The Flawed Angel
By Phyllis Grosskurth
Chapter One: The Byrons -- Impetuous, Bad and Mad
George Gordon Byron could not be considered fortunate in the parents fate had allotted him. He might boast -- as he often did of his ancient lineage, but he would be hard-pressed to name any ancestors of distinction. There were plenty of rakes, spendthrifts, melancholics, eccentrics and brutes, but no statesmen, notable warriors, philanthropists or enlightened landowners. The first artist in his family, Byron was to all intents and purposes a self-made man -- apart, that is, from the burden that his ancestry had imposed upon him.
The Byrons claimed descent from Ralph du Burun, who arrived in England with William the Conqueror and who is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as holding extensive lands in Nottinghamshire. Later these were augmented by family estates in Derbyshire; and in the reign of Edward I, they acquired property in Rochdale, Lancashire, and in Norfolk. Many other families with similar histories made wise use of their properties and became wealthy landowners, but this was not the case with the Byrons. Upon the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII for the sum of 810 [pounds sterling] disposed to "our beloved servant John Byron of Colwyke all the house and site, ground and soil, of the late Monastery and Priory of Newstede within the Forest of Sherwode in our said County of Nottingham". The Priory of Newstead (founded by Henry II around 1170) had been dedicated to God and the Virgin as the house of the Canons Regular of the Augustinian Order. John Byron, knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1579, converted the monastic quarters around the cloister into an impressive mansion where he maintained an extravagant style of life, including a resident troupe of players.
Not surprisingly, the Byrons were ardent Royalists during the Civil War. Seven brothers were said to have served under King Charles I; and one of them, John, was knighted for having raised his own regiment of horse for the king. In 1643 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Byron of Rochdale. To this day his portrait stares imperiously from a canvas hanging in Newstead Abbey, bearing the sort of arrogance often associated with stupidity. He received his title just before the Battle of Marston Moor. Lord Byron's contribution to the battle was largely responsible for the defeat of the Royalists in what was possibly the most significant battle of the Civil War. Far outnumbered by the parliamentary troops, Byron had received strict instructions to hold the right wing of the Royalist forces. He was not to move until the Roundheads had been slowed down in marshy ground between the opposing troops. But once Cromwell's forces started to move, Byron could not maintain his patience. His cavalry and musketeers, rather than Cromwell's men, struggled ineffectually through the marsh, and were mowed down by musketry, thus opening up the entire right wing of the army. As a result of Byron's impetuosity, Charles lost the whole north of England. It was not a story that the poet was known to repeat to his friends.
In the middle of the seventeenth century the Byrons married into the Chaworth family, owners of the adjoining estate of Annesley Hall. The Chaworth line is thought to have accentuated the eccentric and extravagant strain in the Byrons, although habitual intermarriage must have played an even greater part. William, born in 1722, became known as "the Wicked Lord". His brother John, born the following year, was later to become an admiral and is chiefly remembered as the grandfather of the poet.
The Wicked Lord epitomised the profligacy and irresponsibility of the Byrons. After succeeding to the title, he neglected the property but held lavish parties in a miniature castle he built in the woods of Newstead. He also erected two forts by the lake where he staged naval engagements with small cannon, aided by a servant, Joe Murray (who lived on to serve our Lord Byron).
The Wicked Lord's extravagance came to an end when he was in his early forties. A group of Nottinghamshire landowners had formed a London dining club in the Star and Garter tavern in Pall Mall. On January 26, 1765, Lord Byron and his cousin and neighbour, William Chaworth (who seems to have been equally irascible), quarrelled over the best way to hang game. In order to settle the dispute, they retired to an empty room lit only by a single candle. Here Byron plunged a sword through Chaworth's belly. The latter lingered on until the next day, bitterly regretful that he had been stupid enough to fight in a darkened room. A coroner's jury returned a verdict of wilful murder and Byron was lodged in the Tower to stand trial before his peers in the House of Lords. The verdict this time was more favourable: four peers voted "Not guilty" and 119 voted "Not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter". Under a statute of Edward VI Byron was able to be discharged simply by paying a fee and retiring to Newstead. He kept the sword with which he had killed Chaworth in his bedroom at the abbey. Because of the scandal he grew into a recluse, travelling to London only through necessity and then under the name of Waters. His wife left him, and he took as mistress one of the servants, a Mrs Hardstaff, known as "Lady Betty", by whom he had an illegitimate son.
