George "Don Juan" Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Byron (no one ever called him George) was born on 22 January 1788, in London. His parents, Catherine Gordon Byron (of the old and violent line of Scottish Gordons) and John Byron, had been hiding in France from their creditors, but Catherine wanted their child born in England, so he was1. John stayed in France, living in his sister's house, and died in 1791, possibly a suicide2. Catherine took her son to Scotland, where a deformity of his foot soon became evident. Special boots were made and treatments devised, but Byron limped all of hs life. He lived through his reading, being especially fond of Roman history, and dreamed of leading regiments of brave soldiers.

When the Wicked Lord died, Byron became, at the tender age of ten, the sixth Lord Byron. Newstead, the ancestral home in England, was an absolute wreck3, so Byron's mother moved them to nearby Nottingham. They were very poor. The Byron estate was mostly tied up in lawsuits, but Mrs. Byron finally got her son a decent income. He was sent to Dr. Glennie's Academy at Dulwich and then to Harrow, where he was, of course, mercilessly taunted by the other boys4. He went back to Newstead for his Christmas holidays (it had been rented to a Lord Ruthyn and was now at least habitable) and fell in love with a neighbor (and cousin5) named Mary Ann Chaworth. So infatuated was he that he refused to return to Harrow after the holidays ended, and it took a huge fight with Lord Ruthyn to finally get him to go back.

After his love Mary Ann married another in 1805, Byron became a very wild sort of person. He enrolled in Cambridge, but did no work, since that was the fashion of the time. He wrote lots of verses, and spent lots of money6. He inevitably spent beyond his income of £500 a year and had to get a relative's signature to obtain a loan, as he was still only seventeen. He turned to his half-sister, Augusta Byron Leigh, child of Mad Jack's first marriage. Augusta's husband was a big spender too, so she understood and signed7.

While staying at his mother's (something Byron did only when absolutely unavoidable), a neighbor of Mrs. Byron's encouraged Byron to publish his poems. In 1806, the book Fugitive Pieces appeared. Byron sent copies to two of his friends, one of whom wrote back to say that he thought the poem To Mary was far too shocking to be read by the general public. Byron took this opinion very seriously, and ordered every copy of the volume burnt8. The book was republished (minus the offending poem) in March 1806 as Hours of Idleness. It sold well, but reviews were mixed, and Byron answered his detractors with the very successful satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers9.

In June 1809, Byron and his friends John Cam Hobhouse and William Fletcher set off on a European tour which ended up as a tour of the Middle East. They eventually found themselves in Albania, where Byron was very well received by Ali, the Pacha of Yanina, a ruler renowned for his cruelty10. Byron admired him for having the power and courage to stand outside normal society. It was around this time that Byron began work on Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which he would work on off and on for the next eight years. In Greece, he amused himself by swimming the Hellespont, as in Hero and Leander, a distance of somewhere around three miles11.

Eventually, he returned to England, but England turned out to be a very sad place for him. His mother died of a stroke before he was able to see her again; one of his best friends drowned; and his sister Augusta's marriage was almost completely wrecked. He wrote no poetry for a long time. But, at the insistence of a friend, the first two Cantos of Childe Harold were published in February 1812, and Byron became an overnight sensation. Women everywhere were throwing themselves at him, in some cases almost literally. Lady Caroline Lamb was the most noted and determined of these women. Byron got tired of her very soon after their affair started12, and in fact, soon expressed a desire to marry Caroline's cousin, Annabella Milbanke13. She turned him down and Byron consoled himself with a quick affair with Lady Oxford.

All right, now we come to the strange part. In 1813, Augusta came to visit her brother as a way of escaping her financial and personal problems, and I'm afraid there's little doubt that she and Byron had an affair at this time14. In 1814, though, Byron was right back proposing to Annabella, and this time she gave in. They were married on 2 January 1815. On 10 December 1815, Annabella gave birth to a girl, named Augusta Ada. In February 1816, Annabella asked for a formal separation, which Byron, somewhat in shock, agreed to15. London society, doubtful before, made up its mind and Byron was thoroughly snubbed everywhere he went. So in April, Hobhouse, Fletcher, and Byron set out for Europe once again, this time with Dr. John Polidori16 also along. In May, the group met Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley), who were shocking everyone by living in sin. They were travelling with Mary's stepsister, Clare Clairmont, who immediately threw herself at the bored and embarrassed Byron17.

