exile in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, during which, MacCarthy argues, he introduced England to Europe and vice versa. She considers his poetry; his influence on English and European writers from Victor Hugo to Charlotte Bront ; and the cult of Byron that developed after his death. If her dispassionate approach succeeds more in describing his fascinating, contradictory character than penetrating his psychology, she nonetheless gracefully shows how the "life" and "legend" of the subtitle fed off each other. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Beginning with his childhood and the sexual abuse that he likely suffered in the care of his nurse, MacCarthy (William Morris: A Life for Our Time) here offers an evenhanded portrait of the legendary Byron. She chronicles a life filled with tempestuous relationships (John Hobhouse, John Murray, and Percy Bysshe Shelley) and affairs (Lady Caroline Lamb, Claire Clairmont, and Countess Teresa Guiccioli) and documents how Byron's appreciation of the East during his early travels through Greece and Turkey influenced both his life and his writing. The dissolution of his abusive marriage amid rumors of sodomy and incest led to Byron's self-imposed exile in Switzerland, Italy, and, finally, Greece, where he died contributing to the fight for Greek independence. Throughout, MacCarthy maintains an objectivity that is remarkable given the powerful emotions her passionate, troubled subject tends to evoke. Following on the heels of David Crane's The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons, this work is first-rate, offering a detailed account while refusing to judge its subject. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-William D. Walsh, Chester Coll. of New England, Manchester, NH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A densely detailed, lackluster life of the eminent poet, adventurer, and enfant terrible. Think of Jim Morrison, or maybe Kurt Cobain, and you’ll have an idea of how George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was perceived by the young people of his time. He had all the rock star turns, after all: he thrived on shocking society, wrote ardent lyrics, wore such outré duds as "a frogged greatcoat and ‘a curious foreign cap,’ " figured prominently in gossip columns, traveled everywhere and in the worst of company, and died at the tender age of 35. Moreover, Byron wrestled with extraordinary demons: an absent father, an overweening and unhinged mother, a disfiguring handicap, an unreconciled and insatiable homosexuality, cycles of depression that sent him "veering between lassitude and hyperactivity, haunted by nightmare images and assailed by a sense of the uselessness of human endeavor." Throughout a life packed with action and sometimes misbegotten enterprise, Byron managed to write such resonant poems as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, to inspire Mary Shelley to pen Frankenstein (on something of a dare), to advance the cause of Greek independence against the Turks, and to set an example for bad-boy artists henceforth. Byron’s life, it seems, was without a single dull moment, but MacCarthy (William Morris, 1995, etc.) fails to convey any of the excitement or undeniable glamour of his days. Instead, she worries rather excessively over his handicap, the cause of his death, and the sexual torments that he managed to work his way through by sleeping with everyone in sight. Neither does she seem to have much of an appreciation for his writing—the source, after all, of his renown—or forhis achievements as a romantic revolutionary. Still, MacCarthy’s exhaustive catalogue of Byron’s every waking hour will be useful as source material for a future biographer seeking to craft a more interpretive—and shorter, and more interesting—study.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt


One of the sights of Europe in 1816 was the lurching progress of the self-exiled Lord Byron as he travelled from Brussels to Geneva and on to Italy in his monumental black Napoleonic carriage. This purpose-built coach, a de luxe version of the Emperor Napoleon's own celebrated carriage captured at Genappe, included not only Byron's lit de repos but his travelling library, his plate-chest and facilities for dining. Drawn by four or six horses, it was nothing less than a small palatial residence on wheels. The hill from Baxter the coach-maker amounted to £500. Poor Baxter was still pressing for payment in 1823, a claim dismissed airily by Byron with the words, 'Baxter must wait — at least a year.' Presumably the bill was still unsettled when Byron died in Greece in April 1824.

The long shadow of Napoleon loomed over Byron's life, an inspiration and an irritant. Byron, born in 1788, the year before the outbreak of the French Revolution, was conscious of living at an unprecedented period: as he put it, 'we live in gigantic and exaggerated times, which make all under Gog and Magog appear pigwean.' The apparition of Napoleon, almost twenty years his senior, was the spur to Byron's own ambition, his dissidence, the glamour of his arrogance, the sense of sweeping history that permeates his writing. Napoleon's flamboyance, his stamina, his dress, his stance, the assiduity with which he preened his image, nurtured Byron's own creative strain of mockery. As he told his friend Lady Blessington, 'with me there is, as Napoleon said, but one step between the sublime and the ridiculous.'

