Lord Byron’s Courage in a Crisis
I’ve always wanted to be like Lord Byron. He dressed well and he was brave in a crisis. When a ship in which he was a passenger threatened to run on the rocks during a storm, he left the sailing to the sailors. He wrapped himself in his big black cloak and went to sleep. He invented the Byronic hero via the autobiographical characters in his epic poems. To be Byronic is to be inclined to excess and to have a dark secret (or several) in your past. He’s handsome, but also brooding. He’s capable of sexual licentiousness, but he’s also a reliable friend. He’s a writer who can shape a line of poetry so that it’s musical and as accessible as prose. His style is mock heroic. He embraces acts of extravagant courage, but makes fun of himself at the same time. He’s destined to die young.
Okay, maybe I don’t want to do or be all those things, but in the midst of a corona crisis I don’t like being glum or fearful or forever dressed in sweat pants. I want to be dashing and devil-may-care. I want to wear starched shirts and maroon velvet slippers even if I’m self-isolating indoors.
A little Byronism may carry all of us through these dull days. How to get it? Take a brief walk through Byron’s early biography with me.
Byron’s own Byronism was rooted in two tragedies of his childhood. He was born with a deformed right foot. His right leg was somewhat shorter and thinner than his left leg. He could walk on the right foot, but he put all his weight on the bone along the foot’s outer edge. This is also called a club foot. He had a noticeable limp. Walking for any length of time was painful for him.
Byron was also born into extraordinary luck. When he was ten years old he inherited a fortune. Byron’s great uncle, a vengeful old miser living alone at Newstead Abbey, died without direct male heirs. Suddenly George Byron, living with his mother in an apartment in Aberdeen, was the sixth Lord Byron. A great British estate, including a significant country house as well as extensive landholdings in two different counties, was now his.
His mother was overjoyed. Catherine Byron took her son south to visit the big house near Nottingham that was now his. May Gray, Mrs. Byron’s maid, travelled with them. Since birth Byron had been surrounded mainly by women. At Newstead Byron met one of the first significant men in his life. John Hanson was the solicitor who stepped in to help put the estate in order. Debts, mortgages, and other obligations reduced the estate’s value. It would take nearly the whole of Byron’s life to straighten all this out, though none of them knew that then.
Nor would Byron’s mother be much help. Byron’s father had fleeced her of her own money before he’d separated from her and his infant son to go to France. He died there when Byron was only three. Byron already knew that many adults considered his mother a fool. His mother humiliated him in front of a Nottinghamshire toll keeper on the doorstep of the Byron estate. When Mrs. Byron asked him who owned Newstead Abbey, the toll keeper said it was a little boy in Scotland. “And here he is!” his mother cried out to the toll keeper, indicating Byron wedged between her and May in the carriage. Who knows how many other similar displays he’d had to endure.
His sudden good fortune brought other tortures to Byron. His mother now had the money, which she didn’t have in Scotland, to hire specialists to look at his deformed right foot. One quack decided that the boy’s pliable foot had to be straightened out while it was still soft. If he grew any further, the foot would harden. So he forced Byron’s foot into a wooden device that made it resemble other boy’s feet. This was agony. Byron stayed in Nottingham with May for this treatment. His mother went away.
Worrying reports began to reach Hanson from Nottingham. Mrs. Byron’s maid, who’d been left in charge of the little boy, was behaving badly. She had different lovers around the town. She was becoming a byword for lewd conduct. It was said that she even exposed Byron to this serial lovemaking. Hanson came to Nottingham from London, took Byron aside, and asked if all this were true.
This must’ve been a terrible moment for him. Should he expose May, someone he’d grown up with in a position of almost family intimacy? Should he wait and consult his mother before committing himself? Should he trust a man he’d only just met, who was acting for the Byron estate as its agent, not as his father? Must he confess acts, which may’ve troubled him, but which he would probably have felt instinctively he should keep secret? Must he confess acts that May might have even threatened to punish him for if he didn’t keep quiet?