Burdened by debt as he was, his only hope of escaping from his impasse was the marriage of his son William to an heiress. However, William wasn't particularly happy with the young woman selected to repair the fortunes of the family: on the eve of the wedding the defiant young man eloped with his first cousin, the daughter of Admiral John Byron. His furious father swore that he would leave him a burdened inheritance. Partly out of bitterness, partly in order to keep his creditors at bay, the Wicked Lord began a systematic spoliation of the estate. He cut down the great stands of timber, and 2,007 deer were slaughtered and sold at the nearby Mansfield market. For a paltry sum he allowed the illegal lease of the coal mines in Rochdale, the return of which was to preoccupy the sixth lord, the poet, for many years. In old age the Wicked Lord became increasingly eccentric. He kept a menagerie of crickets which were said to have left the abbey in swarms after his death in 1798. As it was, his own son died before him in 1776; and in turn his grandson, also named William, was killed in action at the Battle of Calvi in 1794, thus leaving a little boy living in Aberdeen as heir to the impoverished estate.
How this little boy came to be heir brings us back to the Wicked Lord's younger brother, John, Admiral Byron, one of the many irresponsible rakes who embellished the family tree. In addition to his notorious amours, he became distinguished for a turbulent naval career, particularly for the storms he weathered, thus bringing him the sobriquet "Foulweather Jack". He published an account of his early adventures (including a shipwreck Byron later used in Don Juan) in The Narrative in 1768. "He had no rest at sea, nor on shore," his grandson later commented.
Foulweather Jack's son, John (known as "Mad Jack"), distinguished himself by his total disregard of public opinion. Born in 1756, he was educated at Westminster and later at a French military academy. After his father bought him a commission in the Guards, he saw some service in the American War of Independence, but he soon abandoned the army for a life of dissipation in London.
Here he entered into a much publicised affair with Amelia, the enchanting wife of the Marquis of Carmarthen (later Duke of Leeds). In 1779 the marquis obtained a divorce, and on June 9 the marriage of Captain John Byron and Lady Amelia d'Arcy took place. A month later, on July 19, a daughter was born (she subsequently died). Although Amelia had a substantial income in her own right, it was insufficient to pay for their extravagant style of living. In order to escape their creditors they moved to France; and on January 26, 1784, Amelia's only surviving child, Augusta Mary, was born in Paris. Amelia did not survive the birth, and Augusta seems to have been cared for by her uncle, Captain George Anson Byron, who had married Henrietta Dallas, and was living at Chantilly, outside Paris.
Amelia's annual income of 4,000 [pounds sterling] ceased with her death and Mad Jack returned to England to repair his fortunes. He headed for Bath, where heiresses resorted not for the waters so much as to secure suitable husbands. John Byron was not exactly suitable, but he was, as his son later described him, "an extremely amiable and joyous character". (He could also be petulant and short-tempered but that is not how Byron chose to remember him.) As Byron put it, he was "a very handsome man which goes a great way". He had to go a great way in a very short time in order to keep ahead of his creditors, and he set his sights in a calculated way on the most vulnerable young woman he could find.
She was not beautiful but she had a tolerable fortune; she was not graceful but she loved to dance, and in no time at all the handsome Jack had swept her off her feet. Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight, was a large ungainly girl with a strong Scottish burr. She was good-natured, and very headstrong. It would have been useless for her relatives to try to dissuade her from this impetuous match and on May 13, 1785, the marriage took place in St Michael's Church, Bath. By marrying on the thirteenth day of the month Catherine deliberately flouted superstition even though she herself was very superstitious, and the gossips of Aberdeenshire predicted that her new husband would soon run through her fortune. Curiously enough, less than a year before, she had attended the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh to watch a performance by Mrs Siddons in The Fatal Marriage. As Isabella, Mrs Siddons brought audiences to a state of nervous prostration when Isabella learns that her first husband, Biron, is still alive. On the night Miss Gordon of Gight attended the play she was carried out of her box in hysterics, screaming, "Oh, my Biron! My Biron!" Sir Walter Scott was one of the witnesses to record this strange behaviour.
