Fiona McCarthy on Byron

I have just finished Fiona McCarthy’s biography Byron
Life and Legend (2002). I am not going to write at
any great length about this but will say that I found it
in general pretty disappointing. McCarthy’s particular
‘angle’ on B. is to stress the homosexual side of his
bi-sexuality. Now I have absolutely no doubt that B.
was bi-sexual, nor that some of his homosexual relationships
were of great importance to him, nor that his homosexuality
increased his sense of being an outsider. But in correcting
what she perceives as previous omissions (which she
rightly identifies as having been in part due to censorship,
in part to misunderstanding and in part due to a misguided
desire to protect B’s reputation) McCarthy over-compensates
and too much stress is laid on this aspect. Taken as a whole
therefore, even as factual biography this should only
be read in conjunction with other biographies – it certainly
does not replace Marchand or indeed even Tom Moore
(and his was written in 1830!).

The big disappointment for me however was the lack of any
sort of insight into Byron as a poet. Perhaps this is unfair and
one should not look for critical commentary in a biography. But
I think I do want to feel that the writer has a real passion for
the poetry – and passion will always provide insight even if that
insight is quirky and individual. I just didn’t get any sense of that

McCarthy also misunderstands B’s radicalism but as that is pretty
standard it is more understandable. At times though it becomes
almost comic – this is particularly so when B’s corpse comes back to
London and is mobbed by ‘ordinary’ people while the ruling
elite both political and literary keep well away – McCarthy seems
to be almost regretting this herself. She does however provide a
wonderful quotation from John Clare which I had either forgotten or
not read before. Clare happened to be in the crowd lining Oxford
Street as the funeral procession passed by; he later wrote of how
he looked at a girl’s face….

‘I looked up in the young girl’s face it was dark and beautiful and
I could almost feel in love with her for the sigh she had uttered for
the poet….the Reverend and the Moral and the fastidious may say
what they please about Lord Byrons fame and damn it as they list –
he has gained the path of its eternity without them and lives above the
blight of their mildewing censure to do him damage – the common
people felt his merits and his power and the common people of a
country are the best feelings for a prophecy of futurity’

Did any poet have have finer epitaph?

Anyway unless you are a B. aficionado like me who can read
any amount of lives (Eisler will be next) McCarthy’s is definitely
not the place to start – get hold of Moore if you can because
it comes with a lot of letters and a selection from the journals,
or Marchand for a good standard modern biography.

4 thoughts on “Fiona McCarthy on Byron

  1. And imagine John Clare was put in an asylum and the recent biography (by Bates) justifies this.

    Thank you to both Nick and Diana.

    Byron is such a large figure and so multifaceted in his writing it’s impossible for one book to cover everything; however, it sounds like McCarthy is unreliable, unoriginal and often wrong in central areas. I’ve read Marchand and various essays on his poetry. Marchand has a sort of beginner’s book on the poetry which is not bad. I read one by Gleckner on the poetry as the ruins of paradise and most of Michael Foot’s The Politics of Paradise. Sometimes I find the book where Byron is a secondary character equally enlightening as the direct ones: Richard Holmes’s portraits of the Shelley-Byron circle and most recently Iris Origo on Teresa and Byron.

    No one beats Byron himself. That’s really the problem 🙂 And he was magnificently there, influential for much of the 19th century. No real reader could avoid him because you’d read him (so to speak) reflected in someone else repeatedly.

    And he’s important today too. I agree the politics of sex can be overemphasized (not gender but sex). It sells. I have been told by a publisher not to do literary criticism in a book I wanted to do on Jane Austen. It bores readers and lowers sales. And increasingly that’s why we see biographies where the biographer tells the networking and all sorts of stuff around the text, its inner sources, often emphasizing social world aspects of the text (how it is said to have seemed to reader) and then skips the text. I particularly dislike the glamorizing of this kind of thing and when it’s cynical-knowing.


  2. nick2209

    Thanks Ellen. I will be returning to the question of Byron’s sexuality (and his biographers) when I write up the ‘Byron and Women’ Conference which I attended on Saturday (2nd May).

  3. Ralph Lloyd-Jones

    Fiona MacCarthy is brilliant compared with Benita Eisler & Phyllis Grosskurth, both of whose books contain so many factual howlers and such a comprehensive lack of knowledge of the period, Romanticism & literature in general as to be worthless. You are spot on in saying that Marchand & Moore remain the best accounts of Byron’s life which also contain a good understanding of those other factors, notably the all-important Poetry. If you are gay or bisexual you will always be exasperated by straight people’s complete failure to understand ANYTHING about your sexuality – in this case Byron himself would be stunned by Ms MacCarthy’s lack of understanding. What also worries me about her book is the (frequent) use of the words ‘Negro’ and ‘Negress’ [sic, capital N] – ! How did that get past any kind of editorial?!? She dwells so much on the garbled details of Byron’s death (a good 20 pages) that I guess she came to hate the poor man. And she takes Trelawny as a reliable source! Heigho, as Ld B himself would have said. BTW Another good life of Byron is to be found simply in reading his own works, especially his letters.

  4. nick2209

    Many thanks Ralph these are really insightful observations which have added to my understanding. Oh dear, it sounds as though Eisler will have to be postponed! At least I know it is not worth buying Grosskurth. And of course you are absolutely right about going back to the letters and poetry.
    I should also say that I now realise that I failed to note that McCarthy fails to deal properly with exactly how bad B’s behaviour was in respect of some women, most especially working-class women and those in his employment – your talk at the Byron Conference made this absolutely clear (see blog above 6th May 2009).

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