Highlighting the lives and loves of celebrated literary couples, Wilson reveals the depth of their passion for language - their own as well as their partner's. Taking as a point of departure the legendary courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, a courtship conceived on the printed page, Wilson explores how easily, how seductively, literary desire becomes sexual desire, and vice versa.
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Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers
By Frances Wilson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Frances Wilson
All rights reserved.
Seduced Readers: Between the Sheets
'Reading a good book is not much different from a love affair.'
'Reading, reverie, tears, and pleasure'.
Elizabeth Barrett had long dreamed of absconding with a poet. As a child growing up when the mania for Byron was at its height, she 'used to think seriously of dressing up like a boy and running away to be Lord Byron's page'. Transgressions of this kind were seen as a natural reaction to the diverting pleasures of reading Byron. His racy poetry seduced readers as poetry never had done before; only when Byron had left the country, the Duchess of Devonshire said, could Regency husbands sleep in peace. No one had felt this about the effect of Pope's poetry, or Southey's, or William Wordsworth's, on the social and sexual behaviour of their readers. Following the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in spring 1812, the twenty-four-year-old Byron was besieged by fans and fan-mail. Lady Caroline Lamb – whose husband never had any peace – was typical in responding to Byron's poem by sending him an anonymous letter, beginning 'Dear Childe Harold', and enclosing poems of her own. Warned by Samuel Rogers that the author of this melancholy tale bit his nails and had a club foot, Caroline Lamb determined that even if he were as ugly as Aesop she would meet him. Before the summer was out, she did dress up like a boy and run away to be Lord Byron's page.
Seduced readers desire not the writer – at least not initially so – but something more. They want what the writer has: his desire for writing, which is why, once seduced, they so often become writers themselves. All the readers I look at in this chapter turned to writing in response to their seductive read. Caroline Lamb is one of the greatest, and most reviled, seduced readers of all time. Having read Byron, her life changed direction and she would never return. William Lamb's obituary of his wife argued that because Byron's attraction for Caroline had been literary her excessive behaviour should be forgiven: 'The world is very lenient to the mistresses of poets,' he wrote with a certain degree of anticipation, because 'their attachments ... arise from imagination and not depravity.' And yet the reason that Caroline Lamb was unforgiven by her contemporaries was not her love for Byron, which was understood, nor her affair with him, for which she was envied, but precisely her imaginative attachment to the poet. Her seduction by Byron left her wanting to be him and not wanting to have him, and this degree of literary diversion was seen as depraved. Caroline Lamb wanted to appeal as Byron appealed and she was so diverted through reading him that she turned deviant.
What seemed particularly perverse to her critics is that Byron's presence was unnecessary to her obsession. Caroline Lamb quickly found that simulations of her lover would do instead of the real thing, and her response to him took the form of impersonating and reproducing the literary 'Byronic'. For example, she brilliantly forged Byron's handwriting in a letter to herself in order to gain a miniature of the poet from his publisher, John Murray. In so doing she not only possessed but became Byron's miniature, making herself indistinguishable from him on paper. In effect, she copied Byron in order to obtain a copy of Byron. She then wrote a mimicry of his epic Don Juan in her own verses, 'A New Canto', impersonating his style in such a way as to show that Byronism was reproducible and that no one was as good at being Byronic as herself. And she dressed as Don Juan for a masked ball, allowing his poetry not to disguise her but to express her. When she built a bonfire to ceremonially burn his effigy and letters, she ensured that only copies of his letters were put on to the flames. As far as Caroline Lamb was concerned, the real thing and the reproduction were interchangeable and she had thus taken the typical literary seduction – in which the writer and his writing collapse – one stage further.
Caroline Lamb herself collapsed after Byron's rejection and her subsequent madness was such that she was removed by her family to their estates in Ireland. There she became paper-thin and hollow-eyed while back in London she was the object of society's derision for her abject pursuit of Byron, and Byron himself was soon courting Lady Oxford, a lock of whose hair he sent Caroline in exchange for her request for a lock of his. Byron's trick can be seen as his revenge on Lamb for her own cross-dressing and impersonations, but she was not to be beaten. Unable to let the image of Byron go, Caroline Lamb decided on her return home that she had to take control of the story of their relationship, which had fast become the property of public gossip. So, like many seduced readers, she turned her relationship with Byron into a story, and by including in her written version of their affair the cold letter of dismissal Byron sent her in Ireland from the home of Lady Oxford, she thus turned his private life into public property at the same time as impersonating his betrayal of her. Glenarvon was published in 1816, moments after Byron went into exile following the failure of his marriage. It was a best-seller not only because of its fortuitous timing – speculation about Byron was at its height and he was no longer there to represent himself – but also because it contained Lamb's own account of their scandalous liaison, and this everyone wanted to hear.
