Tuesday Book: Don Juan's reckless life (again)

BYRON: CHILD OF PASSION, FOOL OF FAME

BY BENITA EISLER, HAMISH HAMILTON, pounds 25

NOTHING DATES faster than a biography, replete as they always are with the prejudices of their era. Now the consensus seems to be that we need new ones every 20 years or so - or else become victims of yesterday's thinking. But some figures get biographies every five years, implying either indulgence or a succession of redundancies. For the umpteenth time, we have another Byron biography, and yet again it contains no really new information - just a shameless re-editing of well-worn facts for the tastes and caprices of 1999.

Biographies have played a subtle but distinctive part in the development of Lord Byron's mystique. The poet's close friend, John Cam Hobhouse, scrawled revealing marginalia all over his copy of the first Byron biography, by Thomas Moore. This information has since played a key role in untangling much of what was hidden in Byron's public life - especially his homosexuality. The unravelling of all the secrets of Byron's life, undertaken by biographers this century with access at last to family papers, has led to an almost total re-evaluation of his work.

But biographers must have their axe to grind. Benita Eisler has already been criticised for an attempt to characterise Byron as a sexually abused child who went on to become a serial abuser of children: a slab of crude reductionism, were it true. One academic has attacked her for having a poor historical sense and for giving scant attention to Byron's poetic output - a charge that must be especially galling since Eisler complains "no 20th century biographer has troubled to examine his art". She obviously considers that she has done so.

To be fair, I think Eisler does try, on the whole, to avoid a crass, late-20th century gloss on the thorny subject of child abuse. Even so, she seems much more agitated by Byron having sex with young girls than young boys, giving quite unreasonable credence to Lady Byron's crazed jotting about the poet trying to rape 11-year-old Charlotte Harley. All biographers worth their salt accept that Lady Byron went to incredible lengths to gather with vindictive rage often dubious evidence against her estranged husband. As to Byron's succession of page boys, choirboys and Greek lads, Eisler seems as unconcerned and urbane as, say, Gore Vidal might be.

Her Byron is a snobbish, depressive, anorexic whirlwind of a man, rarely in control of his own life and always on the run from something (usually women). Since Byron's motives are inevitably complex, and so can be read either way, my feeling is that she tends to come down on the side of scepticism. She assumes he often acts from malice or insecurity. I think she is unfair. And although Eisler happens to be the author of a work on the class system in America, her take on Byron's aristocratic status (and the way he deals with it) is incredibly flat-footed.

As to Eisler's style, it is restrained and lofty without recourse to wit. She has that infuriating tendency among modern biographers to boil off primary sources almost before our noses, packing each paragraph with (too many) quotes. But quotes can come out of context and besides, the footnote is a far more glorious way of backing up assertions.

Eisler's footnotes are meagre; one in particular highlights that charge of poor historicity. In order to paint a picture of sexual depravity at Harrow during Byron's time, she quotes a lurid and famous description by AJ Symonds that is more Scum than Tom Brown's Schooldays - orgies, rapes, younger boys referred to as "bitches". But this refers to the situation at Harrow in 1854 - 53 years after Byron first went there. Knowing that she's pulling a fast one, Eisler vainly protests "there is every reason to suppose that what was common practice in Victorian Harrow had begun during the Regency".What reasons, pray, are those? Since when was 1801 "the Regency"?

It would be very hard to write a boring biography of Byron, and the story fairly rattles along: the troubled youth; the years of fame; scandal; decline; and Venice. But coming in at over 700 pages, this book neither has the gravitas of the definitive three-volume Leslie Marchand biography, nor the rude spriteliness of later revisionist studies - for example, the excellent Byron and Greek Love by Louis Crompton, which finally blew the lid on the homosexuality. Rather than read Eisler, the Byron novice would be far better seeking out these two works, and polishing them off with the Selected Letters.

Eisler's final judgement that Byron is all things to all people, claimed by everyone from queer theorists to Greek nationalists, and therefore ultimately a mystery, is true on one level. But it's also an admission of failure to identify the essence of the man. I felt this biography was neither a love affair nor a duel - and, with Byron, it must be one or the other.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own