Book Reviews

Byron Life and Legend

By Fiona MacCarthy

John Murray £25

Review by Anne Sebba, The Tablet

“It has been my lot through life to be never pardoned and almost always misunderstood,” Lord Byron lamented to his half-sister and lover Augusta when his five year-old daughter Allegra died. Byron, then living in Pisa, had selected Harrow Church as the place of burial for this daughter, by Claire Clairmont. Yet it was rumoured that he had chosen Harrow because he knew his estranged wife, Annabella, worshipped there and that an inscription to be placed on a wall opposite her pew was designed to taunt her. Claiming he never knew Lady Byron had any connection with Harrow Church, Byron saw the story of Allegra’s burial as “the epitome, or miniature, of the story of my life.”

But how could Allegra’s tragic and brief life, shunted as she was between inadequate young mother, distracted genius of a father in shameful exile and other well intentioned older couples, ever be ‘understood’ in hypocritical early 19th century England?

George Gordon Noel Byron, who inherited his barony aged ten, recognised early his overwhelming need to experience life as intensely and variedly as possible, even if this meant incurring suffering and pain .The great object of life, he believed, was sensation in its truest sense. Indulging in ‘intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description’ was the way to be constantly aware of one’s own existence. This, today seen as the quintessential Byronic philosophy, is the theme of the latest Byron biography by Fiona MacCarthy. How could it be otherwise? But MacCarthy, without shying away from any of her subject’s intemperate and keenly felt pursuits – in fact revealing more than was previously known – avoids a sensationalist tone. She has a lively style, is sympathetic to her subject and helps us understand both his pathological desire for privacy as well as his craving for publicity. Her book is a quest to explain Byron’s powerful ambition as well as his dazzling literary brilliance. She is extremely good at rooting the poetry, through which Byron gave voice to some of the deepest and darkest human emotions, securely within the life, but this is biography not lit crit .

And what a riveting life story his is. Byron grew up in Scotland and MacCarthy traces many of his later characteristics to formative factors in his childhood; not only his deformed foot and constant battles with his mother – his father abandoned them – but also the depressing influence of the weather in Aberdeen . By the time he left Harrow Byron was, MacCarthy believes, practised in homosexuality with a sound grasp of the power of language and a deep seated love of ancient Greece – the dominant thirds that orchestrated the rest of his life. At Cambridge, under the encouraging eye of the flamboyant and wealthy student, William Bankes, Byron continued to indulge his love for beautiful boys. But, only too aware that sodomy was a capital offence for which men were hanged – or pilloried – he took off for Albania and Greece.

In 1812, with the publication of Childe Harold, Byron became an instant celebrity. This was also the first time he was published by John Murray and MacCarthy, having had access to material only recently available in the John Murray archive , is particularly good at charting this crucial yet ultimately acrimonious friendship once Byron’s poetry became too controversial for Murray to publish. With Byromania at its height the poet’s affair with the androgynous Lady Caroline Lamb began. Then, partly to escape her dangerous attentions, Byron embarked on his disastrous marriage to the clever bluestocking, Annabella Milbanke while not relinquishing the incestuous pleasures of his half-sister Augusta Leigh.

Such complex personal relationships make for an interesting discussion of Byron and morality. MacCarthy quotes Byron’s own defence of Don Juan against the charge of immorality; the poem was a highly moral protest against hypocrisy, he stated.
In Cephalonia in 1823 Byron was stimulated by an unlikely friendship with a Christian evangelist and British army staff sergeant, James Kennedy. Byron, although by no means a conventional believer, came closer to Christianity than his detractors would have suspected, says his biographer. His motives in sending Allegra to a convent school, while not entirely altruistic, owed something to the way he responded emotionally to Catholicism. He had spoken in the House of Lords in favour of Catholic Emancipation and “he liked Catholicism’s excess,” MacCarthy maintains.

“You know I am reckoned a black sheep yet after all not so black as the world believes me, ” Byron said, shortly before his death at Missolonghi . Posterity, for all it has revealed, has not judged him so black and one of the most powerful, and poignant sections of this book concerns his heroic intervention in the Greek War of Independence for which he gave his life.