"I have now been compared to Nero, Apicus, Heliogabalus, Epicurus, Caligula, Henry VIII and the Devil."
(Lord Byron)

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Cult of Lord Byron

The Byron cult was born, perhaps, on March 10th 1812, the morning when - as he later wrote - "I awoke and found myself famous". Back from his first trip to the Levant, Byron's poetic epic Childe Harold's Pilgrimage had just gone on sale, and its young writer was suddenly the rage of fashionable London.

So numerous were the carriages waiting to deliver invitations that they held up the traffic outside his rented apartments in St. James's Street. At soirees and society gatherings, everyone who was anyone wanted to meet the poet and traveller, who had added to his notoriety with a radical speech in the House of Lords, attacking the Government and supporting the Nottingham 'Frame Breakers'.

"The subject of conversation, of curiosity, of enthusiasm...of the moment is not Spain or Portugal, warriors or patriots, but Lord Byron", wrote the Duchess of Devonshire. For an aspiring author whose first, tentative attempt at publishing had been shot down in flames by the Edinburgh Review, lionisation must have been a heady experience - but perhaps also an unnerving one.

Lame, self-conscious, and sensitive to criticism, Byron had not been a particularly sociable child. (His friend Elizabeth Pigot recorded that when the teenage Byron was at their house in Southwell and girls came visiting, he would jump out of the drawing room window rather than stay to be introduced to them). Although flattered by the public adulation, he never seemed wholly at ease in it. "I only go out", he wrote in his journal, "to get me a fresh appetite for being alone".

Shy people can often feel liberated by adopting a mask, and perhaps Byron's defense was to become his own creation - Childe Harold. The Childe - like Byron (whose mother had boasted of descent from the Stuart kings of Scotland) was of a "lineage long", that "had been glorious in another day". Like Byron, he had left the "vast and venerable pile" of "his fathers' hall" for exotic adventures: "And from his native land resolved to go / And visit scorching climes beyond the sea.".

Byron had created the perfect Gothic hero, and with the encouragement of a delighted audience, proceeded to ham it up accordingly. He appeared at parties, as modern biographer, Frederick Raphael describes it, "dressed in black, hellishly pale and poetic, a metropolitan Hamlet who specialised, he soon gave notice, in country matters".

The enigmatic and cynical Childe - doomed by some dark but unspecified "crime" - stands aloof, regarding lesser mortals with a "writhing lip":

And none did love him: though to hall and bower
he gather'd revellers from far and near,
He knew them flatterers of the festal hour;
the heartless parasites of present cheer.

Byron, as Annabella Milbanke recorded in her journal, watched the performance of the new dance craze, the Waltz, with similarly ostentatious disdain: "His mouth continually betrays the acrimony of his spirit. I should judge him sincere and independent. Sincere at least in so far as he can be while dissimulating the violence of his scorn". Byron once confessed to copying his sneer from the villains in the novels of Gothic authoress Mrs. Radcliffe. Ladies were reputed to swoon at "the sort of underlook he used to give".!

Childe Harold - it is suggested - though jaded with "concubines and carnal company", might yet be saved by a pure woman. London beauties were soon queueing up for the opportunity to try some salvation on his creator. Lady Caroline Lamb declared "if he is as ugly as Aesop, I must see him", did so, and promptly decided "that beautiful, pale face is my fate".

From then on, Byron was never out of the limelight. First there was his stormy and public romance with Lady Caroline, followed by equally tempestuous scenes when he tried to end the relationship. His marriage, to the frostily correct Annabella Milbanke, provoked intense interest, but not half as much as the long-drawn out divorce proceedings after she left him.

What was the mysterious crime for which she could never forgive him? Speculation ranged from incest with his half sister Augusta through pederasty to attempted marital sodomy. Lady Byron refused to be specific, and gossip began to attribute to the poet the exotic crimes of his fictional characters, and monsters throughout history. "I have now been compared," wrote Byron wryly in 1816, "to Nero, Apicus, Heliogabalus, Epicurus, Caligula, Henry VIII and the Devil."

How much did he play up his "mad, bad" image, how much was real, and how much did a scandal-hungry public exaggerate or fabricate? As an undergraduate Byron had held light-hearted costume parties at Newstead, and quaffed burgundy from a monk's skull found in the Abbey grounds. A French biography informed its readers that Lord Byron had murdered one of his mistresses and drunk wine out of her skull. In Italy, he spent a lot of time at the Villa Diodati in the company of poet and free-love advocate Shelley, his young wife, her half-sister, and a doctor, John Polidori. Fascinated English tourists, whilst cutting the divorced poet in public, watched the villa through telescopes from the other side of the lake and circulated rumours about four-in-a-bed erotic adventures. On encountering Byron whilst visiting St. Peters in Rome, an English mama commanded her daughter to avert her eyes (lest she be instantly debauched by that celebrated underlook?)

Soon after Byron's death in Greece, three of his friends - John Hobhouse, Tom Moore and John Murray - met in Hobhouse's rooms in London. Byron had written his own account of his life in a series of memoirs, and entrusted it to Moore in 1819 at La Mira. Fearing that candid accounts of youthful sexual experiences might destroy a reputation suddenly redeemed by Byron's death in the "heroic struggle" for Greek independence, it was agreed that the memoirs should never be published. They burned them instead. A better way of sensationalising Byron's reputation and guaranteeing our eternal curiosity could hardly have been devised!

Image: Portrait of Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813 (National Portrait Gallery, London)