August 2009

Guy Cunningham

nonfiction

Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life by Edna O'Brien

For more than two hundred years, people have been scandalized and fascinated by tales of the alcoholism, debauchery, financial incompetence, and personal cruelty of George Gordon (Lord) Byron, the poet behind classic works such as Don Juan, Manfred, and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Just a few decades after Byron's death, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, perhaps the most famous novel of the day, authored Lady Byron Vindicated, a scathing account of Byron's failings as a husband, lingering over (true) accusations of infidelity and incest. So it isn't a surprise that a contemporary writer, acclaimed novelist Edna O'Brien, has written a biography specifically dedicated to the poet's romantic life. Unlike Stowe, however, O'Brien is not interested in moralizing, instead she tries to give readers an idea of how the poet saw himself.

Byron in Love explores his life through his loves, using journals and letters as a way to let Byron "speak" to the reader. The biography is a corrective of sorts: Byron's friends and family burned his own memoirs after his death in the hopes of suppressing evidence of things such as his longtime affair with his half-sister Augusta or his many relationships with men. O'Brien herself believes "The burning of the Memoirs remains an act of collective vandalism and rebounds badly on all [involved]." This act of vandalism failed, though, in part because Byron himself left behind so many other personal writings. O'Brien particularly admires Byron's correspondence, describing even his most youthful missives by saying: "His letters…with such a stellar command of language, show him in many alternating moods, precocious, arrogant or suppliant, depending on whom he was writing to." Thus, it is Byron's letters and journals, rather than his poetry, that dominate here.

The one problem with this approach, of course, is that it risks letting Byron's work get overshadowed by his scandalous life. With O'Brien's skill for narrative, however, that life is quite a thrill. For example, Byron's idealistic trip to Greece, where he attempted to leverage his worldwide fame to aid the cause of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, is exciting the way a great adventure should be. When Byron contracts a fever and dies there at a mere thirty-six years of age, it has the force of tragedy: "At dusk on Easter Monday, 19 April, amid dark skies and a thunderstorm, Lord Byron, who had been the hope of the Greek nation, who had known 'the idolatry of man and the flattering love of women,' breathed his last, passing over, as it was reported, to 'his everlasting tabernacle.'"

O'Brien has done her research and has a good command of Byron as a character; so much so that when she occasionally explores the way Byron's loves and work fed off each other, we feel we are gaining real insight into the man. For example, when she juxtaposes the poem "Stanzas to the Po" ("Oh! Time! why leave this earliest Passion strong? / To tear a heart which pants unmoved?") with the observation that Byron was "unable to conceal how utterly he had succumbed" to his Italian mistress Countess Teresa Guiccioli (the subject of the poem), one cannot help but nod in agreement. And it is interesting to discover that the female character, Thyrza, mentioned in one of the poems that make up Childe Harold is actually based on Byron's former lover John Edleston. But the problem with a man as promiscuous as Byron is that many of his affairs run together after a while; in fact, all the references to his carousing or frequenting of prostitutes are more distracting than titillating.

Anyone already under Byron's spell will certainly find a lot to like. The uninitiated may be less enthused; if only because O'Brien doesn't really devote enough space to the poetry itself. This is unfortunate. After all, we are interested in Byron's life because he wrote great poetry. Certainly his free-spiritedness has always help feed Byron's legend. But there have always been plenty of sexually decadent people in the world -- and only one of them wrote Don Juan. Ultimately, Byron in Love is a story of Lord Byron as a man, not as a poet. Some may find this refreshing, after all, you can pick up Byron's poetry for yourself at any bookshop, but others may find themselves wishing for a greater sense of what made Byron famous to begin with.

 

Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life by Edna O'Brien
W.W. Norton & Co.
ISBN: 0393070115
240 Pages

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