Catherine was the eldest (and only survivor) of the three daughters of George Gordon, twelfth Laird of Gight. She had been born in the shire of Aberdeen in 1764 and had been brought up in the Castle of Gight. The castle, now a complete ruin, had been sacked and restored many times. In Catherine's day it was habitable and situated on a beautiful site, perched on a rocky promontory above the valley of the River Ythan.
Catherine frequently boasted that she was directly descended from Jean Stewart, a daughter of King James I of Scotland. Her family history was filled with bloody and treacherous deeds, and it also contained deep strains of depression. Catherine's father was of a melancholy cast of mind. His death by drowning in the Bath Canal in 1779 was clearly suicide, and his own father had died by drowning in the River Ythan in 1760. Byron later told his publisher, John Murray, that he had inherited his melancholy temperament from his maternal grandfather: "I had always been told that in temper I more resembled my maternal Grandfather than any of my father's family -- that is in the gloomier part of his temper -- for he was what you call a good natured man, and I am not."
The Byron marriage, like their son's after them, was nasty, brutish, and short. Among Catherine's relatives and neighbours there was a good deal of disapproval that she had not married a Scot, and tongues wagged as they witnessed the wild carousing that took place after the couple moved into the castle. Byron was soon repeating the same pattern of behaviour he had displayed with his first wife's inheritance. The trustees of the estate tried to resist his demands, but they had limited control, and within a year the new husband had run through most of his wife's fortune of over 22,000 [pounds sterling]. The Gight lands were sold off bit by bit. Forests were chopped down and the timber disposed of. Eighteen months after the marriage the estate had to be sold to Lord Aberdeen, and almost all the money was paid to Captain Byron's creditors. Mrs Byron was left with the income from 4,200 [pounds sterling], out of which she had to pay an annuity to her grandmother, who did not die until 1801. In July 1785 Jack Byron was seized for debt and taken to the King's Bench Prison. His tailor was the only person who would post bail for him. Catherine's high spirits began to sink into bitterness. She was still infatuated enough to be unable to deny her husband anything, so she asked the trustees if a settlement could be made on her in such a way that Captain Byron could not get his hands on her funds.
Finally the only way they could elude the creditors was to flee back to France. At Valenciennes Mrs Byron took over the care of her husband's daughter Augusta and nursed the child through a serious illness which she reminded her of many years later. On October 18, 1801, Catherine wrote: "I still recollect with a degree of horror, the many sleepless nights and days of agony I have passed at your bedside drowned in tears, while you lay insensible and at the gates of death. Your recovery certainly was wonderful, and thank God I did my duty." This effusive letter did little to sway Augusta, whom Mrs Byron had handed over to the care of her grandmother, Lady Holderness, and she was raised with her half-brothers and -sisters by her mother's first husband, the Duke of Leeds. Augusta grew up with an impression of her stepmother as a vulgar, loud-mouthed woman whom she later blamed as responsible for some of the poet Byron's meretricious traits. Nothing could have been more different than the households in which Byron and Augusta were raised.
Towards the end of 1787, Catherine settled temporarily in London to await the birth of her child. She rented a furnished room at No. 16 Holles Street (which runs between Oxford Street and Cavendish Square) on a site now occupied by the John Lewis department store. Her husband could not visit her lest he be arrested for debt, and she was left totally alone without friends or relatives during her confinement. Her Scottish agents helped her financially as much as they could. To James Watson in Edinburgh she wrote: "I don't want much and if there was large sums it would only be thrown away as it was before."
