BOOKS: Mad, Bad and Dangerous Liaisons ; A Thorough Inspection of Byron's Closet Does Scant Justice to Great Poetry, Says Duncan Wu
Wu, Duncan, The Independent (London, England)
Byron: Life and Legend
SCANDAL AND intrigue made Byron a star in his own lifetime - and in ours. Fiona MacCarthy's is the sixth biography to appear in as many years. And who can begrudge such an extraordinary life its enduring fascination? Born with a club foot, Byron was the victim of what we would now call childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his nurse. He kept a tame bear in his rooms at Cambridge (there were rules against dogs); had an affair with his half-sister Augusta and countless other liaisons with members of both sexes; swam the Hellespont and the Tagus; exiled himself from England when stories of his homosexual past leaked out; and led his own army to the Greek War of Independence, where he died at 36. Oh yes, and he wrote some of the greatest poetry in the language.
Fiona MacCarthy's biography is published by John Murray, a firm whose fortunes were built on Byron's early success. It was in the grate of the fire in Murray's drawing-room that the manuscript of one of the biggest potential money-spinners in literary history was burnt shortly after Byron's death: his memoirs. However misguided, that act guaranteed the success of the countless biographies that have followed, which continue to speculate on their likely contents.
MacCarthy doubtless tells us much that Byron would have omitted. As she points out, the advantage of writing in an age comparatively relaxed about homosexuality is that she can, unlike many predecessors, discuss Byron's sex life frankly. She has enjoyed the run of the Murray archive, which contains hair mailed to him by admiring women, Byron's bust, many manuscripts and other relics. She describes the "patchwork" of scraps comprising the manuscript of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: evidence of its piecemeal composition as Byron travelled across Europe in 1816.
As a research document, this is a thorough and accurate account of the life. MacCarthy deals best with Byron's childhood and early manhood, and is a good sceptic when confronted by hearsay, especially his alleged boyhood passion for his cousin, Mary Chaworth (a cover for his burgeoning homosexuality), and his paternity of Medora, Augusta's daughter. Some set-pieces are memorable: she is good on the incompetence of the doctors at Byron's death-bed, and produces comic moments describing his wedding-day in a doom-laden tone more suitable for a public flogging. And she is shrewd when dealing with Byron's mother and Lady Caroline Lamb, both of whom were clearly monsters.
What lets this book down is MacCarthy's tendency to be summary: lining up the main players, putting them through their paces, and then returning them to their box without comment. The most glaring example is the chapter dealing with Byron's brief but intense friendship with the Shelleys on the shores of Lake Geneva in summer 1816. From this came some of the greatest poetry (and fiction) any of them would compose; it was a crucial moment in their lives, informed by a considerable body of evidence on what happened.
For instance, Byron and Shelley's first meeting, when they shook hands on the shores of Lake Geneva, is one of those mythical events that actually took place. MacCarthy does not mention it, nor Shelley's famously well- intentioned attempts to "dose" Byron with "Wordsworth physic" (by reading Wordsworth's poetry to him). And the ghost-story competition at the Villa Diodati is described less as it must have been experienced by those present than as a historical event that gave rise to several works of literature. …