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Byron in Love

Novelist Edna O’Brien attempts a biography of the poet who was ‘Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.’

By Heller McAlpin / June 17, 2009



Perhaps it’s a cost-cutting measure: Save on ink by cutting back on commas (even in the subtitle) and omitting semi-colons altogether. Or maybe it’s more insidious: Save money by cutting copy editors. Whatever the explanation, here’s fair warning that reading Edna O’Brien’s Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life is at times – for want of editing – more challenging to parse than the passionate, iconoclastic 19th-century poet’s verse.

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The disappointment is acute, for O’Brien, a passionate, iconoclastic writer herself – her early, sexually frank “Country Girls” novels were banned and burned in her native Ireland when they first appeared in the 1960s – is well suited to her subject. She has pored over reams of Byron’s letters and journals and digested Leslie A. Marchand’s 1957 three-volume “Life of Byron” to present a vivid portrait of the man whom Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his scores of jilted lovers, called “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

As captured by O’Brien, Byron was at once brilliant, magnetic, and monstrous – an arrogant son; an insatiable seducer of both sexes; an incestuous adulterer; a spendthrift; a wildly original, popular, and vilified poet; a cruel and neglectful father; a passionate traveler; and a generous friend. He idolized Napoleon and loved Greece.

O’Brien notes, “The word Byronic, to this day, connotes excess, diabological deeds and a rebelliousness answering neither to king nor commoner. Byron, more than any other poet, has come to personify the poet as rebel, imaginative and lawless.”

George Gordon Byron was born in London in 1788 to a 22-year-old Scottish woman descended from King James I and violent Scottish feudal barons. By the time Byron was born, Catherine’s vagrant husband, “Mad Jack” Byron, had run through her money and fled to France to avoid imprisonment for debt.

Byron’s delicate-featured beauty was marred by a malformed right calf and clubfoot, one of many woes he blamed on his mother. His philandering father died of consumption before his fourth birthday, leaving mother and son to an itinerant existence at the mercy of lawyers and relatives. “Mad Jack” also left a daughter, Augusta, from an earlier marriage – the half sister who was to become what was arguably the greatest love of Byron’s life.

After the 1798 death of his grand-uncle, known as the Wicked Lord, Byron at 10 became the sixth Lord Byron and inherited the derelict 12th-century Gothic family seat at Newstead. Among the people he lorded over was his unprepossessing mother. O’Brien writes: “His demands on her were not that of a son but of a tyrannical husband.”

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