The trustees had learned exactly what to expect from this ne'er-do-well. Mad Jack had no intention of keeping his promise to pay off his debts when the estate was sold, and now in France he was left without a guinea. One of the agents, Becket, reported: "After such an incident, and many other similar, I am afraid that discharging the present debts would only be paving the way to the accumulation of new ones." An MP for Edinburgh, concerned about Catherine's plight, introduced her to a young London lawyer, John Hanson, of No. 6 Chancery Lane. His wife, who had given birth recently, was able to recommend a midwife or accoucheuse. In later years Byron was often impatient with his lawyer's procrastination, but in this instance he had every reason to be grateful to the Hanson family for providing the wherewithal for his birth.
It was long-drawn-out and difficult. On Tuesday, January 22, 1788, Catherine was delivered of a baby boy born with a caul over his head, which was usually considered a mark of distinction or good luck. It was given to Hanson's brother, a captain in the Royal Navy, to prevent him from drowning, but the superstition proved wrong as the captain drowned at sea twelve years later. One of the first references to the deformed foot with which Byron was born appears in a letter of February 19, 1791, from his father to his sister Frances Leigh. It is apparent that Captain Byron was far more agitated about his sister's sending him some money than the welfare of his wife and son: "For my son, I am happy to hear he is well; but for his walking 'tis impossible, for he is club-footed."
Byron later attributed his deformity to his mother's false delicacy in wearing corsets. At the time of his birth women were still wearing tight lacing, but surely the accoucheuse would have insisted that she loosen the corset. It is also unlikely that his mother would have told him that she was the cause of his deformity. Where, then, did he pick up this idea? The most likely possibility is from one of the maids. It was a story he chose to believe because he needed to have someone to blame for what he considered the greatest disaster of his life.
Catherine had no clear idea of what the future held for her and her baby. A month after the birth she wrote to James Watson in Edinburgh, her letter summarising her fears about her situation:
there will be still more debts coming in & more demands for money. I am sorry he is getting a new carriage the money Mr Leslie gave me is not sufficient to clear all my expenses but I will let you know exactly what I shall want in a few days and what I shall want to keep me in London for two months longer as I have taken a House for that time at two Guineas and a half a week which is just twenty guineas for two months. I would not have taken one till I had known Mr Byron's plans but the time I must have this is on Sunday and I could not get any for a shorter time and none so cheap. I will not go to Bath as I don't keep a carriage and have got to travel Mr Byron will have got a house in some cheap country whether Wales or the North of England. I want money to be sent me while in town and I must have it as if Mr Byron gets it it will be thrown away in some foolish way or other and I shall be obliged to apply for more. I don't want more than is necessary but I will let you know exactly in a few days. I will live as cheap as I can but it was impossible till now as there was a great many expences that could not be avoided direct for me No 2 Baker Street Portman's Square my little boy is to be named George don't show Mr Byron this.
There was no way she could ever let James Watson or anyone else know "exactly" what her plans were. On March 25 she told Watson: "Leave this House I must in a fortnight from this day so there is no time to be lost and if they will not remit the money before that time I don't know what I shall do and what will become of me." She never did move into the house in Portman Square, probably because it was cheaper to stay in Holles Street. On February 29 -- her husband still being absent in France -- she took the baby to Marylebone Parish Church to be christened. The decision about his name seems to have been entirely hers. She called him George Gordon after her own father and chose as sponsors the Duke of Gordon and her cousin, Colonel Robert Duff of Fetteresso.
Within days of her son's birth Catherine called in John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon then living in London, to examine his deformity and inoculate the child against smallpox. The inoculation, but not the examination of the foot, appears in Hunter's surviving case books. Perhaps it did not seem sufficiently important to Hunter to necessitate an entry. Professor Leslie Marchand believes that it was undoubtedly a club foot, but it is unlikely that a club foot would have fitted into a fragile Turkish slipper that survives from Byron's period at Missolonghi. What we do know is that his right foot inclined markedly to its inner side through a shortening of the tendon. Through the years extremely painful measures were taken to straighten it. These early memories would probably have enhanced his sense from the beginning of his life that he was different from other people.