Byron was bound to Napoleon by ties as strong, or even stronger, than those of any of his sexual liaisons. He found fault with Napoleon, so the sharp-eyed Lady Blessington observed, only 'as a lover does with the trifling faults of his mistress'. His emotional involvement was already strong at Harrow in 1803 when the fierce schoolboy defended his bust of Napoleon, by then the official enemy of England, against the 'rascally time-servers' among his contemporaries. A few years later he had acquired a fine impression of Morghen's engraved portrait of Napoleon, which he sent to be framed resplendently in gilt.

His personal identification with the Emperor was such that Napoleon's defeats brought on a physical reaction. After Leipzig in 1813 Byron was prostrate with despair and indigestion, groaning in his journal: 'Oh my head! — how it aches! — the horrors of digestion! I wonder how Buonaparte's dinner agrees with him? 'In the following year, after Napoleon's abdication and exile to Elba, Byron recorded: 'To-day I have boxed one hour — written an ode to Napoleon Buonaparte — copied it — eaten six biscuits — drunk four bottles of soda water — redde away the rest of my time.' That ode was both lament and reproach, for Byron could not approve the abject self-surrender of the hero who should rightly have died on his own sword like a defeated Roman or expired as defianty as Shakespeare's Macbeth or Richard III. But Napoleon still dazzled him, in spite of the anguish of his disillusionment. For Byron, Napoleon was a kind of second nature, part of his thought processes, peculiarly embedded in the detail of his life.

After Napoleon's final demise Byron accumulated keepsakes: a lock of his hair, snuffboxes with his portrait, gold coins with the depiction of the Emperor that was. There was also the Napoleon cameo pin Byron gave to Lady Blessington in Genoa, removing it with a flourish from his breast, but reclaiming it the next day with the dubious excuse that 'memorials with a point' would bring bad luck. Before he left England in 1816, at the time of the separation scandal, Byron had reserved Napoleon's coronation robes, by then in the hands of a Piccadilly dealer, but never actually claimed them. He did, however, write a fond farewell letter to Mercer Elphinstone, shortly before he sailed, on writing paper pillaged from the imperial bureau at Malmaison and stamped with the Napoleonic eagle: he enclosed a few spare sheets as a parting present. Byron was apparently ecstatic when the death of his mother-in-law Lady Noel allowed him to sign himself NB 'because' (he told Leigh Hunt, admittedly a malicious witness) 'Bonaparte and I are the only public persons whose initials are the same'.

Byron's wanderings through Italy, from 1816 to 1823, were permeated with memories of Napoleon. He noted, near Milan, the remains of an unfinished triumphal arch, intended for Napoleon, 'so beautiful as to make one regret its non-completion', and on Isola Bella he discovered the large laurel tree on which Napoleon had carved out with his knife the word 'Battaglia' shortly before the battle of Marengo. Byron, himself no mean defacer of trees, had scrutinised the letters closely, by this time 'half worn out and partly erased'.

In the context of Italy, Napoleon seemed to Byron more than ever a Vesuvius, a powerful eruptive force whose final overthrow had let in the political light-weights throughout Europe: 'Since that period, we have been the slaves of fools.' There is no doubt that he saw his own incursions into European politics, first as a partisan of the Italian Risorgimento and then in the Greek War of Independence, with whatever undertones of irony, in quasi-Napoleonic terms.

In 1823 he was describing his personal subsidy of two hundred thousand piastres for a squadron of Greek ships to fight against the Turks as 'not very large — but it is double that which Napoleon the Emperor of Emperors — began his campaign in Italy'. He loved and understood the trappings of the military: the helmets, the uniforms, the grand theatricality of salutes and parades. There is an overt homage to Napoleon in Byron's carefully staged arrival at Missolonghi, as described by contemporary onlookers and mythologised in Theodoros Vryzakis's epic painting, now in the National Gallery of Greece, showing Byron in the guise of military hero and king-saviour of the nation. Byron's Napoleonism, his active involvement in political events of his own day and age, is the key to what distinguishes him most sharply from his contemporary English Romantic poets.

Well before Byron's death he and the Emperor Napoleon were yoked together as objects of derision by English newspapers. Byron mentioned the phenomenon in 1821 in a letter to his publisher John Murray: 'I perceive that the "two greatest examples of human vanity — in the present age" — are firstly "the Ex-Emperor Napoleon" — and secondly — "his Lordship the noble poet & c." — meaning your humble Servant — "poor guiltless I". Poor Napoleon! he little dreamed to what "vile comparisons" the turn of the Wheel would reduce him.' There is an obvious smirk in this report. The perspective of history would link them still more firmly. By 1831 Macaulay was recording their glittering precocity:

'Two men have died within our recollection, who, at a time of life at which few people have completed their education, had raised themselves, each in his own department, to the height of glory. One of them died at Longwood, the other at Missolonghi.'

