“I go forth to be recognized,” Lord Byron’s reluctant military leader announces in Sardanapalus, a verse drama about the enigmatic Assyrian king that he intended to dedicate to his admirer Goethe. The play was begun in 1821, when the self-exiled poet was living in Ravenna with his lover Teresa Guiccioli and her compliant husband, while discreetly supporting the Carbonari, a secret revolutionary society that aimed to liberate Italy from Austrian domination. Two years later, having scuppered a plan to join Simón Bolívar’s far more successful battle to free South America from Spanish rule, Byron threw himself into the cause of liberating Greece from the Ottomans. After selling his elegant cruising yacht, the Bolivar, to the fathomlessly rich Lord Blessington, he sailed on July 24, 1823, for Cephalonia. Traveling with him on a chartered brig, the Hercules, were Teresa’s idealistic brother, Count Pietro Gamba, and the late Percy Shelley’s devoted admirer Edward Trelawny, a swaggering impersonator of the hero of Byron’s wildly popular The Corsair, ten thousand copies of which were sold on the morning it was published in 1814.

It’s uncertain whether any of these three bold musketeers ever donned the theatrical helmets that Byron had designed so they might emulate Homeric heroes. In his static drama (one the author rightly never wished to see performed), Sardanapalus inspects his helmet in a mirror before rejecting it as unfit for battle. Byron might have found it faintly funny that his funeral rites at Missolonghi, the small Greek coastal town where he died in the spring of 1824, included the ceremonious placing of his own showy headgear upon the coffin, beside a sword. The tribute was, however, in keeping with the melancholy wish Byron expressed in the poem that ended his final journal, “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year,” for “a soldier’s grave.”

Nobody understood better than John Murray, the canny Scottish publisher who made a fortune from selling Byron’s works to an adoring public, the commercial value of the poet’s knowing identification of himself with his subjects. Hard though the going sometimes proved to be, it was worth the shrewd bookseller’s time and patience to stay on excellent terms both with his most successful author—even after he refused to publish the final, buoyantly scurrilous cantos of Don Juan—and with Annabella Milbanke, Byron’s devoted but incurably self-righteous wife and widow. From the gloomily aloof hero of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (whose far-flung travels were accompanied from edition to edition by engraved plates showing his handsome creator visiting those same exotic locations) to the mocking, chattily transgressive narrator of Don Juan, Byron maintained an extraordinary ability to convince his readers that each one of them had a secret hotline to his attentive ear, if not to his generously shared bed.

Murray, a shameless toady who “milorded” his proudly aristocratic writer as much as possible—Christine Kenyon Jones, in Jane Austen and Lord Byron: Regency Relations, counts twelve squirming “my Lords” and “your Lordships” in the opening thirty-six lines of the publisher’s first letter to his new client—was frequently apprehensive about the impact of the volatile author’s personal life on book sales. Murray’s worries about Byron’s scandalous and much-discussed love affairs were reasonable. But despite his concerns, Byron’s Turkish narrative poems (The Gaiour, The Corsair, and Lara) seemed not to cost him readers—quite the opposite—with their strong hints of an incestuous relationship with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Murray took fright when Blackwood’s Magazine criticized Don Juan in 1819 for portraying the irreproachably virtuous Lady Byron as Juan’s humorless and moralistic mother, Donna Inez, but over a million copies of Don Juan were sold—largely in pirated form—before Byron’s death.

Murray’s task grew simpler when the exiled, disgraced, and vociferously impenitent Byron redeemed himself as a champion of freedom. (Who in 1814 could have guessed how richly Thomas Phillips’s glowing portrait of a saber-carrying Lord Byron in Albanian dress, which was purchased by the future Lady Byron’s admiring mother, would resonate with his leadership ten years later of a band of similarly kilted Albanian Souliotes in the cause of Greek independence?) The publisher’s much-criticized decision—initiated and supported by Byron’s increasingly prim friend John Cam Hobhouse—to host a posthumous bonfire of the allegedly scandalous memoirs that Byron had given to Thomas Moore, their dedicated editor, for private circulation did no harm to his client’s book sales by adding to the mystery.1

Byron today is more famous than read. Despite his literary influence—Pushkin and Stendhal, for example, are unimaginable without him—his reputation is up for assessment and strategic repositioning in the bicentennial year of his death.

