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Lord of Few Manners

Sunday, July 5, 2009

BYRON IN LOVE

By Edna O'Brien

Norton. 228 pp. $24.95

"She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies;/And all that's best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes": tender words for a libertine bard now remembered as the Jim Morrison of Romanticism. Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's "Byron in Love" follows the life of George Gordon Byron -- who reveled in his noblesse despite personal failings including, but not limited to, drunkenness, infidelity, bankruptcy, syphilis and incest -- through his love affairs with nobles and nobodies of both sexes. "I wanted to follow him in his Rake's Progress and his Poet's Progress," O'Brien says of her decision to write a breezy, character-driven biography of Lord Byron that forgoes lit-crit forensics to focus on the poet's dastardly deeds.

O'Brien took a similar approach in her lively 1999 examination of her less-than-glamorous countryman James Joyce, but the technique garners mixed results here. Byron aficionados and fans of E! will relish sifting through the mountain of evidence that his lordship fathered a child with his half-sister, but those unfamiliar with early 19th-century Romanticism's dramatic break with Enlightenment rationalism risk losing the poetry amid the personality. Still, as Byron himself once wrote, "Folly loves the martyrdom of fame" -- and what fun's a literary life without a little folly?

-- Justin Moyer

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