Lord Byron Dared Me to Be Me
A trauma in the life of a Romantic poet spurred me to begin my writing autobiography
How do you feel about your own writing autobiography if you compare it to the biography of a famous writer? One person I asked said “it makes me feel small.” But when I did it, I discovered just the opposite. While reading Lord Byron’s biography I discovered things about myself I’d never known before. The process had its dark sides, but it also turned me into a more self-aware, a more contented, a less embarrassed writer. I found I was prouder of myself than when I started. I will add to this writing autobiography over the next several days and weeks. You can dip in wherever you like. The parts can be read on their own and don’t need to be read in sequence.
My story begins in a library, my father’s library. This was eight years ago. My father had just died. He was in his mid-eighties. His death wasn’t painless, but it was relatively short. It took three weeks. He died from the complications of an unexpected surgery. He died in the teaching hospital of a large Midwestern university where he’d spent his career as a professor of English literature. He’d also served as provost for nearly a decade. One or two of the doctors and nurses knew this, but most of them didn’t. For much of the time he was in the intensive care unit with a breathing tube down his throat so he couldn’t tell them. My father didn’t like it when the nurses called him “buddy,” but I’m pretty sure he did like it when they held his hand and stroked his hair. When the breathing tube was at last removed, his speech was impaired. My brother and I didn’t want his life medically prolonged when there was little hope of a full recovery. He wouldn’t have enjoyed living on without language or acuity. We were both relieved when he died rather than surviving, as at one point it seemed he might, into a half light between life and death.
Our problem was that we both lived in different states. Our father’s house, where we’d both grown up, sold quickly. We had to clear it out in a short period. What to do with his thousands of books? Neither of us had space for them all. That was one of the things that was on my mind that night. Alone after dinner, on one of the first hot, light nights of early summer, I sat in a black leather armchair looking at my father’s bookshelves.
I was wearing a pair of shorts. The skin under my thighs stuck to the chair. At eye level was a series of books on Byron. There was a selection of his journals and letters, a biography and several collections of his poetry. I knew the most famous parts of Byron’s biography without having read him. The most prominent of the British Romantic poets, I knew he’d been born with a deformed right foot. I knew that he had a reputation for being both melancholy and good company. I knew that one of his ex-lovers had called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” I knew that he was bisexual. I knew that he’d inherited a big country house in England and had died young in Greece. On impulse I took down his biography and began reading it at random.
There at once was the sparkle, humor and exaggeration which made Byron famous. In a letter to a friend he told stories of going to parties and the theatre, dancing and drinking until late, sleeping with other men’s wives. “I am buried,” he wrote, “in an abyss of sensuality.” He was also paying visits to his old boarding school, Harrow, where he left money or “tipped” good-looking boys. His poetry was in demand at the booksellers’ shops. Even in the early nineteenth century this was not an easy feat to accomplish. It helped that Byron was young, handsome and a lord, but he also wrote raw, honest, risqué, and sometimes surprisingly funny lines.
That page opened by chance at the middle was a promising start. Having spent years at the dinner table listening to my father quote Byron from memory, I’d always expected to find in him one day a kind of buried treasure whenever I got around to reading him. That day — or evening — had arrived. So I turned back to read from the beginning. There, right at the start of Byron’s life, I found something I hadn’t expected. It was something I’d never known about Byron. Nor had I expected to find in his life something that would cause a subterranean rumble in me. For what I felt that evening was the tremble of a distant, but distinct parallel between a childhood trauma in Byron’s life and one in mine.
Byron’s parents were ill-suited to each other. His father married his mother for her money. He was extravagant and brought heavy debts to their marriage. They separated when Byron was only two. Byron’s father went to live in France, where his creditors couldn’t pursue him, and died soon afterwards. His mother still had a little money of her own. She and her son lived on one of the most prominent streets in Aberdeen, but she couldn’t afford much help. They had one young woman, May Gray, who did duty as lady’s maid, housemaid and Byron’s babysitter or nursemaid. Scotland was more religious than England in that era. The northern variety of Christianity was severe, austere and forbidding. May Gray was an avid Christian and a reader of the Bible. Byron’s first experience of reading and respect for books came from May Gray’s reading the Bible to him at bedtime.
May Gray also liked to drink. She’d go out to see friends, have too much beer and then join the boy Byron in his bed at night. We wouldn’t know now what happened between them had Byron not come unexpectedly into an inheritance. A great uncle died when Byron was ten years old. Overnight he inherited a title, a medieval abbey and a substantial landed estate. Byron by then had no father and knew few adult men well. It was to the solicitor who began to untangle Byron’s complicated inheritance that Byron made his first confession. He also made his first demand. He wanted May Gray fired. No one committed the precise reasons to print in Byron’s lifetime, but after he died, one of Byron’s close friends had a conversation with Byron’s solicitor about it. He learned this. May Gray had intimate contact with the boy Byron at night and in his bed. She played “tricks with his person.” She hit him. She pinched him. The implication was that she also touched him sexually. Reluctantly, and not at once, Mrs. Byron, advised by the solicitor, agreed to dismiss May Gray. She was attached to the young woman. Indeed, Byron was too. He sometimes acknowledged his affection and his debt to her. She was a figure in his life with whom he had almost a stronger emotional bond than he had with his own mother. What May Gray did to him was terrible, but he also owed something to her for the early reading and mothering she gave him. To say that she was villain and he was victim captures only one part of the truth.
