In the fragmentary last canto of Don Juan, abandoned in 1823 when Byron left Italy to sacrifice his life (as it turned out) in the Greek War of Independence, he reflected mockingly upon what he recognized as the instability and contradictions of his own nature:
Temperate I am, yet never had a temper;
Modest I am, yet with some slight assurance;
Changeable too, yet somehow idem semper;
Patient, but not enamoured of endurance;
Cheerful, but sometimes rather apt to whimper;
Mild, but at times a sort of Hercules furens;
So that I almost think that the same skin
For one without has two or three within.
[Canto XVII, stanza 11]
This volatility, remarked upon by virtually everyone who knew him, was part of what made Byron so fascinating to his contemporaries. Earlier in Don Juan, when bestowing the descriptive noun “mobility” upon Lady Adeline, one of the poem’s heroines, he defined it in a note as “an extreme susceptibility of immediate impressions—at the same time without losing the past.” However brilliant in its manifestations, “mobility,” he went on ruefully to say, was for its possessor “a most painful and unhappy attribute.”
Yet there were important permanencies in Byron’s character. Although Lady Blessington, who encountered him in Genoa early in 1823, pronounced him, in her Con-versations of Lord Byron (1834), “a perfect chameleon, possessing the fabulous qualities attributed to that animal, of taking the colour of whatever touches him,” she also recorded the poet’s insistence that there were “two sentiments to which I am constant—a strong love of liberty, and a detestation of cant, and neither is calculated to gain me friends.” This statement was one that the Countess Guiccioli, the mistress who loved and knew him best during the final years in Italy, underlined approvingly in her copy of Blessington’s book. Byron’s old friend, the Irish poet Thomas Moore, author of the first important biography, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of his Life (1830), said much the same thing. Despite a natural tendency to yield to every chance impression, “on certain great subjects” Byron preserved a general line of consistency throughout his life.
It was more than could be said for many of his English contemporaries when confronted with the posthumous phenomenon of Byron. A period of reaction, after the immediate respects have been paid, often follows the deaths of writers celebrated in their lifetime—to be replaced some years later by a more judicious and positive assessment. Byron’s case, however, was and remains unique. The news that he had died, aged thirty-six, on April 19, 1824, at Missolonghi, initially sent shock waves through England and across the continent. For Carlyle, at the time, it was “the noblest spirit in Europe” who had perished, to be mourned “as if I had lost a Brother.” The fifteen-year-old Tennyson ran grief-stricken into the woods near Somersby Rectory, where he scrawled on a stone the terrible words, “Byron is dead.” “The whole world,” he said later, “seemed to be darkened for me.”
Yet by 1833, Carlyle had repudiated both Byron and his work, dismissing him as “a sham strong man.” In Sartor Resartus, he exhorted the reader to “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.” Tennyson followed suit, as did Browning (also an early admirer) in 1872, while Swinburne, who in 1866 had written an impassioned and perceptive defense of Byron and his poetry, in 1884 negotiated a complete U-turn and virulently attacked them both. (Ruskin, meanwhile, entertained for years a singular inability to make up his mind.)
This is by no means the usual pattern of mourning, temporary disparagement, then rehabilitation. Here, exactly the same writers—each very distinguished in his way—shift abruptly in the course of their lives from admiration to a hostility embracing poet and poetry alike. Byron had a few native defenders, but for many foreign observers he came increasingly to look like the archetypal prophet without honor in his own country. Mazzini, an Italian revolutionary and man of letters who spent some time in England, was reminded in 1839 of the eleventh-century travelers’ tale about a gigantic tree at Tenerife. Its branches, when shaken, always released a shower of pure and refreshing water. “Genius,” he opined, referring specifically to Byron, “is like this tree, and the mission of criticism should be to shake the branches. At the present day it more resembles a savage striving to hew down the noble tree to the roots.” But Democracy, Mazzini prophesied, would one day remember all that it owed to Byron—and England come to recognize the importance of “the European role given by him to English literature.”
