Fiona MacCarthy deserves huge credit for uncovering so much new and illuminating information on Lord Byron, she has revised her biography as her subject has become more, rather than less, relevant says Marjorie Brennan.
Byron: Life and Legend
John Murray, £16.99
FEW writers achieve the kind of fame — or notoriety — that results in their names becoming adjectives in their own right, though you wonder if their basic assonance has anything to do with that. Orwellian and Beckettian, yes, but Heaneyesque or Mailerian?
George Gordon achieved such an esteemed status fairly early in his career, though most readers will know him by his title, Lord Byron. Our very idea of the irresistible poet-lover owes much to the image of the Byronic hero, the one which sparked the ‘Byromania’ of the early 19th century.
Byron is not a writer who has been short of scholarly attention so Fiona MacCarthy deserves huge credit for uncovering so much new and illuminating information. This impressive biography was originally published in 2002 and has now been updated after MacCarthy undertook fresh research, having been given access to new material. There is a nice symmetry to the enterprise, given that it is published by John Murray, whose ancestor, also John Murray, was Byron’s original publisher. The link is more than an eye-catching detail, however: in her five years writing this book MacCarthy was able to avail of the Murray archive of Byron’s manuscripts and letters, which brings it to an admirable level of scholarship. However, this doesn’t make it a dull or academic read, quite the opposite in fact, with MacCarthy wearing her considerable knowledge of her subject admirably lightly and delivering it in an entertaining and easy-to-read fashion.
MacCarthy asks the question early on in her book: does Byron still matter? While this is a query which many biographers would do well to consider more deeply, MacCarthy makes a forceful case arguing that her subject has become more, rather than less, relevant, especially given the acceptance of homosexuality in comparison with past decades, let alone Byron’s own lifetime, when sodomy was sufficient grounds for execution.
If it seems a little previous to get into a subject’s sex life so early in a review, one can only take one’s cue from the book at hand — ‘only moderately filthy’ is how one blurb puts it — and the reputation of the subject, whose personal life is probably better known than a lot of his poetry.
At times there’s a touch of The Fast Show character, the 13th Duke of Wybourne to Byron’s protests in the face of sexual ‘misdemeanours’. Accused of carrying a girl off from a convent, his reply: “I should like to know who has been carried off — except poor dear me — I have been more ravished myself than anyone since the Trojan War”.
Byron was thrust into the public spotlight by his phenomenally successful narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage which reportedly drove aristocratic women “stark mad”. MacCarthy quotes from an ‘extraordinary’ cache of letters from female fans in the Murray archive. One correspondent writes that on reading the poem, she became “as it were animated by a new soul, alive to wholly novel sensations and activated by feelings till then unknown”.
MacCarthy notes that although Byron pretended to despise the society of women, his power over them distracted him from the homosexual instincts he was straining to re
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