(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Had Lord Byron lived in the late twentieth century rather than the early nineteenth, he would surely have been featured many times on the front covers of the news and entertainment publications. As Phyllis Grosskurth points out in her excellent biography, Byron was the first modern celebrity, creating scandal wherever he went and fluttering the hearts of innumerable young ladies, who succumbed not only to his luminous beauty but also to his carefully cultivated persona of the sensitive but moody poet, who looked with disdain on the common run of men and guarded some nameless secret from his past. Add to this the brilliance of Byron’s poetry itself and his willingness to take on almost anyone in print (and so infuriate the English establishment), then throw in some rumors of incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and one can see why the Byronic brew was so potent.

Grosskurth paints a picture of Byron as a manic depressive subject to wild mood swings who never found a stable psychic center within himself. As a child he failed to bond satisfactorily with his mother and in adult life lurched from one mother-figure to the next, at the same time suffering from a yawning emptiness that bouts of dissipation could not assuage. He was indecisive and financially irresponsible, and in the end, after he decided to assist the cause of Greek independence, he was overwhelmed by forces beyond his control. Yet through all this catalog of dysfunction the magnetic quality of Byron’s personality shines out clearly. He may have been, in Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous phrase, “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” but he was also a miraculous force who changed the sensibility of nineteenth century European culture.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, April 1, 1997, p. 1277.

Boston Globe. April 27, 1997, p. D20.

Library Journal. CXXII, April 15, 1997, p. 80.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, April 13, 1997, p. 13.

The Observer. February 23, 1997, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 3, 1997, p. 57.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 9, 1997, p. D3.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 4, 1997, p. 20.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Autumn, 1997, p. 126.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, April 20, 1997, p. 7.