In Nottinghamshire this summer, a conference at Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, is jauntily headlined “Provocative and Provoking: Fifty Shades of Byron.” In Missolonghi, where he died of fever and excessive bleeding by his nervously assiduous doctors, the 48th International Byron Conference is more soberly titled “Byron: The Pilgrim of Eternity.” In London, meanwhile, a handsome late-Victorian statue by Richard Belt of a meditative Byron, perched high upon a red-and-white marble plinth bestowed by grateful Greece, is due to be moved from a dusty, inaccessible traffic island on Park Lane to a leafier spot in Hyde Park. Andrew Stauffer and Jonathan Sachs have edited a handsome but far from comprehensive selection of Byron’s work for the bicentenary.2 Stauffer’s impressively concise Byron: A Life in Ten Letters stresses his least controversial aspect—the heroic link to Greece’s war for independence—by closing with the presentation of Missolonghi, proud repository of Byron’s heart (“or maybe it was his lungs, removed for embalming”), as “this orphan’s final adopted home.” Kenyon Jones, a noted Byron scholar, prefers to identify this troublesome figure as Jane Austen’s Regency contemporary, both of them brilliant satirists of the paradoxical mores and politics in an era of rampant poverty, loose morals, and fiercely defined class codes.


All bodes well for a thoughtfully prepared bicentenary, and yet it’s unclear just what the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron (as his excitable lover Lady Caroline Lamb described him3), a witty dandy with the flamboyant attitudes of a raucously chauvinistic age, can contribute today. A famous hatred of “cant,” by which he generally meant hypocrisy, doesn’t necessarily equip Byron to ridicule an epoch that, while prudish and often dull, is also more enlightened than his own.

The change of attitude toward sexual ethics since the last major celebration of Byron (the 150th anniversary of his death in 1974) has been great. Introducing the first volume of his letters in 1973, Leslie Marchand evidently felt no qualms about describing his uninhibitedly promiscuous subject as the “ravished” victim (“Poor dear me,” Byron sighed to a male friend) of a pack of obsessed women “who forced their attention on him.” After the public exposures of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and sundry other tarnished figures, that argument feels as awkward as Marchand’s chilling denunciation of Claire Clairmont, the mother of Byron’s lively, short-lived daughter Allegra, as the sole instigator of “an unfortunate and unwanted affair.” How would Byron fare today with the defense that he sheepishly submitted to his loyal friend Douglas Kinnaird: “A man is a man—& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours—there is but one way”? Really, m’lud?

Marchand’s magnificent edition of the letters reflected a carefree, posturing age that had grown as callously nonchalant about sex as Byron’s own. Back in the dourer days of 1937 T.S. Eliot, revisiting the Romantic poets, sternly condemned Byron as the one “most nearly remote from the sympathies of every living critic” before denying prurient readers even a peek at his “private life, with which I am not concerned.” By 1974, opinions had changed. An immense and well-attended Byron-fest at the Victoria and Albert Museum included lovelocks, ringlets, old razors, toothpicks, and even (loaned by my father from a Nottinghamshire house with strong Byron connections) a square of crimson, figured damask snipped from the heavy bed-hangings that closeted the amorously bisexual Byron with his innocently accommodating bride on their first honeymoon night at a snowbound northern mansion belonging to the Milbanke family.

Back in those heady 1970s, Byron the earnest champion of Greece’s freedom—very much on display in 2024—interested the new romantics less than Byron the recklessly candid libertine. At a time when even his dandyish style of dress was being imitated, the family-owned firm of John Murray decided to release a long-withheld stanza of Don Juan that Byron had included in one of his best and funniest letters to his publisher. Written in Venice in January 1818, the letter and poem first appeared (without comment) at the front of volume 6 of Marchand’s Letters and Journals:

Now, I’ll put out my taper
(I’ve finished my paper
For these stanzas you see on the brink stand)
There’s a whore on my right,
For I rhyme best at night
When a C—t is tied close to my Inkstand.4

