Attending the recent celebrations in Rochdale for Byron's 224th birthday, I realised how little I knew about the man. In that, I am probably at one with many of his contemporaries, those members of society who saw him as a celebrity. They were only interested in the gossip about him, his scandalous love-life. But there was more to him than that. So I have put together here a few of the more unusual things I discovered about Byron.
|Admiral Byron (Foulweather Jack)|
For a start, I didn't realise what a wild family he came from. His grandfather was Admiral John Byron, nicknamed Foulweather Jack. Some say this was because of his ill-luck with the weather, others claim it was due to his bad temper (and Byron is known to have had a temper, too). He was shipwrecked off the coast of Patagonia and he retrieved the Falkland Islands for Great Britain.
Then there's Byron's father, "Mad Jack" Byron. He was a Guard's officer with "boundless sexual appetite and unburdened by scruples of any sort" (Benita Eisler, "Byron"). He preyed on rich women. He ran off with the Marchioness of Carmarthen and eventually married her. They had three children together before she died in mysterious circumstances. Then he seduced and married another heiress, Catherine and began to sqaunder her fortune. She gave birth to George Gordon Byron in the cramped lodgings above a perfumier's in Cavendish Square in January 1788, but Mad Jack had already fled to France, where he was in hiding from his creditors.
We know that in 1798 he became Baron Byron of Rochdale, had a rip-roaring time at Cambridge, went off to Europe and wrote Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. By the time he returned to England he was famous.
But before going abroad he took his seat in the Houser of Lords. He was in favour of social reform and was one of the few to defend the actions of the Luddites. He spoke out against the Frame Breaking Bill (by which Luddites faced the death penalty).
Society wasn't interested in his championing of social reform. He was a celebrity, cultivating the gloomy, brooding persona of Childe Harold. The women loved it, as his numerous affairs indicate. But he had a weight problem. The Byronic hero had a tendency to be, well, chubby. It is now thought that he had an eating disorder himself and he definitely did not like to see women eat. He would often ask to be excused from joining society dinners, preferring to turn up afterwards. He also disliked dancing (understandable, with his deformed foot).
He married Anne Isabella Millbanke in 1815, but things did not go well. The couple were plagued by debt and Byron was subject to fits of anger and irrational mood swings. His wife kept a detailed diary, afraid that he was going mad (and it has been suggested that he advised her to take their baby daughter and leave him). She went back to her parents and never returned. Rumours were already flying about his relationship with his half-sister, Augusta.
|Anne Isabella Millbanke|
In 1816 Byron left England for ever. He began contributing to the Examiner, a radical journal that made frequent attacks on the monarchy and the government. In 1822 he travelled to Italy with Shelley and from there they published a political journal called the Liberal, free from fear of prosecution by British authorities. The first edition included contributions by Leigh Hunt, Byron, William Hazlitt and Mary Shelley. Only about four editions were published before Shelley's death in August 1822 brought an end to the publication.
It is well known that Byron was a champion of the Greek liberation movement, but before travelling to Greece he was actively involved with the Carbonari, a group determined to free Italy from Austrian rule. When the Carbonari were defeated in 1821 he moved to Pisa with his lover, Teresa Guiccoli, and promised her he would discontinue writing what is now possibly he best known work, Don Juan.
He travelled to Greece, determined to join in the fight for freedom there, but he caught a chill and died of Marsh fever in April 1824, without ever seeing action.
His body was brought back to England but the major churches refused to hold a ceremony for him and he was buried in the family vault in Nottingham.
His memoirs, which he intended for publication after his death, were burned by his friends.
He had to wait until 1969 for his memorial in poets' corner in Westminster Abbey.
So there you are. I think he was definitely mad, bad and dangerous, but did anyone really know the man? Perhaps you know a few more snippets of information about Byron - I'd be delighted if you would share them.....
THE BELLES DAMES CLUB
e-book pub by Robert Hale.
Labels: Byron, The Regency