Famously impeded by a club foot, Byron was born to a father he never knew and a mother with whom he always had a cruelly antagonistic relationship. He was cared for by a nurse who sexually abused him. By the time he became the sixth Lord Byron at the age of 10, he was disturbed and disturbing, and doomed as an adult to indulge in destructive sexual relationships with members of both sexes (including his half-sister, Augusta Leigh) which were to make him as infamous and vilified as his poetry, notably Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage and Don Juan, brought him adoration to the point of idolatry.
Brief examples of his treatment of his wife, Annabella Milbanke, may here serve for many other iniquities. He gave Annabella abundant proof of his ongoing intimacy with Augusta, with whom they spent a gruesome honeymoon. Just before his wife went into labour with their only child, he told her he hoped both she and the child would die and two days after the birth he abused and sodomised her. Publicity surrounding the marriage would force Byron to spend the rest of his life abroad.
It is reasonable to expect any new biography – especially one on an individual already so thoroughly anatomised in print – to shed new light on its subject, either by presenting material previously unavailable or overlooked, or by offering an original interpretation of the existing archive. While Byron in Love is an aimiable enough jaunt through Byron's life, it cannot be said to bring anything new to the table except for Edna O'Brien's personal fascination with her subject. Nor does it particularly concern "Byron in love" (the title owes more to marketing than pertinence). It is the style in which this account is written which marks it out.
When Byron, not yet married, is first re-united with his half-sister, O'Brien breaks into the present tense: "Her presence is soon a delight ... she seems to understand him as no woman previously had. It's crinkum and crankum and laughter, pulling him out of his grumps, and the lame foot that he had so determinedly hidden from all others, not hidden from her and christened by them 'the little foot'. And so it is Guss and Goose and Baby Byron and foolery and giggles, Augusta wearing the new dresses and silk shawls he has bought for her, the thrill of showing her off to the acerbic hostesses, home in his carriage at five or six in the morning ... and somehow it happened, the transition from affection to something untoward. Never, he said, 'was seduction so easy'."
O'Brien sweeps the reader along, much as Byron and Augusta were swept along, so that the incestuous relationship which results is something effortlessly, thoughtlessly and inevitably arrived at, rather than a consciously wrong and transgressive deed. Here, as in many other places, O'Brien's talents as a writer assist her in conveying the texture of Byron's life, which a conventional biographer might approach quite differently.
But there is a downside to this. Further on in the story, switching between past and present tense becomes an erratic practice. At one point, the tense changes eight times in the space of half as many pages, for no discernible reason. Other grammatical peccadilloes, while familiar devices in poetry and prose fiction, are puzzling in this context, and sometimes threaten to seem either affected or careless.
Biography is probably the wrong term for this book, as it leads us to expect something conforming to what is basically a pretty rigid format with – to a greater or lesser degree – scholarly constraints. There are no footnotes and no bibliography here, and it is usually unclear who spoke or wrote the phrases O'Brien places in quotation marks. Rather, this is a retelling, a vivid and writerly reconstruction of the aspects of the story of Byron's life which have caught a novelist's eye.
Capricious, indulgent, uneven, flawed and semi-experimental, Byron in Love will not endear itself to the reader who expects biographical statements to be buttressed by factual evidence. But, taking a more relaxed view, there is much to enjoy in this idiosyncratic and highly readable account of the poet whose writing enthralled and whose actions appalled in equal measure.
Sarah Burton's 'A Double Life' is published by Penguin