Skip to main content

"Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know"

Lord Byron, painted by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845)
(Wikimedia Commons)


The Regency produced a lot of fascinating, unconventional characters and outstanding among them has to be George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” is how Lady Caroline Lamb famously described the celebrated poet in her diary after meeting him for the first time at a ball. And it was a pretty apt description of him, especially during the years he was lionized by London society.

When Caroline Lamb met Byron in 1812 he was enjoying his fame as a leading poetic voice of the Romantic Movement. It wasn't just his poems that were deemed romantic; he was also notorious for his many love affairs, especially with married women. 

His bad-boy reputation only enhanced his attraction to the opposite sex. In fact, Caroline Lamb’s assessment of Byron’s character didn't stop her from embarking on a passionate affair with him. It was punctuated with violent displays of affection, outrageous behavior and brazen infidelity, all pretty much on her part. She also may well have been the first celebrity stalker, becoming obsessed with him and refusing to leave him alone when he was no longer interested in her.

Lady Caroline Lamb
(Wikimedia Commons)


For Byron, life imitated art. He was the original Byronic hero, which is also the name of a literary device he’s credited with creating in his poems. The Byronic hero, as epitomized by Byron himself, is usually a sexy, melancholy non-conformist with great talent and passion, and irresistible flaws. He may be tall, dark and handsome, and exude a cynical, world-weary air.

The Byronic hero has an enduring appeal, and can be seen even today in many books and movies. Edward Cullen of Twilight fame is a modern example.  

Edward Cullen, as portrayed by actor Robert Pattinson
(Wikimedia Commons)


But there was more to Byron than angst-ridden heroes, love affairs and poetry. Here are some additional facts about his life:

Birth. He was born George Gordon Byron on January 22, 1788, the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, a brutal, profligate man who married his two wives for their fortunes. “Mad Jack” died when Byron was three years old, and Byron inherited the title at age 10 when his uncle died childless and passed on the barony to his nephew. Byron’s full title was 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale.

An athlete despite his limp. Born with a club foot, Byron walked with a limp all his life. However, his deformity only enhanced his brooding appeal. And his birth defect didn't prevent him from enjoying outdoor sports. He was an excellent swimmer, and in 1810 he swam across the Hellespont strait (also called the Dardanelles) from Europe to Asia, which is a stretch of about 4 KM, or 2.4 miles. This was the first recorded account of such an open water swim, and Byron’s feat may well have marked the birth of this sport. 

Love of animals. Byron may have been a famous lover, but it wasn't just women who excited his ardor. He also loved all animals, especially his dog, a Newfoundland named Boatswain. When Boatswain contracted rabies Byron cared for him tenderly with no fear for his own health or safety. When the dog died Byron had a large monument erected for him, despite the fact that the dog’s tomb was costly and Byron was deep in debt. In fact, for well over a century Bryon’s dog had a bigger memorial in England than Byron had himself.

A Newfoundland dog, like Byron's beloved Boatswain
(Wikimedia Commons)


His many loves. Byron achieved great literary success, and the favor of the Prince Regent, in his twenties. He was also catnip to women, and had many affairs to prove it. In addition to Lady Caroline Lamb he also was rumored to have conceived a child with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein and was wife to his friend, another Romantic poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein - another Byronic hero?
(Wikimedia Commons)


His famous daughter. Byron got caught in the parson's mousetrap (a Regency euphemism for marriage) in 1815 when he wed Annabella Millbanke. They had a daughter the same year, Augusta Ada. Ada married an earl later in life and became Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, though she went by Ada Lovelace. Ada was an amazing woman in her own right. Despite the era she lived in, which didn't exactly encourage women to become accomplished in the fields of science and mathematics, she became a renowned mathematician. She is best known for her contribution to the Analytical Engine, a prototype mechanical computer developed by Charles Babbage.

Ada Lovelace, by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840
(Wikimedia Commons)


The scandal that brought him down. Scandal finally caught up with Byron in 1816, when his liaison with his half-sister Augusta became public and shocked even jaded London society. His relationship with his sister was described as incestuous by some and innocent by others, but in either case it was enough to earn him widespread censure. Byron and his sister were even rumored to have had a child together. Byron fled England permanently in that year, never to return. He later wrote that he left the country because "I was unfit for England" and "England was unfit for me."

Byron the freedom fighter. But Byron’s life had a second act after he left England – that of an Albanian freedom fighter. This part of his life didn't last long. He died in Greece in 1824 at age 36, due to complications resulting from injuries he sustained fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence. 

Byron is revered as a hero in Greece, but he didn't get a memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner until 1969, 145 years after his death. Westminster Abbey turned down three previous requests for a Byron memorial within its hallowed walls – two in the 19th century, and one in 1924. The fact that it took 145 years to get the Abbey’s approval is proof that old scandals die hard. 

"Lord Byron in Albanian Dress" by Thomas Phillips
(Wikimedia Commons)


His poetry. Byron achieved lasting fame as a poet for works such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Corsair and Don Juan. My favorite poem of his, however, is none of these epics but instead a shorter, simpler lyric called She Walks in Beauty:

She walks in beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
   Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
   Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
   How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
   So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
   But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,

   A heart whose love is innocent!

Comments

  1. Maureen,

    I love this story! Lord Byron certainly was handsome. I can see why the ladies were interested in him. How sad to have died so young! His poetry is indeed very beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

    - Momma Cat

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post--so interesting! I love all the scandal--don't you? :-) xo Jennifer

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Cato Street Conspiracy

Conspiracy and treason go hand in hand. Throughout history, conspirators have huddled in back rooms and dark corners in secret, concocting schemes that are both dangerous and illegal. So it’s no surprise that their plans often spiral out of control and end in disaster. 
A good example of a conspiracy plot gone wrong happened during the Regency. It’s been dubbed the Cato Street Conspiracy because of where the conspirators were caught. This is a tale that, according to historian J.B. Priestley (author of The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency) “begins in absurdity and ends in horror.”
The year was 1820. Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, Britain had paid a heavy price for its victory against the French. The costs of the war had strained the country’s economy. The working classes were hit hard by periods of famine, rising food prices due to the Corn Laws, and high unemployment, the latter driven by soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe and looking for work. And of course, t…

The end of the Holy Roman Empire, or what happens when the Empire doesn't strike back

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper
T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806. That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it. By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him) were fatal blows. Throughout its thousand-year history, the Empire e…

Macaroni Men and Yankee Doodles

November is a month that here in the United States is defined by food, culminating in a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. It's also the month we honor our military veterans. So I'm going to focus on both food and patriotism - especially an Italian pasta product that became synonymous with a controversial English fashion and developed uniquely American associations.
During the 18th century, it was all the rage for young men of the English nobility to take a trip through Europe to soak up its art and culture. It was called the Grand Tour.
In Italy, these privileged lads discovered a pasta dish far removed from their usual British fare. It was called maccaroni, and they raved about it when they got back home. The travelers became known as the Macaroni Club, though there is no evidence an actual club ever existed.
But it wasn't their love of pasta recipes that made the club members distinctive. Along with foreign food, these young aristocrats adopted a style of dress and behavior that…