Academic journal article The Byron Journal

The Byronic Hero, Theatricality and Leadership

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

The Byronic Hero, Theatricality and Leadership

Article excerpt


Starting off with Annabella Milbanke's description of Byron after their first meeting, this essay explores the way in which Byron's persona, as displayed in a certain kind of social situation, appears characterised by a series of masks, yet is presented in such a way as to facilitate its unmasking by observers and obtain their sympathies. This model of interaction between Byron and his admirers is then applied to Byron's works, where this same semantic stratification of the Byronic Hero is complicated at times by the hero's use of the Byronic persona as an instrument of domination and on some occasions by the author's deliberate foregrounding of the hero's theatricality.

The Byronic Hero is typically characterised by a marked split between his external appearance and his interiority. This split would appear to involve an accentuated tension between the two kinds of self-expression discussed by Erwin Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Every-Day Life. Goffman argues that the

expressiveness of the individual (and therefore his capacity to give impressions) appears to involve two radically different kinds of sign activity: the expression that he gives, and the expression that he gives off. The first involves verbal symbols or their substitutes which he uses admittedly and solely to convey the information that he and the others are known to attach to these symbols. This is communication in the traditional and narrow sense. The second involves a wide range of action that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor, the expectation being that the action was performed for reasons other than the information conveyed in this way.1

I would like to apply some of Goffman's ideas to Byron by first analysing Byron's own behaviour in a certain kind of social situation and then showing how the results of this analysis can be usefully related to Byron's works. This procedure is justified by the exceptionally close, though by no means straightforward, relationship between Byron and his characters. It is not so much a case of the characters being modelled on the author's personality, as many contemporary reviewers claimed, but rather of Byron's public persona being constructed on the basis of the same topoi as his heroes, and necessarily entering - on account of Byron's fame and the association between himself and his heroes that was established very early on with the reception of Childe Harold I and II - into a symbiotic relationship with those heroes. The public view of Byron's heroes was mediated, at every stage, by the public's image of Byron; Byron the man was read, at every turn, through the lens of his literary creations.

Let us begin with a well-known description of Byron's behaviour on one particular social occasion. Annabella Milbanke, after meeting Byron for the first time, wrote in her diary:

His mouth continually betrays the acrimony of his spirit. I should judge him sincere and independent [...]. It appeared to me that he tried to control his natural sarcasm and vehemence as much as he could, in order not to offend; but at times his lips thickened with disdain, and his eyes rolled impatiently.2

In Goffman's terms, Byron's courtesy would seem to be the expression he wanted to communicate, whereas what he 'gave off ' was an impatience with the frivolity of others that suggested his independent and uncompromising spirit. However, as Goffman explains, drawing a distinction between voluntary and involuntary expression can have 'only initial validity' since 'the individual does of course intentionally convey misinformation by means of both of these types of communication, the first involving deceit, the second feigning'.3 This would certainly fit Byron's behaviour as described by Milbanke. She perceived Byron's courtesy as a form of 'deceit', a mask hiding his impatience with the other guests. However, even what she perceived as his true feelings seem, at least partly, constructed: in Goffman's terms, a form of 'feigning'. …

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