The spirit of revolution, both artistic and political, was of course still very much alive in Mazzini’s Europe: not only in Italy, but in Germany, France, Greece, and in Russia, where Pushkin and Lermontov both read Byron avidly, and Ryleyev, a poet and leader of the Decembrist rising of 1825, carried a volume of the poems with him to his execution. In England revolution had effectively been contained. It was only the working and lower middle classes who continued to grumble, ineffectually—and, as William St. Clair has shown, to demand more and more cheap, pirated editions of Don Juan, a work which even Byron’s scatter of apologists among the better-off middle classes found difficult to like. Quotations from Byron figured on Chartist banners in sporadic political demonstrations throughout much of the century—as some lines (in Polish translation) from his poem The Giaour were still doing outside the Gdansk shipyard in 1980. Friedrich Engels knew what he was talking about when he asserted, in 1845, that it was mainly the workers in England who now valued Byron, attracted by “his sensuous fire and by the virulence of his satire against the existing social order,” not that hypocritical bourgeoisie which had formerly been the mainstay of his reading public.
Byron was also the victim, as had already become apparent during the last years of his existence, of what was to become the full-fledged Victorian moral recoil from the permissive Regency society he knew, and with which he remained associated. He was unlucky, too, in that the circumstances of his life—both verifiable and darkly rumored—were famous, had come to be regarded in the main as reprehensible, and were virtually impossible to disentangle from his poetry. Whatever Barthes and Foucault may say about “the death of the author,” readers with no respect or sympathy for Byron as a man, an overpowering historical presence, are unlikely to relish either his letters or his verse. That is as true today as it was a century and a half ago. Unfortunately, this disability has never deterred his literary biographers—who were, and continue to be, legion.
It has been estimated that some two hundred biographies of Byron—not to mention novels and films in which he features—have been produced since his death in 1824. In a way, he unwittingly initiated the flood, not only because of the quasi-autobiographical nature of Childe Harold and Don Juan, his two long poems, but by writing his own prose memoirs. This last work, entrusted with characteristic generosity to the impecunious Moore, vanished forever three days after news of Byron’s death reached England. A small circle of people, essentially Byron’s longtime friend John Cam Hobhouse, his estranged wife, Annabella, and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, were responsible for consigning the manuscript to the flames in the front room of his publisher Murray’s London premises. Motivated respectively by jealousy of Moore, vindictiveness, and fear, they would almost certainly have incinerated Don Juan as well, if only they could have. Meanwhile, Moore (who had been made to feel not quite an English “gentleman”) was compensated for his considerable financial loss by being authorized to produce the first full biography of his deceased friend—something different from all the reminiscences, printed conversations, and scissors-and-paste compilations that flooded in after 1824.
Neither Hobhouse nor the Countess Guiccioli (for different reasons) much liked Moore’s Life when it finally appeared in 1830, but at least it assembled and made publicly available a substantial number of Byron’s wonderful letters—even if, in some cases, they had been sadly and irretrievably expurgated. Documents of this kind make up the bulk of Moore’s two volumes. Subsequent biographies (including those of the late twentieth century) would not allow Byron anything like so great an opportunity to speak for himself. Hard on the heels, however, of Moore’s sympathetic account came the novelist John Galt’s Life of Lord Byron (1830). Galt, who had met Byron briefly during the poet’s travels to Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Albania between 1809 and 1811, was sufficiently critical of his subject to arouse the wrath of Hobhouse, who protested—in an acrimonious correspondence that Galt subsequently published—that his late friend had certainly not been “the mean tricky creature you have represented him.” (Among other allegations, Galt suggested that, really, Byron devoted himself and his fortune to the cause of Greek liberty in 1823 because he needed to do something to revitalize his diminishing fame, and because he was tired of Teresa Guiccioli.)