It seems appalling that Catherine should find herself so alone in these circumstances. She had shunned the disapproving Scottish relatives after her marriage and, stubborn as she was, she would not turn to them now. As for her husband's relatives, Jack Byron would not go near them unless there was a chance of dunning them for money. His own mother, the widow of the admiral, he ignored since he knew nothing was to be had from her. George Gordon Byron never set eyes on any of his grandparents. To all intents and purposes, this was a single-parent family -- with all its attendant problems.
Jack Byron returned briefly early in March, apparently little interested in his new son and heir. He seems to have been far more affected by the death of his sister, Juliana, Lady Wilmot, and to Frances he wrote: "My Father and now my Sister dying within a few years really makes me reflect that it will [be] my turn soon, and I am quite depressed." His own situation was unbearably gloomy: "My income is but small and what there is of it is settled on Mrs Byron and the Child, therefore I am obliged to live in a narrow circle which I need not have done, if those Rascals had not cheated me of a great deal by a law Suit I have in Edin[burgh] and I am obliged to pay the Jointure of a grandmother of Mrs Byron, who is as tough as possible." In his total self-absorption he may actually have believed this, but in a rare flash of insight he admits his fear that he might "run into extravagance ... by buying horses and perhaps hounds, in short I cannot answer for myself".
Although Catherine intended leaving Holles Street earlier, she was still there by the middle of April. Then she suddenly disappeared -- only to reappear in Aberdeen in August. The decision must have been thrust upon her by desperation, an anxiety to be back among her own people and the knowledge that in Scotland she would not be left destitute. When her husband followed her there it was simply because she was the only possible remaining source of funds.
Byron's passion for the sea may have been awakened by a childhood spent in a seaport. Aberdeen is situated on the North Sea on the estuaries of the Dee and the Don. Here whalers set out for the Arctic, and the port was generally filled with ships from Europe and America. Aberdeen was also the central market town of Deeside, within easy reach of the Cairngorm Mountains, which Byron would recall in one form or another in many nostalgic descriptive passages.
Apart from the charged emotional atmosphere of his home, Byron seems to have had a relatively happy childhood. He had cousins, his early schooling was lacking in trauma, and while there was little enough money, the family could live without real shame in Aberdeen. His father was a somewhat disturbing presence until Byron was about two and a half. Even from that early age he remembered the constant quarrels between his parents so vividly that they instilled in him a lifelong aversion to marriage.
Jack Byron joined them when Mrs Byron took up lodgings in Queen Street, but the domestic broils impelled him to move to rooms at the other end of the street. He was always more interested in Augusta than in little George, possibly because he had been genuinely in love with her mother, Amelia, or because he felt aversion for a child born with a deformity. He once took the boy for a night but he howled so lustily that his father returned him hurriedly the next morning. Still, many years later, Byron was to write lines of excessive sentimentality about his loss:
Stern Death, forbade my orphan youth to share, The tender guidance of a Father's care; Can Rank, or ev'n a Guardian's name supply, The Love, which glistens in a Father's eye? For this, can Wealth, or Title's sound atone, Made, by a Parent's early loss, my own? ("Childish Recollections", 1806, I, 219-224)
In September 1790 Jack Byron left for France to join his sister Frances, now separated from her husband, at her house in Valenciennes. Catherine Byron was never to see or hear from her husband again except for a brief refusal to help her.
The widow of Admiral Byron died in Bath on November 12, 1790. Frances, who seems to have been as self-centred as her brother, set off for England immediately to ascertain whether she had benefited from her mother's death. Jack Byron could not follow her because of his debtors, but Frances promised to look out for his interests. It never occurred to either of them to erect a tablet to her memory.
The letters exchanged between brother and sister during this period reveal that they undoubtedly had an incestuous affair while sharing the house in Valenciennes. "There is no person I love as well as you and that I wish you were here every minute," he told her (December 12). In letters of unadorned coarseness he tells his "dearest Fanny" of his relationships with local prostitutes: "As for La Henry she told me that I did it so well, that she always spent twice every time. I know this will make you laugh, but she is the best piece I ever ... [sic]" The only fatherly feeling he exhibited was to ask Fanny to enquire through a maid how Augusta was faring.
