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Review of "Byron: A Life in Ten Letters" by Andrew Stauffer - A Tale of Romance with Inaccuracies

Review of “Byron: A Life in Ten Letters” by Andrew Stauffer – A Tale of Romance with Inaccuracies


There are some people, including myself, who are not interested in reading the long and complex biographies of Lord Byron that describe his life in the mountains and valleys of the Alps. However, we may find enjoyment in reading this unassuming yet incredibly comprehensive book, which provides a well-rounded depiction of the poet, including details of his personal relationships and sexual history. Written by Stauffer, who is an English professor at the University of Virginia and also the president of the Byron Society of America, this book incorporates a selection of vivid and entertaining letters written by the poet himself, allowing readers to gain a deeper understanding of one of the key figures in the Romantic movement.

Lady Caroline Lamb famously described Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, but he also had a charming and enjoyable personality. Unlike the Keatses, Shelleys, and Wordsworths who took themselves very seriously, George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron, did not. In a letter to one of his close female friends, he wrote, “There is nothing as comedic as real life.”

His early life was plagued with difficulties and embarrassments. In 1785, John “Mad Jack” Byron, who was known for being wasteful, married Catherine Gordon, a Scottish woman who was described by Stauffer as being from a respectable and wealthy family, but lacking refinement, being overweight, and lacking protection. By the time she became pregnant, he had already spent her entire fortune of £30,000 and had fled to France. This understandably caused Catherine a lot of distress, and she took out her hurt and disappointment on her son Byron, who was born with a deformed foot. He described his mother as constantly angry and often reproaching him for his physical deformity, which were difficult and painful experiences for him.

Despite the challenges, he successfully completed the task. At the age of 22, in a letter dated 3 May 1810 from the Dardanelles in Turkey, he proudly shared that he had swum across the “broad Hellespont” in just an hour and ten minutes. Although the distance was less than a mile, the currents were treacherous, and he even made a joke about how he may have surpassed the endurance of the Greek mythological figure Leander, who swam the same strait every night to be with his lover Hero.

Stauffer suggests that this may have been the most joyful time and one of the happiest days of Byron’s life. Just two weeks prior to embarking on his journey to the east, he completed a first version of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. When it was released in 1812, it became an immediate hit. Byron would later reflect, “I woke up one morning and realized I was famous.”

He quickly utilized his newfound fame to rapidly progress his continuously reckless and harmful romantic relationships. Caroline Lamb may have acknowledged his insanity and immorality, but as she stated, “That pale beautiful face is my destiny.” However, she, like all of his lovers, had to share him, not only with other women. One of the draws for him to the Ottoman lands was the fact that he found there, as he expressed, a “marble paradise of sugary drinks and same-sex relations,” filled with viziers and outlaws, but also eager young men.

He took pleasure in engaging in sexual misconduct. One of his significant relationships was with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, whom he likely impregnated with their third daughter, Elizabeth. They openly displayed their affair, causing scandal in the supposedly tolerant Regency London. Eventually, they were shunned by polite society and barred from social gatherings.

Reworded: Greece and Turkey were like paradise, full of boys, while Italy was known for its strong, heterosexual relationships. In a lengthy letter dated August 1, 1819 and sent from Ravenna, Byron gives his publisher John Murray a lively account of his romantic experiences over the past two years. During this time, he was deeply in love with Margarita Cogni from Venice, whom he had met in 1817. At the time, Byron was feeling down and struggling with his sense of self and being separated from his wife and young daughter. He found solace in the vibrant and mysterious atmosphere of Venice.

Margarita would lead him in a wild dance, and then he was introduced late one evening to the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, a young woman married to a much older man. The two fell at once into a liaison that Byron made light of, but which turned into one of the stormiest and most complex of his many relationships, and one of the most significant – Stauffer suggests that after Teresa, “Byron may never have had sex with anyone else again”. The satyr had been tamed.

Stauffer’s book is a splendid thing, colourful and busy with incident, but always thoughtful and astute in its judgments. The author probably makes too high a claim for the poetry – Byron surely was no more than a first-rate second-rater – but the life outlined here compels our envy and admiration in its energy, even if that energy was soon spent.

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The loves are what endure in our imaginations, however raucous, manipulative and destructive they may have been. Stauffer sums it up with a sly grace that his subject would have envied: “Byron gave selfishly to women all his life, often to his own detriment, driven by impulses that sometimes partook of generosity.”

Source: theguardian.com