In Galt’s favor, it has at least to be said that his Life concentrated more on what he conceived to be Byron’s intellectual character than on the sensational details of his private life. It was a biographical balance about to be sharply—and lastingly—reversed. In 1856, Lady Byron (who had already devoted a large part of her long widowhood to self-justification) finally took the plunge and told Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that crowning all the other reasons for her insistence in 1816 upon a legal separation from her husband of only one year was her discovery of Byron’s incest with his half-sister Augusta.
This was not entirely unexpected. Apart from telltale hints in his letters and poems, Byron himself had confessed the relationship to his friend Lady Melbourne, and also—very rashly, under a pledge of secrecy that she later dishonored—to his extremely unstable lover Lady Caroline Lamb. Rumor, however, was different from published accusation. In 1869, with both Augusta and Lady Byron dead, and spurred on by what seemed to her the iniquitous reissue of Byron’s poems, together with the Countess Guiccioli’s loving memoir, Lord Byron jugé par les témoins de sa vie (1868), Stowe burst into print, initially in a magazine article, then (in 1870) at greater length in her book, Lady Byron Vindicated.
Rather surprisingly, although Stowe certainly created a stir, for a long time few people believed her—not even J.C. Jeaffreson in his defamatory The Real Lord Byron of 1883, a work dismissed by Froude (who also disliked Byron) as “a description of Vesuvius written by some one who did not know that Vesuvius was a volcano.” Incredulity on the incest question, together with an inability to leave it alone, persisted well into the twentieth century, even after the publication in 1905 of the suggestive biography Astarte, by Byron’s grandson the second Earl of Lovelace (“Astarte” being the name under which Byron concealed Augusta in his play Manfred). This was almost certainly because the idea tended to strike people then as altogether too shocking and, with the enormous cache of papers amassed by the second earl dosed to readers, there was no concrete evidence.
Leslie Marchand, in his great three-volume biography of Byron (1957), although perfectly convinced of the liaison, was nonetheless obliged to explain in a note that, with certain documents unavailable, possibly destroyed, he had nothing amounting to legal proof: “All that can be said is that the circumstantial evidence in Byron’s letters can not be ignored, and that certain aspects of his life and correspondence can not be explained sensibly in any other terms.” Only in the latter part of this century, when unrestricted access to the Lovelace Papers was at last permitted to Doris Langley Moore, who made some use of them in The Late Lord Byron (1961), then to Malcolm Elwin, the author of Lord Byron’s Wife (1962), did that proof emerge—by which time, of course, very few of Byron’s readers were inclined to regard sexual relations between a half-brother and sister who had never met until both were adults as spine-shudderingly awful.
Something even more scandalous needed to be found—and it was. In 1957, G. Wilson Knight, who had been denied access to the Lovelace Papers, published Lord Byron’s Marriage: The Evidence of Asterisks, in which he argued that the incest rumors were merely a smoke screen: the real reason why Annabella walked out on her husband was her discovery that he was bisexual and may even have attempted to sodomize her. This was scarcely news to Marchand. Even though he too had been barred from the Lovelace Papers, he guessed that Byron had taken to bed quite a few of the young men as well as women in his life—but remained prudently tight-lipped and evasive about it in his three volumes. Only in the more relaxed climate of the 1970s, when he produced a one-volume redaction of the original, did Marchand confront these homoerotic relationships openly. By which point, once again, it was a revelation that had lost most of its capacity to shock. When Louis Crompton brought out Byron and Greek Love in 1985, scarcely an eyebrow was raised. Where could Byron biography go from here?
Feminism opened a few doors. In 1992, adapting Jeaffreson’s title of a hundred years earlier, Joan Pierson produced The Real Lady Byron, in effect a rerun of Stowe’s Lady Byron Vindicated, but with a good deal of additional material from the Lovelace Papers. More valuably, Megan Boyes turned her attention in a trio of balanced and perceptive books to three neglected women who were important in Byron’s early life: his mother, his lost love Mary Chaworth, and his Southwell friend Elizabeth Pigot.1 The appetite, however, for yet more full-scale biographies of Byron himself has continued to be insatiable. Apart from Phyllis Grosskurth’s Byron: The Flawed Angel (1997), it has been gratified most recently by Stephen Minta’s On a Voiceless Shore: Byron in Greece (1998), and by Benita Eisler’s Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999), two books which adopt very different attitudes toward their subject, and toward the writing of literary biography itself.
