Lord Byron - Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Almost Famous
Created | Updated Nov 7, 2011
The first part of this series of articles on the life of Lord Byron covered the period from his birth in 1788 to the start of his continental tour in 1809.
This entry covers the life of Lord Byron from the start of his continental tour in 1809 to his society life in 1812.
The Childe departed from his father's hall:
It was a vast and venerable pile;
So old, it seemèd only not to fall,
Yet strength was pillar'd in each massy aisle.
- from Canto the First, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
It took the Princess Elizabeth five days to reach Lisbon. It was Byron's first step onto foreign soil, and so he wanted to see the sights and sounds around the Portuguese port.
On 10 July 1809, in the first of many days' sightseeing, Byron and Hobhouse went to watch the British troops in Lisbon as they were reviewed by their commanding officer. That day was filled with things to do, as they also went to visit a monastery in Bela, equipped with the best Latin phrases education could give them.
However, even the best Latin in the world can be useless. Especially when none of the monks in the monastery can understand the language in the first place.
Despite this somewhat minor setback, Byron and Hobhouse travelled through Spain to Gibraltar, heading for Tepelene, Albania. During their stay in Malta, it seemed that Byron was getting up to his old tricks again. A certain Constance Spencer Smith was the other participant, and she was a married woman. Yet again, Byron was forced to end the dangerous liaison of around nine days, when he was almost challenged to a duel by Captain Cary. It was on 19 September, 1809 that the travelling friends finally set off for the places that Byron would treasure forever in his heart.
On arrival in Albania, Byron donned the traditional regimental uniform of the country as an act of goodwill for the Albanian governor. It was this uniform that would appear once again in a portrait that Byron commissioned. Byron and Hobhouse then stayed at the house of Ali Pasha, a great dignitary of the country, where they were showered with gifts; Byron notably being given a beautiful white horse by Pasha's son. He had also fallen for a young Greek boy, named Nicolo, who he described as having lovely honey curls that tumbled all down his back.
Rather as on your average package holiday, the days were filled with horseriding, yachting, visiting important landmarks and other such activities. However, in October of that year, Byron began work on Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, a semi-autobiographical account1 of the first year of Byron's continental tour. Little did he know that it would be the making of the rest of his life.
The first and second cantos2 were completed during the tour, and a third started, though not finished, for Byron was certainly not one to sit in his room writing poetry all day long.
After completing their sightseeing tour of Albania, Byron and Hobhouse continued onwards to Greece. Further on in his life, Byron would often describe a longing to see that country again, for its beauty touched him the moment he set foot upon Greek soil.
Constantinople3 was their next stop. By this time, Byron had completed the second canto of Childe Harold, and was ready to indulge himself in some more leisurely activities. On 3 May, 1810, along with a friend and despite his disability, Byron undertook to copy the feat of Leander in the Greek myth Leander and Hero, and swim the Hellespont4. The details of Byron's triumph are written in an amusing poem, where he compares his success to the tragic consequences of Leander, entitled Written after swimming from Sestos to Abydos.
Hobhouse returned to England in July, but Byron carried on in Greece, literally. He decided to take advantage of the social scene of Athens, often being found drinking and cavorting with several Turkish heads of state. This was despite his severe financial straits, which John Hanson was quick to remind him of in correspondence, hinting that he should sell Newstead Abbey if he wanted more money. Byron was also quick in his stalwart refusal.
Byron began his return to England on 30 April, 1811, and contracted malaria during the journey. Even though he was in high spirits after his grand tour, the illness speedily announced the return of his depression.
'I woke up one morning and found myself famous.'
It came to pass, that when he did address
Himself to quit at length this mountainland,
Combined marauders half-way barr'd egress,
And wasted far and near with glaive and brand;
And therefore did he take a trusty band...
- from Canto the First, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
Byron arrived in London on 14 July, 1811, having been away for more than two years, ready to face his finances once and for all. However, whilst renewing old friendships, Byron heard that his mother, Catherine Gordon, had suffered a severe apoplexic stroke. Before he could return to Newstead to see her, she died on 1 August, 1811.