In 1976 nobody blinked at a raunchy poem rattled off by Byron with the plain intention of shocking his uxorious, churchgoing publisher. Not a single critic—and Byron has attracted a legion of erudite editors and interpreters, including Jerome McGann and the late Peter Cochran—reproached the long-dead poet for claiming to have enjoyed two hundred or more lovers during his three years in Venice. Doris Langley Moore’s immaculately researched Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered (1974) didn’t outrage her readers by revealing that Byron, while capriciously generous to friends and hard-up writers, seldom showed the same concern for his carriage makers, boatbuilders, and tailors. So should we follow the scholars’ lead and acknowledge that libertinism and stiffing creditors were normal for the aristocratic dandy in Byron’s era? Or should we ask why Andrew Stauffer doesn’t censure Byron—beyond a subdued “let this sink in” in reference to his flirtatiously intimate correspondence with Lady Melbourne while sleeping with her daughter-in-law, Caroline Lamb—in his careful elevation of him as a writer for our time: a rootless genius who recovered his sense of self-worth as the faithful cavaliere servente of Teresa Guiccioli and hero of the Greek Revolution?


Better, perhaps, to set the question of Byron’s posthumous reputation to one side and view Stauffer’s agreeable combination of letters and narrative as what it claims to be: a successor to Thomas Moore’s admirably judged use in 1830 of Byron’s own inimitable voice to illuminate a hectic life. It’s not always a nice voice—Byron’s first reference to his illegitimate daughter Allegra calls her a “brat” and airily blames her birth on his habit of “putting it about”—but it’s witty, vivid, and immediate:

It is four, and the dawn gleams over the Grand Canal, and unshadows the Rialto. I must to bed; up all night—but, as George Philpot says, “it’s life, though, damme, it’s life!”5

Byron has had some splendid biographers. None of them can better convey what the fondly exasperated Irish novelist and literary hostess Marguerite Blessington—who in 1834 published her Conversations of Lord Byron—called his “chameleon-like character or manner” than the swift-moving letters in which his emotions can switch from love to hate without warning or apology. Stauffer has chosen his samples well. Ten chronologically arranged letters escort us through the life. In the first, the shy, lame owner of a ruined abbey confronts a growing mountain of unpaid debts—seemingly the main reason why the twenty-one-year-old peer hastily left England in 1809 for a two-year tour of Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albania, and parts of Greece. In the last, humiliatingly rejected by the Greek page with whom he has fallen in love, Byron remains committed to a cause—Greece’s liberation from Ottoman rule—whose outcome was still dishearteningly uncertain.

Writing for the general reader, Stauffer uses his selection of letters to create a narrative in which Byron’s private life looms larger than the work. Less fixated than Byron’s most recent biographer, Antony Peattie,6 on the impact of his physical disability (a deformed foot and consequently withered calf led this intensely self-conscious man to adopt loose-fitting pantaloons and shun the dance floor) and an enduring, obsessive battle to keep his weight down, Stauffer has more to say about what he calls the “dark side” of Byron: the “gothic episodes of depression” and “continual acts of sabotage” that caused his increasingly apprehensive wife to wonder if he was mad.

Was he? All Byron himself was willing to admit, while living in Venice, was that his temper, when provoked, was said to be “rather a savage sight.” At Cephalonia, his capacity for rage was memorably demonstrated during a visit to a monastery. After screaming at the alarmed abbot, the recently arrived guest darted into a side room and, tearing off his clothes and hurling a chair at the door, began to rave: “Back! Out of my sight! Fiends, can I have no peace, no relief from this hell?” Stauffer’s verdict on Byron’s “strange behaviour” as “likely triggered by exhaustion, alcohol, and overexertion in the heat” feels inadequate. It is, however, in keeping with this gentle biographer’s observation of Augusta Leigh, the intrusive, tactless half-sister who saw no harm in linking her initials with Byron’s on a Newstead tree the day after his engagement to Annabella Milbanke, that she “was not good at drawing boundaries.” Quite.

