When a Famous Writer Suffers Abuse
How did Lord Byron’s childhood injury affect his later identity as a writer?
He was a romantic poet. He was born with a deformed foot. He inherited a British peerage. Lord Byron is famous for many things, but few know that he was also abused as a child. When Byron himself came to review his life in an adult journal, he gave little weight to his fame, or his title, or his foot. He reflected instead on moments of his boyhood that led to a premature contact with sexuality. Though he did not himself draw this conclusion, there may nevertheless have been a link between these dark times and his later mastery of language.
Can it ever be right to say that an abused boy also benefitted from his abuser? In reviewing the available evidence on Byron, and even in thinking of my own experience of childhood abuse, I find it difficult to come to a satisfying answer to this question. I’m posing the question here and reviewing some of the ways it might be answered about Byron as a way of coming to terms with what happened to me.
Before he inherited the peerage at age ten and because of an illness, Byron’s mother took him out of school in Aberdeen for some months. She thought country life would help him recover better than life in a crowded town. They went to live in a cottage near Ballater on the river Dee. He remembered this as one of the happiest times of his boyhood.
Even today the Dee is in a lush green valley with gently rolling hills. It lies in the shadow of a prominent peak, Lochnagar. There are salmon in the river and lucrative stands of pine on the hills. The region slowly became a tourist destination after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert built a Scottish baronial castle nearby in the 1840s. When Byron knew Deeside, it was untouched, untraveled, and pristine. While still in his teens, he wrote a poem about it. He remembered the dramatic landscape around “dark Loch na Garr,” as much better than England’s more domestic scenery. He remembered going out as a boy and wandering among the pines. He would come home late because he loved the landscape and the stories told by the locals of Highland chieftains and Stuart gallantry.
Nor were his memories of Aberdeen all bad. He and his mother were nouveau pauvre, but they lived in apartments that were at some of the best addresses in town. Because his mother was a reader, Byron was encouraged to find in reading an alternative to outdoor play. She liked French novels, which had an aura of the forbidden in the eighteenth century. They were often about romance, sex, and ladies run amok. Popular opinion in Britain regarded the French as morally lax and sensually abandoned. That may have been an added inducement for Byron to read his mother’s books and answer boyhood curiosity about the love lives of men and women.
He didn’t stay indoors all the time. He had at least one friend in Aberdeen who had a deformity like his. A passerby pitied the way the two of them had to struggle up a hill. Byron snapped a small whip he carried and reprimanded the passing stranger. “Dinna speak of it!” he said. He learned early on to hit back with peremptory commands that were the verbal equivalents of fists and wrestling. He may’ve had a bad foot, but he wasn’t defenseless.
Instead, the twin injuries of his boyhood seem both to have gone by the first name of May. When he recalled them both in adulthood, one was an acceptable memory, though a painful one. One was unacceptable. He wouldn’t commit her name to print, even in a private journal.
May Duff was a cousin he met either on Deeside or in Aberdeen at dancing lessons. They were both eight years old. He recalled her not as a childish playmate, but as his first genuine love affair. The intensity of his passion was as great as with any of his adult lovers, though both children were long before the age when the affair could have been consummated. In later life, he remembered the emotional intensity of his feelings about May Duff as being incommensurate with the affair’s physical impossibility. He also remembered a little later his mother’s telling him that May Duff was getting married. This news sent him into physical convulsions.
That the adult Byron should have spent time recording his boyhood love of a cousin suggests that he was even more troubled than he would admit by the sexual activity going on about the same time with May Gray. His most authoritative biographer, Leslie Marchand, suggests the physical contact between Byron and his mother’s maid had started when he was five. It went on for five years before he confessed it to a solicitor at age ten. May was then dismissed.
He wrote of this in an adult journal, but left out any specific reference to May Gray. “My passions were developed very early — so early — that few would believe me — if I were to state the period — and the facts which accompanied it.”¹
He must’ve told others besides the solicitor, however. After he died in Greece at age thirty-six, Byron’s best friend Hobhouse consulted with the solicitor about May Gray. Hobhouse knew enough about Byron’s love life, probably from stories Byron himself had told him, to conclude that Byron’s first sex was involuntary and with a servant.
There is evidence too in Byron’s young adulthood of repeating some of the scenes he may have gone through with May Gray. She stood accused of having brought men back to the room she shared with Byron and making love to them there. Similarly, Byron in his twenties, after he’d inherited a big house in Nottinghamshire, had sex with a servant called Susan Vaughan. She slept in one of the attics with a boy she was looking after for one of the other servants. Vaughan teased Byron in a letter about his coming to the attic to make love to her while the boy was with her. She told him the boy remembered seeing Byron put his hand on her breast. This is among the first hints that some of Byron’s adult bad behavior, and the sexual license for which everyone knew him, had its origins in his childhood injury.
Byron’s feelings in retrospect were complicated about May. He gave her a watch after she was dismissed, and also his own full-length miniature portrait. This is the mark of a boy who was confused by what May had done to him. Or, he was motivated by his mother to give the gifts because she never entirely believed him when she learned of Byron’s accusations of abuse. When the solicitor told Byron’s mother about May having touched Byron intimately, she was very slow to fire her.
Byron attributed his later skepticism about religion to May Gray’s hypocrisy. Her fervent Christianity was mixed up with her flagrant breaking of the elemental rules of Christian morality. He may’ve been only a boy, but he knew her drinking and her bringing men to their room went against Christian principles.
Yet, Byron also remembered May’s reading to him from the Bible. He looked at his mother’s French novels, but May’s voice reading the memorable, archaic language of the Bible seems to have had a greater impact. A writer’s first contact with hearing a book read aloud is formative. It’s possible that what he got from May was both a trauma and a belief that texts could have supreme authority. She may’ve both injured him and given him the sense of language as possesing far-reaching power.
The question is how he struck a bargain between the two, whether he managed to hold on to both at once, and whether he was ever able to make peace between them.
A man who became known for sexual libertinism and love-making to both sexes must’ve been influenced by what happened to him as a boy. His constant loving and leaving of different partners in later life may well have been the behavior of someone who both enjoyed and was deeply ashamed of his sexual self. Sexuality is a more marked refrain in the social controversies and poetic achievements of his later life than of any of his contemporaries.
He considered himself a Christian and not an atheist, though he was never a church-going Christian. He laughed at any attempts to square his own hedonism with the teachings of religion. Byron had a comic genius for exaggeration, which he often applied to himself. As he declared to a friend who was trying to bring him back to the straight and narrow, “There is something pagan in me I cannot shake off.”
My instinct is that Byron was actively aware of both of these inheritances from May Gray, both the being read aloud to and the abuse. He probably kept them in separate intellectual compartments with a sturdy divide in between them. He was a man who was always given to excess and the excess eventually killed him. He went to Greece still only in his 30s to lead a hopeless expedition to liberate the Greeks from the Turks. The same liking for excess is also in the self-revelation of his marvelously bouncy poem Don Juan, which even W. H. Auden thought the best comic poem in the English language. Byron’s love life, his ultimate fate and his greatness as a writer all have something to do with his childhood injury. His adult journal writing suggests that he knew this as well as he knew anything.
¹ Byron, “Detached Thoughts,” Byron’s Letters & Journals: In the Wind’s Eye, ed Leslie A. Marchand, vol 9, p 40 (1979); written in Pisa 1821.