Byron's Women by Alexander Larman
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|Byron's Women by Alexander Larman|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: George Gordon, Lord Byron, is remembered not only as one of the great poets of the Romantic era but also as a byword for scandal. This new book, as the title suggests, is not a biography of him so much as of nine of the women unfortunate enough to become involved with him, including his mother, his abused wife, his half-sister with whom he slept as well, plus lovers and mistresses and his two daughters. It is a soundly researched, balanced and very readable account of the almost-Georgian soap opera, although it times it is hard work keeping abreast of all the poet's affairs.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: September 2016|
|Publisher: Head of Zeus|
|External links: Author's website|
George Gordon, who became the 6th Lord Byron at the age of ten in 1798 on the death of his grandfather, is remembered not only as one of the great poets of the Romantic era but also as somebody whose severe lack of moral compass was guaranteed to attract scandal wherever he laid his hat. This new book, as the title suggests, is not a biography of him, rather an account of his life and those of nine of the women who were unfortunate enough to become involved with him. They include his mother, his abused wife, his half-sister with whom he slept as well, plus lovers and mistresses and his two daughters. Larman admits that there could have been several more – actresses, servant women, in fact almost anyone. Maybe a synonym for the much-used adjective Byronic should be 'insatiable'.
The opening chapter begins with the words, It was always said that the Gordons walked with the devil, and this one evidently did as much as the worst of them. Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of the future Prime Minister Lord Melbourne and briefly one of his lovers, memorably called him 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. She was one of those to whom he was attracted for a while because of their wealth and status in society before he used them and then grew tired of them. Another was Annabella Milbanke, the heiress of a rich uncle and briefly his wife. Being bisexual and deeply in debt, he married her partly for her money and partly to try and restore his battered reputation in English society, but they were together for barely a year before she left him, unable to tolerate his cruelty and selfishness, taking her daughter, and began proceedings to annul their union. Because of the ensuing scandals as well as his ever-rising financial troubles he left England - and never returned alive. Thereafter he settled near Lake Geneva where he became friends with the fellow-poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's wife-to-be Mary, and Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont. Yes…there was a triangle of sorts going on, and once again, none of them lived happily ever after.
Byron's last lover, Teresa Guiccioli, was probably fortunate to know him right at the end of his life and therefore not be close to him too long before she had a chance to suffer like the others. Yet of all those who were closely involved with him, the only one who seems to have accepted him for what he was his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Her daughter Medora was probably born of their incestuous union. Having burnt the candle at both ends, it is not surprising to learn that fever took him off at the age of thirty-six.
It is evident that he treated women abominably, so much that Larman admits that he found it something of an ordeal to write a book about a man whom he loathed so much, had it not been for the fact that he had like so many others, been 'at least been half-seduced by Byron'. He is at pains not to come across as too judgemental of the man. Not that many of Byron's contemporaries led spotless lives, and some say that his own father, known as 'Mad Jack', was if anything even worse. Nevertheless, it is at times a rather wretched tale, and it is almost impossible to warm towards him.
The author has written a superbly-researched, well-balanced and very readable account of the convoluted story, akin to a Georgian soap opera, and resisting what must have been an overwhelming temptation to condemn the selfish and deeply unpleasant man too much. But it does become hard work keeping abreast of all the poet's dalliances and affairs. I for one was grateful for a full chronology of his life, times and misdemeanours, as well as the main events of the women involved as well, at the back.
For further reading on the age of Byron, we also recommend 1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo by Stephen Bates. For more about the life of a poet, we can recommend Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford.
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