Mad, bad and delightful to know: How Lord Byron became a cultural superstar

As Lord Byron takes centre stage in the West End, Boyd Tonkin explains how an outspoken champion of the poor became a cultural superstar.

Riots and protests by the disaffected poor, with the looming spectre of "mob rule", have often troubled MPs and lords at Westminster. No lawmaker, though, has ever raised his voice on behalf of the mutinous have-nots as boldly as one 24-year-old peer did during his maiden speech in the House of Lords on 27 February 1812. Over the previous nine months, the Luddite revolt against new technology in the weaving trades that boosted profits but eliminated jobs had spread through the villages of the young lord's native Nottinghamshire. Under cover of darkness, unemployed stocking-weavers moved from workshop to workshop, smashing the "wide frames" that had wrecked their livelihoods and starved their families.

In panic, the Tory government had sent in the troops to put Nottingham and the surrounding districts under virtual martial law: 1,000 infantry and 900 cavalry in December 1811; two more regiments in January. Then it turned to the criminal statutes. On 21 February the Frame Work Bill, which made frame-breaking a capital crime, passed the House of Commons. When it came before the Lords, who better to speak on the subject than the noble possessor of Newstead Abbey, unexpectedly inherited in 1798? From his country seat, he could almost see the flames of the rioters.

Few people then knew much about George Gordon, the sixth baron Byron. Although he seemed to favour the Whigs rather than the Tories, fellow-peers might have expected a show of class solidarity. What they got was a revolutionary bombshell, and a theatrical coup that set the tone for the next few, astonishing weeks in Byron's life.

By April 1812, the lame and feckless drifter from an eccentric Scottish family had redefined the nature of literary stardom. He had more or less fixed the modern meanings of celebrity. And he was well on the way to becoming (after Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he revered) the most admired and influential European figure of the 19th century, a byword for artistic audacity and sexual adventure.

This month, the Jermyn Street Theatre revives Howard Brenton's play Bloody Poetry, which dramatises the torrid ménage à quatre that Byron hosted on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, along with Percy and Mary Shelley and his lover, Claire Clairmont. Such scandals fixed the "Byronic" as a style of life as well as poetry. But his career of thrilling heresy had begun in, of all places, the House of Lords.

Byron's month of miracles – and madness – started with his outrageous defence of the Luddites. His speech begins coolly, with the economic facts: "By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment." Soon the rhetoric soars and scorches. With a nod to his two formative years of travel in the Mediterranean, from 1809 to 1811, he asserts that "never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return in the very heart of a Christian country." "Is there not blood enough in your penal code?" Byron asks: "How will you carry this bill into effect? Can you commit a whole county to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field, and hang up men like scarecrows?"

Byron himself, who never lost his debonair, ironic Georgian side, mocked his own oratory as "perhaps a little theatrical". His biographers tend to agree that his barnstorming showmanship proved he had no future in politics. In one respect, though, he had fulfilled a promise – not to local folk in general, but one in particular.

At Newstead, Byron had been sleeping with a Welsh servant-girl, Susan Vaughan: a drastic failure of invention led him to nickname her "Taffy". There was some droit de seigneur involved, no doubt but they were genuinely fond of each other. She wrote him letters in mock-Nottinghamshire, an accent strange to her Welsh ears.

A damp squib in Parliamentary terms, the Luddite apologia showed off all Byron's nascent flair for the grand gesture, the flamboyant entrance, the shocking heresy. A few days later, his career as a poet – and cultural superstar – took off like a rocket. By 10 March, his friend John Murray had published the first two Cantos of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage": the disguised autobiographical epic in Spenserian stanzas that he had begun in 1809 at Ioannina (now in northern Greece) while a guest of the vizier Ali Pasha, legendary for his cruelty, generosity and garguantuan sexual appetites.

Byron, as he wrote, "woke up and found himself famous". "With a single poem," writes Phyllis Grosskurth (along with Fiona MacCarthy, the best of his modern biographers), he "had achieved a sort of celebrity and attention beyond his wildest dreams". Sexy, defiant, smouldering, rebellious, idealistic, melancholic: the vagabond hero of "Childe Harold" created the prototype of the Romantic hero that not only outlived his century but, in avatars from James Dean to Che Guevara, lasted through the next. Byron's guilt-ridden but ever-questing hero would, as Grosskurth says, "haunt the imagination of Europe".