It was an act of little boy courage for Byron to tell Hanson everything. He told Hanson of May’s drunkenness, of her bringing men into their shared bedroom, of her hitting him, and of intimate contact between them. As Hanson put it later, May “played tricks with his person.” Hanson wrote at once to Catherine Byron to suggest May’s being dismissed and why. It was a mark of how much May was a part of their small family, how much she was trusted, and how reluctantly she parted from her, that Catherine Byron took her time in letting May go. This amplifies the bravery of what Byron had just done. His honesty with Hanson, when he was asked the most difficult question of his life, is one of the foundational moments of his biography.
There is very little in Byron’s background to suggest where this courage came from. It may’ve come to him as haphazardly as the whole Byron estate. He grew up in an austere and forbidding Scottish town. Aberdeen was a deep port at the mouth, or “aber,” of the river Dee. Aberdeen benefitted from centuries of profitable trade with North Sea partners in the Baltic and Scandinavia. The principal buildings of the town were imposing granite blocks constructed according to the eighteenth-century neo-classical principles of symmetry and balance. Even today its buildings are massive, forbidding, and handsome. Even in high summer, however, they can also be gloomy and cold.
Byron’s foot didn’t prevent him from getting around, but he was hyper-conscious of it throughout his life. He hid the foot from his wife on their wedding night. He wouldn’t show his doctors when he was dying. In his twenties Byron protested that his best friend, Hobhouse, was looking at his foot. They were traveling together in the Mediterranean. Hobhouse laughed at him, the sort of corrective only a brother or close friend can provide. As a child with no siblings the deformity may well have kept Byron inside with books when other children were playing outdoors. The books were certainly a foundation of his poetry.
Consciousness of his deformity marked Byron’s whole life. His mother loved him, but she also gave in to tantrums of exasperation with him. In the midst of one she called him “a lame brat.” He never forgot it. He even put the episode into a play he wrote in later life called The Deformed Transformed. This seems to me one key to his courage. If his instinct was to hide his foot, he also willed himself to confront his deformity both in his art and in his conversation.
In his twenties he exchanged letters with a clergyman friend who was trying to convert Byron from relaxed agnosticism to a more engaged Christian faith. This man mentioned as Christianity’s promise that our inadequate earthly bodies would be raised to heavenly perfection after death. Byron seized on this to make a joke at his own expense. “And our carcasses that are to rise again? Are they worth raising? I hope if mine is, that I shall have a better pair of legs than I have moved on these two and twenty years, or I shall be sadly behind in the squeeze into Paradise.”
The other element in Byron’s adult behavior that must be traceable to his childhood is the abuse he suffered at the hands of the nursemaid. There were many indications of this in his adult love life. There was his inability to sustain a romantic relationship for more than a few years. There was his enduring love of Regency immorality and libertinism even as Victorian prudishness began to make almost any sexuality seem criminal. There’s his incontinence as a lover. He slept with several boy best friends at his boarding school, a choirboy in Cambridge from whom he accepted a ring, and many women who were not his wife in London. He carried on a long-running affair with an Italian countess under the count’s nose. On his deathbed, Byron lost his heart to a Greek boy, Loukas, and knew his love wasn’t reciprocated. “Love dwells not in our will,” Byron observed in one of his last poems, addressed to Loukas. “Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot to strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.”
Even down to his last crisis, his own death, Byron seemed bent on a bracing, self-revealing frankness about himself. This seems to me a legacy of the abused child. This is the honesty of the little boy who fessed up to the solicitor Hanson about what May Gray had done to him in bed. This is the man who cauterized the wound of his childhood injury, over and over, by opening it to the air, by declaring it to one and all.
So, following Byron, come whatever crisis that may, I will wear my velvet slippers. I will shop for a good vintage cloak. And I will find my bravery in declaring my follies, foibles, and injuries with a good humor inspired by his.