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Review By Cheryl Bolen

Elizabeth Longford
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976
237 pages

Written 30 years ago for the The Library of World Biography series edited by J.H. Plumb, Byron does an admirable job of compressing the poet’s complex life into a little over 200 pages. While Lady Longford, who penned similar biographies of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and Winston Churchill, has not done original research she has acquainted herself with the millions of words that have been written about one of the greatest poets who ever lived.

George Gordon (his mother’s family name), the sixth Lord Byron, was born January 22, 1788. His Scottish mother was the second wife of “Mad Jack” Byron, who had sired a daughter, Augusta, with the wife of Lord Carmarthen, whom he married after her husband divorced her. Mad Jack almost certainly married Catherine Gordon for the £23,000 she brought into the marriage — a fortune he quickly wasted. While George Gordon was born in cheap lodgings in London, he spent his childhood in Aberdeen, Scotland, following his father’s death when the future poet was three.

The relationship between mother and son was not warm. She taunted the little boy who had the misfortune to be born with a club foot. Mary Shelley would later express her opinion the deformed foot shaped Byron’s life more than any other single factor, permeating everything he felt or wrote. Even on his deathbed, he said, “As long as I live, I will not allow anyone to see my lame foot,” he said.

He studied at a neighborhood school at age four and entered Aberdeen Grammar School at age seven. He spoke with a Scots burr and was thoroughly Scottish. Until his great uncle died, passing the title to young Geordie, who was ten years old. Now Lord Byron, he took up residence at Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. (In his twenties, he sold it for badly needed cash.) His education continued at Harrow, then Trinity College, Cambridge, which he attended intermittently. It is thought he met his half-sister, Augusta, when he was fourteen and developed a close relationship with her prior to her marriage to George Leigh. At Cambridge he was to meet his life-long friend, John Cam Hobhouse.

And he was to begin publishing poetry by the time he was eighteen. His first efforts, privately published, were erotic and ended up being burned. At nineteen, he saw the publication of his Hours of Idleness, which was attacked by the Edinburgh Review.

At this time he had initiated a regime to purge his body of unwanted fat, and by diet and “violent exercise” reduced from 203 pounds to 147. A vegetarian, he was 5 feet, 8 ½ inches tall. Also at this time, he is thought to have experimented with homosexual activity – as well as heterosexual seductions. Before he was twenty, he had fathered an illegitimate son on a Newstead housemaid. He apparently gave her £100 and promptly forgot about the lad.

Next came the Grand Tour which inspired his classic epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. Accompanied mostly by Hobhouse (as well as his ever-present valet, Fletcher), Byron saw Portugal, Spain, Malta, Greece, and Turkey, but it was Greece which captured his soul.

He returned to England in 1811 and took his seat in the House of Lords, embracing Whig politics and championing the oppressed — a theme that would carry through in the remainder of his life.

The following year saw the publication of Childe Harold, which was wildly successful and brought him instant fame. But not money. While he could have used the handsome royalties from the book, he would not accept them, instructing his publisher, John Murray, to pay others, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

A torrid, though brief, affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb followed, as did others. But the most significant of his liaisons was the deepening affection between him and his half-sister. It is almost a certainty that they had sexual relations and her fourth daughter, Medora, was probably sired by Byron, though he showed no particular attachment to the child.

An on-again, off-again courtship with Annabella Millbanke commenced, culminating in marriage on January 2, 1815. Though it is unlikely Byron loved her at that time, other factors fanned his desire to wed her. He may have hoped that marrying the puritanical Annabella (whom he called the Princess of Pareallograms because of her fondness for mathematics) he could atone for his unspeakable sins of incest and sodomy. As an only child of a well-to-do father, she also offered financial prospects.

The marriage was not a success. Their daughter, Ada, a mathematic genius, was born eleven months after her parents’ marriage. Byron and Annabella separated. It is thought he may have confessed to his wife the incestuous relationship with his sister.

Public sentiment went against Byron. Rumors of homosexuality and incest were often linked with his name. Always fancying himself an exile, he felt compelled to leave England.

Before he left England, he embarked upon another affair, this time with the 17-year-old Claire Clairmont, who had been raised by her stepfather, William Godwin, the father of Percy Shelley’s wife, Mary. Byron did not love Claire, either. She bore his illegitimate daughter, Allegra, January 12, 1817, in Bath. In Italy, Byron decided Claire was not fit to bring up the child, and he decided to take the responsibility. When she arrived in Italy, he showed a degree of affection for her but rather shirked his responsibilities. When she was four, he sent her to a convent and never saw her again. She died of a fever less than a year later.

His most lasting affair was with the young wife of the aging Italian Count Guiccioli, with whom Byron lived for four years. Throughout his exile he had continued to write and to publish, and it was during this time he began his autobiographical masterpiece Don Juan, which was castigated in Britain when it saw publication.

Teresa Guiccioli, like all her predecessors, could not hold Byron. He heeded the call to help liberate his beloved Greece and spent the fortune he had received upon the death of his wife’s mother — and his life — to that purpose. He died of a fever in Greece April 19, 1824. His body was returned to England for burial in the Byron family vault. Burial in Westminster was denied him. The Byron vault, and his coffin, was opened in 1938. Someone had cut off the deformed foot that had been the source of so much woe throughout his brief life.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in November 2007.

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