Two years later, Carlyle set them together in a passage in Sartor Resartus, which emphasises wonderfully their shared theatricality:

'Your Byron publishes his Sorrows of Lord George, in verse and prose, and copiously otherwise: your Bonaparte represents his Sorrows of Napoleon Opera, in an all-too-stupendous style; with music of cannon-volleys, and murder-shrieks of a world; his stage-lights are the fires of Conflagration; his rhyme and recitative are the tramp of embattled Hosts and the sound of falling Cities.'

In the collective visual imagination they stood fixed in alliance, stocky powerful Napoleon, exquisitely handsome Byron, the superlative odd couple of their time. The ageing dandy George 'Beau' Brummell whiled away his days in exile in Calais working on a decorative screen, a collage of prints and drawings, intended for the Duchess of York. The sixth and final fold of the screen represents Napoleon and Byron, the latter well remembered by Brummell from his halcyon days in London. The figure of Byron is embowered in flowers, but a wasp is at his throat.

How exactly did it happen? How did this obscure, impecunious English aristocrat hoist himself to a world-historical position on a par with Napoleon's? How did the early writer of wishy-washy love poems transform himself into the European emperor of words? How indeed did the 'fat bashful boy' from Southwell, 'with his hair combed straight over his forehead', an object of some pity even in provincial England, become the international heart-throb whose subversive 'under look' gave the most sophisticated society women palpitations? 'That beautiful pale face is my fate': when Lady Caroline Lamb made this histrionic entry in her diary after meeting Lord Byron she voiced the female fandom of the age.

Byron's transformation into the first European cultural celebrity of the modem age has often been described in terms of startling overnight success following publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in March 1812. Byron's own account is nicely judged: 'I awoke one morning and found myself famous.' But of course there was more to it than that, and during my five years of research for this biography of Byron — which has taken me to Venice, Rome, Ravenna, Pisa, Genoa, Athens and Missolonghi, as well as the city of his child-hood, Aberdeen — it has been interesting to see what impulses chiefly drove him. As it seemed to Lady Blessington, when she first met him in 1823, 'Byron had so unquenchable a thirst for celebrity, that no means were left untried that might attain it: this frequently led to his expressing opinions totally at variance with his actions and real sentiments . . . there was no sort of celebrity he did not, at some period or other, condescend to seek, and he was not over nice in the means, provided he obtained the end.'

This book is about the nature of his fame: the ambition Byron felt as 'the most powerful of all excitements'; the degree to which he created and then manipulated his visual image, attempting to control the reproduction of his portraits; the complex and fascinating intertwining of his personal celebrity and literary reputation; his bitterness when fame turned to notoriety, and its consequences for the future generations of his family and entourage. Byron's influence lasted, and in many ways strengthened, after his early death at the age of thirty-six, and my book is necessarily not simply a life but the story of his posthumous reputation too.

Chief colluder in Byron's fame was, of course, his publisher the second John Murray, whose successor John Murray VII commissioned this new biography. I have enjoyed the sense of continuity. All my journeys in pursuit of Byron have begun and ended at 50 Albemarle Street, off Piccadilly, the dignified town house purchased by John Murray II in the wave of prosperity following the success of Childe Harold. Teasing contemporaries defined this as the moment at which the one-time tradesman-booksller became a gentleman, and certainly John Murray's literary and social status advanced in relation to his author's meteoric rise.

'Your room speaks of him in every part of it,' the besotted Lady Caroline Lamb told John Murray. The Byronic reverberations are still there. In the drawing room at 50 Albemarle Street I sat directly beneath the famous Phillips portrait of Lord Byron, exposed to my subject's quizzical gaze as I worked through the extraordinary riches of the largest Byron archive in the world. Because of the many personal connections between the Murrays, Byron's half-sister Augusta Leigh and his friend and executor John Cam Hobhouse (later Lord Broughton), the archive does not consist simply of manuscripts and letters but includes also objects: portraits and miniatures, clothes and medals, accumulated memorabilia; a collection of adoring letters from women of all classes, many quite unknown to Byron, who wrote in desperation, seeking contact, assignations; a macabre assortment of hair, donated by his varied mistresses and kept in little packages carefully labelled by the late Lord Byron, who had his magpie side; a little slipper thought to have belonged to Allegra, Byron's daughter by Claire Clairmont, who died aged five in a convent at Bagnaeavallo. Such small objects can bring a sharp frisson of immediacy, fixing the moment, the scene, the personality. The resources of the Murray archive can only be described as a burial hoard awaiting the biographer's careful excavation, a means to the retrieval of the past.

Copyright © 2002 Fiona MacCarthy

Meet the Author

Fiona MacCarthy has written highly acclaimed biographies of William Morris and Eric Gill, and is a frequent contributor to The Observer, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books. She lives in London and Derbyshire, England.

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