This biography reinterprets the great man's life and poetry. MacCarthy casts a fresh eye on Byron's childhood in Scotland, his embattled relations with his mother and his series of relationships with adolescent boys.
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Fiona MacCarthy was the Royal Society of Arts Bicentenary Medallist for 1986. She is an honorary fellow both of the Royal College of Art and of the Nineteenth Century Studies Centre at the University of Sheffield. Her controversial life of Eric Gill, published in 1989, established her immediately as an authoritative, serious yet eminently readable biographer, and her William Morris won the Wolfson History Prize and the Writers' Guild Non-fiction Award for 1995.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
One of the sights of Europe in 1816 was the lurching progress of the self-exiled Lord Byron as he travelled from Brussels to Geneva and on to Italy in his monumental black Napoleonic carriage. This purpose-built coach, a de luxe version of the Emperor Napoleon's own celebrated carriage captured at Genappe, included not only Byron's lit de repos but his travelling library, his plate-chest and facilities for dining. Drawn by four or six horses, it was nothing less than a small palatial residence on wheels. The hill from Baxter the coach-maker amounted to £500. Poor Baxter was still pressing for payment in 1823, a claim dismissed airily by Byron with the words, 'Baxter must wait -- at least a year.' Presumably the bill was still unsettled when Byron died in Greece in April 1824. The long shadow of Napoleon loomed over Byron's life, an inspiration and an irritant. Byron, born in 1788, the year before the outbreak of the French Revolution, was conscious of living at an unprecedented period: as he put it, 'we live in gigantic and exaggerated times, which make all under Gog and Magog appear pigwean.' The apparition of Napoleon, almost twenty years his senior, was the spur to Byron's own ambition, his dissidence, the glamour of his arrogance, the sense of sweeping history that permeates his writing. Napoleon's flamboyance, his stamina, his dress, his stance, the assiduity with which he preened his image, nurtured Byron's own creative strain of mockery. As he told his friend Lady Blessington, 'with me there is, as Napoleon said, but one step between the sublime and the ridiculous.'
Byron was bound to Napoleon by ties as strong, or even stronger, than those of any of his sexual liaisons. He found fault with Napoleon, so the sharp-eyed Lady Blessington observed, only 'as a lover does with the trifling faults of his mistress'. His emotional involvement was already strong at Harrow in 1803 when the fierce schoolboy defended his bust of Napoleon, by then the official enemy of England, against the 'rascally time-servers' among his contemporaries. A few years later he had acquired a fine impression of Morghen's engraved portrait of Napoleon, which he sent to be framed resplendently in gilt.
His personal identification with the Emperor was such that Napoleon's defeats brought on a physical reaction. After Leipzig in 1813 Byron was prostrate with despair and indigestion, groaning in his journal: 'Oh my head! -- how it aches! -- the horrors of digestion! I wonder how Buonaparte's dinner agrees with him? 'In the following year, after Napoleon's abdication and exile to Elba, Byron recorded: 'To-day I have boxed one hour -- written an ode to Napoleon Buonaparte -- copied it -- eaten six biscuits -- drunk four bottles of soda water -- redde away the rest of my time.' That ode was both lament and reproach, for Byron could not approve the abject self-surrender of the hero who should rightly have died on his own sword like a defeated Roman or expired as defianty as Shakespeare's Macbeth or Richard III. But Napoleon still dazzled him, in spite of the anguish of his disillusionment. For Byron, Napoleon was a kind of second nature, part of his thought processes, peculiarly embedded in the detail of his life.
After Napoleon's final demise Byron accumulated keepsakes: a lock of his hair, snuffboxes with his portrait, gold coins with the depiction of the Emperor that was. There was also the Napoleon cameo pin Byron gave to Lady Blessington in Genoa, removing it with a flourish from his breast, but reclaiming it the next day with the dubious excuse that 'memorials with a point' would bring bad luck. Before he left England in 1816, at the time of the separation scandal, Byron had reserved Napoleon's coronation robes, by then in the hands of a Piccadilly dealer, but never actually claimed them. He did, however, write a fond farewell letter to Mercer Elphinstone, shortly before he sailed, on writing paper pillaged from the imperial bureau at Malmaison and stamped with the Napoleonic eagle: he enclosed a few spare sheets as a parting present. Byron was apparently ecstatic when the death of his mother-in-law Lady Noel allowed him to sign himself NB 'because' (he told Leigh Hunt, admittedly a malicious witness) 'Bonaparte and I are the only public persons whose initials are the same'.
Byron's wanderings through Italy, from 1816 to 1823, were permeated with memories of Napoleon. He noted, near Milan, the remains of an unfinished triumphal arch, intended for Napoleon, 'so beautiful as to make one regret its non-completion', and on Isola Bella he discovered the large laurel tree on which Napoleon had carved out with his knife the word 'Battaglia' shortly before the battle of Marengo. Byron, himself no mean defacer of trees, had scrutinised the letters closely, by this time 'half worn out and partly erased'. In the context of Italy, Napoleon seemed to Byron more than ever a Vesuvius, a powerful eruptive force whose final overthrow had let in the political light-weights throughout Europe: 'Since that period, we have been the slaves of fools.' There is no doubt that he saw his own incursions into European politics, first as a partisan of the Italian Risorgimento and then in the Greek War of Independence, with whatever undertones of irony, in quasi-Napoleonic terms.
Copyright © 2002 Fiona MacCarthy
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