Byron in Love, By Edna O' Brien

Reviewed,Emma Hagestadt
Friday 12 February 2010 01:00

Nearly 200 years after Byron's death, writers and dramatists are still in his thrall. Benjamin Markovitz's recent novel, A Quiet Adjustment, recreated the poet's brief marriage to Anabella Milbanke. Then last year came Rupert Everett's flirtatious televised homage, involving dressing up and stripping down. Edna O'Brien, a writer naturally drawn to matters romantic, says that her own interest was first whetted by a remark of Lady Blessington that he was "the most extraordinary and terrifying person [she had] ever met." That, and the fact that she likes the idea of "writers writing about other artists."

While O'Brien's succinct and readable account doesn't offer any radical reappraisal of the poet's life, her novelistic flair lends the well- rehearsed events a fresh drama. Part way through the book, the author is so transported by her story that she plunges recklessly into the present tense. Tellingly, the occasion is Byron's reunion with his half sister, Augusta Leigh, a woman who "seems to understand him as no previous woman had."

Not one to dawdle, having dealt with her subject's fractured childhood, O'Brien progresses post-haste to Byron's "Childe Harold" years and on to his miserable demise in a Greek swamp. Despite the book's contention that Byron is Everyman ("human, ambitious, erratic, generous, destructive, dazzling, dark and dissonant"), it's clear that history's most notorious poet and erotomane was mostly in love with himself and, at a pinch, his sister.

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