Friday, November 4, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 7: Bad Boy, Super Poet, and Greek Patriot, Lord Byron: Part I: A Scandalous Life

Welcome to my seventh post on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.


'Tis strange -- but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction.

-- Lord Byron, Don Juan

For the first time, I'm going to do a direct back-to-back multi-part series. Lord Byron is a bit too larger-than-life to summarize in just one entry, so this week I'll do an overview of his personal life. If you have absolutely no clue at all who Lord Byron was at all, it's a bit insufficient for me to describe him merely as a highly influential poet whose influence is felt to this day (particularly in the form of the brooding hero, the so-called Byronic hero). In addition, he's fascinating in that he was an artist who crafted a public persona that made his every action resonate throughout society. In the modern, over-saturated media age where the most insipid of individuals is granted celebrity through reality programming such a reputation may seem quaint, but back in the late Georgian and Regency era, someone like Lord Byron was an unusual force of nature. Next week, I'll focus on his contributions to literature and the following week his political contributions and world adventures. There are not many English poets, after all, who are also considered national heroes in Greece.

Despite what many assume, the late Georgian era and the Regency were often times of aristocratic excess. The strict morality of the Victorian era was partly a response to some of the behavior of the high classes in the Georgian era (it was also partially an attempt by upwardly mobile middle class elements to set up their status hierarchy via contrast of their own self-perceived superior moral values, but this is a late Georgian-era series, so we'll let that drop for now). The Prince Regent set the tone. He loved a good party and spending money. While there were plenty of fine people who were proper in their behavior, more than a few gentlemen liked to drink and gamble. If one could basically keep one's behavior relatively in check, though, no one was going to blackball you from high society merely for a bit too much fun at a men's club or something.

The Regency folk, though not the Victorians, still had their limits. Blowing off a little steam was one thing, flaunting your behavior quite another. There were some individuals who shocked the sensibilities of these people but who could not be so easily be dismissed. Some individuals sent shock waves throughout English society for both their blatant disregard for proper behavior and their sheer genius--individuals like Lord Byron, George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Bryon of Rochdale.

So, Byron was not just any random rabble-rouser, but a peer. Although his father is somewhat colorful character in of himself (a social climbing army captain), we're going to skip his early life other to note a few major facts that people would later attribute some of his later behavior. I'm dubious of that kind of retroactive psychoanalysis, particularly in regard to his sexual behavior, but many others think they can sum him up far more easily.

He had a foot deformity that gave him a life-long limp that shamed him, and he believed that an early painful treatment may exacerbated his problem. While specially design shows minimize some o his gait problems, it would never be totally managed.

His early life, even as a young child, included a noted propensity for developing intense emotional attentions toward girls and woman, perhaps a foreshadowing of his intense sexual activity as an adult. As a child, he was allegedly the recipient of sexual attention from a governess and a lord who was renting Byron's mansion prior to his inheritance (this lord would also be a suitor of his mother). He would go onto a fine education capped with a stint at Trinity College. Various letters penned during his time in school strongly hinted at least some homosexual leanings (very dangerous given the laws of the time period), though given his love of women, it might be more accurate to just declare them bisexual leanings. Lord Byron definitely liked the ladies.

Throughout his life he scandalized English society with his numerous rather well-known affairs with a variety of women, married and otherwise. Various rumors also circulated about affairs with men as well. Though it's hard to distinguish how much truth there are in many of these rumors given that some of them were  associated with a scorned ex-lovers, as noted above he himself wrote statements in poems and letters about that seemed to indicate bisexual interests, particularly in his later life. Though he liked his alcohol and laudanum (alcohol solution with morphine), that sort of thing was well in-line with the "acceptable" bounds of behavior. It was his sexual misadventures that really started the finger wagging of proper society.

He was have alleged to have slept with hundreds of women. Now even if that's not true, he did sleep with enough women that a reputation as a "rake" was still well deserved. So, both in his potential choice of partners and sheer breadth, let alone his blatant public affairs with "respectable" women he completely blew past whatever "boys will be boys"-style acceptable sexual liaisons aristocratic society at the time might have otherwise tolerated. Indeed, on top of the accusations over his homosexual behavior there were also allegations of incest. The evidence seems much stronger to suggest the former versus the latter, which is likely people just misinterpreting his close relationship with half-sister and further jealously related rumor mongering. Some have gone so far as to claim he fathered a child with his sister. I personally find the evidence incredibly thin in that regard.

Now, one may ask why people were paying such close attention to one random aristocrat. He was far from the richest man in England or the most influential. He did, though, seek out attention and fame. In that sense, he's somewhat equivalent to a modern movie star: an artist thriving on the adoration and attention of the public. Of course this would end up eventually backfiring given that his every misstep alleged misstep was amplified in the public consciousness--again just like a modern movie star (though there's no record of Lord Byron jumping on a couch to declare his adoration for his love of the day).

He'd go on to father two confirmed children (one legitimate during his unhappy single year marriage and one illegitimate), though it's of course difficult to ignore the possibility he fathered a few more given his propensity toward sleeping around. Ironically, before I started studying the Regency in earnest, I already knew one of Lord Byron' children, Ada, who would later become the Countess Ada Lovelace, the so-called "Enchantress of Numbers". She worked with Charles Baggage, the grand master of mechanical computers, and developed what amounted to the first recorded computer algorithm.

Stepping back to Lord Byron, the various accusations and rumors floating about him basically forced his exit from England in 1816. There also was the small matter of his not insignificant debt. Live like a rock star, pay like a rock star, I suppose.

His departure year would be the infamous "Year Without A Summer" and a Byron-led vacation in Switzerland that lead to both Frankenstein and the The Vampyre. Lord Byron would never make it back to England. I'll discuss the circumstances around his early death (he died at the age of 36, 1788-1824) in week 3 of this mini-series.


Sophia Rose said...

I like how you reported all the rumors about Lord Byron, but questioned several and gave credence to few.
I think you are right about how his 'celebrity' status gained him more notoriety than he might have actually achieved.

Fascinating life regardless. Thanks for posting.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Yeah, I went back and forth on what to include, but I felt it was important to communicate what people were saying about him at the time, as to better understand the context of his reaction, flight from England, et cetera.

One thing I didn't like when I was researching the entry was that many sources just basically reported some of the rumors uncritically. One went so far as to straight up declare he fathered a child with his half-sister but didn't provide any actual support for the assertion.

Anonymous said...

I've also wondered about the incest charges, especially since it seems like the originator was the crazy, spurned lover Caroline Lamb... The source of rumors is always telling.

I'm actually featuring Ada Lovelace as a secondary character in my time travel novel. Fascinating woman!

J.A. Beard said...

Indeed, at some point I'd love to include her in a story, though I don't tend to write stories in that later period.