Newstead Abbey: this image is by Simon Johnston and is copyright free
The Byrons were a very old family, dating back it is claimed, to a noble who invaded with William the Conqueror in 1066. The family seat was at Newstead Abbey, which had been founded for a religious order by Henry II. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII sold the lands to John Byron, who left some of the Abbey as a romantic ruin, and lived in the remainder. Sir John seemed a typical male member of the Byron family, and one scandal among many was an affair with his neighbour's wife resulting in a pregnancy. It was this woman's son who eventually inherited Newstead Abbey, and kept the Byron line continuing on its turbulent journey through the centuries. The 5th or "Wicked" Lord Byron had nine children, and the first of these children, "Mad" Jack Byron, born in 1756, was to be father of the poet. Jack was a Guards officer, a man with "boundless sexual appetite and unburdened by scruples of any sort" (Byron by Benita Eisler P9). He would seduce women of any social rank, but preferred countesses because they had the money to fund his hugely prodigal lifestyle. He ran off with the Marchioness of Carmarthan, and eventually married her. After three children and a chaotic life, Amelia died in mysterious circumstances. Having been disinherited by his father long before, Jack now needed another rich wife. He found her in Bath, a short plump woman, Catherine Gordon of Gight. Jack quickly seduced and married Catherine, feeding voraciously on her fortune. Catherine gave birth to a son, George Gordon Byron on 22nd January 1788. The birth took place in cramped lodgings above a perfumer's shop in Cavendish Square, London. Catherine by now had little money left, and Jack was hiding from creditors in France. Young George was born with a deformed right foot, a deformity which was to cause much psychological distress. Biographer Benita Eisler suggests that bitterness about his foot led Byron to feel a special dispensation from moral sanctions imposed on others. But then Byron men always seemed to feel themselves free of moral sanctions imposed on others.
By 1790 Jack, Catherine and young George Byron were established at 10 Queens Street in Edinburgh, opposite Greyfriars Church. The Byrons spent a few brief months here as a family, before Jack disappeared back off to France, dying there of tuberculosis in August 1791. At this time the prospects for George did not seem bright. Jack had squandered Catherine's fortune, and there was little money to live on. It was only the deaths of Jack Byron's brother and nephew that made six year old George heir to the Byron estate. Now his fortunes suddenly changed. Rather than a precarious life as the son of a ruined woman George was to be groomed as a future peer. The first stage of this preparation was enrollment in Aberdeen Grammar School. Then in May 1798 when the 5th Lord died, nine year old George became 6th Lord Byron. It was hardly a moment when all his problems ended, however, since the 5th Lord died so poor that money could not be raised for a proper burial. Nevertheless back at school a now deferential headmaster invited the young lord to his study for wine and cake. At morning assembly his name was read out as Georgius Dominus de Byron. The nine year old found it all very embarrassing, and burst into tears. Still, Byron came to enjoy his new status, and must have been excited when in August 1798 Catherine managed to scrape enough money together to move south and take up residence at Newstead Abbey. George looked upon himself as a kind of Harry Potter figure, a lost orphan revealed as a prince. He planted a young oak tree in the Abbey grounds to symbolise his new start. But while Newstead Abbey looked impressive, the reality was different. The 5th Lord had not maintained the building, and by the winter of 1798 Catherine and her son were driven out by damp and cold, taking up lodgings in nearby Nottingham. There was little money for anything, including education, but Byron insisted that he keep learning. He had a tutor, and continued lessons, enduring pain from a wooden contraption which was supposedly straightening out his deformed foot. At this time he was also brutally treated by his nursemaid, who initiated him into sexuality. The trauma of these events, when he was both victim, and willing conspirator, left its mark on his personality and his relationships with women ever after.
The Cam behind King's College, Cambridge
In 1799 Catherine obtained some money from the Civil List, which eased her financial situation a little. Byron was now able to take up a place first at Dulwich College, and then at Harrow School in April 1801. At Harrow he quickly caught up academically after lodging with the headmaster. Byron's special approach to study was to combine periods of artistic indolence with short bursts of massive and brilliant effort. He thought this approach more romantic than steady intellectual drudgery. Evidence of the indolent periods remains in Harrow's Fourth Form Common Room, where Byron's name is carved many times in the oak panelling. Harrow can be toured, and the Fourth Form Room is included in the tour.
