Lord Byron: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
By Rosemary Gemmell
This is, perhaps, a fitting epitaph for the man whom Lady Caroline Lamb once called: Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Born in 1788, during the elegant Enlightenment period, George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron epitomised the romance of Regency England. The publication of the first and second canto of his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, in 1812, introduced Byron to the eminent literary world of the time. And this young nobleman embodied the very essence of the romantic villain-hero that has graced the pages of fiction ever since. The melancholy hero of the poem, Childe Harold, embarks on a solitary pilgrimage round Spain, Portugal, Greece and the Aegean after turning away from a life of pleasure, and is widely believed to be a self-portrait of Byron.
Son of profligate gambler Captain John Byron and Scottish heiress Catherine Gordon, Byron’s early life was spent in Aberdeenshire, when his father fled to France soon after the birth where he died three years later. Byron’s mother, who was descended from James 1 of Scotland, took him to her hometown where she began educating her son before he took his place at
. The first
ten years of Byron’s life were surrounded by relative poverty as his father had
squandered his wife’s money as well as his own. It is believed that Byron was
born with a clubfoot and that this slight deformity was to have a profound
effect on his future temperament. Aberdeen
Then, in 1798, Byron’s life was changed forever. His great-uncle William died and left young George the baronial title and estate at Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Leaving behind his ordinary life in
Scotland, Byron went
on to study at Harrow followed by Trinity
College Cambridge. And so began Byron’s writing
life, as well as his reputation for high-spirited, even wild, behaviour.
He published his first poems in a small volume called Fugitive Pieces in 1807. When his friend advised him they were too sensual, Byron impulsively destroyed them and only four copies survived. However, Byron eventually revised his poems and published them as ‘Poems on Various Occasions’, which became Hours of Idleness. It was hardly an encouraging start to his literary career when his poems were attacked by Brougham in the Edinburgh Review. Cultivating the satirical writing that would be his trademark, Byron avenged himself on Brougham by writing a satire in 1809 entitled, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.
In that same year, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords but eventually left England, travelling to Portugal, Spain, Malta, Greece and the Levant over the next two years. On his return home, aged twenty four, Byron’s days of fame and notoriety began. The first and second canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage elevated Byron to the ranks of literary genius beside Shakespeare, and ensured he became the most influential British poet known throughout Europe. Byron himself remarked, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”
There seems no doubt that Byron was hugely attractive to, and attracted by, women. Sir Walter Scott, whom Byron greatly admired, described him as having “the remarkable contrast of very dark hair and eyebrows with light and expressive eyes”, while his predominating expression was that of “deep and habitual thought”.
Young, aristocratic, a romantic wanderer, a poetic genius, the Regency society of the day could hardly get enough of Byron. Apart from his scandalous liaison with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, one serious attachment eventually caused him pain and exile. Byron apparently fell in love with his half-sister, Augusta, who seemingly bore him a daughter. In the midst of increasing rumours of incense, he finally married Annabella Milbanke, Lady Caroline Lamb’s clever cousin, in 1815. Known for her piety and intellect, Byron admired Annabella as “a very superior woman a little encumbered with virtue”. She hoped to be the means of Byron’s redemption. The relationship was short-lived, lasting only a year before Annabella left Byron, taking their daughter Ada with her. She then devoted the rest of her life to maligning Byron’s character.
In a very short time, the society who had idolised Lord Byron began to snub him, and his name increasingly became synonymous with the depravity and monstrosity with which Annabella had slandered him. With rising debts and hounded by bailiffs, Byron, just 28 years old and at the pinnacle of his fame, left England never to return. The public believed Annabella’s damning stories, added their own embellishments and created a portrait of him that he recognised was partly his own fault. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ends with the words:
“I planted – they have torn me – and I bleed:
I should have known what fruit would spring from
Such a seed.”
Byron joined the poet Shelley and his wife, Mary, and her stepsister Claire Claremont, at Lake Geneva in 1816, where Mary Shelley wrote her famous Frankenstein. Even there, Byron was true to form, giving Claire Claremont a daughter, Allegra, born in
in 1817, although the child died five years later. England
Byron didn’t return to England with the others, moving instead to Venice and Rome until, with the sale of Newstead in 1818, he was finally free from financial worries. The remainder of Byron’s life was as colourful as his past. In 1819, he became deeply attached to Teresa, the married Countess Guiccioli, living with her in
and then .
Teresa left her husband, took her family and went to Ravenna with Byron. When Leigh Hunt joined
them, Byron and he co-produced The
Liberal magazine. Leghorn
A humanitarian as much as a libertine, Byron had a fully developed social conscience, making an impassioned plea on behalf of the industrial poor in the House of Lords and giving some of his money away, even while in debt. His stature as a poet grew, notoriety notwithstanding, especially when he published his innovative and masterly poem, Don Juan, a commentary on the society that had rejected him.
Byron’s social conscience finally took him to Greece where he formed the ‘Byron Brigade’ to support to the Greeks’ fight for independence. He made such an impression that they hailed him a hero. George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron, ended his days in the country he had championed, dying of a fever at Missolonghi, aged 36. The Greeks wanted to honour him with burial in
Athens but only his
heart remained in Greece,
while his body returned to .
Even in death, they spurned him, refusing his burial in Westminster Abbey.
Byron was buried in the family vault in the church at Huchnall Torkard, near
Newstead Abbey. England
Byron and his poetry, however, had caused a huge impact all over Europe, making him one of the most famous English poets ever known. And the legend of the melancholy, Byronic hero lives on in the pages of literature, from that of his contemporary, Jane Austen, to many modern day romances. Byron had the last word, exposing the double standards, politics and social relations of Regency England in Don Juan:
“Without, or with, offence to friends or foes,
I sketch your world exactly as it goes.”
Rosemary Gemmell’s first historical novel, Dangerous Deceit, Regency intrigue set in England of 1813, was published by Champagne Books in May 2011 (as Romy). Her first tween novel, Summer of the Eagles, which is set in Scotland, is being published by MuseItUp Publishing in March 2012 (as Ros).
Her short stories and articles are published in UK magazines, in the US, and Online, and her children’s stories are in three different anthologies. One of her short stories was included in the fundraising book, ‘100 Stories for Haiti’ in 2010. A historical short story was published in ‘The Waterloo Collection’, launched by the late professor Richard Holmes in April 2011, and a short story was included in the cancer anthology, ‘Lavender Dreams’, from MuseItUp. She has won a few competitions and will be a short story adjudicator at the annual Scottish Association of Writers’ Conference in March 2012.
Rosemary Gemmell, Scotland
Main Blog: http://ros-readingandwriting.blogspot.com
Romancing History Blog: http://romygemmell.blogspot.com
Flights of Imagination Blog (children’s): http://rosgemmell.blogspot.com
Lydia Hetherington is uninterested in society balls or marriage, until her brother's friend, Lord Marcus Sheldon, rides into her life to unseat her from her horse and unsettle her heart. An undercover spy for the government, Sheldon is equally unsettled by Lydia.
Complicated by a French spy, her best friend's unrequited love for Lydia's brother, James, and a traitorous villain, Lydia gradually finds her emotions stirred by Lord Sheldon. But what is his relationship with the beautiful Lady Smythe and his part in an old scandal? Lydia faces danger before all deception is uncovered and love claims its reward.