Lord Byron was the most fascinating literary figure of the 19th century. Fiona MacCarthy’s solid and competent biography covers the ground in great detail (the deformed foot, the scandalous exile, the endless wandering, the early death in Greece) but fails to engage our interest or do justice to its subject. Desperately straining to say something new about Byron’s all-too-familiar life in the wake of the recent and equally hostile biographies by Phyllis Grosskurth (1997) and Benita Eisler (1999), MacCarthy emphasizes two unconvincing themes: his identification with Napoleon and his love for adolescent boys.
She ignores the fact that, in the stanzas on Spain in the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), Byron calls Napoleon a “bloated Chief,” “Gaul’s Vulture” and “the Scourger of the world.” Seven years later, when asked who he thought was the greatest living man, Byron mentioned the pugilist John Jackson and the South American liberator Simón Bolívar. Constantly “in the estrum & agonies of a new intrigue,” Byron took women as his aristocratic right and had 200 conquests during his 20 months in Venice. He married, slept with his half-sister, and had significant liaisons with the demented Lady Caroline Lamb, the voluptuous Lady Oxford, and the bold Countess Teresa Guiccioli. MacCarthy argues, however, in obsessive and tedious fashion, that his affairs with women were no more than diversions, that his relations with boys were his “real sexual predilections” and “main emotional focus.”
MacCarthy equates homosexuality, often the platonic and mildly physical love of an older man for a beautiful youth, with sodomy. (The authorities she adduces for “Greek love”—Horace, Catullus, Virgil, and Petronius—were all Latin.) Byron called his relationship with John Edleston “a violent, though pure love and passion”; but MacCarthy, with no evidence, places it within the “thriving subculture of sodomy.” Discussing another relationship, she dubiously claims that “the most likely explanation is that Byron allowed himself to be seduced by Lord Grey.” Sixteen pages later, when she speaks of Lord Grey as “the man who had seduced him,” her supposition has suddenly become fact.
Throughout the biography, MacCarthy adopts the prurient tone and malicious conjecture of a gossip columnist exposing a tawdry episode. She has mastered the technique of hypothetical condemnation and slants her arguments with scores of subjunctive phrases: “almost certainly,” “it is possible,” “may well be,” “probability that,” “esoteric innuendo,” “partly if not mainly,” “apparently,” “may-be,” “suggested,” “would claim,” “no coincidence,” “not so unlikely,” and “almost certainly.” Though Teresa’s brother Pietro Gamba definitively concluded that Byron never “slept in the same bed” as his young Greek page Lukas, MacCarthy maintains that they had a physical relationship and even claims (in yet another strained subjunctive) that his tenderness for a little Turkish girl “can be seen as one of Byron’s desperate responses to Lukas’s indifference.” Her method inspires in the careful reader a deep distrust, if not revulsion.
MacCarthy never explains why Byron was bisexual and incestuous. As an aristocrat, he rebelled against middle-class morality; he believed bisexuality increased his understanding of human emotions and provided intriguing poetic material. He had a natural curiosity about new sensations and the extremes of sexual experience and wanted to extend the boundaries of what was socially, or even imaginatively, permissible. The taboo against incest is inspired by the fear of genetic disasters and sanctioned by intense social disapproval and harsh legal penalties. Few people can derive sexual pleasure from, or even conceive of, sexual relations with close kin. Byron’s case, however, was different. He scarcely knew his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, was attracted to her in a narcissistic way, and—since she was pretty and willing—easily transcended the prohibition and did not feel terribly guilty about sleeping with her.
Most great fornicators, like Pepys and Boswell, confined their shameful behavior to private diaries. Byron talked about his sexual adventures to such friends as Lady Melbourne and, when she inevitably spread the gossip, was surprised by his social ostracism. Why, then, did he reveal his darkest secrets? Nothing was quite real to Byron until he wrote about it; his emotions overflowed, and he could not keep them to himself; he indulged in poetic license and emotional exaggeration; he did not feel ashamed about confessing, which established a powerful bond with his friends; and his revelations were (as Oscar Wilde observed) like feasting with panthers: The danger and risk of discovery were half the excitement.
