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Byron: The Flawed Angel

by Phyllis Grosskurth

Whatever one’s opinion of his epic poems “Childe Harold” and “Don Juan,” or of his innumerable lesser outpourings, Lord Byron set the modern standard for heroism that remains visible in much of today’s literature, cinema, and biography. His great invention – the troubled narrator buffeted by fate in his quest for love and adventure – was the seed of much modern fiction, and many readers assume it was the story of Byron’s life.

Phyllis Grosskurth, a veteran biographer and English professor at the University of Toronto, uses her major work on the poet’s life to show that Byron’s real story is far more complex. He was the man of operatic passions who galloped impatiently across Europe, kept numerous lovers of either sex in his thrall at any moment, and became the first modern celebrity, outraging and delighting Regency England with his domestic peccadillos and literary affronts. But Byron was also an obsessive mass of pathologies – neurotically self-conscious of his club foot, incestuously devoted to his sister at the expense of all other wives, lovers, and offspring, and given to offending his closest friends, including Shelley, in petty acts of betrayal and neglect.

If earlier biographies have strayed too far to the side of the grandiose Byron, Grosskurth has made a point of concentrating on the pathetic. She has drawn deeply on the often neglected letters and journals of Byron’s sister, Augusta, and his estranged wife, Annabella Milbanke. As a result, this volume resonates with the voices of those who were haphazardly tossed aside in the wake of the poet’s frenetic quest. It can make for painful and sometimes tedious reading, but Grosskurth presents us with a human Byron that may have been neglected in the past.

Literary biographers either cast their glance outward, at the web of philosophical, social, and narrative ideas that surround their subjects, or inward, at domestic behaviour and personal comportment. Grosskurth has gone wholeheartedly for the latter, leaving readers with far more of Byron’s household than of Byron’s world, missing out on some of the big picture. And Grosskurth too often resorts to a sort of tin Freudianism that reduces Byron’s complex motives to unconscious Oedipus complexes, patterns of “manic denial” or “projective identification.” While there is something to this (he did have a love affair with his sister, seek out substitutes for his mother, and destroy a long string of surrogate fathers), her reductionism often gives too short shrift to Byron’s influences, ideas, and surroundings.

Fortunately, Grosskurth is first and foremost a literary biographer, and she does a very good job of weaving Byron’s epic verse into the tales of his life, often locating less obvious dialogues between the two. This may not be the most profound or passion-inducing Byron we have seen, but it is a well-crafted account of the dark effects of literary heroism.