Byron was born in London (or maybe Dover) to an unconventional family, Bryon inherited his title at only ten years old. He came from a long line of intemperate and notorious figures: his father “Mad Jack” Bryon was known as a cruel and vicious husband, who ran up staggering debts; his paternal grandfather, “Foulweather Jack” Bryon was the younger brother of the fifth baron, Bryon’s great-uncle, who in turn was commonly known as “the Wicked Lord.” His mother Catherine was an alcoholic and “a woman without judgment or self-command”; her father committed suicide in 1779.
That young Bryon was born to be trouble was clear from his ancestry, and he wasted little time confirming that he was going to live up to the family name. His schooling was inconsistent: his mother enrolled him first at Aberdeen Grammar School, then a private school in Dulwich, but often withdrew him for periods at a time, leaving his classical education incomplete. At thirteen, Bryon was sent to Harrow, a school he attended for four years, although with a notable absence from September 1803 to January 1804. The reason, his mother wrote: “He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion. In short, the boy is distractedly in love with Miss Chaworth.” It was to the first of the long string of love affairs for which Byron is as famous today as for his poetry.
On his return to Harrow, Bryon turned to his schoolfellows with as much enthusiasm as he had Miss Chaworth. He described the friendships as “violent passions,” the most vivid of which, with John FitzGibbon, he described in a series of nostalgic poems which, according to one scholar, expressed a “consciousness of sexual differences that may in the end make England untenable to him.”
What, though one sad dissension bade us part,
That name is yet embalm’d within my heart,
Yet, at the mention, does that heart rebound,
And palpitate, responsive to the sound;
Envy dissolved our ties, and not our will:
We once were friends,—I’ll think, we are so still.
— Childish Recollections
Bryon attended Trinity College, Cambridge, from the autumn of 1805, where he grew quickly attached to one John Edleston, about whom he wrote: “His voice first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever.” Byron remained in close contact with many of his old friends throughout his life.
After university, Bryon went on a Grand Tour, then the common experience for young men of his class. Traditionally the Tour involved taking in the sights of Europe, although the Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid the usual route. Instead, Bryon visited the Mediterranean — the area was particularly noted even at that period as a destination for men seeking the company of other men, and surviving correspondence between Byron and his friends certainly imply that was part of the experience he was seeking. Byron travelled through Portugal, Spain, Malta, and Greece — there he had a passionate affair with fourteen-year-old Nicolò Giraud, who taught him Italian. In an early will, Bryon intended to leave Giraud £7,000, and he paid for his schooling. Then, in Athens, Byron became besotted with a twelve-year-old girl, Teresa Makri, and reportedly offered £500 for her. The offer was not accepted.
From Greece, Bryon travelled through Turkey, via Constantinople to the Hellespont, which he swam, and as far as Albania before returning home in 1811. He published the first two cantos of Childe Harold the following year, to immediate success. Revelling in his newfound celebrity status, Bryon “was sought after at every society venue, elected to several exclusive clubs, and frequented the most fashionable London drawing-rooms.” During this period he engaged in love affairs with several notable society figures, including Lady Caroline Lamb, who described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.
Although famous, Bryon was not wealthy. His mother’s fortune had been squandered within the first two years of her marriage to his father, and Bryon was noted even before he undertook his Grand Tour for being intemperate with money. With his debts mounting, he began courting the heiress Annabella Millbanke with a view to marriage. During this period in 1813, Bryon was reunited with his half-sister Augusta (from his father’s first marriage) for the first time in almost five years. Rumours abounded that the pair engaged in an incestuous relationship, and when Augusta had a daughter in spring 1814 who was suspected of being Bryon’s, Bryon intensified his efforts to win Annabella’s hand in order to silence the gossip.
Bryon and Annabella were married in January 1815, and had a daughter in December of the same year, but the marriage was not a happy one. Bryon continued his scandalous association with Augusta, and that — along with more public affairs with actresses and chorus girls — plus Bryon’s dark moods and heavy drinking, convinced Annabella her husband was going mad. She kept a detailed journal of his behaviour and consulted doctors about his condition. Rather than offer a cure for him, they suggested she leave for her own protection. In January 1816, after only a year of marriage, Annabella took her infant daughter and began legal separation proceedings. Mired in scandal, Bryon left England that April, never to return. Annabella never saw him again.
After leaving England, Byron settled near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with his “personal physician,” the young and exceptionally handsome John William Polidori. While there, Byron befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin, and Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmount, with whom he’d had an earlier affair in London. This chance meeting was to inspire some of England’s greatest literature. Over a wet June trapped indoors, the five took to inventing fantastic stories to keep themselves entertained. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Polidori produced The Vampyre, considered the original vampire romance — not a bad week’s work!
From Switzerland, Byron moved to Italy, wintering in Venice — where he caused more scandal by seducing two married women, one of whom threw herself into the canal when Byron asked her to leave — then moving to northern Italy, where he studied the Armenian culture and language, co-authoring several grammar books and dictionaries, and translating various Armenian works. Around 1819 he seduced the Countess Guiccioli and tried to convince her to elope with him (despite the fact he had met her three days after she had already married someone else).
Byron lived for three years in Ravenna to be near the Countess, writing poetry and receiving frequent visits from Percy Shelley, who described the household thus:
“Lord Byron gets up at two. I get up, quite contrary to my usual custom … at 12. After breakfast we sit talking till six. From six to eight we gallop through the pine forest which divide Ravenna from the sea; we then come home and dine, and sit up gossiping till six in the morning. I don’t suppose this will kill me in a week or fortnight, but I shall not try it longer. Lord B.’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it… . [P.S.] I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective … . I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane. I wonder who all these animals were before they were changed into these shapes.”
Following Shelley’s death in a boating accident in 1822, Byron moved to Greece. The following year, he gave his support to representatives demanding Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, and set sail to join the Greek politician Alexandros Mavrokordatos, in order to assist in a planned attack on a Turkish-held fort. (While planning war, Byron still had time to pursue love, chasing the affections of his page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, who was unmoved by Byron’s advances.)
Despite a lack of military experience, Byron took command of part of the rebel army and was preparing to launch his expedition when he suddenly fell ill. Bloodletting made him worse, and it has been suggested the use of unsterilised equipment led to him developing sepsis. Byron died on 19 April 1824, aged 36.
Born on this day: Amanda Barrie (80, English), actress best known for her role as Alma on Coronation Street; Allan Bloom (1930-1992, American), philosopher; Michael Patrick King (61, American), director and screenwriter best known for Sex and the City; Rob McCall (1958-1991, Canadian), Olympic figure skater; and David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), painter, photographer, and AIDS activist.
Died on this day: Isadora Duncan (1877-1927, American), dancer.