Meanwhile Catherine Byron, desperate for money, also turned to Fanny after she heard of the death of her mother, hoping that possibly there might be a legacy.
Some time ago I wrote to Mr Byron telling him I had not farthing in the world nor could I get any at present, and begging him to ask you to lend him thirty or forty pounds to send to me, to which he returned for answer that he could not think of asking you as you had been so good to him but that he had wrote to a person that he hoped would send it to me ... I only say this to let you know what situation I am in and that me nor my child have not at present a farthing nor know where to get one ... The reason I trouble you with this letter is to beg you will have the goodness to lend me thirty or forty pounds. I will pay you honestly in May next ... I beg an answer as soon as possible.
When her husband heard of this pathetic letter, he responded peevishly: "What can the Correspondence of Mrs Byron be? I hope not for money, as she has quite enough & never would give me a farthing." At all costs Fanny must not be persuaded to divert any money from himself to his wife and child. In order to reinforce this point he wrote again on February 19:
With regard to Mrs Byron I am glad she wrote to you. She is very amiable at a distance; but I defy you and all the apostles to live with her for two months for, if anybody could live with her it would be me.
In order to divest herself of the responsibility of her brother, Fanny suggested that Catherine rejoin her husband in France. This Catherine refused to do. She was far more concerned about doing something about little George's foot and begged her sister-in-law to contact the surgeon, Mr Hunter, who had examined the foot when the boy was an infant. She wanted an adequate shoe to correct his problem: "I am perfectly sure he would walk very well in time if he could have a proper shoe."
There is no indication that Fanny did anything about getting in touch with Mr Hunter; and it is possible that Byron's foot might have been improved were it not for lack of money. If Byron was to blame anyone for the neglect of his foot, it should have been his father for leaving his mother without the means to correct it.
Meanwhile Jack Byron's plight in France was becoming desperate and his letters to his sister increasingly plaintive. By April 13, 1792, he was at the end of his tether: "I dare not go out as everybody points at me. For God's sake come if possible, as it is impossible for me to remain here longer. The man [the bailiff] threatens to take the furniture away every minute, and I shall not have a bed to sleep on -- no person will give me credit for a sous, & I live absolutely on mere Bread." On June 21, 1792, he dictated his will to two French notaries, leaving his penniless son of four responsible for his debts and funeral expenses. Six weeks later he was dead of consumption. Frances had joined her brother again; and feeling very righteous, she informed Catherine of his death, adding the insensitive comment that she doubted if his wife would be sorry to hear of his end. On August 28 Catherine replied:
My dear Madam, You wrong me very much when you suppose I do not lament Mr Byron's death. It has made me very miserable and the more so that I had not the melancholy satisfaction of seeing him before his death ... notwithstanding all his foibles for they deserve no worse name I most sincerely loved him and believe my Dear Madam I have the greatest regards and affection for you for the very kind part you have acted to poor Mr Byron ... did he ever mention me was he long ill and where was he buried be so good [as] to write all these particulars and also send me some of his hair as to money matters they are perfectly indifferent to me I only wish there may be enough to pay his debts and to pay you the money that was laid out on his account I wish it was in my power to do all this but a hundred and fifty pounds a year will do little which is all I have ... George is well I shall be happy to let him be with you some time but at present he is my only comfort and the only thing that makes me wish to live. I hope if anything should happen to me you will take care of him.
Fond deluded woman! In her lucid or angry moments she recognised what an irresponsible cad her husband was, but she undoubtedly loved him. The rest of her life was spent in anxious devotion to the interests of her son; and when she saw him repeating his father's pattern of impetuous behaviour she was driven to distraction.
The uncertain peripatetic life was over and Catherine had to think of managing as best she could in Aberdeen. She moved into larger quarters at 54 Broad Street, the principal street in the town. Here she and her son with their maid, Agnes Gray, occupied the entire first floor. By now George was walking, and he must have become aware, from his mother's anxious expression, of his handicap. When a tactless lady remarked on how handsome he was but what a pity he had to limp, he lashed at her with his little whip. "Dinna speak of it." Nevertheless, he was very swift in his movements and was in constant mischief.