“I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1817. If it’s a surprise to find Austen talking about Byron in the last sentence of her very last letter, it’s not one to learn that such a discerning reader had his measure. Described by Kenyon Jones as “a favourite form of Austenian bathos,” that carefully placed petticoat has—as she shrewdly points out—only one intention: to deflate Byron’s swaggering hero.

The idea of setting Byron beside Austen, his older contemporary, as a Regency figure enables Kenyon Jones to remove him from the conventional Romantic grouping. While a few of her connections between the two feel a bit limp—a distant family connection, the laying out of Byron’s body in a London mansion from which its seemingly uninformed owners (Austen’s niece and nephew) were absent—much of the book works brilliantly, shedding new light on both writers from rewarding angles.

Central to Kenyon Jones’s intriguing project is the fact that both authors were published by John Murray—Austen described Murray as “a Rogue of course, but a civil one.” Late into the field of female novelists (Austen was, astonishingly, the first he published at a time when most novels were being written by women), Murray began with Emma (1815–1816), carried on with a second edition of the previously published Mansfield Park, and concluded with the posthumous twins, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. From these, Austen’s family received £668: not much when we consider that Byron, who rightly thought himself underpaid by his thrifty publisher, netted almost £20,000.

It’s not news that both writers, living at the time of Edmund Kean, adored theatricals: Jane and Cassandra even took part in a home-produced play shortly after their father’s death. Austen’s niece remembered that her aunt had “a very good speaking voice.” Elizabeth Pigot, the young woman to whom the first of Stauffer’s ten Byron letters is addressed, went further, remarking that Byron the actor had “a charm which is very rarely to be met with even in the greatest comic performer on our public stage.” That devoted admirer did not exaggerate: Mary Shelley, recalling for Thomas Moore the celebrated summer of 1816 when Byron was her neighbor on Lake Geneva, described the bewitching power of his voice and how his dramatic recitation from Coleridge’s “Christabel” had terrified Percy Shelley (not yet her husband) into a visionary fit.

The plot thickens. Kenyon Jones points out that in December 1815 John Murray chose to send a copy of Emma not to the increasingly unhappy Lord and Lady Byron at their Piccadilly home, but to Byron and Augusta Leigh. Murray knew that the only person in Piccadilly Terrace who had previously expressed a “very strong interest” in Austen’s work was Lady Byron. So why did he go out of his way to ask only, and insistently, whether “Mrs Leigh & your Lordship admire Emma”? The answer, consistent with his firm’s almost deceitfully protective curatorship of Byron’s reputation well into the twentieth century, was that the prudent Scottish publisher knew more about Byron’s intimate relationship with Augusta Leigh than he ever publicly chose to admit.7

Wit, absent from most Romantic poetry, sparkles in the work of Regency writers as brightly as it did in that of Byron’s favorite predecessor, Alexander Pope. In 1821, while living in Ravenna, Byron read and enjoyed (“It is diabolically well written—full of fun & ferocity”) a sharp skit that showed him in his public persona as Childe Harold being discussed by a group of Austen’s characters:

Oh! Yes, this is the true cast of face. Now, tell me, Mrs Goddard, now tell me, Miss Price, now tell me, dear Harriet Smith and dear, dear Mrs Elton, do tell me, is not this just the very look, that one would have fancied for Childe Harold? Oh! What eyes and eyebrows! Oh! What a chin!—well, after all, who knows what may have happened. One can never know the truth of such stories. Perhaps her Ladyship was in the wrong after all—I am sure if I had married such a man, I would have borne with all his little eccentricities…. Poor Lord Byron!

The anonymous author was not, as Byron suspected, Thomas Love Peacock but Walter Scott’s clever son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart.

Byron’s avowed favorite among Austen’s women contemporaries was Fanny Burney, very much a Regency figure, and one whose Evelina was much admired by Austen. It is still widely supposed that Austen’s work passed him by, unread. Reading of his delight at the pamphleteer’s squib (Lockhart’s parody appeared in John Bull’s Letter), can we doubt any longer that Byron was thoroughly familiar with the deftly comic writer whose haughtily Byronic Mr. Darcy had inspired a misguided and very innocent Annabella Milbanke to think that she, too, like Elizabeth Bennet, could bring a proud man to heel?