Thursday, June 05, 2003

Tricks With His Persona

Byron: Life and Legendby Fiona MacCarthy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 674 Pages. $35.00

The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons by David Crane. Alfred A. Knopf. 290 pages. $26.95

At the age of 20, the soon-to-be famous George Gordon, Lord Byron, wearily wrote to a friend that a doctor had advised him to cut back on sex. "In fact," he wrote, "my blue-eyed Caroline, who is only sixteen, has been lately so charming, that though we are both in perfect health, we are at present commanded to repose, being nearly worn out."

That very evening, he records in another letter, "we supped with seven whores, a Bawd and a Ballet-master in Madame Catalan's apartment." He considered "purchasing" a few of the ballet students, who "would fill a glorious harem." From the same letter: "I am buried in an abyss of Sensuality, I have renounced hazard however, but I am given to Harlots, and live in a state of Concubinage." A few weeks later: "I have tried every kind of pleasure, and it is `Vanity.'" A bout of illness, probably venereal disease, holds him up, but not for long. "I am still in or rather near town residing with a nymph," he tells another correspondent, "who is now on the sofa vis-a-vis, while I am scribbling...I have three females (attendants included) in my custody." Two weeks later, he would brag of seducing both "the 'chere amie' of a French painter in Pall Mall, a lively Gaul -- and occasionally an Opera Girl from the same Meridian." He would also tell of going out for a night on the town, getting in a fight, then recovering, along with ten of his pals, at a "House of Fornication."

Women, women, women -- the great English Romantic poet's short life was full of them, but how much of all that was just PR? A few of the above letters were written to a minister, after all -- who could have resisted a little embroidering for the sake of shock? Long before anyone coined the phrase "cult of personality," Byron had it down cold. He knew the art of shaping his own myth. James Dickey, who knew how that game was played, was rather admiring when he said Byron was the kind of "enormous phony ... who makes the public take him on his own terms, the terms of his persona." Byron warned against reading too much of him into his poems, but the poems begged you to do otherwise, even when they weren't frankly autobiographical. Byron also claimed to draw from personal experience; where love and life were concerned, there was no substitute for the real thing. That was the source of his beef with John Keats, whose poetry he dismissed as "a sort of mental masturbation -- he is always f--gg--g his Imagination." For Byron, "The great object of life is Sensation -- to feel that we exist -- even though in pain -- it is this 'craving void' which drives us to Gaming -- to Battle -- to Travel -- to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment."

The agitation was there from the beginning. Upon birth he inherited a wastrel father, a clinging mother, and, bane of his existence, a club foot; for compensation there were his personal good looks and a titled inheritance. As he noted of his own favorite poet, the hunchbacked Alexander Pope, it is the "unhappy dispensation of Nature that deformed persons ... are born with very strong passions. They are condemned to combat, not only against the passions which they feel, but the repugnance they inspire."

His own passions, he would later write, "were developed very early, so early few would believe me …" The age was nine, the seductress was a strange nursemaid who, according to the account of one friend, "used to come to bed with him and play tricks with his person." Privilege and later fame brought endless opportunities for him to play with others. Following the publication of the first two cantos of his breakthrough poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron said he "awoke one morning and found myself famous." For the rest of his life, fame, outrageous productivity and scandalous affairs would multiply, with no boundaries on sex or age. Aside from numerous short-term sprints, these included an openly adulterous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, not the blue-eyed one cited above, but a trail-blazing gender-bender and certified nutcase; a romp with one middle-aged society matron, Jane Harley, Lady Oxford; an almost certainly incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh; a disastrous marriage to the pious Annabella Milbanke; a fling with Claire Clairmont, step-sister of Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley's occasional girlfriend; and, in his last years, a heated but rather tender romance with Teresa Guccioli, wife of an Italian nobleman. Among young men, there were the chorister John Edleston, and Byron's page, Robert Rushton. These are just the ones people write about.

Byron died in 1824 at 36, not long after settling in Greece and lending himself and his money to the country's independence movement, yet he was as strong a presence as anyone in the arts and letters of the 19th Century. Writers, artists and musicians all fell under the spell of both his poetry and recurring speculation about his life. Poe couldn't stop quoting him. Eugene Delacroix put Byron's poems on canvas and took to dressing like him. The dark, brooding "Byronic figure" -- loner, outcast, corrupt Narcissus -- was the Big Bad Wolf in one 19th Century novel after the next.

The charm hasn't died. In the last decade alone, there have by my count been at least twelve full or partial biographies of Byron, and the last few months have delivered two new examples of both. Both have a bit of a "truth problem." Biographers of the famous dead toil under a burden of delivering fresh revelations, and long-dead subjects can make it temptingly easy to come up with unprovable theories. This is the downfall of Fiona MacCarthy's big comprehensive life. David Crane sets his sights a little lower, and acquits himself reasonably well.

