Welcome to another article by Paul Andruss that explores the truth behind some of our literary legends. Lord Byron was had a short life but one that left its mark on the world…
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know… by Paul Andruss
Byron in Greek National Dress
No, not me… but I’m flattered you considered it, even for a moment.
‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’ was how Lady Caroline Lamb described her lover Lord Byron after he dumped her. Caroline Lamb was as mad as a box of frogs. Even Byron couldn’t handle her, which, God knows, given his track-record should be proof enough.
Caro Lamb (Wikipedia)
During one vitriolic public spat with Byron, ‘Caro’ attempted suicide in the middle of a ball by slashing her wrists with a wineglass. Talk about hell has no fury; she then took it on herself to blacken his name with a public eager for any breath of scandal from this rock-star.
Hang on, rock star? Well famously, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll makes you a rock-star. All you gotta do is substitute poetry for rock-n-roll and….
What d’ya think the big appeal was for people like Keats? Consumption?
Considering we have a song for every occasion from weddings to funerals, with lyrics so personal they are meant only for us, is it really so hard to image getting the same chills from a poem?
In the days before I-pods, Discmans, Walkmans, transistor radios, dancettes, radiograms and even wind up gramophones (not though I’m implying any of you are that old) music was not personal, but public. After all, you can’t take a piano on a picnic. But you could a poetry book; to be read aloud or even in dreamy silence.
Ken Russell brought home the idea of poets as rock-stars, as only he could, in his film Gothic: about the summer Byron spent with fellow poet Shelley in the villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. A holiday that saw the creation of Frankenstein and the first inklings of vampire fiction based on Byron’s remembered folktales from his travels in Greece. In the opening scene two prim young women sneak into the villa gardens, spot the poets, start screaming hysterically and throw their bloomers at them.
Mary and Percy Shelley; Byron and John Polidori (National Portrait Gallery)
Due to the huge volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora the year before, 1816 was called ‘the year without a summer’. Byron and Shelley, along with the Wollenscroft sisters, stayed in the Villa Diodati. Imprisoned in the house by the appalling weather they did what any self-respecting rock-stars would do: got drunk and off their heads on opium, and no doubt hashish from Ottoman Turkey.
George Byron was born in 1788 with a club foot, something that caused him acute embarrassment and violent fights at school. It also added to his allure an adult: sure proof he was the Devil. His deformity possibly gave him the idea of controlling his image when famous. He personally approved all portraits, only allowing himself to be presented in certain studied poses that gave rise to an ideal of a Byronic hero: mean, moody and magnificent.
Byron Portrait (From Britannica)
So, we know Byron was a poet, even though we can’t quote any lines of poetry (*see footnote); that he was devilishly handsome (remember he approved his portraits); and a thoroughly bad lot. But who was Byron and why did the very mention of his name make men, as well as women, want to lie down and reach for the smelling salts?
One of the first things you come across is Byron’s bisexuality. Although, I think that term is a bit post-Freudian. People are sexual, and of course opportunistic. In an all-boys school with hormones raging, then…
Byron confessed to ‘violent passions’ with school friends and had a protégé at university. In later life, he admitted believing ‘consciousness of sexual difference made England untenable’. In those days, homosexuality and sodomy was not just social ruin, but also hanging offences.
Byron also had women: lots of women. One was a distant cousin, Mary Chatsworth; another was his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Rumours of incest abound. It was claimed he fathered a child on Augusta. His introduction to sex started at the age of 9, when a serving girl visited his bedroom to ‘play tricks on his person’: her way of ensuring he did not tell his mother of her drunken binges.
Underpainting sketch for portrait of Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh
During this time his widowed mother’s suitor Lord Grey De Ruthyn also made sexual advances on him. The first vampire story, and possible origination of the genre, was written by Byron’s physician John Polidori during that fateful summer at the Villa Diodati. The vampire, a suave nobleman based on his employer Lord Byron, is called Lord Ruthven, making one wonder what Bryon confided to his handsome, young doctor and under what circumstances.
