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Byron: A Life in Ten Letters review – dispatches from a lusty life
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Byron: A Life in Ten Letters review – dispatches from a lusty life

Wordsworth called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, but in Byron’s case the unstoppable overflow consisted of a more vital and potent bodily fluid. “Is it not life?” he asked about his comic epic Don Juan, the annals of a globe-trotting seducer; he added that his qualification for writing it was that he had “tooled” in a post chaise, a hackney coach, a gondola, against a wall, and both on and under a table. He claimed to do his rhyming, as he nonchalantly called it, “at night / When a Cunt is tied close to my inkstand”, and on receiving royalty cheques from his publisher he vowed that “what I get by my brains I will spend on my bollocks”.

When not drinking, gambling and having sex, Byron also tossed off 3,000 letters, which race to keep up with the flux of his sensations as he reels through adulterous intrigues, literary squabbles and political conspiracies. Here, even more than in Don Juan, he writes while living in an unfinished present tense. Postscripts and interruptions, as Andrew Stauffer says, give his correspondence a “risky immediacy”, with “rapid-fire, time-stamped updates”; punctuation increases the tempo in a blitz of breathless dashes.

Stauffer’s brisk new biography develops as a commentary on 10 of these letters, chosen to mark the stages of Byron’s hurtling progress to an early death. After drinking, gambling and whoring at Cambridge – where, as an aristocrat, he obtained a degree without needing to sit for exams – he graduates to the dizzy social carousel of London. Harassed by creditors and in retreat from sexual scandals, he soon flees abroad. In Greece, he romps in a monastery dorm with some uncelibate male novices whom he calls “sylphs”. In Italy, he enters into a dangerous liaison with a countess whose husband, he fears, intends to slice his gizzard open with a stiletto. At last, joining the Greek campaign for independence from the Ottoman empire, the libertine reinvents himself as a man of action, only to be found unfit for battle; he dies of a fever in swampy Messolonghi at the age of 36.

As Stauffer writes, Byron’s private letters were “semi-public productions”, meant to be shared around. They also functioned as a substitute for genuine intimacy: courting his future wife, Annabella Milbanke, he seems happier sending her extravagant love notes than when they’re actually together. He is always performing for an invisible audience, experimenting with alternative versions of himself that he often borrows from characters in Shakespearean drama. A complaint about his strained nerves splices together a gruff, stoical shrug by Macbeth and one of Lear’s doddering laments; in a Greek crypt, he climbs into an open sarcophagus and declaims Hamlet’s meditation on the skull of Yorick. He arranges appropriate costumes for each of his impersonations. On his travels through the eastern Mediterranean, he acquires Albanian robes and brandishes a sabre, and in Italy he festoons himself with showy bling that startles English visitors. To go soldiering in Greece, he designs a scarlet and gold uniform and a cavalry helmet, which he never wears.

Byron’s role-playing persuades Stauffer that he anticipated “the theatrically confessional style of modern celebrity”, offering glimpses of a private self that may be just another Instagram pose. This notion prompts some crass anachronisms. Stauffer wonders if Byron’s Venetian orgies made him “a sex tourist”, although what truly fascinated him was the city’s illusory enchantments and its elegiac decline. Then as Byron rallies support for Greek liberation, Stauffer calls him an “influencer”, which is even more unjust. Influencers profit from commercial endorsements; Byron used his personal fortune to subsidise the insurgent patriots and had to watch as his funds were misappropriated or squandered.

Stauffer more justifiably deplores Byron’s sadistic treatment of women, whom he classified as “She-things”. When Annabella announced her pregnancy, he said he wished that their child would be stillborn; during the delivery he “sat in the drawing room below throwing empty soda bottles loudly against the ceiling”. Despite such deranged conduct, Stauffer believes that Byron longed to be saved from his “schizoid multiplicity”. But none of his lovers managed to calm his frenzy, and far from redeeming himself by enlisting in the Greek war, his involvement there ended in a gruesome fiasco.

Revising Wordsworth’s maxim about powerful feelings, Byron defined poetry as the lava of imagination, whose overflow prevented an eruption. When he fell ill at Messolonghi, another liquid spurted from him, this time fatally. His doctors, after administering a battery of emetics and purgatives, used leeches and lancets to siphon off two litres of blood, effectively killing him. For Byron this agony counted as a consummation: “Come, you damned set of butchers,” he said to the quacks, angrily challenging them to do their worst. So much for Stauffer’s theory that the laughter in his letters served as therapy, preserving a “comic worldview that is crucial for our sanity”. The rest of us may benefit from the medicine of self-mockery, but Byron was a tragic comedian, incorrigibly intent on self-destruction.

  • Byron: A Life in Ten Letters by Andrew Stauffer is published by Cambridge University Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com