BYRON, THE FLAWED ANGEL By Phyllis Grosskurth (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 510pages, $39.95)
When George Gordon, Lord Byron married Annabella Milbanke on a winter’s day in 1815, the poet’s demons had prepared an exquisite torture for them both. No sooner had the couple set off in their honeymoon coach, than Byron began to sing a gloomy Albanian dirge to his appalled bride. Soon, he was bitterly denouncing her mother, and predicting that their marriage would end in a separation. It was a mismatch of colossal proportions. The handsome poet, 27, had recently become famous for his scandalously satirical verse epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
He was an unregenerate rake who was conducting an affair with his own halfsister, Augusta. Annabella was a narcissistic, 20-yearold ingenue who had romantic ideas about saving Byron’s soul.
The story of how these two found and, almost immediately, lost each other, forms one of the most fascinating sections in Phyllis Grosskurth’s splendid new biography, Byron, The Flawed Angel. The first major study of the poet in four decades, it explores the tensions between Byron’s bold and outrageous public persona—he was, in a sense, the Mick Jagger of his day—and the weak, disillusioned man beneath. Toronto-based Grosskurth—the author of five other biographies, including a fine study of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein— shows how Byron’s entire life was dominated, from first to last, by women.
His father, the raffish “Mad Jack” Byron, abandoned his family shortly before George Gordon’s birth in 1788. Byron was raised by his rather foolish and overbearing mother, Catherine, and spent much of his early and teenage years bitterly rebelling against her influence (he blamed her, unjustly, for the deformed foot that had plagued him since birth). Later, having made his way into society on the strength of an inherited lordship and the meagre income from a rundown es-
täte, he fell under the spell of another older woman, Lady Melbourne, a London matron of questionable virtue.
Grosskurth is convincing when she argues that Byron’s need for a mother figure helped define him. Even his frequent dieting—he fought his tendency to grow pudgy with strict regimens of vinegar, water and rice—can be seen as an anorexic’s rebellion against a dominating (and overweight) mother. But more emphasis might have been placed on the absence of a father figure in Byron’s life. In later years, Byron confessed that, despite his many male companions, he had no deep feeling for male friendship. It was as if he had never learned by example to be comfortable with his own maleness. There was an emptiness in him, a vacuum of identity, that he sought to fill with the sensations of amorous pursuit and travel.
For two years beginning in 1809, Byron made the journey through southern Europe that would inspire his long tale about Childe Harold, the poet’s alter ego, and the first of
the great romantic antiheroes. Grosskurth credits Byron with the invention of a new sensibility, in which the lonely outsider beloved by an earlier generation of romantics was darkened by the addition of what she calls “an erotic diabolism.” Many women, quite rightly, identified Byron’s sensitive, sexually predatory hero with the poet. They flocked to meet him—some to sleep with him—and it was in the resulting atmosphere of scandal and intrigue that Byron, mysteriously, gravitated towards the prim Annabella.
At this point in her narrative, Grosskurth is able to refine her focus wonderfully, thanks to her unprecedented access to private collections of letters written by Annabella, Augusta and others. The new sources allow her to detail the dark comedy by which Byron and Annabella drifted towards each other in a haze of misconceptions and false hopes. Byron thought that the respectable Annabella might save him from past sins—Grosskurth suggests that his conscience was troubled not only by the link with Augusta, but by various homosexual adventures. The poet, who was deeply in debt, also thought, mistakenly, that his wife was rich.
After a few months, Byron left Annabella and England, never to return to either again. Grosskurth creates a vivid picture of him wandering about Europe in his self-imposed exile— carried by a lumbering coach that he had modelled, grandiosely, on that of his hero, Napoleon. In Venice, he lived in a waterside palace filled with a menagerie of animals, quarrelling servants and jealous lovers. He had slept, he boasted, with more than 200 women since arriving in the city, but a visiting friend found him “pale, bloated and sallow.” Yet through it all he was managing to create his greatest work: the phenomenally witty satire Don Juan.
Grosskurth’s trenchant narrative keeps the poet in a cool yet sympathetic focus. She brings a freshness to much-written-about events such as Byron’s relations with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle, and with his last serious mistress, Teresa Guiccioli. Byron died in Greece in 1824, at the age of 36. He had gone to help the Greek struggle for political freedom from the Turks, and though he was no great practical help, the Greeks to this day honor his sacrifice. In his final fever, Byron cried out for the family he had left behind: Augusta, and his daughter by Annabella, Ada. Ada would grow up to be a mathematical genius who, with Charles Babbage, would invent the computer. But her famous father, dying in the rain of a Greek winter, never saw her.
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