Byron had never been close to his mother, having had more than his full share of rows, but her death hurt him deeply. Other deaths were to follow - his Cambridge friend, Charles Skinner Matthews, drowned himself in the River Cam; John Wingfield, a Harrow acquaintance, had also gone; and the young choirboy who Byron had loved, John Edleston, had passed away. Tragedy appeared to be all around the already depressed Lord, and he soon started writing a flurry of elegies5, including Epistle to a Friend, and To Thyrza. Following the death of his friends, Byron began to make a draft of his will.
On the literary front, however, all was not bleak. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers was still selling like hot cakes, and the publisher was having a field day, putting forward the fourth edition of the satire. When Byron first arrived in London, he immediately went to see his literary advisor, Robert Charles Dallas, presenting him with Hints from Horace, intended as a sequel to English Bards. Dallas was less than impressed with Hints from Horace6, and, after some hesitation, Byron produced the manuscript containing the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage from a 'small trunk'.
Dallas read the poem and with great excitement informed Byron that it would sell well - better than Hours of Idleness (which was not that hard) or English Bards. After some persuasion, Byron agreed to have the first two cantos published, and then returned to Newstead Abbey to meet up with his friends.
Byron wanted to organise a party like the wild Gothic ones of his college years. Those were the times when he and his friends dressed up as monks, drank Burgundy out of a human skull and then proceeded to scare the housemaids in their revelry. Still, that had been two years ago, and much had changed since then. All they did, much to the Lord's annoyance, was sit around and talk. No human skulls were involved at all.
Leaving his literary affairs to Dallas, Byron began to concentrate on matters of state, moving back to his ambition of being a politician. He returned to London to take his place in the House of Lords on 15 January, 1812. It was around this time that the Tory Riot Bill7 entered the House of Commons, which basically stated that frame-breaking was a capital offence. The House of Commons passed it, and now it was time for the Lords to have their say. During his stay in his home county of Nottinghamshire, Byron must have heard of the riots, which took an entire army to quell. On his maiden speech in the House of Lords on 27 Feburary, 1812, he sympathised with the weavers:
As the sword is the worst argument than can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquillity to the country.
- from Lord Byron's speech about the Luddites
In spite of being applauded by Lord Holland for this passionate speech and two others8, the Riot Bill was passed, and several Luddites were hanged.
In response to his failure to alter the Bill, Byron wrote Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill, published anonymously in the Morning Chronicle. Moving back to more literary matters, Byron ended the publication of the hugely popular English Bards, which was on the verge of a fifth edition, mainly because of Lord Holland, and perhaps because it was best to leave a good thing good, than to let it sour too many opinions. Instead, he moved to making sure that the publication of Childe Harold was getting on smoothly.
On Tuesday 10 March, 1812, the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were made available for sale by the publisher, John Murray.
Within three days, the entire first edition of five hundred copies had sold out, with requests for more.
At the age of twenty-four, Lord Byron had literally woken up and found himself famous.
To dream of joy and wake to sorrow
Is doom'd to all who love or live;
And if, when conscious on the morrow,
We scarce our fancy can forgive...
- from Thou Art Not False, But Thou Art Fickle, Occasional Pieces
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with its beautiful descriptive narrative of faraway lands, dark disillusions and the disparity between Romanticism and reality, was an instant hit for both poet and readers. The life of Byron was what people wanted to know about, and they soon would hear more, when the poet was lionised by London society.
Byron's fame brought him money, invites to every single society household in London, and women practically beating down his door to meet the dashing young Lord whose honeyed verse charmed them to the bottom of their hearts. After the success of the first edition of Childe Harold, more editions were commissioned as the demand for the poem was so great. The demand for Byron was great as well, as society hostesses struggled to keep up with the celebrity's lifestyle. However, the moment Byron found fame, he also tasted the start of his downfall.
During a visit to the Hollands in March, not too long after the success of Childe Harold, Byron met Lady Caroline Lamb, a tall, thin, sprite of a woman, with short curly blonde hair and hazel eyes. She was somewhat different from the type of women that Byron was usually attracted to.
