The short, tempestuous, and always fascinating life of Lord Byron has been chronicled, dissected, interpreted, and mused upon by a host of commentators ever since his own age. This brilliant, world-weary, magnetic, and restless figure, in his day the object of equal amounts of adulation and scorn, was responsible, more than any other single man, for the birth of a new sensibility in nineteenth century European culture. He was also, as his newest biographer Phyllis Grosskurth points out, the “first modern celebrity,” gawked at wherever he went, while his amorous and scandalous affairs were discussed with shocked zeal in the drawing rooms and clubs of fashionable London.
To this well-documented life Grosskurth, who has previously written about such figures as Sigmund Freud and his followers, brings a keen psychological insight in what is billed by the publisher as the “first psychoanalytic biography of Byron.” Such a description might well make the reader wary, but Grosskurth does not allow her lively narrative to get bogged down in obscure jargon or tendentious psychoanalytic theories. Her observations about the unconscious workings of Byron’s mind are mostly of a mild, commonsensical nature, and she does not extend her analysis into the works themselves.
Grosskurth is to be commended for her original research, which includes significant burrowings in the voluminous Lovelace papers, which are particularly useful in understanding the breakdown of Byron’s marriage. Leslie Marchand, the author of the standard biography Byron: A Portrait (1957), did not have access to the Lovelace papers, and many other biographers of Byron have been in a similar situation. This leads Grosskurth to claim, with some plausibility but perhaps also some exaggeration, that although material about Byron’s life is plentiful, “What we have not been given is the Byron who was known by those closest to him—his wife, Annabella Milbanke, and his sister, Augusta Leigh.” While it is true that the Lovelace papers have been underused by Byron’s biographers, these papers have been extensively consulted by those who have written about Byron’s family, notably Malcolm Elwin in Lord Byron’s Wife (1962) and his posthumous Lord Byron’s Family: Annabella, Ada, and Augusta 1816-1824 (1975); Ethel C. Mayne in The Life and Letters of Anne Isabella, Lady Noel Byron (1929), which quotes extensively from the Lovelace papers; and Ada Byron, Byron’s legitimate daughter. Nevertheless, the Lovelace papers have a great deal still to offer and Grosskurth makes good use of them, giving a fine picture of the workings of Annabella’s mind—so serious, high-minded, and unsuitable for Byron—during the critical period in both of their lives.
Lord Byron was born George Gordon in London in 1788. His circumstances were such that he never developed secure family bonds. His father died when Byron was three, and the poet never managed to form a close relationship with his mother, Catherine Gordon, whose vulgarity and overprotective nature repelled him. Indeed, Byron seems to have regarded himself from a very early age as different from others—an outsider. Part of this was the result of his deformed foot, of which Byron felt ashamed.
At Harrow school, Byron developed passionate and possibly sexual friendships with other boys; the attachments were so intense that, according to Grosskurth, they reveal a “terror of desertion.” At no point in Byron’s life did he attain any inner stability, a sense, as Grosskurth puts it, of a nurturing “home.” As a young man at Cambridge, Byron was clearly manic-depressive. His letters reveal “a wavering course of mood swings, alternating between states of hyperactivity, a sense of omnipotence and wild spirits, followed by paranoia and prolonged periods of inactivity, sadness, and despair.”
After travels in Europe from 1809 to 1811 had matured him (although they had also added to his feeling that he did not belong anywhere), and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), the poetic story of those travels, had made him famous, Byron, now lionized by London society, embarked on a series of disastrous entanglements with women. His handsome appearance and the poetic persona he had developed, of the melancholy traveler haunted by a troubled past which he could not forget, drew young women to him like a fatal magnet. One such admirer was the impetuous (and married) Lady Caroline Lamb; for several months during 1812, they carried on a tempestuous and indiscreet affair. Then came the dangerous, incestuous involvement with Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half sister. (In fairness to Byron, it should be pointed out that they had grown up apart and met as adults as if for the first time.) According to Grosskurth, Augusta, four...
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