‘Byron and Women (and men)’ was the title of a one-day Conference held at Nottingham University on 2nd May which I attended. A one-day Conference has many advantages for me in terms of not having to leave home for the night and Nottingham is an easy drive. The Conference was quite small and thus not too intimidating, and very well organised in terms of refreshments and lunch etc. (always important!).
The papers themselves covered a wide range of subjects from a very broad range of perspectives, both academic and non-academic. There was nothing that I thought absolutely outstanding but plenty of interest. As always my notes are personal impressions and in no way to be taken as an accurate record. The keynote address was given by Caroline Franklin ( author of the excellent Byron a short critical introduction, as well as Byron’s Heroines which I would love to obtain) on the subject of Byronic in spite of themselves: Great Women Novelists. Franklin started with a number of quotes from 19th women writers nearly all hostile to B., then observed that their actual texts are littered with Byronic heroes (Rochester etc. – but would not Byronic protagonists be a better description?). But is using Byronic hero the same as being Byronic in spite of herself? Franklin moved onto the issue of prototypes of the Byronic hero – in particular female prototypes in the works of Stael (Corinne) and Wollstonecraft (in the Letters Written in Sweden Denmark and Norway) – did they invent Byronism? (this was a fascinating idea which I would have liked to have heard developed). Franklin then moved to the way that B’s personality cult focussedthe opposition of both moralists and feminists to his libertinism. Lady Byron was a patron of both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hannah More who were most prominent in these attacks. A lot of the concern and outrage was over B’s spending of Lady B’s money. The mystery of the Byron marriage was an inspiration for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Stowe’s Life of Lady Byron appeared in the same year as Mill’s Subjection of Women (1869). There were certainly women who took a pro-B stance – George Sand and Jane Carlyle for instance. But in the novels forging 19thC realism the Byronic hero is attacked; reading B. is seen as an indicator of a faulty character. Franklin then embarked on a detailed discussion of George Eliot’s Felix Holt – Eliot, she said, was in reaction against romantic idealism. In FH Esther has to choose between working-class radical Felix and a Byronic nobleman figure called Harold (!). But of course those writers who read Byron know that he was janiform and satirised himself. So we have the question of the influence of Don Juan as an almost separate question from the influence of the Byronic hero of the Eastern Tales; we learn from George Eliot that just as she is denouncing B. she is reading the first 4 cantos of DJ and then writing Middlemarch – are there comic Byronic elements in this book? Finally Franklin turned to the vexed question of Virginia Woolf’s relationship to Byron; vexed because it was a love/hate one ; she said she hated the poetry then very consciously turned to DJ when writing The Waves – she spoke of ‘the springy random haphazard galloping nature’ of DJ’s method.She saw in B a bi-sexual writer who could be hyper-masculine but who’s subjectivity could be used by women writers like her. In the discussion which followed the question of class was raised – Franklin said that class and gender issues can never be divorced. This was an interesting talk but one which I failed to really benefit from due to my lamentable ignorance of the writers and works discussed.
There followed the only choice of panels of the day. At the one I attended the first speaker was Richard Cardwell who’s subject was The Male Gaze and the Oriental Tales: Specularization and and Appropriation (a problem for me here is that I don’t understand what specularization means and 10 minutes googling have left me none the wiser!) ; basically this talk dealt with the issue of B’s portrayal of women in the Eastern Tales in the context that his views were imprisoned by the male attitudes of his day where women’s identities were conditioned by male rules and expectations. Cardwell laid stress on how often the female characters in the Tales are in fact absences – thus Francesca in The Siege of Corinth is absent from the siege, absent in Venice. Alp sees her as a spiritual presence defined in terms of losses and negation; he rejects her pleas on grounds of justice and Byronic pride; seeks redemption through action. The Giaour’s Leila is dead from the outset having sacrificed herself for the male. Khaled in Lara is silent and disguised as a boy; the s/he is still imprisoned by male discourse and after the death of Lara goes mad. The Bride of Abydos and The Corsair provide further evidence; in the former Zuleika is an economic pawn to father and even when she rebels remains tied to Selim. In The Corsair Medora is passively lodged in a tower (phallic symbol) like Zuleika; she has no life without Conrad. Gulnaremight appear to go against the trend discussed but in fact from her first appearance when she seems like a phantom to Conrad, through his repulsion at her deeds (even though they free him) to the fact that when Conrad leaves she dwindles away, she in fact conforms to the pattern. Byron, Cardwell claimed, divides the world on gender lines – action to men, absence and passivity to women; woman is morally superior but in every other way inferior – the Tales deny the autonomy of women’s desires. This was another interesting paper but struck me as a little too over-argued and clear-cut – and I still don’t know what specularization means!