Caroline was an intelligent and witty woman who wrote poetry and prose in her own time. She was married to Sir William Lamb, the younger son of Byron's confidante, Lady Melbourne. Having read Childe Harold after being lent it by a friend, she instantly had an urge to meet the man. Even when told of Byron's club foot and his habit of biting his fingernails, she answered:
If he was as ugly as Aesop I must know him.
She had conjured up an image of what she imagined Byron to be like, as depicted in Childe Harold. Before Caroline had even met him, she had already described him as 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know', which would echo in eternity.
The Lambs had been married for ten years, but with the death of one of their children, and the other suffering from ill health, the relationship had grown rocky. Sir William Lamb wanted to further his political career, and increasing demands upon his wife caused a rift to form between them. However, their outward appearance was one of a couple with a shared affection.
Caroline was notorious for developing strong passionate attachments to people, and would often become dangerously frustrated if she did not get what she wanted. Her first contact with Byron was when she wrote an anonymous piece of fan mail to him, stating that 'you deserve to be and you will be happy'. It was only a few days later that she was to meet the Lord in person. By this time, Byron had been lauded by all the London society hostesses, and was often to be found at parties with hordes of them around him. So, Caroline went to a party held at Lady Westmoreland's, where Byron was also going, but the overpowering shield of women surrounding the poet made her nervous, so she left before she could be introduced to him.
Byron, on the other hand, was not without knowledge of Lady Caroline Lamb's avoidance of introduction. He loved the thrill of the 'chase', and Caroline's failure to be introduced just spurred him on even more. On the other hand, when the pair were finally introduced to each other at Holland House, to say the least, Byron was disappointed. Caroline had none of the feminine wiles that usually attracted him, and he remarked to a friend:
The lady had scarcely any personal attractions to recommend her. Her figure was too thin to be good.
He also heard of her habit of dressing up as a page, and even though Byron had experienced homosexual love, he found this a bit too eccentric for his liking. He preferred his women to have a subtle modesty about them. Caroline had none of this.
Unlike Byron's opinion of her, Caroline was completely smitten with him. 'That beautiful pale face is my fate', she would write.
Despite all the odds, Byron and Caroline Lamb soon got together, and through April and May, they shocked London society with their violent love affair. Caroline met Byron in every subject - they discussed poetry, read together, but their similarities often sparked massive quarrels - Byron about Caroline's loyalty to her husband, and Caroline about Byron supposedly flirting with other women. At parties, Caroline always sat with Byron, due to his inability to dance because of his foot. She would follow him wherever he went, write to him constantly and offer to help with his money problems. It seemed like they had the best of both worlds.
But if Byron wanted a long-term lover, she must be his - and his only. Caroline's refusal to rate Byron above Sir William Lamb made the poet very unhappy. It seemed that he was the spare in the relationship, and Caroline's demands upon him were getting intolerable. In May, Byron hinted at elopement. This was probably a test of her commitment, but though Caroline seemed on the verge of dropping everything for Byron, she probably would not have left her husband. Byron, on the other hand, needed no other explanation. He was getting tired of the whole affair, and began drifting away from Caroline. She had satisfied his urge for the 'chase', but now, he could not stand her presence. The affair had become just like Caroline was - frustrating.
Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned
Remember thee! remember thee!
Till Lethe quench life's burning stream
Remorse and shame shall cling to thee,
And haunt thee like a feverish dream!
Remember thee! Ay, doubt it not.
Thy husband too shall think of thee!
By neither shalt thou be forgot,
Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!
- Remember Thee! Remember Thee!, Occasional Pieces
John Hobhouse and Byron's other friends were becoming increasingly disturbed at the handling of the relationship, especially as it was now becoming too public to carry on with. At their urging, Byron left London for Newstead Abbey on 4 June, 1812. This did not stop Caroline from bombarding his ancestral home with letters. Hobhouse advised the poet not to reply - Byron already had a reputation as a brilliant poet and society beau, but this affair was being reduced even further into scandal. Back in London at the Melbournes', Caroline was dismayed by the lack of correspondence between her and Byron. She was also getting more hysterical by the minute.
