Lord Byron - Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Childish Recollections
Created | Updated Jan 22, 2006
At the turn of the 19th Century, times were changing. Fashion, society and literature were all evolving. At this time, Jane Austen was pondering over self-penned novels, King George III was madder than ever, and the Prince Regent was the laziest slob in the whole of London.
One person shocked English society by becoming what could only be described as the first 'celebrity' - he was to become notorious not only for his heartfelt poetry, but for the number of women he managed to seduce in his short life. This person was George Gordon, Lord Byron, the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale.
This entry deals with the life of Lord Byron from his birth in 1788 to the start of his continental tour in 1809.
What scenes of childhood still unsung remain!
Yet let me hush this shadow of the past,
This parting song, the dearest and the last...
- from Childish Recollections, Hours of Idleness
William, the 5th Baron Byron, was renowned for being quite the 'man about town', known as 'the wicked Lord Byron'. His nephew, and the future 6th Baron Byron's father, was known as Captain 'Mad Jack' John Byron. So, when George Gordon Noel Byron was born on 22 January, 1788, it may have seemed inevitable that he was set for a life of high society, women, and poetry if what his ancestors did was anything to go by.
Byron was known only as George Gordon as a child, and lived with his mother Catherine Gordon. He was born with a right club foot1 which hindered his ability to do certain activities, like dancing. At first he was educated at a grammar school in Aberdeen, Scotland, when the family moved there to avoid creditors. However, on the death of the 5th Baron in 1798, Byron inherited his titles and estates and moved into the ruinous Byron ancestral home of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, which was in a rather sorry state after the 5th Baron's large debts and inability to renovate the place.
His club foot was the source of much trouble, and for a while Byron was subjected to torturous 'treatments' from a mountebank named Lavender. Also at this time his nurse, May Gray, was treating him with beatings, drunkenness, neglect and sexual advances. His own mother was becoming increasingly temperamental towards him and everyone else.
Thankfully, Byron's mother's solicitor saved him from the machinations of Lavender, Gray and Catherine Gordon. John Hanson plucked him from the Abbey, and dismissed Gray. He was sent to Baillie and Laurie, doctors with good reputations in London, to get a special brace for his foot2, and in the autumn of 1799 was sent to Dr Glennie's School, Dulwich.
Youth and Age
'Tis not on youth's smooth cheek the blush alone, which fades so fast,
But the tender bloom of heart is gone, ere youth itself be past.
- from Stanzas for Music, Occasional Pieces
Though Byron's education was being funded by his mother's yearly income, it was his distant relative Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle (Byron's official guardian) who wangled the Civil List so it was possible for her to do that. On an income of £300, Catherine Gordon was able to move to Sloane Terrace in London, near the Hansons and Byron's school, in January 1800.
However, along with moving to London, Byron's mother began to interfere with his education, taking him out of school - much to her solicitor's surprise. It was not until the summer of 1800 that she and Byron returned to the Abbey.
Byron was now being denied an education as his mother kept him from school. It was Lord Carlisle who decided that enough was enough, and stopped Catherine Gordon's weekly visits to the young Baron, especially when Carlisle saw the extent of the neurotic tantrums of Byron's mother. Byron spent Christmas of 1800 with the Hanson family in Earl's Court, London.
The following January, Hanson secured Byron a place at Harrow, where he was first tutored by Henry Drury, the headmaster's son. He soon become good friends with Robert Peel, who in later years would become Prime Minister. With more wangling of the Civil List, Hanson managed to get Byron an annual grant of £500 from the Court of Chancery3 to fund his education. However, this meant that Catherine Gordon's Civil List pension was reduced to £200. Byron's new brace itself cost over £150, and subsequent applications for a separate £200 allowance by her were turned down. It seemed that the young Lord Byron was moving up in the world, though still suffering from the financial troubles left by his own father and the previous Baron's debts.
It was not until 1803 when a breakthrough came. Newstead Abbey, though still crumbling to dust, was leased to Henry Edward, 19th Baron Grey de Ruthyn at a yearly rate of £50, with an agreement that Byron could visit his ancestral estate whenever he wanted. Catherine Gordon, on the other hand, had given up living in London altogether and moved to Burgage Manor in Southwell, close to Nottingham.
After a brief spell in Bath, Byron travelled up to visit his mother in the summer. It was here that he found himself struck down by true love. Mary Chaworth was a very distant cousin of Lord Byron, and at this time was in residence at Annesley Hall. Always fond of his ancestral home at the Abbey, he soon returned there, and was so enamoured by Mary Chaworth that he refused to go back to Harrow in the autumn. Byron's early poems, Fugitive Pieces, were started at this time, with Mary as the personification of unrequited love. It was not until he heard about her callous remarks over his club foot that his love quickly evaporated.
