Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know - The Original Byronic Hero

by Ellen Micheletti

In an episode of the television show Highlander, they portrayed Lord Byron as an immortal who was currently an idolized rock star. The analogy is not at all far fetched. Lord Byron's rise and fall from the public's esteem parallels the career of the 1950's Rock star Jerry Lee Lewis. Both Lord Byron and Lewis came to sudden white-hot fame and were the focus of adoring crowds. Both of them fell out of favor with the public due to sex scandals. Lord Byron was accused of commiting incest with his half-sister and Jerry Lee Lewis was denounced for having married his 14-year-old cousin.

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George Gordon, the sixth Baron Byron was born in 1788. His father was John "Mad Jack" Byron and his mother was Catherine Gordon Byron. Byron was born with a club foot, a defect that caused him anguish of mind and body throughout his entire life. Byron's father died when he was very young and Byron and his mother spent a lot of time running from creditors. Byron become the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale when he was ten years old and for the rest of his life he was always conscious of his dignity as a peer, no matter how reckless and wild his behavior.

Byron was educated at Harrow and later went to Cambridge. He fell in and out of love quickly and often. Byron's one confidante was his half-sister Augusta Leigh, the daughter of his father and his father's first wife. This relationship was to cause Byron to be embroiled in a severe scandal later. Byron did practically nothing at Cambridge, nothing but make friends and break rules. He sat in the House of Lords, had several love affairs and was in a constant state of worry about money. In 1809 Byron and some of his friends went to Europe for a Grand Tour. Byron loved Europe as he did not love England and his tour gave him the raw material for his first great work. Byron returned to England in 1812 and that year, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was published. The poem was wildly popular and in Byron's words, "I awoke to find myself famous."

Childe Harold introduced the concept of the Byronic hero. This type of hero has been popular for a long time and has never totally faded away. He is a type of romantic alpha male and shows up in novels, poems, plays and movies. The Byronic hero is first and foremost an outsider and a man of contradictions. He is kind, but capable of cruelty - devoted to his current lover, yet never able to remain faithful and always, always moving on in search of new sensations. Byron felt compelled to play the role, although he was by nature rather shy. Byron was an extremely handsome young man. He was five feet eight inches tall with curly brown hair and blue eyes. When he was at Cambridge, he weighed over 200 pounds, but by exercise and rigorous dieting, he brought his weight down to 145. Byron fought all his life against his tendency to be plump.

Byron became the new pet of the Holland House Set, a group of rich, influential and spoiled aristocrats. One of the members of the group was Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of William Lamb, later to be Viscount Melbourne and Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister. Lady Caroline was willful and more than a little bit wild and literally threw herself at Lord Byron. They had a passionate affair that was an open scandal, but Byron quickly grew tired of Lady Caroline, who had a propensity for causing scenes and throwing fits in public. Once she sent Byron a love note and enclosed some of her pubic hair. When Byron broke off the affair, Lady Caroline tried to stab herself. She later published a scandalous roman a clef novel called Glenarvon which gave her side of the affair. (LLB: Those interested in a bad movie we love to hate might look for Lady Caroline Lamb starring Sara Miles.)

Byron turned more and more for comfort to his half-sister Augusta Leigh and it is certain that their relationship was a sexual one. It is possible that Byron was the father of Augusta's daughter Elizabeth Medora Leigh, although he was not sure and contemporary historians are divided. Augusta urged Byron to marry and he proposed to Annabella Millbanke, an intelligent, but somewhat prudish young woman. The marriage was an unmitigated disaster. Annabella and Byron were totally unsuited for each other, and Byron behaved abominably toward his wife. The marriage produced a daughter, Ada, but Byron and Annabella soon separated. Rumors of Byron's relationship with his half-sister got out and public outrage was such that in 1816 Byron left England never to return.

In Europe, Byron spent much time wandering. His money troubles never totally ceased, but his income went further there than in England. Byron worked on his long poem Don Juan in Europe and composed other verses and verse plays as well. Byron became friends with the poet Percy Bysse Shelley, another exile from England, and fathered a daughter, Allegra, by Shelley's sometime mistress Claire Clairmont. Byron dabbled in Italian politics through another mistress Teresa Guicioli, and even briefly joined a secret society, the Carbonari, but he was never seriously involved with the Italians.

After Shelley's death, Byron did become seriously involved in the fight for Greek independence from Turkey. He gave both money ahd time to the cause and his exertions wore him out. Byron died in 1824 of a fever complicated by the barbaric medical treatment he received. Byron was buried in his family's vault. Permission to bury him in Westminster Abbey was not granted due to his notoriety, and it was not until 1969 that a plaque commemorating Lord Byron was dedicated in the Abbey.

 

Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
Find links to all of Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants



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