• Email
  • Print

Pure Incest

In response to:

Byron's Baby from the February 22, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

Poor Byron! The same day (February 16) to find Broyard in a Times review (some silly tale of Caroline Lamb) compounding ignorance—“Exiled in Greece because incest was the one indulgence the Regency,” etc.—with libel—“snob,” “social climber,” “monolithically conceited,” “cad,” “married another woman for her money”—and in NYR‘s august columns F.W. Bateson beginning with a misplacing of Beppo and ending with the claim that “demonstrable incest” unlocks the secret of Byron’s poetic power!

Even without expertise a NYR editor might have boggled at “Byron, not a rich man” two paragraphs later “had certainly intended a part of his considerable fortune to go to Medora.” A “considerable fortune” usually stamps a man “rich.” Or taking the last statement by itself he might have wondered how Mr. Bateson in his study had learned of intentions never expressed in any will of Byron’s. Or with just a little checking could learn that the “my child” of an April, 1816, letter to the solicitor John Hanson refers to Ada, Byron’s daughter born in wedlock the previous December.

Over-all Bateson is as presumptuous as Broyard. The tip-off comes in his opening of the discussion of the Turney book on Byron’s niece, Medora Leigh, Byron’s putative bastard. “There have been rumors of such a daughter for many years. Miss Turney has now shown that they have a solid basis.” Rumors? From his “gaggle of great-aunts”? Mr. Bateson, meet Dr. Lushington, Lord Lovelace, Sir John Fox, and how as you greet Professors Marchand and Knight, and Mr. Peter Quennell. Where, oh where have you been while debate raged over the relation of Byron to his half-sister?

Leslie Marchand is the magister of Byron’s biography, though the less scholarly Quennell writes better and sees the man’s character more vividly. And on this particular issue G. Wilson Knight’s in Lord Byron’s Marriage (see also Appendix, The Separation Controversy, in his Byron and Shakespeare) remains the most exhaustive and to me the most convincing treatment. (Professor Marchand has been a touch condescending to that labor, but Knight’s dogged insistence has had a marked effect on Marchand’s own writing, both in the critical Byron’s Poetry and in his new [1970] shorter life: it is Knight’s work, surely, that has led him to qualify his earlier belief in incest as well as to bring out of footnotes squarely into the text the major role played by pederasty in Byron’s life and poetry).

There is not space here to rehearse the incest controversy, and anyway this writer changes his mind each time he reviews the evidence. But it can be stated sharply that the “solid basis” Mr. Bateson adduces is neither new nor important. Medora’s book and lawsuit, long known, were clearly motivated, dismissable. Bateson does not even touch the strongest “pro” evidence (the contemporary letters to Lady M; the 1817 letter from Italy to Augusta is clearly a forgery: even Professor Knight is too kind here.) In our doubt we had perhaps best still stand on Byron’s bias for truth, that the relation was deeply amorous (and hence “incestuous”) but avoided physical union, “pure,” as he says in Childe Harold.

But Bateson is as ignorant of the poetry and its development as of biography. Beppo was written in Venice long after Byron woke up famous in London, and Byron was already a major poet before the to-do with Augusta or the greater to-do with the Princess of Parallelograms. And some oversimple remarks in contradiction of the Bateson thesis are, perhaps, in order, especially since Byron is only just now becoming fodder for academic climbing (a recent gem by Yale out of Chicago signals the impending horror). Let us stick to one theme, amorous response, to posit the line of development, and replace Bateson’s closing apostrophe to “demonstrable incest” with Byron’s own statement as relayed by Trelawney. “If I am a poet, the air of Greece has made me one.” The first Mediterranean sojourn produced Childe Harold and Byron’s justified fame—not alone for the poetry’s grandeur but because of its grip on its audience. Byron the social poet.

The London period saw Byron in command of the simplest musical expression of emotion. His loveliest lyric—in my time every schoolboy knew it—may go back even earlier.

There be none of Beauty’s daughters With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmèd Ocean’s pausing etc.

We did not, of course, know it had been inspired by Edleston (despite Harry Levin Albert/Albertine is an incontrovertible tradition). Nor did we match it with the even stronger apostrophe to the same unhappy youngster:

What is my being? Thou hast ceased to be!
Nor staid to welcome here thy wan- derer home,
Who mourns o’er hours which we no more shall see—

These extraordinary lines of 1811/12, like all the others in Childe Harold I and II, are pre-Augusta affair, pre-Annabella, thus riddling Bateson’s thesis. But equally significant, they are not contemporary with the love of Edleston. The Greek years and Edleston’s own death have intervened. Marchand has pointed well the biographical dimension: lost innocence recollected after fervent physical experience which never equalled it in emotional intensity. Technically that means they are “evaluative,” imaginative response, expression governed by the value conceived for the experience. Not just removed but tested in the innermost chamber. This is true of all Byron’s greater verse….

Curtis Bennett

Buffalo, New York

F. W Bateson replies:

Oh God! Oh Montreal! Oh Buffalo! Mr. Bennett’s contention that Byron’s relationship with his half-sister “avoided physical union” contradicts all we know of their sexual habits. As Wellington is supposed to have said in another context, “Sir, the man who will believe that will believe anything.” The word “incestuous” does not mean “amorous.” The whole Byron scandal, including the burning of the Memoirs, revolved round a physical relationship that, if you want to be uncharitable, you can call “incest.” As Mr. Bennett seems to concede, the letters of Lady Melbourne can carry no other interpretation. I did not quote them, though Miss Turney does, because her book is not primarily concerned with Augusta but with Augusta’s and Byron’s illegitimate daughter Medora. I do not know if Mr. Bennett has read Medora Leigh: a History and an Autobiography (edited by Charles Mackay); its autobiographical parts ring true to me, though admittedly to reach them one has to wade through Mackay’s verbosities. And the entry in Augusta’s bible, the £3,000 paid to her husband on Medora’s birth, plus the various details in Byron’s letters add up to an impressive case. Who, for example, was the illegitimate child Byron confessed to before Allegra if not Medora? The new seriousness in Byron’s verse from Medora’s birth (April 15, 1814)—“She Walks in Beauty” was written June 12, 1814—is also surely significant. But these poems are not as good as Beppo, are they, Mr. Bennett? Still, I agree all this falls short of absolute demonstration.

  • Email
  • Print