Inspite of his deformity, which could have been a trigger for bullying, Byron became a popular boy at Harrow. Harrow became: "a home, a world, a paradise to me" (Childish Recollections). He was passionate and turbulent in his friendships, flying into a rage when a friend addressed a letter "My Dear Byron" instead of "My Dearest Byron". This young man was high maintenance.
In 1805 only the final two terms were spent at Harrow after what today would be called a suspension, for crimes unknown. This was the last year of Byron's time at Harrow, and in October he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. At this time Trinity - and Cambridge generally - was not exactly an academic place. But even if little learning or teaching took place, the beauty of Cambridge made a great impression on Byron. Time was spent drinking, socialising, swimming in the Cam and listening to music. Although Byron's life at Cambridge seemed to be surprisingly calm and chaste, he did have a boyfriend, a young chorister in the Trinity Chapel choir. The quiet life did not last for long. By 1806 Byron was running off to London to indulge himself in every pleasure the city had to offer. He was to write of this time:
In law an infant, and in years a boy,
In mind a slave to every vicious joy
From every sense of shame and virtue wean'd
In lies an adept, in deceit a fiend
Much activity was centred on the fencing club at 13 Bond Street. Byron only returned to Cambridge when it appeared that his allowance would be cut off if he did not do so. He was spending heavily, repeating the profligate behaviour of his father.
Amidst all the pleasure seeking, young Byron seemed to find time to do some writing. His first collection of poetry, Fugitive Pieces, was published privately in 1806. Already he was writing poetry as autobiography, and indulging in the characteristic theme of romantic love undercut by ribaldry. There was also a packet of "secret verses," addressed "To Mary," about erotic feelings, fulfillment and betrayal. Mary was probably a poor and beautiful London girl, desperately hoping her looks, while they lasted, might attract a rich husband. Mary's eventual "betrayal" of her demanding young lover was simply the necessity of leaving a man with no money. Poor Mary had to find someone who could support her. Byron's first volume of poetry issued to the public, Hours Of Idleness, came out in 1807. By this time Byron had not attended college in Cambridge for many months, in spite of letters from his tutor. It was only after the publication of Hours of Idleness that he returned, rather triumphantly, to Trinity. He spent the rest of 1807 there, before leaving Cambridge for good at Christmas that year. Then it was back to London, "that pleasant place where every kind of mischief's daily brewing" (Don Juan 12.23), setting up home at Dorant's Hotel. There were many women, but a pretty, poor sixteen year old girl called Caroline Cameron seemed a particular favourite. Byron enjoyed dressing Caroline up as a boy, and presenting her to friends as a close relative. Inevitably perhaps Byron was already paying the price for his carefree lifestyle in the form of venereal disease.
On 13th of March 1809, at the age of twenty one, Byron took up his seat in the House of Lords. Clearly he did not enjoy the occasion, barely able to bring himself to shake hands with the lord chancellor. Perhaps he felt limited by his appointed role, and soon ran away from it, travelling to Europe in June 1809. Leaving Falmouth he arrived in a turbulent Europe, where Britain was waging campaigns against Napoleon. His journey through Spain, to Gibraltar, and then east to Constantinople became the basis for his first great poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. With this poem Byron became the first major poet of modern warfare, a hundred years before the First World War poets. The Industrial Revolution was under way, and weapons were ever improving in their capacity for killing on a massive scale. Wars to come would have no winners:
The foe the victim, and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fight in vain,
Are met - as if at home they could not die -
To feed the crow on Talaver's plain
And fertilise the field that each pretends to gain.
(Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 1.41)
While seeing the mad amorality of war, Byron himself was fascinated by people who seemingly lacked morality. In Turkey he met the Vizier, Ali Pasha, a mild mannered, large, friendly man in his sixties, with a taste for very young girls and boys, and a predilection for cruelty. Byron talked at length with this seemingly ordinary little man who was "unburdened by Christian conscience, and possessing absolute power". In Albania Byron heard songs sung by "barbarous dancers" celebrating theft and murder. These songs were seen by Byron as a "glimpse of life before the fall, as Eden without hypocrisy, repression or guilt" (Eisler P 230). Byron was not a social reformer like his contemporary Shelley, uninterested in changing laws, only in the dark thrill of breaking them. As he said in Don Juan he wanted "men to be free as much from mobs as kings" (9.25), and generally left changing society to others of a more earnest bent.
Byron returned to England in July 1811. By now he was a sought after society figure in London, and struggled to keep up the necessary appearances. When Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was published in March 1812, he became even more sought after. The poem caused frenzied excitement, the first print run selling out within days. Byron is supposed to have been the first person to say that he woke up one day and found himself famous. He can be thought of in the same way that rock stars are today. Suddenly he was a huge celebrity, and like today's stars he was immensely popular with women, not that he ever had any shortage of admirers. One of the many women won over by Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, a future prime minister. They met at Holland House, which still stands just off Kensington High Street. It was here that Lady Holland ruled an impressive social scene. Caroline judged Byron "mad, bad and dangerous to know," which it seems made her want him all the more. An obsessive affair followed, which eventually had Byron going to, would you believe, William Lamb's mother, Lady Melbourne, for help in extricating himself. Lady Melbourne was a well known Machiavellian operator, and she arranged a relationship with Anna Isabella, the daughter of her husband's brother. Anna Isabella, or Annabella as she was known, was by all accounts a sweet girl who did not deserve to be pulled into a marriage with the mad and bad Byron. But Lady Melbourne wanted a family link with the famous Byron, and Annabella was worth sacrificing.
The marriage to Annabella did not happen straight away. Through 1812 and 1813 Byron had an affair with Lady Oxford. Meanwhile Caroline Lamb's obessive love for Byron alternated with obsessive hate. She organised rituals involving little girls in white dresses dancing round a bonfire chanting curses on Byron, while Caroline threw Byron's letters and copies of his poems into the flames. After Caroline stabbed herself with broken glass at a party Byron was attending, they resumed a cautious correspondence which was kept secret from Lady Melbourne. There was also an on-going affair between Byron and his half sister Augusta. Meanwhile Byron's stardom was undimmed. In 1814 The Corsair was published and sold in huge quantities. Ten thousand copies sold on the first day of publication, which for poetry is a record which has never been broken. Byron was now living in Albany House in Piccadilly. Financially things were now much easier, and Byron's rooms were the most desirable in Albany House, his study stretching over two floors. The building can still be seen, sitting back from Piccadilly in Albany Courtyard. It wasn't until the beginning of 1815 that Byron finally married Annabella, the culmination of Lady Melbourne's ruthless scheming. This marriage, as might be expected, quickly came to a very messy end. In 1816 a daughter was born to Annabella. The pregnancy and birth seemed to drive Byron completely demented. It appears that Byron tried to rape his wife soon after the birth. Annabella said that she "apprehended immediate danger to her life," and fled with her baby daughter to her childhood home in Leicestershire. Byron never saw either of them again. Byron denied categorically Annabella's version of events, but others corroborated her story. Byron suffered some kind of seizure, displaying symptoms of a mild stroke. Byron's behaviour became so wild that he had to make an immediate escape from possible consequences. On 25th of April Byron left England never to return.