On Byron's return to London on 13 June, Caroline was beyond all explanation. Hobhouse, dreading that if Byron did elope with Caroline it would be the poet's destruction, persuaded him to go to Harrow. The date set for departure was on 29 July, because Caroline had threatened to visit alone then. At that time, a woman visiting a man's house alone would have had social repercussions, especially as this affair was too hot to handle with modesty. If Caroline did arrive on Byron's doorstep alone, it would be a field day for the journalists.
Hobhouse had travelled to Byron's house in London in anticipation of the Harrow trip. As he waited for Byron to finish up and ready himself for the journey, there was a knock at the door...
Went to Byron's in expectation of going to Harrow, a scheme he had resolved on to avoid the threatened visit of a Lady - at 12 o'clock just as we were going, several thundering raps were heard at the door and we saw a crowd collected about the door and opposite to it - immediately a person in a most strange disguise walked up stairs - it turned out to be the Lady in question from Brocket... I did think that to leave my friend in such a situation, when... every soul in the house servants and all knew of the person in disguise, and not to endeavour to prevent the catastrophe of an elopement which seemed inevitable, would be unjustifiable - accordingly I stayed in the sitting room whilst the Lady was in the bed room pulling off her disguise - under which she had a page's dress... at last she was prevailed upon to put on a habit, bonnet and shoes - belonging to a servant of the house and, after much entreaty did come out into the sitting room...
- from John Hobhouse's journal, dated Wednesday 29 July, 1812
True to her incredibly hysterical word, Lady Caroline Lamb had turned up. Alone, right on time, and dressed like a page. Hobhouse, always the loyal friend, tried to prevent Caroline from coming any further into the house, but Caroline was not to be stopped. After making herself a little more decent, she found Byron in the sitting room, unaware of her presence.
Carrying on with her completely irrational behaviour, Caroline grabbed a knife from somewhere and attempted to stab herself. Byron had to hold the hysterical woman down until she calmed down and finally left the house with Hobhouse.
However, Caroline managed to make Byron promise to visit her again before he left London. This was very uncharacteristic of the poet - he was usually the dominating figure in romantic relationships. Now, it seemed the biter had been bit. He did not know how to deal with her erratic personality. And there would be another twist in the Caroline saga.
If a special woman arrived in Byron's life, he would often write poems about them if they were extra-special, but he always collected a lock of hair from their head as a memento of their love. He had no such token from Lady Caroline Lamb, and frankly, was not in the mood to get one.
Caroline, on the other hand, had a different idea. Byron may not want her love, but he was going to get it.
Whether he liked it or not.
On 9 August 1812, an unidentified package arrived on the doorstep of Lord Byron. Inside the package was a letter, which read:
I asked you not to send blood but Yet do - because if it means love I like to have it. I cut the hair too close and bled much more than you need - do not you the same and pray put not scissors points near where quei capelli grow - sooner take it from the arm or wrist - pray be careful...
Knowing Byron's habit of taking locks of hair from the women he loved, Caroline did exactly that. However, she took it one step further, and sent him her pubic hair with this message attached:
NEXT TO THYRSA DEAREST
AND MOST FAITHFUL - GOD BLESS YOU
OWN LOVE - RICORDATI DI BIONDETTA
FROM YOUR WILD ANTELOPE
There is no record of Byron returning the favour.
Caroline's family were increasingly concerned with her embarrassing behaviour. Her parents were desperately trying to get her to join her husband in Roehampton, and then to go on holiday in Ireland. Lord Melbourne ended up having to force her to go, and Caroline forced herself to flee to a friend's house in Kensington. Byron, entangled once more in the messy carcass of the relationship, ended up meeting her and persuading her to return to her family. Her scandalous manner was not only dangerous to herself, but it was also having an effect on his reputation. Society saw Lady Caroline Lamb as a complete nutcase, and Byron as an absolute cad of the third degree.
After the Break...
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.