This article investigates Byron's use of the incest theme. It departs from the kind of biographical criticism often used to explore the theme of desire in Byron's work, as this interpretive paradigm both understates the complexity of Byron's treatment of the theme and neglects its literary precedents. Whatever his personal investment in the subject, the fact is that Byron's representations of it were significantly indebted to eighteenthcentury incest narratives, particularly Gothic works. Further, for Byron, incest is a means of presenting individual conscience and morality, as well as challenging socio-political institutions and religious dogma.
That the poet in Byron was interested in incest as a literary theme should come as no surprise, since, as Peter Thorslev has pointed out, 'it is probably safe to say that in no period has there been so widespread and intense an interest in the theme of incest as in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries'.1 Romantic portrayals of incest often idealise the taboo love, but Byron's use of the theme is far more complex than simple celebration as he reconfigures gender relations and power through this transgressive desire. While Byron's explorations of incest were doubtless influenced by those of his Romantic contemporaries, in this respect they also look back to the incest narratives of the eighteenth century, and are particularly influenced by Gothic predecessors.
Incest in non-Gothic eighteenth-century literature is, almost without exception, presented as unwitting. In this vein, Moll Flanders, for example, uses incest to demonstrate the importance of individual conscience. The Gothic is more capacious, including events that would conventionally be considered disgusting, particularly after the development of a sublime aesthetic that accounted for unpleasant events and stimuli. In M. G. Lewis's The Monk, incest is used to titillate and shock the audience. Horace Walpole's play The Mysterious Mother, however, is unique in its presentation of a woman who purposefully seduces her son and then denies the authority of the patriarchal and religious structures that would condemn her deviance. Rather she acts as her own judge and executioner.
In Walpole's play, the mysterious mother, the Countess of Narbonne, is depicted as a rational yet sensual woman who loses her husband in a hunting accident when she is in her sexual prime. On the day of the Count's death, she hears that her son, Edmund, plans to sleep with her servant, Beatrice. In a moment of sorrowful, uncontrollable desire (her husband has now been dead for eighteen months) she replaces the maid for the assignation, and, without her son realising that it is her, has sex with him. Soon after she banishes Edmund, and he becomes a soldier. The penitent mother gives to the poor and helps rear the offspring of their incestuous union, Adeliza. Sixteen years later, Edmund returns to attempt reconciliation with his mother and to claim his land. Unfortunately, unaware of their blood relation, he falls in love with his sister/ daughter. Meanwhile, the nefarious monk Benedict has been attempting to elicit the reasons for the mother's guilt but she refuses to confess her sins. Upon Edmund's return, Benedict inexplicably guesses her transgression and designs a plot to reveal it. He hastens the Narbonne family's downfall by marrying Edmund and Adeliza. When the incestuous affair is revealed, the mother commits suicide by stabbing herself in the breast. In response to the double incest, Edmund returns to the battlefield and hopes for a quick death, informing the audience that Adeliza will take the veil.
Walpole employs incest not merely for shock value but to present female desire as dangerous through what can be read as a kind of sublime disgust. His use of the theme is also politically charged, in that the Countess is disdainful of the church and denies the importance of confession. When Benedict attempts to convince her to 'unfold th'impenetrable mystery' that plagues her, the Countess responds by saying that a holy man cannot teach her anything she does not already know. …