Shelley and Byron hit it off extremely well. They travelled everywhere together, finally ending up in Italy, and Byron decided that this was the place for him18. While there, he finished up Childe Harold, wrote Manfred, and started on Don Juan, though his health was poor19.

Byron took Teresa, Countess Guicioli, as his mistress in 1819, and it was quite the scandal. Not just because the lady was married - Italian women were expected to have lovers - but because Byron often lived under the same roof with both Teresa and her rich old husband. He got involved with local politics in 1820, joining the Italian freedom fighters working for democracy20, though nothing really effective ever came of his plans. In 1822, Shelley drowned when his boat capsized, and the little group of English expatriates came apart. The following year, Byron became involved in the Greek fight for independence from Turkey. (Ironically, Ali Pasha, whom Byron had so admired, had been one of the Turkish oppressors of Greece.) Byron sailed for Greece at great risk and expense, even though he was convinced he was sailing towards his own death21. He joined forces with a Greek prince named Mavrocordato and financed a navy for the freedom fighters. Byron found himself reluctantly in command of everything, as the Greeks tended to fight amongst themselves too much.

In February of 1824, he had an epileptic seizure. Two months later, he was caught in a sudden storm while horseback riding, and he caught a chill from which he never recovered. He died on 19 April 1824, having suffered extreme delirium for many days. He was never able to read the letters of praise which had arrived from England a few days before, so he never knew that his native country had forgiven (or at least forgotten) his indiscretions.

Maurois, André. Byron. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1964.

  1. She was a determined and frightening woman. It was in her genes. A good half of her relatives had been hanged for one miscalulation or another.

  2. John had wiped out his wife's fortune in record time. His ancestors were as bad as his wife's: John's father, the fifth Lord Byron, had killed his cousin in a duel and was well known as the "Wicked Lord." John (George's father), or "Mad Jack," died at age 36.

  3. The Wicked Lord (George's grandfather) hated his sons, so he set about ruining Newstead so his sons would have no proper estate. He used to let swarms of crickets run rampant through the house.

  4. After all, he was small for his age, pale, and limped rather badly. What chance did he have?

  5. The Byrons, like other noble families of the time, had a long tradition of marrying their cousins.

  6. He had a mistress to buy things for. He used to dress her in mens' clothes and call her his brother... (no comment.)

  7. I'm afraid Augusta was a flake. She called Byron "Baby" while he called her "Goose."

  8. This order was obeyed by everyone except the man who complained. Well, the other friend didn't burn his copy, either, but then he was in Edinburgh and probably unaware of all the fuss.

  9. Around this time, Byron and some of his school friends were staying in a former monastery, and they'd developed a habit (sorry) of dressing up as monks and drinking toasts from a monk's skull which they'd accidentally dug up. I know that doesn't have anything to do with English Bards, but I had to mention it someplace.

  10. He once threw five women into a lake and watched them drown because they'd annoyed his daughter-in-law.

  11. He was terribly proud of himself.

  12. Later in his life, Byron would refer to women who had become ridiculously overaffectionate as "Carolinish."

  13. He couldn't help it; Annabella was one of the few women who wasn't pursuing him, and he found that irresistable.

  14. There's quite a bit of evidence in letters and such, but of course the very best evidence is their daughter, Elizabeth Medora.

  15. They were entirely unsuited for each other, but Byron never really noticed that.

  16. This was the same Dr. Polidori who was staying with the Shelleys when Mary wrote Frankenstein. He'd had a few stories published himself and he was insufferably proud of that. He read passages from his works aloud to Byron and company, until the company finally told him to go away.

  17. This wasn't quite as sudden as it sounds. Clare had stalked Byron in London for several weeks before his departure and they'd slept together at least once. Still, he was apparently pretty upset to find her on his side of the English Channel.

  18. He could live very comfortably on his income, he was respected because he was an English Lord, and there were all kinds of beautiful women to seduce.

  19. Around this time he wrote one of my favorite lyric poems, "So We'll Go No More A-Roving," a classic sort of ennui thing showing just how old he felt. He listed his age as "100" once when checking into a hotel in Europe.

  20. Byron used the Count's home as an ammo dump. The Count was not pleased.

  21. As prophesied by a fortune-teller consulted by his mother when he was a child. The fortune-teller had said that his 37th year would be very dangerous, and he had just started his 37th year.

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