‘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.