This made me remember events from my own childhood that I’d somehow managed to repress. They were things that had happened between me and my father, sometimes in the very library where I was now sitting. I don’t know whether there are degrees or a scale of sexual abuse. Are some things less harmful than others? Or is it all wrong, and so equally harmful? If there are degrees of abuse, what he did to me may place down toward the milder end of the scale. I also know that I didn’t like it. I was a child so I didn’t know for sure, but it felt wrong. When my mother would walk in the room and find him doing it, or when she heard a distress note in my laughter, her face would darken and she’d tell him in a voice that couldn’t be argued with to stop. He would. Then he would start again later when she wasn’t around. It went on for years. I can’t even say for sure now whether I’ve remembered it all. One of the things that unsettles me is that writing this down might make me remember more.
All this began to make me think about Byron’s identity as a writer, as a lover, as a person. He was known in his own lifetime as a sexual outlaw. He was supposed to have been in love with a female cousin well before the age of puberty. He had intense love affairs with other boys at his boarding school. These prompted some of his first juvenile poems. He also wrote lines about sex with a teenaged girl on the sofa at his mother’s house when he was a teen himself. Or, he might just have made it all up.
When he went on his grand tour through the Mediterranean in his early twenties, he slept with both women and men. He wrote home that he liked the Turks because they had a taste for “both sherbet and sodomy.” He was involved in famous adulteries when he came back to London. In his middle twenties he married and had a daughter. Then scandal forced him into exile. He had to leave partly because society had learned of his affair with his half-sister, Augusta.
He lived a decadent life in Venice and then settled down almost as conventional man-and-wife with an Italian countess, younger than him, whom he persuaded to leave her husband. They lived in a big house with a garden in Albaro above Genoa. He left this idyllic life, which probably bored him. He went to fight the Turkish domination of Greece. He died, aged thirty-six, having written his last love poem to a Greek boy named Loukas.
What if all that breaking of the moral rules of his era, all that loving and leaving, was the result of his childhood abuse by May Gray? Was May the progenitor of Byron’s legendary self-consciousness, his willingness to make himself the self-indulgent and self-loathing hero of his own long poetic stories? If childhood plays an outsized role in who we are and what we become, ought we to give more weight to May than the usual version of Byron’s life story has in the past?
I write too. How much weight do I assign to an abusive father in my own development? The mere asking of that question tends to throw my world, my long-held conception of myself, off balance. I’ve always known how indebted I was to him for confidence with language and literature. I’ve always known too that those are things other people often don’t have. Wasn’t his dying the right time to grapple with the darker side of his legacy to me? That’s what I began to wonder on that night in June as I sat in my father’s library with one of his books in my hands. He’d annotated it in the margins in pencil.
Long before coming to Byron or the death of my father, I’d begun to think of biography as an unusual genre with unusual opportunities. My own writing has often been about other people’s biographies. Whether in history or in fiction I’ve tended to write books about individuals whose lives have been lived on a public stage. One of the things I like about biography is that it invites you to compare another life with your own. What were their challenges? Were they defeated by them, or did they manage to rise above them? How did their parents help or hurt them? How did their love lives bring them down, or sustain them, or both? Charting an individual’s biography forces you back on a consideration of your own life’s terrain. The best biographies spur you on to a kind of self-help. How can I live a more daring, a more loving, a less lonely version of my own life by doing as this person did, or avoiding doing as she did?
I had the idea that night of writing something on Byron. It would be my chance to focus on an episode from his youth that hadn’t been given much attention. It would be my chance to make peace with my father. It would be my chance to explore, to understand and to rise above my own childhood trauma. I could also explore my own vocation as a writer by comparing it with his. I might use Byron as a prism to examine myself.
I’ve tried two or three different ways of writing this down, but none of them has been quite right. I’d like now to work my way back into a usable Byron. I want a Byron who can both inspire me and help me to think critically by comparison with my own life. If I’m to be a reasonable and trustworthy guide to Byron’s story, you need to know something more about me. You need to know the outlines of my life and the growth of my vocation as a writer in order to know the subjective spin I’m likely to give to the Byron material. This is not to say I have a prejudice against him. The experience of writing about him so far has left me with more admiration for his daring than I had before.
I’m going to try and tell the truth, but that truth is going to be distinctively mine and you’ll be better off knowing where it comes from. If you’re to gain any of his daring yourself, as I think I have, if you’re to gain more love and more Byronic pleasure in your own life, if reading this is to act as a kind of self-help, for you as well as for me, you need to know who I am as a prelude to knowing who Byron was. You need to know where I come from as an introduction to knowing where he came from. I want to take you through Byron’s life as a way of borrowing some of his genius and spurring greatness in you in the same way as it has inspired me. He wasn’t always a good man and we need to come to grips with that too. I want to examine some of the terrible grains of sand that made his pearl. But first, you need to know me, the swimmer diving down, beyond where I can safely breathe, to look for the inconspicuous shell that might contain my pearl.