MacCarthy's Byron: Life and Legend arrives with a handicap, as the last full-scale work, Benita Eisler's 1999 Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, set a standard that is hard to beat: zesty, intelligent, unstinting on both the art and the life. MacCarthy does, however, have a slight scholarly edge: access to a horde of previously unknown Byron letters, still under the keep of the heirs of Byron's publisher, John Murray. On the plus side, she considerably firms up the incest matter, if it needed firming up, with a letter from Byron to Augusta where he considers what place the two of them will share in hell. MacCarthy also brings some welcome skepticism to the idea that Byron fathered Augusta's daughter Medora, an idea he himself often flirted with. She also does a nice bit of detective work in determining the cause of Byron's death; not malaria, as had long been thought, but Mediterranean tick fever, possibly contracted from one of his dogs.

That, alas, is about it. With her excellent 1996 biography of William Morris, MacCarthy had a relatively fresh field of inquiry and was able to get to the soul of an artistic community -- the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood -- through one quiet, unassuming man. Byron defeats her; too large to be boring, but larger than her ability. She doesn't have Eisler's narrative flair, and the book is fatally flawed by a dull "surprise" of her own invention: Byron was gay.

Byron's sexual relationships with men are no longer news; he was outed as bisexual years ago. MacCarthy tries to up the ante by saying that Byron actually preferred men, that he was gay by nature. To prove her point she channels the ghost of Dr. Freud, relies on guesswork, and trusts the reader not to follow her argument too closely.

To start with, MacCarthy says Byron's "female attachments dwindled quickly in interest." Oh really? Like the year he spent absorbed in Lady Caroline Lamb? Like the eight months he spent with Lady Oxford? Like the year he spent married to Annabella? Like the never-ending love he had for Augusta? How about the relationship with Teresa, which continued off and on from 1819 until he left for Greece in 1823? Every one of these relationships had a thick, novelistic density to it; there's nothing "quick" about them, and only the Oxford one can be said to have dwindled. The others were terminated by violent dismissal, exhaustion, or Byron's own death. MacCarthy writes that Byron's "male loves seem to have deepened and flourished with the years." So far as I could tell, only Edleston and Rushton came close to filling this bill; were the majority of his gay liaisons anything more than predatory quickies with boys at school or in Turkey or Greece -- boys whom he treated as casually as he did actresses and chambermaids? The picture that continually emerges from MacCarthy's research, as well as from Eisler's and David Crane's, isn't of a man who saw men or women as a substitute for either. It's of a self-absorbed baby who just couldn't stop playing tricks with his person -- the trickier, the better.

MacCarthy, however, thinks that no evidence only proves her point. Byron's male friendships between the years 1811 and 1816 were "muted," she writes, and his attentions to women were all the more cruel because "he was being false to his own heart." Got that? The more women he loved and ditched, the more it only proves he's gay. Women, she says, seemed to distract him "from the homosexual instincts he was straining to repress." Some repression. Of Byron's torrid affair with Lady Oxford, MacCarthy herself writes: "He would claim he never felt a stronger passion, which she returned with equal ardor."

Still, she plugs away, rejecting common sense at every turn. When Claire Clairmont tells Byron "I had ten times rather be your male friend than your mistress," MacCarthy is quick on the draw: "Had she sensed, or heard rumors, of his homosexuality?" My guess is she simply knew that Byron's closest and most enduring male friendships -- with Shelley, John Cam Hobhouse, John Murray, numerous others -- lasted because no sex was involved (that we know of, anyway). Later, when Byron calls Venice a "sea-Sodom," MacCarthy says "It seems likely that his Venetian sexual exploits were a good deal more varied than he claimed." Her writing is full of these nagging suppositional hang-nails: lots of likelys, perhapses and surely-he-must-haves. If Byron makes homoerotic overtures, MacCarthy leaps all over it; if he doesn't, she decides he's in denial. The more women Byron scores, the more marriages he wrecks, the more children out of wedlock, the more MacCarthy simply insists he's compensating for what he really wants.

Actually, I think there's something else going on here, something MacCarthy doesn't acknowledge. Fulfilling as the Edleston and Rushton affairs may have been, both lack the one element Byron always needed from lovers: drama, preferably with a strong dose of exhibitionism. Case in point: his marriage to Annabella Milbanke.

This ill-advised pairing first came about in the hope of effectively killing off another obsessive relationship: Byron's open affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, married at the time to William Lamb, a member of Parliament. "Caro" was an all-consuming, somewhat psychotic thing, and in Byron she had met her match, famously describing him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." They knew just how to push each other's buttons, with Caro designing costumes for their erotic games and sending Byron clippings of her pubic hair. The affair, often played out in full view of the London bourgeoisie, had a strong sense of shock theater to it, and wasn't doing the families involved any favors. With the aid of Caro's mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, Byron tried breaking it off with Caro and safely landing into marriage with Annabella, a strait-laced, intellectual, and thoroughly pious cousin of William's. Nothing, alas, went quite as hoped: Caro attempted suicide and Annabella turned him down. Byron moved in with the much older Lady Oxford; as that affair ran it's course, he came in contact with his older half-sister Augusta, sorely in need of his financial help. Although the two shared the same father, they knew each other only slightly. As contact increased, so did the spark between them.