The second speaker on this panel was Jennifer Sarha who spoke on Gender Dynamics in Sardanapalus.This was one of those papers where really one needs a fairly intimate knowledge of the text, or to have read it quite recently and have it fresh in the memory, to get the proper benefit. As I understood it Sarha’s argument was that Sardanapalus is based on overturning stereotypes; in particular Myrrha overturns the earlier Byronic women of the Eastern Tales (Sarha’stalk did therefore dovetail with Cardwell’s). The lack of a narrator in Sardanapalus means that all characters present themselves. Myrrha’s position as oriental slave is undermined by her Greekness which links her to classical heroines. Her white arms are an indicator of her class status. Sardanapalus himself deplores Myrrha’s refusal to lay aside class differences. Her value to him is to bolster his own self-image as enlightened. Sardanapalusis obsessed with image – he sees armour as a vital symbol for the role of a warrior where his servant sees it as a functional defence. Myrrha’spassion is both an expression of and intrinsic to her identity as a woman. Sardanapalus emphasises her importance as a model for others – a symbol; she is transformed from an object of male desire to an idol, her amiguity as Oriental slave-woman dissolved. At the poem’s conclusion there is no harmonious mixing of male and female though there is at the beginning – idealism is destroyed.
The third speaker was Emily Bernhard-Jackson on Bi One, Get One Free: The Vexed Issue of Byron’s Sexualities. This was undoubtedly the most entertaining talk of the day but I realise one needs to be a little careful about this. It was so entertaining because it was a strong, confident performance. Now some people can do this, others cannot. It bears little relation to the validity, or otherwise, of what is actually said or argued; it does however make it much more entertaining for the auditors. This, in fact, was a paper which really gained in being listened to. The talk began by Bernhard-Jackson saying that on some days she just wondered whether anyone really cares about B’s sexual orientation but she answers herself by saying it is important because sexuality is such an important component of the human experience (not to mention the verse). Really her talk took the form of examining various theories of B’s sexuality…
1) He was really gay (the McCarthy and Loius Crompton view). If so, B-J argued, then he was the most impressive and successful dissembler in history; her own belief is that he was rarely if ever gay in Britain, whatever happened in Greece, and his gayness she pointed out seems always to have been directed towards boys rather than men.
2) He was really a straight. Far too many boys for this to be true.
3) He was a true bi-sexual.
4) His true love was Augusta – so his desires were incestuous.
5) he was an egoist who just used sexual partners for relief of urges – here Augusta can be seen as best partner because she ‘mirrors’ him. But he did have genuine romantic liaisons (eg: Teresa).
BJ turned from these theories to Freud and the questions of sexual object (who with) and sexual aim (what); but B. had neither according to Lady B and Caroline Lamb. However in B-J’s view he did have a specific sexual goal – and that was ‘badness’; whatever his society considered bad – boys, lower-class women, his sister; these were chosen manifestations of perversity – but then Teresa not at all perverse. Or take another approach – B. just liked sex and he liked it a lot; ‘sexually omniverous’ comes closest but is too limiting. B’s sexuality should be seen like a blank piece of paper and all definitions fail. B. was a depressive (or bi-polar – BJ said she was undecided).
Unsurprisingly, if a little unfairly, most of the discussion was occupied with the final paper. I spoke (for the first time at a Byron Conference!) and said I was delighted to hear B-J acknowledge B as depressive and given this asked what role she thought guilt played in his sexuality (as guilt is always a major factor for all depressives)? She replied that she felt that the main influence was that he felt guilty about not feeling guilty – he was ‘bad’ but felt no guilt. I am actually not at all sure about this. Another mechanism which many depressives would recognise is to try and drown guilt in more guilt, to drown thought by sensation. Many accounts of B’s behaviour suggest to me that this was sometimes a factor for him. Still it was a very entertaining performance although when one analyses it closely at the endI am not sure anyone is much further forward (although it does deal satisfactorily with McCarthy’s version – but I never took that very seriously anyway – see blog of 21st April 2009).
