Lord Byron has become an icon in history and literature, and not just thanks to his beautiful and unparalleled command of the English language. Throughout his 36 years, Lord Byron infamously acquired a litany of lovers, some of whom caused controversy, and some who inspired a handful of the most important and beautiful poems ever written. Georgie Broad explains more…
George Gordon Noel Byron was born in 1788 to a small aristocratic family that was rapidly losing its luster. As a whole, Byron’s family life was the epitome of dysfunctional. His father left the family while Byron was a young boy, his mother suffered from schizophrenia and he was put under the care of an abusive nurse. The only place where the young Byron could find familial respite was with his sister Augusta… but more on that relationship a little later.
In 1803, at the tender age of fifteen, Byron fell in love with his distant cousin Mary Chaworth. This love was not reciprocated however, and as is often the nature with unrequited love, his feelings for Mary inspired several of his earlier poems. A few years later Byron began his intermittent studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. While there, studying wasn’t exactly at the forefront of his mind; instead he turned his attentions toward sports, gambling (which forced him deeper into debt) and a great many sexual escapades thanks to how naturally handsome he was.
During his time at Cambridge, though, Byron made some of his first important steps to becoming the man we know so well today. He met John Cam Hobhouse, a lifelong friend who aided his induction into the ideals of liberal politics that remained with him for the rest of his life,and during his last year at Cambridge, he wrote Hours of Idleness, a compilation of poetry. Upon its publication, it received harsh and damning reviews, though they couldn’t have been better for Byron’s success. As a reaction to these scathing reviews, Byron published English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a satirical piece that openly attacked the literary community with wit and without fear that actually earned him high acclaim throughout the very community he criticized.
At the age of 21, Byron began an intrepid journey around the Mediterranean with his friend Hobhouse, and continued to indulge his two passions on the trip: poetry and a fair few lustful tristes; however his adventure was cut short when he had to return home following the death of his mother. Although in his childhood the two never had a picture postcard relationship, the passing of his mother plunged Byron into a period of deep and desperate mourning. As was characteristic of Byron, he was pulled out of his despair through praise of his work from respected London critics and another string of lovers.
One such lover was the novelist and aristocrat Lady Caroline Lamb who uttered the infamous description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Caroline and Byron had a whirlwind romance; passionate, intense, and short lived. Caroline had no qualms about making their love affair very public, and wouldn’t shy away about being demonstrative about her feelings. After their affair ended, Caroline was plunged into depression and turned to drinking to deal with the loss of her love. She also wrote a book, Glenarvon, which detailed their tempestuous romance.
It was at this time, amid the love of Lady Caroline and Lady Oxford, rumors began to circulate about the relations between Byron and his married half-sister, Augusta. To dispel the gossip and to seek a little respite from his Lothario-like ways, Byron proposed marriage to Annabella Millbanke. The marriage was something of a train-wreck from start to finish, and crumbled rapidly due to financial debts, the persistent rumors of incest surrounding Byron and Augusta, and gossip about his sexuality. (Today, it is widely accepted that Lord Byron was bisexual given the accounts of his sexual exploits during his time at school and university with men and women). Although Byron and Millbanke had a daughter, after the ending of their marriage, Byron saw neither his ex-wife nor his daughter again. It was around this time that Byron penned the immortal poem She Walks in Beauty, supposedly about a married woman he met at a ball. The poem has since become an iconic piece of literature and a cornerstone of romantic poetry.
In 1818, Byron set sail for Europe, never to return to England. He saw the European attitude as more romantic, liberal, and accepting of the way he conducted himself. True to form, Byron carried on his womanizing ways while he travelled around with the mother of sci-fi, author Mary Shelley, her husband and her sister - with whom Byron fathered another daughter, Allegra. During these travels, the infamous Don Juan was written, arguably one of Byron’s most successful and important works, a witty and satirical poem that detailed many romantic encounters and was remarkably similar to his own life.
The last and most enduring of his romantic affairs was that with Teresa Giuccioli, a married countess of only nineteen, compared to his 30 years of age at the time. He described her “as fair as sunrise – and as warm as noon” and the two, unlike many affairs of Byron’s before, carried on their relationship unconsummated until Teresa separated from her husband. Although by today’s standards, the relationship seems unconventional, Teresa’s father actually liked Byron, and initiated him into the Carbonari, a group of Italians who sought the independence of Italy and helped bring about the Risorgimento (the process of Italian unification).
Byron died in 1824, aged 36, and was buried in a family vault. He was, and remains, a legend of the literary world, having penned some of the most iconic verse in English literature. He was the king of sharp wit and satire and defined a genre of writing that is still revered to this day. His private life was as turbulent and passionate as his writing, and he can truly be considered one of the masters of romance.
You can read Georgie’s previous article on why King George IV may have been the worst king of England by clicking here.