Even more than the debacle de Caro, this one had the attraction of danger. Byron fancied himself something of a connoisseur of sin, and with Augusta he killed two birds with one stone: adultery and incest. Conscience intervened somewhere in the second act, as Byron, as if to save himself from his own impulses, sought out Annabella a second time. This time she said yes, but it was too late. Even as Byron flung himself into marriage with her, he couldn't purge Augusta from his brain. After the wedding, the groom told the bride she had made the worst mistake of her life, and that if she had only said yes the first time she could have saved him. Waking up that night, seeing the red cloth of the canopy illumined by a candle, he shrieked: "Good God I am surely in hell!"

It was a hell the three principals would never escape. Not only did Byron not hide his attraction to his half-sister, he endlessly taunted his new wife with it. That wasn't all; Byron apparently also tried giving Annabella a few harsh lessons in anal sex, which -- according to which story you believe -- either horrified her or gave her so much guilty pleasure that it only underscored her lifelong bitterness toward him. After a year with him, she took their young daughter -- whom he had insisted on naming Augusta Ada -- and split, threatening him with a divorce full of allegations both nasty and fatal: not just incest, but homosexuality, which was then punishable by death.

The threat of scandal, according to MacCarthy, is what would force Byron into exile from England. David Crane's The Kindness of Sisters takes it a step further: Byron had outgrown England, and found a reason to leave. The country had long since begun to bore him, and he had "needed the the emotional and mental restraints of marriage to give the physical and claustrophobic urgency to his dissatisfaction necessary to propel him into action." Like Joyce and Ireland a century later, he required a strong decisive break with his homeland.

What really drives Crane's fascinating story, though, isn't Byron so much as the legacy of his exes and their adult children. After Byron's death, Augusta found herself financially dependent on Annabella, who reinvented herself as an evangelical shrew bent on ridding England of the curse of Byronism. Annabella made sure Augusta never stopped paying for her sins. Her ultimate revenge came through Augusta's daughter Medora, who may or may not have been sired by Byron. When Medora got knocked up by her brother-in-law, she turned in destitution to Annabella for help; Annabella welcomed the chance not only to help the poor girl, but to let her know that she was actually the product of incest, thus turning her against her mother forever. To her credit, Medora would eventually spurn Annabella too -- as would Annabella's own daughter. Augusta Ada, who inherited both her mother's love of mathematics and her father's sense of risk, had an early grasp of the principles of Sir Thomas Babbage's "analytical machine," the forerunner of the computer. Had she not been waylaid by a gambling addiction and uterine cancer, which would kill her at the same age as her father, she might have contributed more than a little literature on the subject. Quite against Annabella's wishes, Ada became both more aware and more sympathetic to her heritage, and chose to be buried by her father's side. She received some measure of immortality in 1981, when the U.S. Department of Defense developed the ADA computer language.

Crane's book is the kind of hybrid increasingly common in biographical circles today: part solid, inquisitive thoughtful history, part "f--gg--g his Imagination." Sixty pages of the book are pure invention, as Crane dramatizes the final meeting between Annabella and Augusta in the form of a play. It's not history, but the scene of these two old, broken women, facing for the last time the bitter truths about themselves and the man they shared, wouldn't make a bad movie; reading it I couldn't help but picture Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren doing the honors.

It's sometimes the case that the closer a biographer gets to the subject, the less there is to like. MacCarthy doesn't much like Byron; Crane waxes eloquent about Byron's "moral courage," whatever that means. Interestingly, both make some amusing leaps as to the literary influence of Byron and Annabella as public figures. MacCarthy sees traces of Byron in Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Crane, likewise, thinks the young Annabella was the model for the snooty Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot's Middlemarch, and that her aged, embittered self inspired the character of Miss Havisham in Dickens' Great Expectations; Eliot's journals are full of notes on Byron's divorce, and Dickens knew Annabella personally.

Part of the lingering fascination with Byron isn't just that he's a paradox -- vampire, genius, phony – but that for all that can be said against him, he apparently inspired loyalty and eternal forgiveness in those who knew him best. Take for example the abysmal way he treated his daughter Allegra, his daughter by Claire Clairmont. Byron met Claire after leaving England; she was one of Shelley's groupies and fell in love with Byron as soon as she saw him. Her subsequent pregnancy may well have been her hope of holding on to him forever, but Byron would not be held, and he couldn't stand children. He used to say he sympathized with King Herod, a joke that proved more true than he realized. By the time Allegra reached three, Byron had her dumped off at a drafty Italian convent, and – although he was only a few miles away -- never saw her again. Eisler's book reproduces, in the child's own lovely longhand, a perfectly heartbreaking plea from Allegra for a visit from papa; maybe he could take her to the local fair, and buy her some sweets. Byron chalked this up to typical childish greediness, and so far as we know never even bothered to reply. Within six months, Allegra was dead. A grief-wracked Claire, who had split from Byron and had tried wresting Allegra from the convent, called him a murderer.

This thought was nowhere near her mind when she heard of Byron's own death in Greece two years later. She wrote: " ... the Reverend the Moral and fastidious may say what they please about Lord Byron's fame and damn it as they list -- he has gained the path of eterni[t]y without them and lives above the blight of their mildewy censure to do him damage."

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