She was not the only person who was being pined for in Nottingham. Again, Lord Byron was involved, but rather than falling for somebody else, somebody else had fallen for him. Whilst staying at the Abbey, Lord Grey began making sexual advances towards his young landlord. Byron was so shocked by this that he immediately returned to Harrow after his 16th birthday and broke up their friendship.
There was a final twist in the love tale when Catherine Gordon began pining for Lord Grey. She insisted several times to her son that the two should reconcile, but the friendship was effectively over.
Byron's experiences of family life were less than exemplary. With his father dying when he was very young, and having a rather neurotic mother, he was glad to receive a letter in March 1804 from his half-sister Augusta, from his father's first marriage. The two grew to become fast friends, and Augusta confided her engagement to George Leigh in her first letter to the Baron.
While all this letter-writing was going on, Byron still found time to visit his mother. He always found Southwell tedious, and Catherine Gordon took it upon herself to throw a party for the 'Southwell Belles' to try and raise Byron's low spirits. Though he intended to 'fall violently in love' there, instead, he became friends with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother, who lived just across the green from Byron's mother.
Glad to return to school in the summer, the young Lord Byron was aptly showing off his skills at the Harrow Speech Day. His declaiming speech on the role of Latinus in the Aeneid by Virgil was well-received by the audience, and showed great promise.
But he was soon back in Southwell. Byron was still at emotional odds with his mother, but he tried his best to be amiable towards her, despite fierce quarrelling. It was only his friendship with the Pigots that allowed Byron to tolerate staying there.
When Elizabeth Pigot left for a long absence in August, Byron found himself feeling empty in a place where he never was happy without female company. However, he soon found it in local girl Julia Leacroft, who organised theatricals in Southwell. Byron attended plays regularly with her, and they soon became very close.
The Leacroft family did not see the relationship as platonic though. They knew that Byron's interest in their daughter was a lot more than a friendly acquaintance. In fact, they even went so far as to think that Byron was intending to marry Julia. A Julia/Byron match was definitely out of the question and so the Leacrofts attempted to trap Byron in the act of courting their daughter. Julia's own brother challenged him to a duel. Byron escaped this by quickly legging it back to Harrow.
Byron and Augusta continued to confide their problems to each other. Catherine Gordon was becoming even more quarrelsome with her son, and so a plan was drawn up between Augusta, the Hansons and Byron himself to keep him in London over Christmas, and for Byron's guardian, Lord Carlisle, to get to know his ward better. This succeeded, and Augusta was pleased to hear that Byron finally dined with Carlisle in January of 1805.
On the other hand, the headmaster of Harrow, Rev. Joseph Drury, Byron's own friend, was due to retire at Easter in Byron's final year. Byron immediately began supporting the headmaster's brother's candidacy out of loyalty to Joseph Drury. Unfortunately, he lost, and Dr Butler stepped up as the new head of Harrow. Byron was furious, and in May of that year, the young Baron led a rebellion against the new head, which didn't work.
Though Byron left Harrow that year, he still participated in various Speech Days, with passionate orations to applauding audiences. His next destination was Trinity College, Cambridge, in October, where he was to engage in a love affair with one of the choirboys, fifteen year-old John Edleston4. Still, as every student knows, with a university education comes student debts. Byron was not exempt from these. He wrote to Augusta to ask her to act as his collateral guarantor as he borrowed money from loan sharks. Even when the new Cambridge term began on 5 February 1806, Byron stayed in London, feeding off extravagances and going to plays when he should have been studying back at Trinity.
Having paid off his Harrow debts and most of his Cambridge debts, Byron had exhausted his loan. The Court of Chancery were threatening to sever his allowance if he did not return to Cambridge. Some of the reasons for Byron's absence were unorthodox - including a time when he fell from a horse and gave himself concussion, and another occasion when frankly he couldn't be bothered to return.
To try and raise more funds, Byron sent off the completed poems of Fugitive Pieces to be published privately, though anonymously. Several of Byron's Southwall friends saw the poem To Mary, and frankly, were quite stunned at some of the lines. According to one critic, the lines were 'too warmly drawn'. After this, Byron immediately called back the edition and burned them, intending to revise the poems, though four copies from the original edition still exist. The new edition was received more pleasantly, and renamed Poems on Various Occasions. Many of the original poems from Fugitive Pieces had been toned down a little to prevent the astonishment appearing again.
