Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron the Maker: Liberty, Poetry and Love. Part One: Byron in England. Part Two: Byron in Exile

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron the Maker: Liberty, Poetry and Love. Part One: Byron in England. Part Two: Byron in Exile

Article excerpt

BYRON THE MAKER: LIBERTY, POETRY AND LOVE. PART ONE: BYRON IN ENGLAND. PART TWO: BYRON IN EXILE. By Anne Fleming. Sussex: Book Guild Publishing, 2009. Pp. 600. ISBN 978 1 84624 339 4. £18.50.

This is a substantial new addition to what its author speculates to be the 203 biographies of Byron already in existence. It is the fifth by a woman to be produced in the last two decades (following those of Benita Eisler, Phyllis Grosskurth, Fiona MacCarthy and Edna O'Brien). It differs from these particular predecessors in marked ways though it resembles female scholarship previous to this such as that of Ethel Colburn Mayne, Elizabeth Longford and Doris Langley Moore. Anne Fleming is characteristically careful to avoid placing her book in relation to these but it is unavoidable. Up to Leslie Marchand, all major biographies of the poet were by men. It is perhaps invidious or needlessly daring to propose any such entity as 'female scholarship' but these authors suggest certain polarities within such a postulate. There is a tendency on the one hand to an all-too-rapid interpretation of Byron based on some supposed central key to his personality which tries to dispose of it as a problem and thus tame its wild subject into a fang-free Mr Rochester. We could call it 'the Milbanke tendency'. There can be, on the other hand, a strikingly patient sustained attentiveness which follows the twists and turns of Byron's personality and writings intelligently without seeking to defuse or pre-package them. We could call this 'the Lady Pinchbeck tendency' after the wise woman whose charity, discernment and good sense are praised in the twelfth canto of Don Juan. Anne Fleming's book is a wonderful instance of the Pinchbeck tendency.

To whom is the book addressed? It is clearly aimed at the intelligent general reader - a species which is not as defunct as sometimes proposed - who knows a little about Byron and wants to know more. If such a reader were to read a biography of Beethoven, they would expect an account of both life and works. A literary biography can do better since it can actually quote its author's works but the danger is that the biographer will not be a very good reader of poetry and will, perforce, too often explain away complex texts by neighbouring historical or hypothetical circumstance. Anne Fleming deftly avoids these snares. She provides a carefully sourced account of the sequence of Byron's life with, for instance, recent information taken from Andrew Nicholson's edition of the Murray Letters, William St Clair's The Reading Nation, or new and authoritative medical evidence about his death, and intersperses this with intelligently chosen extracts from his major poems. She does not attempt to construe the poems herself but quotes unhurriedly and then summarises a whole range of critical opinions relative to them. Her intelligence is in the collocations. Thus, for instance, when she comes to the possible reasons why Byron finally went to Greece, she adduces five extant theories, rejects two as daft (she is too polite to say this though the implication is clear) but preserves the other three as possible operants in his decision. …

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