Byron and his women: Mad, bad and very dangerous to know

by Alexander Larman
In the (mercifully) final season of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham, played with wooden heartiness by Hugh Bonneville, is convalescing after a spectacular moment of bloody vomiting. To aid him in his recuperation, he is shown leafing through a volume of Byron’s poetry. There is a jocular exchange in which Byron is said to have been ‘a great lover of wine’, and then an indulgent chuckle before it is announced ‘and women too’. This has for centuries been the accepted public face of Byron, that of a man who loved – ‘not wisely, but too well’. He loved liberty, life and literature, and made himself one of the most talked-about men of letters who ever lived.

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage


 
The adjective ‘Byronic’ has entered the language in a way that the names of few other writers have, and is generally bestowed as a mark of approval. Many men, and not a few women, would regard being described thus as a badge of honour; it seems to convey dash and panache, coupled with a liberal political stance and peerless artistic achievement. The less savoury and more unfortunate aspects of Byron’s character – the often callous treatment towards his lovers; the violence of his mercurial temper; an attitude towards friends that alternated between reckless generosity and equally reckless dismissal – have not been ignored, but have become part of the Byronic myth. It is time to delve beneath the surface of the myth, and be prepared for what we may find there.
 
The greatest falsehood propagated about Byron is that he loved women. On the contrary, his attitude towards those in his life was mainly a mixture of contempt, violence and lordly dismissal. In addition to the innumerable chambermaids, maidservants and acolytes who were, in Byron’s own words, ‘tooled in a post-chaise- in a hackney coach – in a gondola – against a wall – in a court carriage- in a vis a vis — on a table — and under it’, he had a series of mutually destructive relationships with a variety of women. Some of them, such as Lady Caroline Lamb and Annabella Milbanke, he was initially drawn to because of their status and wealth but soon grew tired of. Others, including his most tragic mistress Claire Clairmont and his mother Catherine Gordon, were treated with disdain and even anger. The two exceptions were his final lover, Teresa Guiccioli, who at least received a small measure of compassion; and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, who weathered the slings and arrows of a scandalous and incestuous affair with a dignity and good humour that makes one wonder why she has been regarded by posterity as little more than a brainless dupe.
 
The answer, unfortunately, is a lazy misogyny that has permeated the Byron establishment for decades. In a hurry to put their beloved lordly poet on a pedestal, scholars, critics and general readers alike have been all too keen to overlook the obvious faults that he had as a man. When I decided to write an ‘anti-biography’ of sorts, it seemed obvious to examine his life through the prism of his relationships. I was not prepared at first for how distressing this would be, nor how revealing. Using as much of his lovers’ and friends’ correspondence as I could, I set out to paint a picture of those who were so much more than mere satellites orbiting an aloof star. I was equally keen for the voices of those around him to be heard, whether the precise, cold decisiveness of Annabella, the worried but fiercely loyal bustling of Catherine, the warm affection of Augusta and even the bewildered tenacity of his presumed illegitimate daughter Medora Leigh, product of incest and deceit.
Byron women
What is plain to see in the people I spent so much time with is how extraordinarily independent-minded and tough they all were. Catherine, abandoned by her feckless and debt-ridden husband, doggedly brought up her son to be worthy of the title that he inherited; Caroline took revenge on Byron by publishing a roman-à-clef that was nearly as scandalous as anything that her lordly lover ever wrote; the unlikely trio of Mary Shelley, Claire and Shelley travelled through Italy and Switzerland as free agents, casting off the shackles of respectability that they were expected to wear in favour of intellectual and sexual emancipation; and his daughter Ada Lovelace played a pioneering role in the development of computing science.
 
All nine of ‘Byron’s women’ in my book are a remarkable reminder, decades before universal suffrage and the concept of ‘women’s rights’, that intelligent and forthright women could and did expect to live lives considerably richer than merely serving as wives and dutiful producers of children at regular intervals. These lives might often have been difficult, or unconventional, or short, but they were seldom boring.
 
And what of ‘the Manager’ himself, as Annabella and Augusta nicknamed Byron? At times, as I wrote about his grotesque cruelty towards Annabella and Claire, I found myself loathing him so much that it was almost an ordeal to continue to chart his misdeeds. Yet I must confess that I have, like so many others, been at least been half-seduced by Byron. Like the women he associated with, he was a pioneer in thought and deed. Of all the Romantic poets, it is his writing that speaks most clearly to us today, as his hatred of ‘the cant’ will find a warm reception with readers who have themselves long since wearied of being told what they should think and feel. His personal legacy is undeniably a tarnished one, and many readers may have some sympathy with the manner in which Annabella attempted, without success, to bring up her daughter in ignorance of what her father represented. But there can be little doubt that Ada’s fierce protectiveness of him should find an echo in all but the most dogmatic of hearts. Unlike the Roman, I have come here neither to praise him, nor to bury him.
 
Nonetheless, as I consider, with some reluctance, the relationship between Byron, his romantic relationships and Downton Abbey, it is appropriate to remember the words of the Dowager Countess from an earlier episode: ‘The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron. And I presume we all know how that ended.’
 
Alexander Larman is the author of Byron’s Women, published in September 2016. He is a writer and biographer whose books include Blazing Star (2014), a life of Byron’s predecessor the Earl of Rochester and Restoration (2016), a social history of the year 1666. He writes Alex Larmanabout literature and culture for publications including the TLS, Observer, Times and Telegraph, and lives in Sussex with his wife Nancy and daughter Rose.