At the age of 21, Byron headed off on a European Grand Tour as did most young noblemen. An influencing factor may have been a friend downing himself rather than risking public exposure of his sexuality. Byron later admitted sexual freedom was also a lure.
In 1809, with Napoleon rampaging through Europe and Wellington fighting the Peninsula War in Portugal, Byron headed to Italy and through the Ottoman Empire to Turkish Greece. (Greeks and Turks still hate each other.) Here he took up with a 14 year old boy and a 12 year old girl in Athens.
(Even writing this leaves me feeling contaminated – child abuse: one of the many unpalatable facets of history. The past is not just a foreign country; it’s your worst nightmare.)
On a brighter note the Pasha of Greece allegedly wanted to make Byron his catamite. Byron only managed to evade his advances because of his title.
Returning to England, Byron wrote of his travels in the first cantos of his ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ and became instantly famous. Of course despite mounting debts, Byron, being a gentleman, refused payment for his work, which must have made his publishers very happy indeed.
During this time came his scandalous affairs, mounting debts and unhappy marriage. His wife’s wealthy family were ‘trade’. They had the cash: he the title. Annabella Milbanke, a ‘blue-stocking’ (i.e. educated), their heiress was their pride and joy.
She was also Caro Lamb’s cousin, which couldn’t have gone down well with her deranged relative once she realised Byron had no intention of revisiting that pasture. Fervent, pure-minded and madly in love with Byron’s poetry, Annabella believed she could cure her husband’s excesses and thereby save his soul.
Hmmm… guess what!
Eventually Byron was forced to flee rather than face prosecution for sodomy with his wife. Society gasped to learn Annabella was prepared to face such public humiliation merely to punish her husband. They suspected Caro was behind it. A trifle hypocritical considering Byron had also indulged himself in that way with Caro before marriage and Caro rather enjoyed it, even dressing up as a young manservant to facilitate the illusion.
However, exile did allow Byron to escape his ruinous debts – so it wasn’t all bad.
While living in Venice in 1816, he learned Armenian, co-authoring an English-Armenian Grammar, and eloped with the young wife of an old count with whom he resided until he left for Greece 7 years later. During this time he wrote many important works including Don Juan. His friend Shelley died in a boating accident as did his illegitimate daughter to Mary Wollenscroft Shelley’s sister. Dead of fever at the age of 5, while under her father’s loving but negligent care.
Memorial to the drowned poet Shelley in Oxford
In 1823 Byron joined the Greek fight for Independence from the Ottoman Empire. While sailing to the Greek mainland from the island of Kefalonia, Byron’s ship, fleeing the Turkish navy, landed to Messalongi where Byron joined the rebels. The following spring he caught a chill which may have resulted in pneumonia. With unsterilized instruments the usual medical practice of bloodletting left him with blood poisoning. He died on the 23 April 1824 aged 36.
He left instructions in his will for all his personal papers to be destroyed. His executors carried out his last request: making him even more of an enigma and ensuring the myth of the Byronic hero influenced generations of poets, writers and bohemians. Although lauded by the Greeks and an object of endless fascination to the British public, the establishment never really forgave him.
Byron Memorial Messalongi Greece
Byron had a daughter with his wife Annabella: the famous ‘blue stocking’. No surprise Ada turned out to be a brilliant mathematician, developing computer programmes for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (1837): the first general purpose programmable digital mechanical computer of the modern age. The size of a small palace it was worked by gears and handles. Due to its size and complexity Babbage only completed a small part of the Analytical Engine, before his death. But all this of course is another story.
Ada Lovelace (nee Byron)
*Footnote: Opening lines of ‘She Walks in Beauty’ by Byron
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;
©Paul Andruss 2017
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul Andruss is the author of 2 contrasting fantasy novels
Thomas the Rhymer – a magical fantasy for ages 11 to adult about a boy attempting to save fairy Thomas the Rhymer, while trying to rescue his brother from a selfish fairy queen
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You can find all of Paul’s posts in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/writer-in-residence-writer-paul-andruss/
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