by Benita Eisler
Review by Cathleen Myers
This is first new biography in a long time of the Romantic period’s most gifted rake poet. It is also the first recent bio which actually focuses as much on Lord Byron’s poetry as on his extremely complex sex life. But Regency scandal lovers won’t be disappointed, either. There’s lots of juicy new material on Byron’s scandalous private life, including his affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, his involvement with the fashionable homosexual underworld of Gentleman Jack’s Boxing Salon, his impossibly gorgeous last mistress Countess Guiccioli, and his much-maligned intellectual wife Annabella – who may have been the great love of his life. Ms. Eisler gives one of the most balanced portraits of the disastrous Byron marriage and – unlike most of Byron’s admirers – gives Lady Byron credit for trying her best to save the marriage. It has been fashionable for well over a century to dislike Byron’s wife; Eisler shows us the first-rate qualities that made him fall in love with her in the first place.
Eisler’s bio is that rarity: a well-documented, well-researched biography that is also a great read. It’s not, strictly speaking, a literary biography, but Eisler certainly reveals an excellent understanding and appreciation of Byron’s huge body of poetic works. Her weakness as a biographer is a lack of knowledge of English Regency Society. She does not, for example, recognize the term "round game" as a card game and assumes the teenage Byron’s unwillingness to take part in one was due to his self-consciousness about his lameness. (In reality, like many shy, intelligent young people, he may have simply found round games boring). She mentions at one point that Byron was a pupil of Scots dance master Francis Peacock, whose athletic descriptions of Scottish country dancing are one of our principal sources for modern recreation of the dances. But she does not even speculate on how Peacock was able to work with the club-footed young lord. She assumes that Byron was learning stately courtly dances but, in reality, the fashionable social dances of the day, both English and Scots, were extremely aerobic exercises.
While Eisler’s research on the Regency homosexual underground is excellent, she doesn’t seem fully aware of the very real power and virtual immunity enjoyed by the British peerage during the first part of the 19th century. Yes, it’s important to remind the reader of the very real dangers of being openly gay during the Regency. Yes, homosexual behavior was illegal; yes, sodomy was a capital crime; but neither the government nor the newly organized Bow Street Runners were interested in interfering with the private lives of the British Peerage. It wasn’t the law Byron was afraid of; it was the potential scandal.
Still, this is a splendidly readable biography that does full justice to Byron’s genius, nobility and generosity without losing sight of the less heroic qualities that made even his most devoted friends and lovers despair of him! And, as mentioned, Eisler has lots of new source material here, including previously unpublished letters. She also reminds us of the one of the great literary crimes of all times: The publisher Murray’s burning of the manuscript of Byron’s Memoirs.
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