Edna O'Brien's Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life.

Reading between the lines.
July 13 2009 9:29 AM

Lord Byron's Great Insight

Mad, bad, and dangerous, he understood what women wanted.

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Ostracized by those who had lionized him, Byron left England, never to return. Further adventures and abuses followed, the worst of which was probably his cruelty toward Mary Shelley's stepsister, Jane Clairmont, who bore him a daughter, Allegra. Rather than financially assisting Jane in raising the child, which he could easily have afforded to do, he took custody and refused to answer Jane's increasingly pathetic letters begging for news; he soon handed Allegra off to assorted others before sending her to a convent school, where she died, unvisited by anyone but Shelley, at age 5. By then he had settled down with the young, beautiful, married Italian countess Teresa Guiccioli. Tellingly, though, the last love of his life, as unrequited as the first, was for Lukas—a teenager attached to the ragtag army Byron raised in his botched attempt to liberate Greece—who was with Byron at his death at 36 of fever in Missolonghi.

O'Brien relates all this and much else in a headlong sensuous rush, almost like one of her own novels. It's fun to read, but I could have done with more digging and thinking. Unlike Fiona MacCarthy's terrific Byron: Life and Legend, Byron in Love makes little of Byron's homosexuality, which was far more extensive than O'Brien chronicles. For MacCarthy, indeed, his frenetic heterosexuality was due at least partly to British sodomy laws, which carried the death penalty; his passions for women were brief, and his behavior to them cruel and capricious, because he really wanted to be with teenage boys. 

O'Brien also, inexplicably, mentions only on Page 186 that at the age of 9 or 10 Byron had been repeatedly sexually abused, as well as ferociously beaten, by his nanny, May Gray: "In the daytime she fed him dire Calvinist sermons, providing an uncomprehending brew of guilt and desire, alternating with scenes of jealousy as she brought home drunken coach boys from Nottingham to carouse with." Whether or not this weird coerced initiation lay behind Byron's frequently expressed sense of lost youth and jaded emotions, it certainly explains why he thought religion was rubbish and women's supposed purity a lie.

It is easy to see Byron as a cad, a narcissist and, at bottom, a misogynist. But that would be unfair. Byron's great insight, in an era where women were expected to be placid and insipid (not that they were!), was to see that women were much like men: They wanted sex and went after it eagerly, if secretly. Don Juan, his great satiric novel in verse, is a virtual catalog of passionate women who are anything but bashful, even if still virginal, and who are presented without condemnation, as human beings doing what human beings do. He understood, too, how limited was women's scope for action. "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart," writes Juan's first love, the married Donna Julia, from the convent to which she is confined when their affair is discovered. " 'Tis woman's whole existence."

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Byron's electrifying effect on women readers was inspired not just by his handsomeness, his woundedness, and the exciting hope of reforming him, which was poor Annabella's undoing. It was also due to his frankness, that sense his poetry gave that he understood his reader's secret rebellious thoughts and longings for experience, pleasure, a life beyond tea tables. It wasn't only the Greeks who found in him a champion of freedom.

One final note: O'Brien has little to say about Byron's poetry, but without it, he would be just another eccentric milord. To find out what all the fuss was about, pick up a copy of Don Juan. It's as fresh and sparkling and hilarious and sexy as the day it was published, and will make you wish the author was still around, so that you could write him a letter proposing a discreet assignation.

Katha Pollitt new book of poems, The Mind Body Problem, has just been published.

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