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'Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life' by Edna O'Brien
Happy the poet whose life and work remain so well-remembered that his name becomes an adjective.
George Gordon Byron, sixth baron of that title, is certainly a poet who stands in that rarefied company, though it's hard to believe that even the linguistic laurels represented by the now commonplace modifier "Byronic" would have made this protean artist and contradictory -- frequently appalling -- man content for very long.
Edna O'Brien, the distinguished Irish writer, is Byron's latest biographer, and she defines "Byronic" as denoting "excess, diabolical deeds and rebelliousness." It also connotes a certain impetuous and passionate intensity, which isn't a bad description of the spirit that animates O'Brien's own work. The fascination she finds in that implicit kinship is one of the things that makes "Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life" such a pleasure to read. This is a book not only for those who value perceptive, independent intelligence, but also for those who treasure lovely writing for its own sake. At this stage in her long career -- and who can believe that O'Brien is now in her 79th year? -- this is an author who seems incapable of composing a clumsy or uninteresting sentence.
With more than 200 Byron biographies already on the shelves -- including Leslie Marchand's magisterial three-volume life, and recent efforts by Fiona MacCarthy and Martin Garrett -- it's fair to ask why anyone really needs another. O'Brien's response is that there's value to be had in one artist evaluating another, as for example, "Rilke on Rodin, addressing that mysterious mediation between the life and the art." There's also a relief to be had from an intelligent life of a major cultural figure told with brevity. O'Brien's earlier life of her first aesthetic mentor, James Joyce, is a model of this genre, and "Byron in Love" is a more than worthy successor.
In both instances, one of the biography's great strengths is that O'Brien approaches the other artist not as a subject -- as a scholar would -- but as a character, which is what any great novelist -- as she surely is -- would do. Thus, while the poems themselves hardly make an appearance in this life of Byron, O'Brien has copiously mined his correspondence, particularly the incomparable love letters, and the diaries of his last -- and, one senses, most important -- lover, Teresa Guiccioli, the Italian countess with whom he finally found the contentment that accompanied the composition of his masterpiece, "Don Juan." As O'Brien writes, "for all his swagger and bravado, Byron's real theme was love."
O'Brien's own attraction to her story's protagonist, which manifests itself in various ways, is obvious. There is, for example, her well known description of Joyce -- the artist who looms largest in her inner pantheon -- as "a man of profligate tastes and blatant inconsistencies," who "went from childlike tenderness to a scathing indifference, from craven piety to doubt and rebellion." Byron, she describes thus: "Insider and outsider, beautiful and deformed, serious and facetious," as well as "destructive, dazzling, dark and dissonant."
O'Brien once told an interviewer that, as a woman, she was "attracted to tall, thin good-looking men who have one common denominator. They must be lurking bastards." Byron -- though short, club-footed and inclined to fat -- was certainly that latter thing. O'Brien cites Lady Blessington's famous remark that the poet was "the most extraordinary and terrifying person [she had] ever met," as well as the observation of one of his most scandalous married lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, that Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know."
Yet this was a poet who reigned as the rock star of his age, and whose smile Samuel Taylor Coleridge once compared to "the opening of the gate of heaven." He was also a man with as pathological a family history as one could imagine: He never knew his father, a bankrupt who was called "Mad Jack," or the titled relation from whom he inherited his barony (and who was understandably known as "the Wicked Lord"). His relationship with his mother was alternately smothering and violent. His nanny abused him.
The result was a prodigious and indiscriminate sexual -- or, perhaps, affectionate -- appetite. At Cambridge, he seduced a boy chorister: "In that rarefied environment," O'Brien writes, "their friendship flourished, like Juno's swans, inseparable. Secret glances, secret whispers and never a tiresome moment between them." While deeply in debt, he contrived an affair with one of the bailiffs sent to occupy his home's lower floor as insurance against his flight -- apparently because the man had once similarly guarded the playwright Sheridan.
Byron seduced a litany of swooning titled ladies, and when he attempted to break off his relationship with Lamb because of public opprobrium, she disguised herself as a page boy and brought to his room a lock of her pubic hair as a sort of calling card. Nothing quite compares, though, to the gothic drama -- O'Brien compares his domestic life to something out of Edgar Allan Poe -- of Byron's ill-fated marriage. All the while, he carried on an incestuous relationship with his half sister, and when wretched wife and sister were both pregnant, he threatened to move his actress mistress into the home they all shared. On the night his wife gave birth, he roamed the home's galleries, waving the pistols he habitually carried and proclaiming himself "in hell." He subsequently threatened wife and child with death. Later, during his Italian exile, when Mary Shelley's stepsister bore him a daughter out of wedlock, he routinely reviled her and ignored the child.
Yet this was a man who also composed some of the greatest love letters in our language. In his farewell note to Lamb, for example, he wrote, "You know I would with pleasure give up all here and all beyond the grave for you." Writing to his Italian countess, he said, "Everything depends on you, my life, my honor, my love. To love you is my crossing of the Rubicon and has already decided my fate."
O'Brien has sometimes spoken of how Joyce and William Faulkner are the giants of her imagination and of how she envisions them somewhere drinking together. As she once said, "Writers really live in the mind and in hotels of the soul." One senses, after finishing "Byron in Love," that, for all his ugly mischief, her hotel now has a room for the consummate romantic as well.