George Gordon Noel Byron, better known to literature as Lord Byron, has always presented a problem for me. On the one hand, he is the writer of some of the most magnificent poetry and wry comic verse in the English language, and a champion of social reform and political liberty. On the other hand, he was a braggart and a libertine, and may have been a rapist, abuser, and harasser as well – hardly the sort of person that I’d care to admire.
My ambiguity is not helped by the fact that Byron’s biographers tend to believe whatever they want. At one extreme are those who believe that Byron committed incest with his half-sister, raped his wife, and was guilty of all the other crimes heaped upon his name. This outlook is supported by numerous vague yet suggestive hints from Byron himself.
At the other extreme are those who believe that all the allegations against him are the result of a combination of rumors and his own boasting and exaggeration, as well as his deliberate cultivation of a rakish reputation during some periods of his life. Stung by real or imagined tales of his behavior, Byron liked to present himself as someone who stood outside conventional morality – a pose that only makes him appear even more immoral than ever.
One of the problems I have in trying to decide between these two different portraits is that Byron was a passionate and demonstrative man in a passionate and demonstrative age. The generation that followed his was neither, and today we are still far closer in spirit to that generation than Byron’s. A frank and flowery phrase that seems to us proof of his unnatural fondness for his half-sister Augusta or of active bisexuality (not a crime to us, of course, but certainly to his contemporaries) might be no more than the normal discourse of the times, especially coming from a man who postured as a poet as often as he actually proved he was one.
Another problem in trying to decide what view of Byron to take is that both extremes sometimes take evidence from the same events. For example, those who see Bryon as a sexual sociopath take the fact that Byron’s friends destroyed his autobiography as proof that it included confessions of immorality and criminal activity. By contrast, those who believe Byron to be the victim of his own posturing insist that the autobiography was simply more of the same, with exaggerations and fantasies that his friends either believed themselves or were sure that others would. Since the autobiography no longer exists, either interpretation might fit the facts.
Similarly, how much credibility should be given to those who testify to his depravity and cruelty? The jilted, erratic Lady Caroline Lamb is far from the most reliable of witnesses. If Byron himself was unstable, she seems even more so. She seems to have been capable of saying or doing anything, yet what she knew of Byron might have been shocking even by her easy-going standards.
An even more problematic figure is Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron. Extremely sheltered before her marriage, how would she have known what sodomy and incest were, unless she had experienced or witnessed them? Or did the sexually active Lady Caroline Lamb coach her? Did she exaggerate because she needed a strong case for separation under the laws of her time? If so, why would her accusations be so lurid and potentially damaging to herself as well as Byron unless they were basically true?
Even the fact that she tried to raise their daughter to be free of what she considered the strain of madness in the Byrons is difficult to judge. Was Byron simply too eccentric for her limited experience and imagination to understand? She seems to have suffered mental and verbal abuse, yet her lifelong obsession with Byron even after their separation suggests she was no less unstable than him. It is hard to imagine anyone spending their lifetime justifying themselves, yet that is exactly what Lady Byron seems to have done.
In the end, the evidence is inconclusive on both sides. Writers about Byron simply see in him what they choose. The sexually neurotic accept all accusations as true, although, were that so, Byron would have had little time for the other parts of his busy life. The hero-worshipers find reasons to excuse him, because of the political sentiments he expressed and his death while fighting for Greek independence – as though his life could be neatly divided into good and bad karma and a final score provided.
Only rarely does anyone consider that both viewpoints might be true, or at least have aspects of the truth – or, rarer still, that all the posthumous gossip has little to do with the worth of his poetry. In the end, Byron remains a figure who is impossible to ignore, but also one who is impossible to define.