Minta’s title derives from Byron’s famous lyric “The Isles of Greece”:
and where art thou,
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now—
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?
This lyric, complexly embedded in Canto III of Don Juan, is sung by a turncoat Greek poet, a man normally glad to promote whatever lies his international patron of the moment might require. For once, however, on a remote island in the Cyclades, he allows himself to “agree to a short armistice with truth.” This poet is emphatically not Byron—indeed, as the narrator slyly suggests, he resembles Robert Southey, the former radical turned conservative, who was then poet laureate of England. Yet “The Isles of Greece” itself, with its mixture of love and compassion for a once-glorious Greece now miserably enslaved by the Turks, and impatience with its supine and disorganized modern inhabitants, shadows some of Byron’s own feelings in 1819, when he wrote it. The poem usefully bridges the gap between two of Minta’s main concerns: Byron’s 1809-1811 peregrinations in Greece and his return to the country as a liberator in 1823-1824.
The originality of On a Voiceless Shore—and it is considerable—resides in the way it skillfully interweaves a twentieth-century traveler’s tale with an intelligent and informed life of Byron. Minta already knew Greece well, and spoke fluent Romaic, when he decided to follow Byron’s exact route of 1809-1811 “into towns and villages, across mountains and through the remnants of the Greek forests.” He had never, as he wryly points out, much fancied the role of page to Good King Wenceslaus (“In his master’s steps he trod…”), but he became haunted by the idea that somehow in Greece—the country that Byron said made him a poet—the man himself was to be found. As with Minta’s earlier book about Aguirre’s sixteenth-century journey across South America,2 the impulse may have owed something to Richard Holmes’s account, in Footsteps (1985), of how he retraced Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1878 trajectory through the Massif Central of France described in Travels with a Donkey. It had the effect of taking Minta—usually on foot—along roads and into parts of Greece and what is now Albania that today’s tourists rarely or never see. After which, it was only logical that he should complete the enquiry by following the Byron of 1823-1824 from Cephalonia to Missolonghi, in which town a combination of marsh fever and a pair of murderously incompetent doctors had managed to kill him.
Minta is the best kind of travel writer: sensitive to the people as well as the landscapes he encounters, tolerant, uncomplaining, humorous, and acute. These were Byronic virtues too. A man different from most nineteenth-century travelers to Greece in that he displayed a sympathetic interest in the Greeks themselves, not just their antiquities, Byron cheerfully accepted a cow house as lodging if no other accommodation was available. Minta,
even more inured to peculiar hostelries, although uncompromising about present-day Athens as a place of air pollution, concrete, and dust, which “seems to have only a very ancient past, or else one so recent it hardly deserves the name,” can make one ashamed of not having appreciated that there is more to Missolonghi even now than its formidable mosquitoes. Rural depopulation, poverty, the ghastly effects of the motorcar, and the ravages of goats are all things that he registers as vividly as he does the outlines of mountains, the beauty of the temple at Cape Sounion, or the remains of the statue commemorating the Theban dead at Chaeronea. It is understandable that waiters should spontaneously produce for him well-worn copies of Byron’s Childe Harold, in Albanian translation, and customs officials inquire about “what your Byron would make of us now.”
Rather like a pair of bifocal glasses, On a Voiceless Shore provides a clear-sighted vision of things close at hand, alternating with the far distant but parallel perspective Minta has retrieved from Byron’s letters, poems, and the voluminous notes and diaries of his traveling companion Hobhouse. Readers wanting to know something about the young Byron’s life before he went to Greece, about the intervening period of fame following the publication in 1812 of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, his disastrous marriage, then exile in Switzerland and Italy before the final return, will find this information, too, set out with clarity and concision.