In the autumn of 1792 Mrs Byron enrolled the boy in a school in Long Acre where a Mr Bowser took in boys and girls for a guinea a year. Mrs Byron told Bowser that she was sending George to him that he might be "kept in about" -- that is, in order physically and morally. Many years later, with time on his hands in Ravenna in 1821, Byron began to keep a journal in which he recorded his memories of Mr Bowser's school.
I learned little there -- except to repeat by rote the first lesson of Monosyllables -- "God made man -- let us love him" by hearing it often repeated -- without acquiring a letter -- Whenever proof was made of my progress at home -- I repeated these words with the most rapid fluency, but on turning over a new leaf -- I continued to repeat them -- so that the narrow boundaries of my first year's accomplishments were detected -- my ears boxed -- (which they did not deserve -- seeing it was by ear only that I had acquired my letters) -- and my intellects consigned to a new preceptor. He was a very decent -- clever -- little Clergyman -- named Ross -- afterwards Minister of one of the Kirks ... under him -- I made an astonishing progress -- and I recollect to this day his mild manners & good-natured painstaking -- The moment I could read -- my grand passion was history ...
He was reading fluently by the time he was five, which would have delighted his mother who read every book and newspaper she could lay her hands on. From a very early age she took him to old St Paul's Episcopal Chapel. The poet Samuel Rogers was told by an old lady that she recalled sitting in the same pew and watching young George pricking his mother's plump arm with a pin as she prayed.
The next seven years seem to have been relatively tranquil. After her husband's death Catherine made peace with her grandmother and often took her son to stay in Banff, a pleasant town on the north-east coast, where she had many happy memories of her carefree youth. Byron was also taken to Ballerich, forty miles from Aberdeen, to recover from scarlet fever. Here he developed his great love of the Highlands, and for several years his mother returned there with him for holidays when he probably learned to swim in Highland streams.
The earliest picture we have of Byron survives from this period in Banff in a portrait by John Kay of a remarkably feminine boy with long curling hair holding a bow and arrow. Since Byron was always supposed to be chubby, the slight figure is probably a highly idealised version of the boy, but it would have pleased his doting mother. It is from Banff that the first stories of his teasing, stubborn nature survive. "The little devil Georgie Byron" someone called him; and sometimes indeed he seemed possessed of the devil in his sullen moods or ferocious tempers. Most children are mischievous, but in Byron the devilment could be imaginative and witty, a streak that survived throughout his life. Once when a doctor was about to bleed him he threatened to pull his nose and threw the medicine out of the window. On another occasion, when his mother was sitting with her relatives in the drawing room, he slipped upstairs and dressed a pillow with his coat and hat, flinging it out of the window with a shriek, to the terror of the assembled ladies.
Byron was enrolled at the Aberdeen Grammar School in 1794. He was not renowned for his academic achievement and was never one of the pupils who received a prize on Visitation Day. Scottish education has always been impressive, and Byron would have received a good grounding, especially in Latin. We know nothing about how he managed in the playground children can be very cruel, and undoubtedly he was taunted about his foot. It is possibly significant that in his recollections he does not mention any playmates.
A deeply emotional child, before he was eight he had fallen passionately in love with a cousin, Mary Duff, whom he met at dancing school. Nineteen years later in "Detached Thoughts" he recollected this intense attachment:
How the deuce did all this occur so early? where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder-stroke -- it nearly choked me -- to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of every body. And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever. I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me? or remember her pitying sister Helen, for not having an admirer too? How very pretty is the perfect image of her in my memory -- her brown dark hair and hazel eyes; her very dress! I should be quite grieved to see her now; the reality, however beautiful, would destroy, or at least confuse, the features of the lovely Peri who then existed in her and she still lives in my imagination, at the distance of more than sixteen years.
