Byron in Love
W. W. Norton, 2009
When Dr. Ireland, Dean of Westminster Abbey, was asked by the late poet’s friends about the possibility of Lord Byron taking up a place in Poet’s Corner, they were sternly told, “Carry the body away and say as little about it as possible.” If all would-by Byron biographers had followed that sound advice since his death in 1824, the world would have been spared a great quivering mass of twaddle – but alas, the picaresque contours of the poet’s life make such self-restraint as difficult now as it was in his own day. So the biographies continue to flow, like dark blood from a leeched patient.
The latest is by Edna O’Brien (when her author bio-note says “Universally recognized as one of our greatest novelists,” we cringe to recall that all such notes are approved by their subjects prior to use) – and at 216 pages, Byron in Love is an odd breach-birth of a book. It’s too long to be a monograph but too short to be a full-dress study; it’s a protracted swoon, with an index.
As is perhaps not surprising in a novelist (a certain type of novelist, at any rate), O’Brien has a way of making even entirely factual recountings sound like purple passages Georgette Heyer left on the cutting room floor:
Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister and five years his senior, has been variously depicted as scatter-brained, a moral idiot and a schemer, her childhood as fractured and peripatetic as Byron’s own. Her mother Amelia fell in love with the charismatic Mad Jack, Byron’s father, and when she told her husband, Lord Carmathen, that she was leaving him and their three children, he is said ‘to have fainted away three times’. Soon after Augusta was born, Amelia, still infatuated with the errant Mad Jack, rose too soon from her confinement to follow him on a hunt. She caught a lingering disease and died on Augusta’s first birthday and her child was raised by her aristocratic relatives.
And before you can look up “lingering disease” in your PDR, the breathless narrative has swept us on to Byron’s hectic departure from England in 1816:
His retinue included a Swiss named Berger, Fletcher, his loyal but truculent valet, Robert Rushton, no longer his lover, now relegated to cleaning his armoury, and a private physician, Dr Polidori (‘Polly Dolly’), a putative author, who before leaving England had secured from John Murray the sum of 500 pounds, to write a diary of the forthcoming eventful journey.
You will search Byron in Love in vain for any elaboration of that “no longer his lover” jaw-dropper, but then, you’ll search Byron in Love in vain for a great many things, most especially Byron himself, whose mercurial wit and wry self-regard render him entirely too tedious for O’Brien’s company. She prefers to spend her time out in the front parlor, chatting and gossiping with every thistle-headed tattle-tale from Annabella Milbanke and Polly Dolly. Leslie Marchand’s epic three-volume life of Byron is dutifully invoked as a guiding light, but let’s not dig up Professor Marchand and tell him: he wouldn’t be pleased.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.