Chateau de Chillon
Byron and his entourage travelled down the Rhine to Switzerland. Here in a hotel beside Lac Leman, Byron met the party of Shelley also travelling in Europe at the time. The two groups spent much time together during the cold, wet summer of 1816, as the world sat under volcanic clouds from the vast Tambora eruption. Byron had famously described poetry as "lava of the imagination," and the year his life erupted into complete mayhem had its parallel in the natural world. It wasn't until the autumn that the literal and metaphoric dust began to settle. Days were then spent floating on Lac Leman in autumn sunshine. Shelley who floated with Byron came to the conclusion that: "Lord Byron is an exceedingly interesting person, and as such is it not to be regretted that he is slave to the vilest and most vulgar prejudices, and as mad as the wind?" (Letter to Thomas Peacock). The poets also visited the famous Chateau de Chillon, beside Lac Leman. The story of a monk's imprisonment there inspired The Prisoner of Chillon. Byron etched his name in the third pillar of the dungeon, where it can still be seen today. This graffiti in such an historic building is a fittingly anarchic memorial to that dark summer.
As winter came on Byron moved to Venice, which he describes beautifully in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:
I lov'd her from my boyhood - she to me
was as a fairy city of the heart
Rising like water columns from the sea,
Of joy the sojourn, and of wealth the mart;
And Otway, Radcliffe, Schiller, Shakespeare's art,
Had stamp'd her image in me, and even so,
Although I found her thus, we did not part,
Perchance even dearer in her day of woe
Than when she was a boast, a marvel and a show
Byron then moved to Rome, and it was here that Childe Harold's Pilgrimage came to an end. All links with Britain also ended, with the sale of Newstead Abbey in December 1817.
A few years were then spent living in Venice. In 1819 work started on what is usually considered Byron's finest poem, Don Juan, a piece he continued to work on almost until the end of his life. Meanwhile there were the usual relationship dramas. A meeting with a married noblewoman called Teresa Guiccioli led to the unthinkable prospect of settling down. But of course she was married, so the intrigues that Byron endured and enjoyed were plentiful. Byron was to find something approaching a settled married life with Teresa, but before that could happen he continued moving restlessly around Italy, to Ravenna, and to Pisa. In 1822 his daughter Allegra died, followed soon after by the death of his friend Shelley, who drowned after his boat sank in a storm. Byron was present at the incineration of Shelley's body on the beach between Viareggio and Massa. With his friend dead, Byron now settled into something approaching domesticity. The riding, shooting and stag dinners ended. He lived quietly in Pisa with Teresa, who had now separated from her husband, and worked on Don Juan. His peace was disturbed by the government authorities who distrusted the well known trouble maker. A move to Genoa followed. These were days of separate apartments for Byron and Teresa, and set hours for their togetherness.
Perhaps it was inevitable that restlessness would return, and it did so in the form of a desire to help in the Greek war for independence from Turkey. Byron invested a great deal of money in buying arms, a boat, and even a set of scarlet uniforms with helmets befitting Homeric heroes. His partner in the project, Edward Trelawny thought the uniforms were ridiculous, so they went back in their pink boxes. Dressed, I assume, in sensible freedom fighting clothes, Byron and his group set off for Greece in his boat Hercules in July 1823. After installing himself on the island of Caphalonia Byron soon realised that the Greeks were hopelessly divided, and that a sense of idealism had no place in this war. Nevertheless, even knowing the hopelessness of the situation, Byron crossed to the mainland on December 29th 1823. After a sad, desultory few months in Greece, he fell ill, dying at Missolonghi in western Greece on April 19th 1824. His body was taken back to England and buried in the Byron family church in Hucknall Torkand near Nottingham.
There are times reading the biography of Byron when you wonder for his sanity: but my feeling reading his poetry is that he was the sanest of men. He saw through many of the delusions of his age, or of any age, and was a war poet a hundred years before the poets of World War One. He wrote about love and women with wonderful sensitivity and humour. He sought truth, but realised that final truth was not possible in a life that would always move on again tomorrow. There are so many pieces of writing which might sum up his work, since his writing was always coming to a conclusion and never reaching one: but as a writer whose conclusions always left room for something more, I offer you the following description of the end of a party:
The dinner and the soiree too were done
The supper too discussed, the dames admired,
The banqueteers had dropped off one by one -
The song was silent and the dance expired:
The last thin petticoats were vanished, gone
Like fleeing clouds into the sky retired,
And nothing brighter gleamed through the saloon
Than dying tapers - and the peeping moon
(Don Juan 16.8)