But Byron was still in debt, and continually indulging in la dolce vita in London. The Court of Chancery decided to withhold his allowance to try and get him to return to university, forcing Byron to borrow more money in January 1807. Also, ghosts from the past were rising up as the brother of Julia Leacroft again challenged Byron to a duel. Once more, Byron managed to wriggle out of the unpleasant business.
In another attempt to counter his financial problems, Byron published Hours of Idleness for the public, another selection of his poems. Unfortunately, it received bad reviews which Byron rued deeply. On a brief return to Cambridge, he found support in his friend, John Cam Hobhouse, writing to him about a review on Hours in the Edinburgh Review:
As an Author, I am cut to Atoms by the E Review, it is just out, and has completely demolished my little fabric of fame.
The duo turned to writing satires on the criticisms Byron had received, and a revised version of Hours was released with the added title, Poems, Original and Translated, with a dedication of one of the poems to Lord Carlisle after a complimentary letter.
The Satirist, one of the review papers that had scorned Hours, continued to do so with Poems, Original and Translated, referring to them as:
...a pretty little collection of namby-pamby verses...
Byron had not seen the extent of the criticisms until after he had received his MA degree from Cambridge, despite the fact that Byron had not even been anywhere near Cambridgeshire for almost all of his course, let alone Trinity College. The severe mock verses written by Hewson Clarke, one of the reviewers for The Satirist, were too much for the newly-graduated Lord Byron, and he soon slipped into depression.
If that High World...
And now that sad and silent hour
Thus much of thee can still restore,
And sorrow unobserved may pour
The plaint she dare not speak before.
- from If Sometimes In The Haunts Of Men, Occasional Pieces
After moving from rooms to rooms in London, it seemed that Byron finally remembered that he actually owned a large estate in Nottingham. This just happened to be the Byron ancestral home in which he had in fact lived for a bit, which went by the name of Newstead Abbey.
In September 1808, finally returned to Newstead and attempted to settle in his family home. However, Catherine Gordon was always just around the corner, and with memories of their vicious arguments, Byron prevented her from visiting him by constantly repairing the Abbey. This did not stop him from allowing Hobhouse to come and stay for a little while, though it was to enable them to write satirical articles together.
Hobhouse soon returned to London, but Byron continued working on his satire alone in the Abbey - though he did not work solely upon satire. Byron was also planning to enter the House of Lords, working hard to gather together evidence that would let him in - such as proof of his genealogy and his grandparents' marriage.
Was Lord Byron all work and no play at the age of 20? It certainly does not seem so. He had what could be described as a 'one night stand' with a maid at the Abbey named Lucy, and became a father at the beginning of 1809. This he recounted to John Hanson in a letter, and though he would have no time to be the doting father, Byron generously provided an annuity for the maid and the child before leaving for London again.
To save him the trouble of searching out the all the affidavits required for entry to the House of Lords, Lord Carlisle could easily have introduced Byron to the House, being a relative. However, it seemed that his opinion had turned against the young Lord Byron, and he merely told him the long-winded way of doing it. Byron, satirical as ever, merely got back to his writing table and added a few more lines about his old guardian.
And so, the piece of satire was completed. Byron entitled it English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, relating back to the time when the Edinburgh Review criticised Hours of Idleness. This time, he published it anonymously, and one thousand copies of the satire were printed. Byron was still wading through his financial problems, and was hoping that along with the sales of English Bards and his planned sale of Rochdale, he would be able to resurface from his debts.
However, further events overtook his own personal needs. He left £500 in a teacup for the penniless widow of one of his friends. Though he gained a seat in the House of Lords soon after, the way in which Byron was announced to the rest of the House was incredibly humiliating. And to round it off, he was organising a trip to the continent for himself and his friends5 and needed funds to do so.
The only hope was for English Bards to fare better than Hours of Idleness did. However, that was not hard to do. Barely four months after it was published, it was almost sold out. Even more interestingly, though it was written anonymously, everyone seemed to have guessed that the author was Lord Byron himself. The required money came in, and, in May, Byron was finally able to book his trip to Portugal from Falmouth.
With a revised edition of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers hot off the press and a letter to his mother, Byron, along with his friend Hobhouse and a few servants, left England on 2 July, 1809 for Lisbon on the packet6 Princess Elizabeth, beginning their long journey into uncertainty across the Mediterranean.
After the Break...
The second part covers the start of Lord Byron's continental tour in 1809 to his society life in 1812.
The third part covers Lord Byron's scandalous lifestyle in 1812 to his last times in England in 1816.
The final part covers Lord Byron's exile from England in 1816 to his death in 1824.