“A fresh and lively contribution to the crowded field of Byron studies” – Byron’s Women by Alexander Larman
Byron’s Women opens with a cinematic flourish: news of the poet’s death has just reached England, along with the manuscript of his scandalous memoirs. The existence of the memoirs throws literary society into a panic, as his friends and associates debate whether the document should be published, suppressed or destroyed. Finally, the decision was taken to burn the papers, in order to preserve Byron’s reputation (such as it was), depriving future researchers of what was reportedly a fantastically indiscreet account of his legendary life. While the women in Byron’s life were doubtless relieved that details of their affairs were not made public in this way, it is possibly Byron’s reputation which benefitted most from this decision; in the years since his death, Byron’s legend has been romanticised, the rough edges smoothed out.
In Blazing Star, Alexander Larman detailed the life and work of John Wilmot, Britain’s *other* great, debauched poet, demonstrating his ability to blend biography and textual analysis, while integrating complex background material into his narrative in an engaging and insightful way. With his third book, Larman has returned to the theme of sexually-adventurous poets, but takes a fresh approach. Byron’s Women is neither a cradle-to-grave biography nor a work of literary criticism, but ‘a diverse sequence of stories of emotional, sexual and familial attachment, spanning many decades and myriad places, and characterised variously by casual cruelty, warm affection, unbridled carnality – and perhaps even true love’. Rather than focussing on Byron himself, Larman aims to shed some light on the figures that are often obscured by the swaggering ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ persona: the women who were his relatives, lovers – and sometimes both.
The classic phrase ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ was coined by Byron’s admirer Caroline Lamb, and Larman emphasises the ‘danger’ of associating with the scandalous poet. As in Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy, it seems that the best way of surviving an encounter with Byron was to make sure you don’t have sex. The women presented here, from Byron’s mother Catherine Gordon, who predicted ‘that boy will be the death of me’, to his last lover, Teresa Makri, the wife of a Count who, according to Shelley made Byron ‘a better and more amenable person’ but ended her days in exile with her father after her marriage was annulled, rarely survived the association with their reputation and dignity intact.
Larman is skilled at finding details which expand our understanding of his subjects. In the historical narrative, for example, Catherine Gordon has been swept into the background, relegated to a supporting role picking up the pieces after her dissolute husband Mad Jack – in many ways acting as the prototype for the traditional view of one of Byron’s women. Yet, as Larman shows, she was also a resourceful woman, a liberal and a sympathiser of the French Revolution. An outsider by virtue of her remote Scottish upbringing and financial struggles, Catherine was considered ‘vulgar’ in London society, and often shows poor judgement in her choice of associates – not least May Gray, the housekeeper who is rumoured to have molested the young Byron. But if Catherine is not especially sympathetic, Larman notes that dealing with Byron can’t have been easy; the child ‘misbehaved and defied his mother’ at every opportunity. Catherine died at the young age of 46; her son’s first intense burst of fame, following the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, came immediately after.
The stories of Caroline Lamb and Claire Claremont similarly undercut our expectations of Byron’s women. The pair were temperamentally very different, and yet both were active and determined in their pursuit of Byron, attracted by his fame and dangerous reputation. Caroline, in particular, was a similarly wild character. She had grown up with a complete lack of parental discipline: ‘she had done as she pleased from the age of three until nine; she lived in a fantastical world of whimsy and make-believe’. As a young woman, she teetered on the verge of social ruin, because of her outrageous behaviour and her affairs. With a pleasing lack of regard for social convention, it is said that she ‘damned propriety with her every action’.
Claire came from a similarly unconventional background; the stepsister of Mary Shelley, she was raised in an atmosphere of radical intellectual ideas. However, due to her stepfather William Godwin’s financial problems, she had less social experience than Caroline, and her pursuit of Byron was characterised by a mixture of boldness and naivety. She fell in love with the idea of Byron, and longed to be seduced, but was soon cast aside. Byron’s aristocratic disregard for the lives of others comes to the fore here; when Claire became pregnant, Byron kept a lordly distance, refusing to acknowledge her, except occasional bitter asides in letters to his half-sister Augusta. After the birth of their daughter Allegra, Byron took custody of the child, cutting Claire out of her life completely, ignoring her desperate requests for access. Caroline, similarly, was forever marked by her association with Byron; initially she revelled in notoriety that the affair bought her, ‘enjoying the opportunity for self-dramatization’, and had some measure of revenge by giving Byron’s wife Anabella the information she needed to ruin him socially. Her final years, however, were spent writing increasingly terrible novels, only able to gain attention through dramatic references to the affair.
Byron’s wife, Anabella, was a very different sort of character, from a conventional background, precocious, intelligent and generally unmoved by the life of a debutante (an ‘icicle’ as one observer put it). In Byron’s calculating verdict, she was ‘a clever woman, an amiable woman, and of high blood,’ and therefore a suitable wife. The marriage was doomed to failure, however, as Larman notes: ‘he proposed out of despair, and Annabella would suffer as a result’.