By 1816, the 10 editions of the first two Cantos had together sold perhaps 20,000 copies, but never in cheap editions. At first, that overnight fame opened smart salon doors to Byron in aristocratic London. Mass adulation came later. But it was soon enough for his publisher, whose bestseller until Byron had been Mrs Rundell's Domestic Cookery (plus ça change...), to move to the swanky address of 50 Albemarle Street off Piccadilly – where the John Murray office still stands.

When it comes to rock-star charisma, Byron wrote the book – and lived out its precepts. Imploring letters flooded in from swooning female admirers, demanding locks of hair, meetings, trysts, marriages. The "Childe Harold" fan archive reveals a hidden continent of loneliness, fantasy and sheer neediness. Nothing like this had ever happened in Europe before. "The subject of conversation, of curiosity, of enthusiasm," wrote the Duchess of Devonshire, "is not Spain or Portugal, Warriors or Patriots, but Lord Byron." Yet this star-struck mania would recur, time and again, for idols of page, stage, screen and disc, with always (as MacCarthy writes) the "remarkable capacity" of stricken devotees to "construct their personal scenarios around him". As women pursued him, so the myth of the Byronic seducer took shape, and the bisexual poet could try to flee the homoerotic feelings that had shaped his affections in youth.

Byron now ascended a high-speed social escalator. Dressed in black (a new fashion, promoted by the dandy Beau Brummell), he charmed and jested his way through the drawing- and dining-rooms of London. Melbourne House in Whitehall, the labyrinthine, scandal-haunted London home of the raffish Melbourne clan, became his favourite haunt. With the wordly-wise grande dame Lady Melbourne, whose children allegedly all had different fathers, he struck up one of the warmest friendships of his life. Lady M had two younger relations who would in complementary ways alter the course of Byron's life. Her daughter-in-law, married to her son William, was Lady Caroline Lamb. And her niece Annabella Milbanke would (disastrously for her and for him) become Lady Byron.

Byron first properly met Lady Caroline in early March at Holland House. Soon he and his "fan of fans" (according to MacCarthy) had begun one of the stormiest, and maybe silliest, affairs of the age. When in her diary, "Caro" dubbed Byron "mad, bad and dangerous to know", Grosskurth thinks that the words serve pretty well as a self-description. Spirited, wayward, obsessive (but with an autistic son on whom she doted), Caro was 27, older than her adulterous paramour. Melodramatic and histrionic, their passion was played out in public before a rapt audience of posh gossips. "People talk," he wrote, "as if there were no other pair of absurdities in London." Caro sent him pubic hair, dressed as a page boy, farcically tried to elope with him. Byron blew hot and cold but, by April, could write to her as "the cleverest, most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2,000 years ago".

Yet the exhausting excitement of this affair sharpened for Byron the low-key charms of Annabella Milbanke, the sombre, studious "Princess of Parallelograms" who would become his unhappy wife. They also met in March 1812. But only in the autumn did he consider Annabella as a likely partner. Without the Caro roller-coaster, maybe Byron could have avoided the drawn-out house of horrors that was marriage to Annabella. For Grosskurth, "He loved the thrill of living on the edge, but another part of him craved acceptance, respectability, and a quiet indolent life." That he never found – except, perhaps, with Teresa Guiccioli, his long-standing mistress in Italy, before the final adventure in the cause of Greek independence that would end in his death in 1824.

In any case, those few weeks after February 1812 cast the die for him. And for us, in that the forms of hysterical celebrity that he unwittingly road-tested have never gone away. TV, websites, magazines, newspapers, thrill to the escapades of mini-Byrons from recording studios, Hollywood lots, even football pitches. Not one, however, has broken with the citadels of power and privilege as Byron did when he spoke up for the Luddites. Equally, it's hard to imagine a showbiz celebrity today laying down his life for the liberty of others, as Byron did. Or is it? As the heirs to the Great Powers again reduce Greece to enslavement, there's always a first – or rather, a second – time.

'Bloody Poetry', Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1 (020 7287 2875) to 25 February

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal