Edna O’Brien opens Byron in Love with a simple question: “Why another book on Byron?” The answer comes in the form of a remark by the poet’s friend Lady Blessington, who once referred to Byron as “the most extraordinary and terrifying person” she had ever met. Within a few chapters, the reader is convinced; O’Brien’s narrative is a compelling account of Byron’s Caligula-like cruelty, his gifts as a narrative poet, his amorous adventures in Europe (and with Cambridge choir boys), and his infamous eccentricities (he paraded around Trinity College with a pet bear and wanted to own Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skull). For O’Brien, a novelist known for employing themes of eroticism and literary history, the opportunity to profile such a character—described by his lover Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—is understandably irresistible. O’Brien details Byron’s life with precision and verve, beginning with his humble birth in London, mapping his ascent to aristocracy at the tender age of ten, and ending with his exile and death in Greece. The tumultuous thirty-six years of Byron’s life resulted in a trail of scorned lovers, abandoned children, and most important, some of the English language’s most celebrated poetry, which, unfortunately, often takes a backseat to stories of the writer’s bawdy escapades.
A slim addition to the tall stack of Byron scholarship, Byron in Love is most remarkable for how much it accomplishes in a mere 240 pages. O’Brien spent two years engrossed in letters, journals, and biographies; her exhaustive research allows her to convey a keen sense of the poet’s life, rich with period detail. She imparts society gossip with a cloak-and-dagger intensity, lushly describes political and social climes, and offers sympathetic portrayals of those in Byron’s orbit who were overcome by the eroticism of his words. O’Brien takes every measure to capture the grandiose (and frequently absurd) atmosphere that Byron inhabited and the violent emotions he invariably aroused.
The intricate sentences and ornate language of O’Brien’s fiction have won her praise from the likes of John Banville and Philip Roth. Byron in Love, however, is a different story. An odd blend of description, scholarship, and primary-source material, the book is a pastiche of multiple voices, which have the effect, as Jane Shilling noted in the London Times, of couching her narrative in “a florid patois.” O’Brien is also fond of switching between past and present tense (sometimes as often as five times in a single paragraph) resulting in a mildly schizophrenic tone, which, while possibly meant to be Byronic, is disconcerting.
Her writing aspires to be Elizabethan theater; or, more precisely, to the melodrama of a Romantic novel: “Augusta, at Byron’s request, has also been invited, but she declines, now finding herself pregnant and therefore queasy and also guessing that she might be a wallflower in that company. Accepting, Byron requests that he be excused from going to the races at Doncaster and also from dining with them, as he does not dine at all.”
Byron was a figure overshadowed by the mythology that grew around him. He apparently mystified even himself—as he said, “I am sure of nothing so little as my own intentions.” It is the biographer’s task to separate history from lore, to untangle the contradictory strands of the subject’s interior life. O’Brien’s book partially succeeds but performs the task with distracting affectations. For the reader willing to brave these thickets of prose, Byron in Love is a solid introduction to the poet’s madness and genius.
Jessica Loudis is an associate editor of Conjunctions and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.