Byron

BYRON: CHILD OF PASSION, FOOL OF FAME
By Benita Eisler

As a legitimate contender for the title of first modern celebrity, George Gordon, Lord Byron has always been experienced as a seductive blend of life and art. I’m not a huge fan of either, but I did find this new biography by Benita Eisler to be a solid and engaging piece of work. Whether it is really necessary (there was another Byron bio published just last year), or had to be so long (Frederic Raphael covered the same ground in a punchy 200 pages), are questions that still need to be asked.

In addition to all of the standard pitfalls of biography, there are several dangers that are particular to Byron. The first of these has to do with Byron as case study. All modern biographers like to play at being psychoanalysts, and Eisler is no exception to the rule.

A good example of the kind of thing I’m talking about can be seen in her analysis of Byron’s attitude toward Lord Elgin, the man who became famous for plundering Greece of its marbles. Exactly why Elgin’s “dastardly devastation” roused Byron to such a pitch of “malice and hysteria” isn’t clear. The open door of unexplained motivation leads us into the Freudian guessing game. Eisler suggests that Elgin, as ambassador to the Ottoman court, somehow “represented hated patriarchal authority” (always lots of that to go around). Also, as a Scot, he personified the “maternal adversary” (Byron’s mother was Scottish), “bearing the genes Byron repudiated – if somewhat ambivalently – within himself.” You have to wonder how much of this the author expects us to take seriously.

In addition to putting the bard on the couch, there is also a danger the Byron biography will turn into a combination of sexual scorecard and travel itinerary. The two items may even merge, as when Byron’s Grand Tour hit the Levant, a pilgrimage that was planned as the 19th century equivalent of Third World sex tourism. Clearly, in some cases it’s not a great disappointment that the memoirs were burned.

A more subtle risk, and one not avoided here, is for the biographer to fall prey, even at this distance, to Byron’s notorious charm. Writing under the influence, the author errs on the side of generosity, focusing on the great man’s “suffering” while minimizing his culpability and recasting behaviour that was simply degenerate as Romantic rebellion.

A complete biography of Byron has to enter into the moral issues involved in his conduct to a greater degree. One can locate excuses for Byron’s life almost anywhere – heredity, deformity, a confusing childhood – but the fact remains that the man was despicable.

He was not, as his friend Shelley observed, a revolutionary so much as a libertine. Selfishness and irresponsibility may be taken as par for the course for most artists, but to these failings Byron added a record as a negligent father, an abusive husband, and a thoroughgoing pedophile. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” glossed over a laundry list of sins.

None of this, of course, makes for a bad book – indeed, some would say quite the opposite. Even if you don’t care for Byron or his poetry you can still enjoy the story of his life. And readers will find much here to enjoy. Child of Passion, Fool of Fame is both very thorough and quite readable.

It is also, however, entirely unnecessary. I’m unaware of any important new material Eisler is adding to the record. In addition, her claim that “no 20th century biographer has troubled to examine (Byron’s) art” is incredible, and seems out of place in a book that doesn’t go in for a lot of textual analysis. More modesty would have been in order. Eisler’s work is strong enough to stand on its own without making such exceptional claims for itself.

Notes:
Review first published July 17, 1999.

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