Byron in Love, by Edna O’Brien
‘We would entreat him to believe that a certain portion of liveliness, somewhat of fancy, is necessary to constitute a poem,’ wrote Henry Brougham in the Edinburgh Review, when the young Byron was unwise enough to expose his first, dismal book of juvenilia to the gaze of ‘Citizen Mob’,
‘and that a poem in the present day, to be read, must contain at least one thought, either in a little degree different from the ideas of former writers or differently expressed’.
It is as well for a lot of us that there seem to be different standards for biographers ,because there can be even less to be said for a new book about Byron than there is for most literary retreads. Over the last decade Benita Eisler and Fiona MacCarthy have both brought out massive volumes on him, and if you toss in Phyllis Grosskurth’s 1997 The Flawed Angel (a bagatelle at 500-odd pages), Ian Gilmour and an unending stream of academic criticism, the question Edna O’Brien asks herself — ‘So why another book on Byron?’ — presents itself with rather more force than her
unashamedly self-indulgent answer might suggest. ‘Years ago, upon reading a remark of Lady Blessington that Byron was “the most extraordinary and terrifying person [she had] ever met”, I was immediately drawn to him,’ she writes in her Introduction.
Writers writing about other artists has always appealed to me — Rilke on Rodin . . .Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader providing those quick, deft glimpses that give us the human quotidian and the whiff of genius within . . .
Similarly, with Byron, I wanted to follow him in his Rake’s Progress and his Poet’s Progress, playing billiards in an English country house and passing clandestine notes to a young bride . . . Byron in love, Byron seized with melancholia . . . Byron dying of a fever in a swamp in Missolonghi at the age of 36, the face that had been the Adonis of all Europe covered in leeches and bandages.
I suppose it is possible that ‘artists’ (as opposed to people who just write books) have special insights to bring to a literary life — as soldiers do writing on war, or ‘Bumble’ and ‘Beefy’ on another English batting collapse — but it is hardly as though Byron has been badly served in this department. It is certainly true that he never got the Boswell he deserved, but when a man has written about himself as compulsively and brilliantly as Byron has in both verse and prose, all that anyone really needs is scholarship of the kind that produced the wonderful Marchand edition of Byron’s letters.
But if that has always been the problem for Byron biographers — Byron has written better about Byron than anyone else ever could — it has also been their redemption, and Edna O’Brien is shrewd and generous enough to allow him his voice. There is nothing in Byron in Love (including the cover) that has not been seen or heard before, but if you want a smart canter through the life (though not the poetry, about which she is oddly reticent) that successfully catches the Byron tone in just over 200 pages then this is probably the book.
There is nothing perversely original about it, nothing obstinately wrong-headed, nothing narrowly partisan or mean in its sympathies, and if these seem negative virtues they are not so common in the Byron world as to be taken for granted. O’Brien begins with the familiar miseries of his parentage and childhood, and rattles on through all the crucial phases and friendships — Newstead and his nurse, Harrow and Clare, Cambridge and Edleston, Greece, Turkey and just about anyone of either sex you care to mention — that brought him finally to the publication of Childe Harold, the attentions of Caroline Lamb, marriage to the ‘Princess of the Parallelograms’ and the three-cornered relationship with his half-sister, Augusta, that forms the core of this book.
There is again nothing fresh to be added here, but the unfolding tragedy of ostracism, exile and redemption in the cause of Greek freedom remains as compelling as ever. It was one of the bitterer ironies of Byron’s life that the only way that he could do the wretched Greeks any good was by dying for them, but if O’Brien’s book did nothing else it would provide an entertaining reminder of just how much living he got in first. ‘Confess — confess — you dog,’ Byron himself wrote to Kinnaird of his Don Juan that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy — but is it not good English? — it may be profligate — but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any man have written it — who has not lived in the world? — who has not tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? — in a vis-a- vis? — on a table ? — and under it?
No, I suppose not. But if, as ever, Byron has said it more vividly than anyone else could, it is not hard to see why so many have wanted jump on the vis-a-vis with him and have a try.