The reason for this despair was Byron’s relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. In terms of temperament, the pair were a good match, but putting the relationship on any kind of permanent official footing was impossible. Augusta made Byron happy with ‘the fantasy of playing man and wife together in their ancestral home’ – but she was forced to return to her husband to give birth, to a child who may well have been Byron’s. Drinking heavily, Byron made his wife’s life a misery, tormenting her with hints about his relationship with Augusta. The scandal provoked by this bizarre love triangle becoming public sent Byron into exile, never to return.
Claire’s half-sister Mary Shelley fared much better: ‘What differentiated Mary from the other women Byron knew was her intellectual self-assurance and excellent judgement of character, meaning that he respected her as an equal, an indulgence that only Augusta so far had been granted’. Larman examines Byron’s influence on Frankenstein without giving him undue credit, and notes Mary’s ambivalent attitude towards the poet. Shelley’s own background was as unconventional and occasionally scandalous as Byron’s, but in her husband she had found a more stable relationship than Byron could have offered, if one which was equally scandalous in the public eye.
Byron’s final love was Teresa Makri. Married to a much older Count, she was, according to Byron, ‘a sort of Italian Caroline Lamb, except that she is much prettier and not so savage’. Her husband was a match for Byron, both socially and in wiles, leading to another fascinatingly complex love triangle (at one point, Byron was living in the Count’s villa, taking his money, whilst using a storeroom in the building to stockpile weapons to be used in an uprising to overthrow him). Byron displayed ‘a petulant dissatisfaction’ when Teresa was manoeuvred away from him, whilst she ‘seemed to glory in the scandal’, and almost domesticated him, in the role of ‘cavalier servantes’. Teresa offers a tantalising glimpse of contentment for Byron, though circumstances ultimately prevented them from settling down. Teresa was initially granted a marriage annulment, but her lack of economic and social freedom meant that she was forced into exile with her father. Teresa is a fascinating character, but unfortunately less of her writing appears to survive, meaning that she doesn’t emerge so fully from Byron’s shadow as some of the other women featured here.
Finally, Larman explores the lives of Ada Lovelace and Medora Leigh, Byron’s surviving children. Rather like her father (who died when she was 8, having spent the majority of her life in exile), Ada was ‘seen as a brilliant but scandalous figure, dangerously free-thinking and combining mental acuity with behaviour that was greeted with horror’. Annabella encouraged her to study logic and mathematics, hoping that she would not follow in her father’s footsteps; however, Larman explores the strange fascination which Byron exerted on her as she matured. Ada’s studies bought her into contact with the mathematician Charles Babbage, and she is credited with creating the first computer program.
Augusta’s daughter Medora’s life was more chaotic. At 14, she was sent to live with her invalid sister and her priapic, gambling husband – who made her pregnant almost immediately. Already embroiled in scandal, Medora could not escape from this dire situation, and ‘in her mid-twenties she had already seen more sorrow and degradation in her short life than most could ever imagine’. She was left destitute by her brother-in-law, and abandoned in France before being rescued by Annabella, who proceeded to use her as a pawn in a power struggle against her mother Augusta. Medora fought to escape Annabella’s control, eventually marrying a French soldier and settling down to an obscure life in a rural village. Although they moved in wildly different social circles, both Ada and Medora struggled to escape from Byron’s shadow. Both find themselves is endless financial difficulties, increasingly reliant on a semi-mythical legacy from Byron which they hoped would alleviate their problems.
So what do we learn, from this new approach to Byron’s life? Larman is able to divide Byron the poet from Byron the man, and is not afraid to editorialise; while the writing is well-researched and fair, it is refreshing to read a historian who is unafraid to criticise their subject’s behaviour in the strongest terms. Byron is described at various points as ‘brutish’ and ‘depraved’, ‘wallowing in moral and physical squalor’, while his treatment of Annabella is ‘a serious indictment of Byron as a man’. There is a debate as to whether Byron’s worst excesses should be blamed on drink, mental illness, or his sheer unpleasantness; this book is not the place to solve the issue definitively, but Larman offers some evidence in support of all three. His female subjects are presented as equally complex characters, resisting the temptation to turn them into archetypes of ravished virtue. As selfish and exploitative as Byron often was, there is a sense that each of these women attempted to use him to alleviate the boredom and disappointment of their own constrained lives.
Byron’s Women sheds light on a milieu of women who were determined to find their own way to transcend the constraints of the society they grew up in. Arguably only Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace were truly able to stand alone on the historical stage, yet each of the women discussed here emerges as an independent character worthy of further study. While we will never know how Byron intended to portray these women in his memoirs, one suspects that his descriptions would have lacked the nuance and depth that we see here.
Any Cop?: Byron’s Women is a fresh and lively contribution to the crowded field of Byron studies, and confirms Larman as an insightful observer of the contradictory nature of his subjects
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- October 4, 2016 / 9:00 am