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He walks in beauty

Portrait of famed lover and poet is, like its subject, flawed

George Gordon Byron was famous for his love affairs, his poetry, his extravagances, and his beauty. George Gordon Byron was famous for his love affairs, his poetry, his extravagances, and his beauty. (Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)
By Margot Livesey
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2009

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Byron became famous in his early 20s and has remained famous ever since. Edna O’Brien’s “Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life’’ pays homage to that fame - particularly around his romantic conquests - and seeks to illuminate his mercurial nature. I should confess that, prior to reading this book, I knew shamefully little about Byron. At school we studied his poem “She Walks in Beauty,’’ and I learned that he had died in Greece. All of which is to say that I embarked on “Byron in Love’’ counting on O’Brien to give me both the essential facts of his life and a way to approach those facts.

From the moment he entered the world, during the frigid winter of 1788, George Gordon Byron was a person of contradictions. He was born with a caul over his face, a sign of good luck, and a club foot. His mother, Catherine, was a 22-year-old heiress who had had the misfortune to marry “Mad Jack’’ Byron. On both sides of the family there was excess and debauchery. Mad Jack was in France, fleeing debt, when his son was born, and he died when George was 3. Meanwhile, the beleaguered Catherine retreated to Aberdeen, where they lived above a shop, and she alternately raged at Byron and smothered him with kisses. Byron in turn amused himself at church by sticking a safety pin into his mother’s plump arms. When he was 5 she sent him to school, where he fell in love with reading - he claimed to have read 4,000 works of fiction by the time he went to grammar school - and history.

Then, when Byron was 10, his granduncle died. He became the sixth Lord Byron. Although the family was still in debt, his life was changed forever. He went to Harrow and then to Trinity College, Cambridge, where “his table was strewn with invitations and study regarded as the last of his pursuits.’’ He fell in love with a 15-year-old choir boy, but, even in the midst of his passion Byron couldn’t quite forget that sodomy was punishable by hanging. Perhaps that fearful knowledge drove him to further excesses. During the next three years he frequented prostitutes, learned to box, gambled, and “clareted and champagned.’’ He also wrote poetry and plays, and a slim volume of translations and imitations, “Hours of Idleness,’’ was published in 1807. A review in Monthly Literary Recreations praised the 19-year-old author. The same issue also carried Byron’s negative review of Wordsworth’s latest poems.

For the next 17 years Byron was famous for his love affairs, his poetry, his extravagances, and his beauty. As a reader, however, I did sometimes forget that Byron was irresistible. Besides his many affairs and capricious cruelty, his financial misconduct makes Bernard Madoff seem reasonable. I would have welcomed O’Brien directing me on how to view these contradictions more forcefully and being more present. Part of the fascination of this book is, or should be, seeing what the author, herself a charismatic novelist who has written daringly about sex, makes of Byron. A short biography cannot be encyclopedic; its strength has to be impressions, opinions, glimpses. I would also have welcomed more historical context. As I read about Byron’s affair with his half-sister, and his many adulterous relationships, I had to remind myself that not far away Jane Austen was writing “Pride and Prejudice.’’

Among the glimpses O’Brien does offer are quotations from Byron’s diaries and letters. “At twenty-three,’’ he declares, “the best of life is over and its bitters double.’’ “You know,’’ he writes to Lady Caroline Lamb, “I have always thought you the cleverest, most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being.’’ He describes his honeymoon as “the treacle moon.’’ His words ring across two centuries, as do his best poems. In 1816 Byron visited the battlefields of Waterloo. The occasion was, O’Brien claims, comparable to Proust’s madeleine, a moment when the sluice gates of the unconscious were thrown open. The sight of the unmarked graves summoned some of his most brilliant verses.

Byron later seemed to forget what he had learned about the waste of war and became involved in the Greek struggle for independence. Biographies are often the saddest genre, but the last years of Byron’s life make for particularly heartbreaking reading as the poet puts his generosity and his love of Greece at the service of that divided country. He died of a fever, in pain and confusion. They buried him “like a poet, but he resurrected as a legend,’’ O’Brien writes. “Why? we may ask. Why him above the legions of poets down the years?’’ She concludes that, above every quality we can attribute to Byron, “there is the unfathomable that eludes us, and perhaps even eluded him.’’ Which is exactly the kind of personal intervention I longed for, and didn’t always find, as Byron dashed from bed to bed.

Margot Livesey’s most recent novel, “The House on Fortune Street,’’ was published in paperback in May. She teaches at Emerson College.

BYRON IN LOVE: A Short Daring Life By Edna O’Brien

Norton, 228 pp., $24.95

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