The Private Life of Lord Byron
By Antony Peattie
The first book to explore Byron's eating disorder, his father hunger and his rationale – Anorexia Heroica
Publication date: September 2019Support this project
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This book focuses on two related areas of Bryon’s private life, his intermittent eating disorder and his obsession with fatherhood. Byron starved himself compulsively for most (though not all) of his life. His behaviour mystified his friends and other witnesses. He never imagined he was ill, however – doctors first recognised and named anorexia nervosa in 1873, almost fifty years after his death. And yet, inevitably, his stratagems for coping with it had a major impact on his life and work: Byron rationalized his behaviour as a fight for spiritual freedom and, as I hope to show, he made it the cornerstone of his heroic ideal. That was central to his fiction, to his life and, indeed, to his death. Its effect was shown in his use of language, and in his preeminent, permanent obsession with the relationship between body and soul.
This book aims to understand the man better, in order to see his work and his world through his eyes. As a ‘partial portrait’, to use Henry James’s phrase, it explores several neglected or misunderstood aspects of his private life in order to illuminate such areas of obvious, public concern as Byron’s idea of heroism, his relationships with women, with Napoleon, Coleridge and Shelley. That in turns leads to a new understanding of his private intentions in his masterpiece, Don Juan.
The Private Life of Lord Byron traces his emergence into adulthood, marked by his first diet in 1807. It explores the patterns of behaviour that recurred throughout his life and highlights the way that love (his affairs with women) and glory (his relations with men) affected his private life and his work (in particular, Don Juan). It alternates between focusing on details and exploring the contemporary context, so as to establish how Britain’s war with France throughout the Regency period affected attitudes to fatness, Milton’s Satan and boxing. The book ends with a focus on Byron’s last days in Greece, where he tried to starve himself into heroic leadership but damaged his constitution and so died at the age of 36.
There are so many books devoted to Byron that it seems fair to let the reader know where this book distinguishes itself. Stella Gibbons highlighted the passages of Literature she was particularly proud of in her novel Cold Comfort Farm by adopting the travel guide method and marking them with one, two or three stars. I follow her example to indicate where this book says anything new.
The Private Life of Lord Byron will be designed by Peter Willberg and contain over 200 images to complement the text, some of them Byron artefacts photographed for the first time.
Antony Peattie’s first paid job after leaving university was correcting the English translation of Byron’s Italian letters. He was paid £3 per hour and worked in the basement of John Murray’s, where posh girls made instant coffee. As publications editor at Welsh National Opera he edited programmes and interpreted for Romanian, German and Italian directors and designers. He left to help launch Opera Now magazine before going freelance, devising Opera Bites for Glyndebourne, supertitles for Scottish Opera and surtitles for the Royal Opera. With Lord Harewood he edited the latest edition of Kobbe’s Complete Book of Opera. Meanwhile he continued to read and think about Byron. He has lectured on Byron at the National Portrait Gallery and at Tate Britain and contributed to Oxford’s Food Symposium on ‘Byron, Bread and Butter’. He is now Web Master for www.howard-hodgkin.com
‘Cette injustice fut réellement selon moi, son véritable défaut’
(‘I thought this injustice really was his only defect’)
Byron ‘always had the weakness of wishing to be thought much worse than he really was’. Thomas Moore confirmed Samuel Rogers’ insight, referring to the ‘perverse fancy [Byron] had for falsifying his own character’, as did Lady Blessington and Walter Scott. Byron became infamous for his cult of infamy, for his ‘tendency to malign himself’, for his ‘love of an ill-name’. His schoolfellow William Harness called it ‘hypocrisy reversed’. Before she married Byron Annabella Milbanke identified it as ‘the homage of Virtue to Vice’. It mystified his friends, appalled his wife and armed his enemies.
This perverse habit may have begun as Byron’s way of anticipating (and protecting himself from) his mother’s attacks. But what Harness called ‘a morbid love of a bad reputation’ also reflects Byron’s loyalty to his father. In libelling himself, Byron came into his paternal inheritance. At the age of nineteen, in 1807, he portrayed a young villain:
In mind a slave to every vicious joy,
From every sense of shame and virtue wean’d,
In lies an adept, in deceit a fiend;
Vers’d in hypocrisy, while yet a child,
Fickle as wind, of inclinations wild;
Woman his dupe, his heedless friend a tool,
Old in the world, though scarcely broke from school;
Damaetas ran through all the maze of sin,
And found the goal, when others just begin [‘Damaetas’, 2–10].
Privately, hopefully, Byron labelled this fragment ‘My Character’. He wished. But it bore a striking resemblance to his father’s infamy.
As a child Byron defended himself with his paternity: when he accidentally wounded a girl with a stone and her nurse rebuked him, he replied, ‘Do you know I’m Byron’s son?’
On several occasions in his life Byron straightforwardly imitated his father’s behaviour. Shortly before he went abroad in 1809, he dined with Mary Chaworth, his ‘old love of all loves’, and her husband. Afterwards, he hinted that he might have eloped with her, rather as his father eloped with the Marchioness of Carmarthen. In Childe Harold, the poem he started to write while he travelled abroad, he imagined reliving Captain Byron’s financial rape of Catherine Gordon and his parents’ short-lived, quarrelsome marriage: ‘Harold’s ‘kiss/Had ... spoil’d her goodly lands to gild his waste,/Nor calm domestic peace had ever deigned to taste’ (I, 41ff).
Byron’s attempts to follow his father’s demonic example generally failed to convince others. In the ‘Epistle to a Friend’, which he dated 11 October 1811, when he was twenty-three years old, Byron portrayed himself as ‘one whose deepening crimes/Suit with the sablest of the times’. His friend Francis Hodgson wrote in the margin: ‘N.B. The poor dear soul meant nothing of this. F.H.’
*All references are provided in full in the book.
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