Although reluctant to summarize a man whose history and work are so complex, let alone attempt to psychoanalyze him, Minta does suggest that the “marbled steep” of Sounion in “The Isles of Greece” represents one aspect of the country with which Byron’s life became so entangled—romantic indulgence, passion (including the homoerotic relations so dangerous in Britain), poetry, and golden sun—while the heroic plain of Marathon in the same poem points to “the bright, hard world of action” to which he would finally commit himself. About the sincerity of that commitment, and the patience and realism with which Byron, in his last months, struggled with Greek factionalism and chicanery—not to mention appalling brutality to Turkish prisoners—Minta has no doubt. Byron’s pragmatism, as he says, never excluded the possibility of indignation. But “the language of the last letters from Mesolongi, so unheroic, so purged of illusion, is what in the end confirms Byron’s authenticity as a political animal.” Violent nationalist revolution is not necessarily the liberal cause it may once have seemed to be, but then Byron came to appreciate that more than most. This is an attractive and scrupulously fair-minded book.
The subtitle of Benita Eisler’s biography—“Child of Passion, Fool of Fame”—has been selected (rather oddly) from Byron’s juvenilia. This line, composed at the age of eighteen, he had the good sense to cancel a year later, in 1807, when he published the poem (“Childish Recollections”) in his collection Hours of Idleness. Eisler’s choice does not auger well for the biography that follows. And indeed, as gradually becomes apparent, she likes neither Byron nor his verse. Much of her 837 pages is devoted to the historically all too familiar attempt to depreciate both—not that she deals seriously either with Byron’s poetry or with his marvelous letters and journals. Don Juan, she believes, constitutes his one “claim to genius”—and even that comes to seem increasingly dubious as her book proceeds. T.S. Eliot (despite a personal antipathy to Byron) paid tribute to the narrative subtlety of The Giaour, a poem which (as Jerome McCann has demonstrated3 ) is in fact a moving political allegory about Greece: a land tragically fought over, like the poem’s female victim, by Venetians and Turks alike. Eisler, who shows no sign of having read either Eliot or McGann, manages to dismiss it as a conglomeration of “stock images, the silver-sheathed daggers and flashing eyes of boilerplate Orientalism.”
When Eisler does turn her attention to the poems, it is largely to retail their plots. Not infrequently, she gets these wrong. The eponymous hero of Mazeppa, for instance, does not tell his tale to Charles XII “on the eve” of the battle of Pultowa, as she asserts, but after the Swedish king’s defeat—this matters enormously—nor did Mazeppa’s adulterous affair when a young page involve the wife of “his ruler” John Casimir. He is not finally rescued by “a Turkish princess,” and indeed, given that his wild journey ends up geographically in the Ukraine, among the Cossacks, it is difficult to see how he could be. Sardanapalus, in Byron’s play of that name, misdescribed by her as a “despot,” in fact meets his tragic end because despotic is just what he is not. And the idea that in Canto V of Don Juan, the temporarily transvestite hero, “fleeing the scorned Sultana’s revenge,…is saved by the lascivious gaze of her spouse, the Sultan, by becoming the newest addition to his harem” is wholly inaccurate as an account of what happens in the poem. Juan is about to accede to the Sultana’s sexual demands, and the fact that he spends the night in the harem has little or nothing to do with the Sultan’s “lascivious gaze.”
Eisler reads Byron’s verse (very sloppily) not because it interests her in itself, but for what she can manage to construct out of it to show his supposed personal limitations, and the deplorable nature of his private—and public—life. Comparatively early on in the book, she interprets “The Isles of Greece” as his challenge that “to become his final resting place, the monument—and Greece herself—must prove worthy of the poet as hero.” This is absurd, not only because it ignores the context and speaker of the lyric, but because it foists upon it a meaning patently not there, either in 1819, when it was written, or in 1810, the point at which Eisler chooses to introduce it.
