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John Edleston, ‘I certainly love him more than any human being’. He expressed similar feelings for Efstathios Georgiou, whose ‘ambrosial curls’ hung down over his shoulders and who carried a

We think we know the Romantics. Their endlessly retold lives have become familiar through shorthand vignettes: Blake and his wife sitting naked in their summer house; Coleridge scribbling poetry under the influence of class A drugs; Wordsworth jumping his own sister; Shelley committing suicide by sailboat; Keats born in a stable.


What does any of this show? Not only that we know very little, but also that what we think we know is mostly redundant. Take, for instance, the way we use the adjective ‘Byronic’, flinging it around as if its significance were obvious: Lord Owen, the Daily Telegraph told us on 28 May this year, has a ‘Byronic dash of Richard Burton’; in an interview for the New York Times earlier that month, D A Pennebaker referred to Bob Dylan’s ‘Byronic quality’; in a recent performance of Adelson e Salvini, The Guardian assured us, the Italian tenor Enea Scala looked ‘dashingly Byronic’.

When making judgements about what historical figures were really like, a good place to begin would be eyewitness testimony. Accounts of Byron are remarkably consistent. In youth he was, Isaac D’Israeli recorded, ‘all rings and curls and lace … more like a girl than a boy’. He remained so throughout his life; in his final year, as James Hamilton Browne noted, his ‘delicately formed features were cast rather in an effeminate mould’. Not only that: Byron liked to wear diamond necklaces and earrings, rolled his hair in the early 19th-century equivalent of curlers and hankered after pubescent boys.

The more obscure details of Byron’s life make his predilections plain. Fresh off the boat in Turkey in May 1810, he and his friend John Hobhouse struck out for the local ‘buggering shop’, where they feasted upon the sight of a go-go boy, whom Hobhouse described as ‘dancing in a style indescribably beastly, scarcely moving from one place, but making a thousand lascivious motions with his thighs, loins and belly’. It was clearly not beastly enough to put them off another visit two days later, when they ogled ‘two old and ugly boys’ who ‘performed an Alexandrian woman’s dance’ and ‘seemed as if kissing’.

It’s true that Byron had a larger than average share of heterosexual encounters. If his own estimates are to be believed, he bedded a sizeable proportion of the female population of Venice, paying upwards of £2,500 (a fortune in those days) for over two hundred women. It was worth every penny because he could recount the details in letters home, which his publisher read aloud to friends, neighbours and business associates, all of which fuelled the myth that survives to this day of Byron as a ladies’ man. The idea that Byron paid women for sex is itself misleading because it makes him sound almost normal for his time; it wasn’t especially normal to make women dress as teenage boys, as he did with Lady Caroline Lamb. What he did with her afterwards is suggested by his pet name for Venice – ‘Sea-Sodom’.

Heterosexuality was the smokescreen that concealed the relationships Byron craved. He wrote of a Cambridge choirboy,

parasol ‘to save his complexion from the heat’; for Nicolo Giraud, a Greek of French parentage; and for Loukas Chalandritsanos, a pageboy with whom Byron fell in love on Cephalonia. Each was fifteen years old when Byron fell for him. He preferred to keep such feelings secret because they contradicted the idea of him as an exemplary heterosexual, a revolutionary and war hero.

‘Seek out ... A Soldier’s Grave – for thee the best’, Byron wrote in one of his final lyrics, as he and the snaggle-toothed gang of Armenian desperadoes, banditti and pickpockets who made up his ‘army’ engaged in their chaotic manoeuvres in the swamps of Missolonghi. It was just as well Byron’s geezers never saw action: they were led by someone whose principal aim was to dress up and play drill sergeant. He designed six elaborate outfits for himself with black leather straps, epaulettes, sashes, gold braid and shiny brass dangly bits. And then there were his impressive helmets, which he kept in pink flowery hatboxes.

As Byron never set foot on a battlefield other than as a tourist, he should have been safe from harm. Alas, his ten German bodyguards were unable to protect him from the medical profession. In the wilds of southern Greece Byron probably spent more time with his beloved dog than with anything or anyone else. Having caught a mild infection, probably from a dog tick, Byron languished in bed while his personal physicians – well versed in the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Galen – relieved him of ‘impure humours’ using scalpels and leeches. He died of sepsis at the age of thirty-six.

If Byron has become an exemplar of the live-fast, die-young lifestyle we now associate with rock stars, it is only because we want him to be. We do the same with Keats and Shelley, both of whom died young, though not because of their hedonistic lifestyles. Byron wasn’t a Romantic hero and didn’t die in battle. But we still like the Romantic idea of the creative genius, as much as we do the idea that genius must be paid for: geniuses, like Faust, make a contract with the devil – and the devil must always be paid. Byron’s self-constructed alter ego endures because it is familiar and reassuring and distracts us from the need to read his poetry. Myths appeal because they shrink-wrap creativity, making it approachable, rather than revealing it as the essentially unknowable thing it really is. Byron the author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan becomes easier to handle when reinvented in this way. That he might instead have been a manic-depressive pederast with a drink problem may deter many from approaching his Complete Works.

Isn’t it better to see the past clearly? Isn’t it right that, if we educate ourselves about writers and their lives, we respect the truth? Otherwise, we’re just deluding ourselves and might as well describe Tom Hiddleston as ‘Byronic’ when he isn’t, while neglecting the noble lord’s uncanny resemblance to such illustrious contemporaries as Michael Jackson. r july 2016 | Literary Review 1