Her readers were disappointed. From beginning to end, Glenarvon is a narrative diversion. Rather than giving a straightforward rendition of her four-month affair with the literary lion of the day, the story takes an unexpected turn and heads off into unexplored country. Glenarvon tells the tale of Caroline Lamb and Byron as the unconscious would tell it, in all its contradictions, evasions, and indirections. Like a dream, her novel has no sense of time or space, genders merge, and identities fade in and out of one another. Byron appears as two men: Lord Glenarvon, an Irish revolutionary, and Count Viviani, an Italian child murderer, while Caroline Lamb can be found divided between the three sentimental heroines but clearly identified most with the hero, who remains a dashing and romantic figure despite any attempt on the author's part to discredit Byron. Glenarvon was gleefully condemned as an artistic failure by those readers who expected her to write a conventional autobiography complete with facts and dates or to issue a public apology for her notorious behaviour, but Caroline Lamb's novel is remarkable for achieving without effort the representation of internal landscape that Freud would later map and that the modernist movement would aspire towards.
In its structure, self-exposure, and raw appeal, Glenarvon resembles Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which is also the result of a literary seduction and abandonment. Elizabeth Smart came across George Barker in August 1937 when she was twenty-three and living in London. Browsing in 'Better Books' on the Charing Cross Road, she was so staggered by a collection of George Barker's poems that she spread the word that when she found the poet she would marry him. Smart's poetic novel about her relationship with Barker, published in 1945, was written during the first of her four pregnancies by him (he stayed with his wife), and she saw writing as a kind of pregnancy in itself, a fertilization and containment of words prior to the birth of the book. The sustained hyperbolic pitch of By Grand Central Station is an expression of both the agony and the ecstasy of the early stage of their relationship, and her opaque prose style reflects Elizabeth Smart's sense of writing as dangerous, something both enormously difficult to achieve and liable to take one over once it begins. The intensity of Elizabeth Smart's first reaction to George Barker's writing can be measured by her response to a later collection of his poems. 'Barker's new poems arrived,' she wrote, '... But when I opened the book my excitement made me too impotent to read. My head ached with too much greed. My eyes glazed with wanting too much at once.' She said that she wanted to eat him up with eagerness; like Caroline Lamb, her desire was to consume the poet and make herself indistinguishable from him. Later in 1937, having left London for Mexico and still no nearer finding him, Smart wrote in her diary, 'George Barker grows into a long dangerous image ... It is the complete juicy sound [of his poetry] that runs bubbles over, that intoxicates till I can hardly follow (and the recurring lines in 'Daedalus': "the moist palm of my hand handled fear like fear cramping my hand." OO the a-a-a!)' 'It is clear,' her biographer comments, 'that Elizabeth was in love with the language of the man.' Smart herself described the obsession in precisely these terms: 'You get into a state when you fall in love ... The fact that I was madly in love with the English language and with poetry may have give vent to my feelings.' In this sense, By Grand Central Station– half of which was written before she met him – is about the point at which Elizabeth Smart's relationship with writing became a relationship with George Barker.
Finding out from Lawrence Durrell that Barker had a job teaching English in a Japanese University, Elizabeth Smart wrote to him offering to buy one of his manuscripts (he was always in need of money, she was told). When Barker could stand academia no more he wrote to Elizabeth Smart and asked her to send him two tickets – this was the first she had heard of his wife – to get out of Japan before he went mad. In return he offered her the manuscripts of his private journals. Elizabeth Smart instantly began a campaign to raise the money and By Grand Central Station begins on the day when she first met the rescued Barker and his wife in Monterey in July 1940. By the end of the month the poet and his reader were lovers. George Barker later said that he had fallen in love with her name before he met Elizabeth Smart.
Barker was described by his contemporaries as Byronic. His writing was compulsive in the same way as Byron's: their poetry had the same libidinal energy and quality of excess. Like Byron, he pushed life to the limit and was a great bon viveur; they shared a disdain for the professional poet (Byron refused to be paid for his work), and for both men, women took second place to writing: Barker was 'married to poetry.' Elizabeth Smart was, like Caroline Lamb, an obsessional character – 'I am the obsessional type,' she once said. 'Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity' – and, like Lamb's, her writing is pensive and introspective where her lover's is rapid and Rabelaisian. For both readers, the desire for her poet's writing – as a noun and a verb – made her representation of him as a man impossible to achieve. George Barker is eclipsed behind the metaphors in the abstract portrait Smart drew of him in By Grand Central Station, while Byron had the unsettling experience of watching himself, at the hands of Caroline Lamb, fade out altogether, to reappear in Glenarvon as the first prototype of the Byronic hero.