Eisler, however, is determined everywhere to debunk Byron’s political seriousness. A man, we are told, who “manipulated his image with the skill of an army of press agents,” he had “no real interest in reform; he wanted to break laws, not change them.” So, in 1812, he apparently spoke in the House of Lords against the proposed death penalty for insurgent Nottingham weavers only because it was “the more dramatic alternative” to Catholic emancipation (an issue Byron was to address later), and could help promote sales of Childe Harold. About his involvement with the Italian revolutionary movement—so important for Mazzini—she is perfunctory, and about the final expedition to Greece quite as dismissive, despite all the accumulated further evidence, as Galt.
Significantly, only pages 724 to 744 of Eisler’s very long book deal with Byron’s final involvement in the Greek War of Independence, as opposed to her interminable exploration of his marriage and separation. In her discussion of these, incest and homosexuality play their usual roles—reinforced by “new” testimony, much of it deriving from the unreliable Caroline Lamb, or from Lady Byron, whom even Eisler (who admires her) admits to have been an extremely vindictive witness. At certain crucial points (e.g., a purported letter to Annabella from Augusta about Byron’s intention to put the ideas of the Marquis de Sade “into execution”) it is backed only by a vague substantiating reference, or by no reference at all. The book’s innovatory and obviously timely accusation, however, is arrestingly different. Byron, it seems, was also a ruthless pedophile, given to “cruelty or violence to be inflicted on small bodies.”
It has, of course, been known for a long time that between the ages of nine and eleven, Byron was sexually abused by his Scots nurse May Gray. This, as Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy pointed out in The British Nanny (1972), was not a unique phenomenon. For Eisler, however, “the child is father of the man” in a distinctly un-Wordsworthian sense. One of the most unsatisfactory features of her book is its insistence upon reading the callow and often unlovely juvenile Byron into the mature one, with or without the help of amateur psychoanalysis, and it leads her to insist here, despite a complete absence of reliable evidence, that the abused necessarily grew up to be an abuser. “Who can doubt,” Eisler inquires rhetorically, that the French procuress in London who, according to Byron’s own later account, offered him (aged eighteen) something “more than ordinary,” with the counsel that “delicaci ensure everi succes,” was handing over a child to be exploited? Doubters might reply that (as has been previously and more plausibly assumed) this was far more likely to have been simply a virgin, age uncertain, somewhat nervously launching herself into prostitution. Eisler might also be alerted to the fact that, in any case (however horrific we may think it now), until the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 raised it to fourteen, in England the age of sexual consent for a girl was twelve.
Swallowing whole a very doubtful allegation of Annabella’s, Eisler subsequently announces that Byron was surprised by his mistress Lady Oxford while attempting to rape her eleven-year-old daughter Charlotte—without pausing to consider that, if this story is true, it was a little odd that Lady Oxford (as Eisler herself admits, very protective of her daughters) should have happily continued to live with Byron—and the children—at Eywood, her family house. As for the idea that Byron in 1810 attempted to buy twelve-year-old Teresa Macri (his “Maid of Athens”) from her mother, it was in fact the mother who tried, unsuccessfully, and on more than one occasion, to sell the girl to him for 30,000 piasters.
Eisler compounds this mistake with her charitable speculation that when Byron refused to deflower another child (“the gender…unspecified”) at Eleusis, “it would not seem to be the physical act or the commercial nature of the transaction, but something distasteful in the particular circumstances that caused Byron to decline.” This child’s age, as Eisler points out, was the same as Teresa’s—which is scarcely surprising since, in fact, it was Teresa Macri. There was never any child on offer at Eleusis. Eisler should look again at Hobhouse’s diary entry for March 3, 1810—to which she refers for this fabrication, and from which she even quotes part of one phrase. Hobhouse merely notes a conversation that occurred while he and Byron were riding “towards Eleusis,” and then records, “Theresa 12 old brought here to be deflower’d—but B would not,” where “here” refers not to Eleusis (which they were not, in any case, visiting) but to Hobhouse’s quarters in Athens.