MacCarthy makes a number of crude errors. She misspells Kunersdorf, says that oysters grow in soil, states that Byron was “banished” instead of going into voluntary exile and that the Guicciolis were “remarried,” when, in fact, they never divorced. She absurdly calls Venice a “comic waterland” and mistakenly says that Pia de Tolomei in Dante’s Purgatorio was either poisoned or exposed to lethal air. In fact, she was thrown out of a window of her husband’s castle. MacCarthy also retails some wild exaggerations: that Byron read “about four thousand novels” (if that many even existed) by the age of 19, which would have meant one every day from the age of seven; and that another prodigy, a 16-year-old girl, “could recite the entire works of Shakespeare by heart.”
Byron’s seigneurial attitude toward women is anathema to feminist ideology. MacCarthy, therefore, prefaces her account of even his ordinary activities—mentioning friends, taking a bath, saving letters, wanting privacy in order to write with pseudopsychological adjectives: effeminate, compulsive, obsessive, manic, schizophrenic, paranoid, sadistic, and pathological. She often contradicts herself about Byron’s striking appearance and mercurial character. She mentions his “lobeless ears,” which look perfectly normal in his portraits in her book, and maintains that Byron “was temperamentally unable to amend” while reproducing a heavily amended page proof of Don Juan. She writes of “his usual shyness at meeting with strange people” but emphasizes “his capacity for spontaneous intimacy.” She describes Byron’s Mediterranean travels through Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey but does not provide a much-needed map to go with her handsome colored illustrations.
MacCarthy has nothing interesting to say about the poetry. She quotes Mary Shelley’s description of Byron and Shelley in Pisa as a “nest of singing birds” without realizing that Mary was quoting Samuel Johnson on his days in Oxford. She merely calls the brilliant poem “She Walks in Beauty” a “transparent lyric”; and, by mistakenly connecting “Darkness” to the book of Revelation, misses Byron’s clear allusion to Genesis—“the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep” as well as the echoes of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Byron spent the last three months of his life in Missolonghi during the Greek revolt against Turkish rule. He attempted to reconcile the Greek leaders, control his private army of Albanian brigands, plan an assault on the fortress of Lepanto, and arrange for officers, arms, and money to be sent from England. He failed in all these objectives and was plagued by earth-quakes and epilepsy, mutiny and murder. But Byron’s union of art and action, political idealism and fight for liberty, flamboyant costumes and theatrical behavior, need to escape ennui and quest for danger, passionate desire to change the world by his own idiosyncratic effort, ambition to achieve military glory by fulfilling the destiny of a nation, and glorious failure and self-sacrifice established an irresistible model for romantic idealists. After his death from malaria or tick fever, his friends and publisher (most of whom had not even read them) attempted to “save” his reputation and their own by burning his memoirs “in the most famous sacrificial scene in literary history.”
Though MacCarthy usefully traces Byron’s legend, she fails to mention Henry James’ great story “The Aspern Papers” (1888), in which the biographer is willing to do anything to get his hands on the papers of the famous poet (based on Byron) in order to discover his romantic connection with an old lady (inspired by Teresa Guiccioli) who has survived in a crumbling Venetian palazzo. And she does not mention Hemingway, the Byron of our time. Both men were powerful and astonishingly attractive to women, brilliant talkers as well as attentive listeners. They were great athletes, had their own boats, and kept a strange menagerie of animals. Both felt fasting intensified their mental powers but were heavy drinkers, lived most of their adult lives abroad, and spoke foreign languages fluently but incorrectly. They visited Constantinople in their youth and witnessed Greco-Turkish wars; they were attracted to military life and proved by their deeds that an author could also be a hero. The behavior of their fictional characters was widely imitated. Both achieved early fame and became legendary, charismatic figures, idolized by compatriots and their adopted countrymen. They left a permanent mark on their age and culture. Like Byron, Hemingway preferred to die rather “than to drag on an existence with faculties impaired, and feelings blunted.”
[Byron: Life and Legend, by Fiona MacCarthy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) 674 pp., $35.00]