Catherine Byron was an emotional, sentimental and volatile woman. She shouted at her son and often slapped him when he bit his nails. In the charged atmosphere she created around her, Byron would have been accustomed to tears, for none of her feelings was bottled up. Repeatedly he heard her curse the whole Byron connection. As a child his emotions were over-developed, as was his longing to love and to be loved. Again and again throughout his life he was subject to sudden, violent attachments. While he says that no one ever engaged him again the way Mary Duff did, the facts of his life indicate something far different. There was also a strong rational strain in the boy. His mother took him to see a performance of The Taming of the Shrew when he was nine. At the point when Petruchio contradicts Katherina with the statement, "I swear it is the blessed sun", the boy jumped up and shouted, "But I say it is the moon, Sir!"
From time to time Catherine continued to correspond with her sister-in-law, Mrs Frances Leigh. However, relations cooled between them when Catherine learned that Frances, through their kinsman Lord Carlisle, had obtained a pension for the orphaned children of her other brother George Anson Byron but had done nothing for little George. Coolness turned to anger when she learned that her son had become heir to the Wicked Lord of Newstead Abbey and that Frances had not bothered to inform her that William Byron, the heir of the fifth lord, had been killed at the Battle of Calvi on July 31, 1794. "I should have supposed," Catherine wrote on November 23, 1794 "you would have wrote before now to have enquired about your Newphew [sic]. He is a fine Boy and very well and walks and runs as well as any other child."
Fiercely protective of her beautiful child, and hearing from Frances that the Wicked Lord was wasting the estate, she was anxious that something be done for him, particularly as her hands were tied when she lived so far away. On December 8 she tried to enlist Frances's aid: "You know Lord Byron. Do you think he will do anything for George, or be at any expense to give him a proper education; or, if he wish to do it, is his present fortune such a one that he could spare anything out of it? You know how poor I am, not that I mean to ask him to do anything for him, that is to say, to be of any expense on his own account."
The Wicked Lord, interested only in his crickets and perhaps his mistress, would not have wasted a thought on this little stranger in Aberdeen. He lingered on in bad health until May 19, 1798. By now Mrs Byron had been in touch with Mr Hanson who had treated her so kindly when her child was born. He produced her marriage certificate, necessary for the legality of her son's right to the title, but he had more difficulty in finding the money to bury the old man, who wasn't lowered into his final resting place until June 16, when Mrs Byron managed to raise the funds to pay for the burial by selling her furniture. Attentive to certain proprieties, she also insisted that the servants be dressed in black.
Even though he was only ten years old, George Gordon was certain that something momentous had happened to him from the excited way everyone around him was behaving. His mother -- whom he later described as "haughty as Lucifer" -- was carried away by his expectations He asked her whether she perceived any change in him since he had become a lord, for he perceived none himself. At school the Headmaster called him into his study and offered him cake and wine. When his name was read out in roll-call as Georgeus Domines de Byron he burst into tears.
It was a confusing time for the child. Of course it was pleasant to be fussed over and made to feel important. But, in human terms, it was a disaster for him. He might have had a reasonably contented existence had he continued to live in somewhat restricted circumstances in Aberdeen. He had not -- nor ever would have -- the funds to sustain the exalted station to which fate had suddenly elevated him. Nor did he have the family or extended network of connections to which other young men in his station could turn.
By cutting herself off from her family, Catherine had also cut off the possibilities for her son's future. What if he had not inherited the title? If he had gone into the Church, he would have had to seek an appointment or a "living" from a landowner. In any case, he was surely not suited by temperament for the ministry. Nor did he have a wealthy relative who could purchase a commission for him in the army. His foot might have been an impediment although he did become an excellent rider. Finally, it is difficult to imagine him as a short-tempered schoolmaster. The options were extremely limited given his birth, station, and the historical moment.
It is also problematic whether Byron would have become a poet if he had not become the sixth lord. He might have written poetry, but would an audience have been ready to listen to him had he not been a handsome aristocrat? It is hard to separate Byron the poet from Byron the man and from the life he led. And without an aristocratic background could he have written Childe Harold or Don Juan? The adventures he experienced, the turbulence he felt, the anxiety he suffered, the humiliation of his deformity -- all these were to become an intrinsic part of his work.
Houghton Mifflin Company
Back to the top