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Book review / Don Juan: the paradox

BYRON: The Flawed Angel by Phyllis Grosskurth, Hodder pounds 20
In One of her crisper sentences, Phyllis Grosskurth describes Byron as "the first modern celebrity". The poet who woke up to find himself famous when the first two Cantos of Childe Harold were published in 1812 went on to become celebrated for - well, you name it. For the debts and incest which drove him from London into exile in 1816; for the promiscuities of his exile itself, for the vehemence of his satires (Don Juan, in particular) and the glamour of his cape-swirling narratives (Manfred); for his alliance with the cause of Greek independence; and for his apparently heroic (but actually wretched) death at Missolonghi.

When his coffin was paraded through London in the late spring of 1824, on its way to burial in Nottinghamshire, the poet John Clare was among the hundreds who pressed to catch a glimpse. "A young girl that stood beside me gave a deep sigh," Clare wrote later, "& uttered 'Poor Lord Byron' ... I looked up at the young girl's face it was dark & beautiful & I could almost feel in love with her for the sigh she had uttered for the poet."

Grosskurth doesn't tell this story of Clare's sighting - which misrepresents her book's generally sensible thoroughness, but also reflects her reluctance to depart from the biographical path mapped by Leslie Marchand in his Byron: A Portrait (1971), in which it also goes unmentioned. Given that no significant new life of Byron has appeared in the interim, Grosskurth's predictability is all the more disappointing.

There are times, admittedly, when it looks as though she is going to break new ground by offering some sort of feminist interpretation (as when she refers to the "systematic destruction" of Byron's beloved half- sister Augusta Leigh). And there are others at which she seems to want to trim the whole sprawling story into a work of elegant psychological topiary. (She connects many of Byron's disastrous love-affairs to his feelings for his fond but "foolish" mother.) But these and other such efforts come to very little, either because she lacks the intellectual energy or (and this is at once more likely and more surprising) because in the course of writing, Grosskurth was bewitched by her subject into treating him too simply, and with too much docility. Her account is sympathetic but un- surprising. It does very little to explain Byron's connection with - and separation from - the life of his times. It makes no effort to analyse or characterise the poems.

There is one respect in which the book's failure to fulfil its potential seems especially frustrating. Quoting the familiar lines from Don Juan, "Man's love is of his life a thing apart, / 'Tis Woman's whole existence", and reinforcing them (60-odd pages later) with a quotation from one of his letters in which he says "Indeed I rather look upon Love altogether as a sort of hostile transaction - very necessary to make - or to break - in order to keep the world a-going - but by no means a sinecure to the parties involved", she lets us see that in fact "love" was almost never "a thing apart" in Byron's life. The emotional insecurities created by (yes) his mother, his spendthrift and soon-dead father, his lameness, and the disparities between his noble social position and his financial ignominy: all these helped to shape a personality in which the drive for independence was empowered by a desperate wish for shelter.

Hence the implosions of his explosive life. In early manhood he was already idealising the latter part of his time at Harrow school. Years before his affair with his half-sister Augusta he had - aged eight - conceived a passion for his cousin Margaret Parker, who inspired his "first dash into poetry". As a fledgeling Lord trying to make his mark in politics, he spoke in favour of reform while maintaining a more or less feudal regime on his own estate at Newstead. He eventually married a woman - Annabella Milbanke - whom he could respect as a "model of probity" while at the same time betraying her. As an exile, his pleasure in freedom was fed by the sorrow of remembered exclusions at home. In his final long affair with Teresa Guiccioli, he followed her miserably from town to town, while all the time writing poems which disdained such emotional thralldom.

It's hardly news to say that the Byronic character is a mass of paradoxes: macho yet sentimental, defiant yet stricken. But it would have been interesting to see Grosskurth develop the idea that, as the contradictions pile up, they make her subject more and more narcissistic. Byron himself dignified this tendency by protesting that he had "no passion for circles". To put it more plainly: he formed his strongest bonds with women who were either closely related to him or who replicated the structure of his relationship with his mother, and with men (John Edelston at Cambridge and Loukas in Greece) who seemed to preserve and present him with the image of his own youth.

This is important for its own identity-giving sake, and also because it helps us understand the motives and mood of his poetry. When Grosskurth says feebly that Byron's work "always produced a release for his pent- up emotions", what she means - or ought to mean - is that writing gave Byron the chance to reverse the flow of all the forces which drove him in on himself. What was liable to sentimental indulgence in his life became a target for satirical ire in his verse, what was vulnerable became worldly-wise, what was self-absorbed became critical of society in general.

Keats, with typical shrewdness, got onto this, but his illness and his jealousy of Byron led him to give it the wrong value. Byron had, Keats told his friend Severn, a "paltry imagination, that of being new by making solemn things gay & gay things solemn". As "things" have turned out, Byron's way of making it new has stood the test of time extraordinarily well. Don Juan, in particular, still feels urgently modern, funny and sharp, and among long poems it has the rare distinction of getting (even) better as it goes along. Grosskurth's biography may be pedestrian, but it at least reminds us how directly Byron still speaks to us, and how our present- day writerly ironies - in prose as well as poetry - owe a great deal to his example.