Don Juan by Lord Byron.
I suppose the title of this post could describe a number of the men I’ve known, but in this instance, it refers to one of the great romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries, George Gordon Noel, aka Lord Byron. I’m not a great fan of poetry but there is something about Byron that has always fascinated me and made me want to learn more about him.
Byron’s mother was his father’s second wife; his father already had a daughter from his first marriage. Dad fled England whilst Byron was still young and died in France at the age of 36. Byron grew up in Scotland, with his mother, but when he was aged 10, his great uncle died and he inherited the title Baron Byron of Rochdale, and he and his mother moved to Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, the ancestral home. However, it was in such need of repair that his mother couldn’t afford the upkeep, so she leased it to the 19th Baron Grey de Ruthyn. Byron and de Ruthyn became friends and when Byron was grown, they lived at the Abbey together for a number of years. Eventually, their friendship ended. The exact cause of the break down of their relationship is not known, but it is suspected that they had been lovers – Byron was eclectic in his sexual tastes.
Byron was born with a clubbed right foot, which was to be a contributory source of the discord between him and his mother – she would often make fun of his disability, and he in return would make fun of the fact that she was short and fat. Maybe it was just the usual mother : child bickering that happens, and has been elaborated over the years. Whatever, there is no doubt that they loved each other deeply. Byron’s mother was what I would call a funny woman – she seemed to waver between being very affectionate and having a fierce temper towards him. I think the poor child would never have known whether he was coming or going. I don’t think she was unique in this behaviour though.
In 1801 Byron went to Harrow Boys School. There is no doubt that he formed close relationships with other boys, probably sexual relationships. Certainly, by the time he attended Cambridge, he was having relationships with men as well as women. Risky behaviour at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and punishable by hanging.
During his school and college days, Byron started to write poetry, with his first book Fugitive Pieces being published. Almost immediately, it was recalled and burned, because some of the verses were a little racy, to say the least. More books were published, and one included some of the poems that had been in the original book.
Some of Byron’s work received such severe criticism that he retaliated in writing, and was, as a consequence, challenged to a duel by some of his critics! Eventually though, to be on the receiving end of Byron’s backlash became considered to be quite prestigious.
Like so many young noblemen of his day, Byron amassed a lot of debts, but, as was the norm, he still went on the Grand Tour. The Napoleonic Wars prevented him from going to a number of places in Europe, so he ended up travelling around the Med and went to Portugal, Albania, Spain, Gibraltar, Malta and Greece instead of the usual places.
He returned to England in July 1811, but did not make it home to his mother before she died. He was bereft. He said, “I had but one friend in the world and she is gone.”
Byron started to pick up the pieces of his life and took up his seat in the House of Lords again. He made his first speech February 1812, but it was the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in March that brought celebrity to Byron’s door. He was lauded by society and he began a series of affairs with a number of rich and famous ladies of the day, including Lady Caroline Lamb. Actually, to say a series of affairs is not strictly correct. Some he conducted concurrently although his relationship with Caro (as he dubbed Lady Caroline) lasted only a few months, it almost destroyed her in the process. It seems that these affairs did not completely satisfy Byron though, and he sought solace in marriage – he married Annabella Millbanke in January 1815. That wasn’t his best move ever. By the end of the year, his wife had given birth to a daughter and had left Byron. Byron was one of those men who enjoyed the chase, and once he’d caught the lady, he’d lose interest.
When Byron and his wife split up, he left England, never to return alive. He made his way to Switzerland, and made his home near to Lake Geneva, in the Villa Diodati. Byron’s personal physician, John William Polidori, travelled with him. Whilst in Switzerland, Byron became friendly with Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife, Mary Godwin. Mary’s sister, Claire Clairmont, with whom Bryon had already had an affair in London and who was already pregnant by him, was also there.
The weather that summer was not great. It rained almost incessantly for three days (and this was Switzerland, not England!). It was during these three days that the writers produced some of their best known works including the book that became Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Vampyre by John William Polidori. (Polidori is attributed with starting the whole Vampire trend.)
At the end of that summer, the Shelleys returned to England; Byron went to Italy. Unsurprisingly, he had a couple of affairs whilst in Italy; and, of course they were true love. (They probably were at the time, for him.) By 1818, he had sold Newstead Abbey, which paid most of his debts and provided him with a means of financial support but he was still restless and dissatisfied. When Shelley and other old friends visited him again, they reported back that he had put on weight, his hair was greying, and he looked older than his years.
Byron started to write Don Juan and, by chance, met Countess Teresa Guicciolo, eleven years his junior. She was already married to a man almost three times her age, although the fact that she was married didn’t seem to bother either her or Byron. Byron fell head over heels in love with her. The two of them spent the next four years together, he following her around as her servant in public and her lover in private.
Byron and Teresa’s father had a good relationship, as he did with her brothers, and they introduced him into the secret society, the Carbonari, which essentially had the aim of establishing a unified Italy.
Claire, the mother of Byron’s daughter Allegra, had sent her to live with Byron in 1818, when the child was about 18 months old, poor little dot. He agreed to take her on the understanding that her mother had limited contact with her. Allegra, or Alba as she was known, bore a remarkable resemblance to her father, both physically and in her temperament, which pleased Byron, presumably because the child didn’t remind him of her mother. When he and Teresa’s family were forced to move to Pisa (where Percy Shelley had rented somewhere for him to live) he left his daughter behind, in a convent, where she was supposed to be educated. Although he had made provision for her in her adult life, it was a non-issue: she died a year later at the age of five. It’s not absolutely clear what caused her death – it’s been described as typhus, or a recurrence of malarial type fevers from which she had suffered six months earlier. Whatever the cause, it didn’t stop the poor child’s mother from accusing Byron of murdering her.
In July 1822, a little after the death of Allegra, Shelley died in a boating accident, which must have been a blow to Byron, and it wasn’t long before he moved to Genoa, although Mary Shelley and her household also moved at around the same time. It wasn’t long before Byron started to get restless again. There’s a pattern emerging here, he doesn’t seem to have been the kind of man who could stay satisfied with domestic bliss for long, so it was probably fortuitous when he was contacted by the London Greek Committee in April 1823. They wanted him to act for them in the Greek war of independence from Turkey. Naturally, in the circumstances, Byron agreed, and he left Italy to arrive in Cephalonia in August 1823. He personally funded the Greek navy to the tune of £4,000, which is in the region of £168,000 in today’s money.
In February 1824, Byron became ill, having had some sort of fits, it’s not clear whether they were epileptic or something else. Of course, in those days, doctors thought the best remedy was to bleed their patients, ie either to literally cut the patient and allow (or force) the blood out of their bodies, or to use leeches to have a similar effect, which, as we now know, is just about the worst thing you can do to a sick patient. Byron made a recovery of sorts, but he was still weak in the spring, during which time it rained a lot. He was caught in a rainstorm, soaked to the skin and caught a severe cold. Again, the doctors bled him. Byron went into a coma and died on 19 April 1824.
Understandably, he became a national hero in Greece. His body was embalmed and his heart removed and sent to Missolonghi, in Western Greece, a town which had been significant in the war for independence. The rest of his body was returned to England and buried near Newstead as his burial at Westminster Abbey was refused. In 1969, a memorial to him was placed on the floor of the Abbey, in Poets’ Corner.
© Susan Shirley 2015