The official image of Byron is the one produced by his most seduced reader. The 'Byron' who is broadly recognized today – the type of the music-hall villain twiddling his moustaches – is closer to Caroline Lamb's construction of her demon lover than it is to any objective historical account of the poet's character, and her creation of Clarence de Ruthvyn, Lord Glenarvon, was to have enormous repercussions. Later in 1816 Byron's doctor, John Polidori, was looking for a name for the vampire in the story he was basing on Byron. What could be more appropriate than to call his anti-hero 'Ruthven', after Caroline Lamb's portrayal of the poet? Polidori's readers would instantly make the connection between the two dastardly milords. The character of Polidori's villain in The Vampyre was a continuation of the ambiguous figure drawn up in Glenarvon, and later his seductive, aristocratic vampire became the model for the tragic hero in Bram Stoker's fin de siècle novel, Dracula. It is quite a thought that the image of horror that has haunted twentieth-century cinema was born of one woman's literary seduction in the early 1800s.
But if Caroline Lamb turned Byron into a literary figure, she was only continuing the process he had begun himself. Byron was a self-conscious product of bibliogenesis and his popularity with readers was to do with what was perceived as his fictional status: he was like the Gothic heroes of Ann Radcliffe's novels, he was Milton's Satan, or those alluring seducers of the eighteenth-century novel, Valmont and Lovelace. Moreover, Byron's fans had collapsed the isolated and brooding heroes of his poems into the worldly figure of the poet himself, and Byron, while protesting his difference from his poetry, was content to accommodate these fantasies. He had to fight, however, to dissociate himself from the mythology that Caroline Lamb was fast constructing around him, and while he claimed that his portrait in Glenarvon could not be good because he didn't sit long enough, readers as sophisticated as Goethe took Caroline Lamb's novel to be historical fact.
Yet Caroline Lamb wanted less to write about Byron than to write and thus to be like Byron. For Byron boasted that his early narrative poems were mere indulgent diversions, rushed off in a matter of evenings between various parties, and this indifference to his literary charm was part of his appeal. So when she put it about that she had written Glenarvon in a month, sitting up all night while dressed as a boy, Caroline Lamb was doing no more than impersonate Byron's own literary energy:
I wrote it unknown to all (save a governess, Miss Welsh), in the middle of the night. It was necessary to have it copied out. I had heard of a famous copier, an old Mr Woodhead. I sent to beg he would come to see Lady Caroline Lamb at Melbourne House. I placed Miss Welsh, elegantly dressed, at my harp, and myself at a writing table, dressed in the page's clothes, looking a boy of fourteen ... He would not believe that this schoolboy could write such a thing.
Caroline Lamb determined to ensure her literary appeal by turning herself into a page, literally. Byron had, after all, been little more than this when she fell for his poetry four years before.
When Lady Oxford left him to go abroad, Byron complained that he felt 'Carolinish' about his loss. So who was reproducing whom? Caroline Lamb had, it seems, seduced Byron into an identification with her, and identification is the backbone of seduction. The seducer compels the seduced party to feel as they do, to mimic their responses and repeat their desires. Thus it was that in 1824, the year of Byron's death, Caroline Lamb seduced a reader of her own, or rather, her seduction by Byron seduced a reader also seduced by Byron. And this was entirely to do with both parties' identification with the Romantic poet. Like Lamb (and like most of the foppish, literary young men of the generation), the young novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton modelled himself on Byron, and Caroline Lamb's feelings for him were inspired by his imitation of her previous lover. 'You are, like me,' she wrote to Bulwer Lytton of his verses, 'too fond of Lord Byron.' With Caroline Lamb at his side playing the cruel muse, Edward Bulwer Lytton – who would soon be as prolific a writer as his hero – would sit dressed as Byron to read his poetry.
The relationship between the older woman (Lamb was thirty-nine – the same age as Elizabeth Barrett when Robert Browning first wrote to her) and the younger man (he was twenty-one) outraged its observers much as Lamb's and Byron's relationship had done, and Lamb was once more decried as a malevolent seducer, not least when this time – in true Byronic fashion – she threw her lover over for another model. For his own part, Bulwer Lytton's feelings towards Caroline Lamb were fuelled by her affair with Byron, which had, and not least because of Glenarvon, become legendary. Although only just buried, Byron was now mythical, and for Edward Bulwer Lytton to be touching the hand that Byron had touched was like going back in time. For him, Caroline Lamb was a page in history.
Excerpted from Literary Seductions by Frances Wilson. Copyright © 1999 Frances Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: Literary Diversions,
ONE: Seduced Readers: Between the sheets,
TWO: Literary Possession: Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller,
THREE: Literary Consumption: Laura Riding and Robert Graves,
FOUR: Literary Containment: Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam,
AFTERWORD: Literary Consummation: W.B. and George Yeats,
BY THE SAME AUTHOR,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,