The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons
by David Crane
Knopf, 290 pp., $26.95
Byron: Life and Legend
by Fiona MacCarthy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 674 pp., $35.00
Although Delia Bacon is said surreptitiously one night to have approached the vault beneath Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church armed with a crowbar and shovel before losing her nerve, no one has yet succeeded in disinterring William Shakespeare. Byron, who had wanted to be buried without fuss in Greece, where he died in 1824, and who lacked Shakespeare’s foresight in composing an epitaph cursing anyone who disturbed his grave, has been less fortunate. On June 15, 1938, a small, oddly assorted group of people broke open the Byron family vault in the church at Hucknall Torkard, near Nottingham, for reasons that ranged from a spurious need to establish the existence of a medieval crypt to the voyeuristic and fanciful. (The then Lord Byron had visions of hidden treasure, while the vicar, Canon Barber, claimed improbably to have been told many times that the remains of the sixth Lord Byron were no longer there, but had been mysteriously spirited away, and it was necessary to ascertain the truth.) After opening the last of the three coffins in which the embalmed body had been placed, they were able to look upon the well-preserved corpse of Shelley’s “pilgrim of eternity,” lying defenseless in his shroud, and to take excited notes, one churchwarden being particularly struck by what seemed to him the “abnormal” size of the dead poet’s “sexual organ.” After saying a brief prayer, they restored the status quo.
In the following year, Barber produced a small pamphlet, Byron and Where He Is Buried, including an account of his somewhat tasteless investigation. Although Leslie Marchand must certainly have read it, it was scrupulously ignored by him, both in 1957 when he published his magnificent three-volume Byron: A Biography, and again in 1970 when he brought out Byron: A Portrait, a one-volume condensation of the earlier work which, significantly, also incorporated new material about its subject’s bisexuality that had been too risky to present thirteen years before. Even Doris Langley Moore, in The Late Lord Byron (1961), although she listed Barber’s pamphlet in her bibliography, avoided any reference to it in her book, as more recently have both Phyllis Grosskurth and Benita Eisler in their biographies Byron: The Flawed Angel (1997) and Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999). It is striking then that Fiona MacCarthy should choose to end her important new life of Byron—the only one since Marchand’s to be authorized by Byron’s own publishers, John Murray—with just this episode.
It is, in 2002, an understandable decision. The deluge of works attempting in one way or another, and with varying degrees of success, to exhume Byron and assess his life, his personality, and the impact he had on others continues unabated. If anything, it has increased during the almost half-century since Marchand published his initial three volumes, spilling over into books about people who on the whole would scarcely be remembered at all were it not for their connection with Byron: his …