There are far too many factual errors in this book. Ultimately more disturbing, however, than such howlers as the ascription to Caroline Lamb of lines from Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, to Bulwer-Lytton of Disraeli’s novel Vivian Grey, the confusion of the poet Horace with the Horatii brothers, her invention of a Hamlet “accused by visions of his two victims,” or a King Lear given to mad songs, is the consistent way Eisler distorts the circumstances of Byron’s life and poetry—invariably to his discredit. Nothing is too trivial to escape her hostility. Because, when trying to lose weight, Byron sometimes chewed mastic to alleviate the pangs of hunger, he has to become a Marlon Brando figure: “This socially unacceptable habit enlarges the Byronic attributes of rebellious hero, his jaw working a menacing wad of gum.” Even concern for his beloved dog Boatswain, dying of rabies, is cheapened. Eisler has no time for Moore’s statement that Byron was so little aware of the dangerous nature of Boatswain’s illness as compassionately to wipe the slaver from its jaws with his bare hands during the paroxysms: “Byron’s behavior,” she declares, on no evidence whatever, “reveals not ignorance but his refusal to acknowledge the death throes of the stricken animal.”
In the end, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame has the effect of sending one back to Leslie Marchand’s 1957 biography with gratitude for what William St. Clair, in his obituary of this great Byron scholar and editor (who died on July 11 of this year), summed up as a scrupulous effort to
transcribe, to understand and contextualise the original documents, to reconstruct the essential historical facts which they pointed to, and to allow Byron to speak for himself. Seldom has a biographer been more modest, keeping well in the background, avoiding making unnecessary or definitive judgements, and offering no overarching psychological or theoretical explanations.
Blazoned over the many reviews Eisler’s book has so far received in the press (mostly favorable, many appallingly ill-informed), such captions regularly appear as “Kiss ‘n’ Tell Byron,” “Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know,” “Byron Reveals How He Was Destroyed by His Own Promiscuity,” “Sex and Shops and the Odd Poem,” “Byron Seduced at 11 by a Maid,” or “Mud and Flames: A new biography of Byron leaves us little to like except the poems.” One cannot imagine Marchand’s biography ever provoking such a response. Again, where can we go from here?
Undeterred by Eisler, Fiona MacCarthy, who has written lives of William Morris and Eric Gill, has apparently been working for some years on yet another full-scale biography, commissioned this time by Murrays, and due out in 2001. One can only hope that she may do what even Marchand for the most part dodged: relate the poems fully and intelligently to the life. That would be genuinely innovatory. One also hopes that she will prove (unlike Eisler) to have a sense of humor, to recognize when Byron is sending himself up, or being deliberately outrageous, and that she will give him his due, both as a political force and as one of the funniest as well as greatest of English letter writers and poets.
It would help, too, to be allowed some indication that, however wickedly derogatory he could sometimes be about women—as he also was about Shakespeare—no other Romantic poet wrote so perceptively about “the real sufferings of their she-condition,” or understood so clearly that “Man’s very sympathy with their estate/Has much of selfishness and more suspicion.” That, despite the current spate of Byron biographies, would be a book well worth having. Meanwhile, to adapt Carlyle’s injunction of 1833, it would seem best to close your Eisler, open your Marchand. Better still, close both, and read Byron.
November 18, 1999
The first of these was My Amiable Mamma: The Biography of Mrs. Catherine Gordon Byron, Mother of the Poet George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron (Derby: J.M. Tatler, 1991). ↩
Aguirre: The Re-creation of a Sixteenth-Century Journey Across South America (Henry Holt, 1994). ↩
Fiery Dust: Byron’s Poetic Development (University of Chicago Press, 1968). ↩