Agonies of Intrigue

Lord Byron was the most fascinating literary figure of the 19th century.  Fiona MacCarthy’s solid and competent biography covers the ground in great detail (the deformed foot, the scandalous exile, the endless wandering, the early death in Greece) but fails to engage our interest or do justice to its subject.  Desperately straining to say something new about Byron’s all-too-familiar life in the wake of the recent and equally hostile biographies by Phyllis Grosskurth (1997) and Benita Eisler (1999), MacCarthy emphasizes two unconvincing themes: his identification with Napoleon and his love for adolescent boys.

She ignores the fact that, in the stanzas on Spain in the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), Byron calls Napoleon a “bloated Chief,” “Gaul’s Vulture” and “the Scourger of the world.”  Seven years later, when asked who he thought was the greatest living man, Byron mentioned the pugilist John Jackson and the South American liberator Simón Bolívar.  Constantly “in the estrum & agonies of a new intrigue,” Byron took women as his aristocratic right and had 200 conquests during his 20 months in Venice.  He married, slept with his half-sister, and had significant liaisons with the demented Lady Caroline Lamb, the voluptuous Lady Oxford, and the bold Countess Teresa Guiccioli.  MacCarthy argues,...

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