After a very good buffet lunch the first of the afternoon sessions commenced with a talk from Ralph Lloyd-Jones on Paphian Girls and Hyacinths: Byron’s Servant Relationships; this was another talk with a biographical focus. Lloyd-Jones commented that B’s idea of ‘Byron’ was connected to his sexual image. He doesn’t believe in the Mary Gray molestation story. He said that B. fathered at least two other bastards as well as Allegra. When Byron came to Newsteadin 1811 the young women were selected as concubines; ordered to wear their hair loose like prostitutes. Susan Vaughan one of these servants has left – invaluably – some letters. She was dismissed for having an affair with B’s servant Robert Rushton – blatantly sexist and blatantly unfair. L-J – quite rightly – accused McCarthy of failing to tackle discreditable moral issues . L-J is excited about an obliterated baptismal record from Linby Church in December 1812 which he believes might name B. as father. Very unfortunately Mirka Horova who was scheduled to give the next talk on The Kindness of Strangers: Masters and Servant Scenarios in Byron had lost her voice and the reading of her paper which was given failed to really do it justice – indeed I was unable to really follow it so will not attempt any precis. In the discussion which followed there was some interesting discussion about Mozart, Leporello, Figaro, Beaumarchais etc. – the absence of a Leporello figure from DJ (although given that DJ bears no relation to Don Giovanni I am not sure of the relevance of this). My interest in B’s knowledge of the various versions of Figaro about which I asked a question (B. certainly met Da Ponte apparently) is partly to do with the carnivalesque, socially disruptive elements of Figaro and partly very specifically wondering how B. would have reacted to Mozart’s treatment of the incest theme in his version (as comedy). For some reason the discussion got onto David Bowie and Lloyd-Jones observed that in the early 70’s Bowie posed as gay. I commented that the fact this was a pose mattered not a jot as it had a major effect on my generation in dispelling homophobia (I still have no idea as to Bowie’s sexuality) – this would have been a very interesting line to have followed as it cuts across the myth of essentialism (and intentionalism) ; in many ways it doesn’t matter what B’s sexuality or politics really were – what matters is how the verse was read, what influences it had; that is of much greater interest and importance (not that I developed my thoughts along these lines at the time!).
The final session of the day opened with a talk by Gavin Sourgen on Distance and Desire in Don Juan. This was a very focused paper based on close reading of certain cantos of DJ to prove the thesis that desire only exists as long as there is distance and is killed by consummation; something which comes out of B’s resistance to stasis and stagnation. As a close reading it was impressive but probably better read than heard; or maybe better discussed – as a sort of seminar. Next came Shona Allen (the only one of the speakers whom I had also heard at St Andrews -see blog 27th Feb 2009) on Feminine Liminality in Don Juan. This was a rich paper, possibly my favourite of the day, but I admit my note-taking powers were now flagging. By liminality Allen denotes on the border of the human and the bestial. She admitted that the female characters in DJ had been examined from all sorts of critical directions but wanted to add yet another by asking whether they were liminal? Again there was close reading as she highlighted passages where Haidee or Gulbayez are spoken of liminally. Female characters are consistently presented as creatures of appetite and will. But what of male characters? Well Lambro, the war cantos and above all the shipwreck scenes all show men behaving like animals – in latter reversion to ultimate bestiality of cannibalism. But Allen argued that women are always liminal where men are only liminal in extreme situations (war, shipwreck). What of DJ himself then? Significantly the only time he is a slave to animal desires is when he is in female disguise and as Juanna shares Dudu’s bed (Canto 6) – is this an indication that females are more likely to be animalistic? (I have excluded a discussion of Baudelaire which proved rather contentious in the question/comment time). The final talk of the day was by David Herbert on Biographers in the Melting Pot – The Cosima Solution. This talk was – obviously – mainly concerned with various of B’s biographers and their problems. Herbert discussed how Doris Langley-Moore was almost obsessively protective of B. and determined to do down his detractors, in particular Lady B.. Herbert’s own conclusion was that there was a lot of sexism about biographers and you can make of B. what you will. The Cosima solution is of course that of Cosima Wagner — total self-immolation on the altar of genius. Personally I am not really sure what the point of this analogy was – one thing I am sure is that B. would have very soon tired of someone immolating themselves for him; indeed he was notoriously unpleasant to those who tried (Caroline Lamb, Claire Clairmont) – I would have though you you need to be fundamentally humourless to allow for self-immolation.
The sheer diffuseness of the contributions – from close reading to biographical speculation – and contributors – from academic to enthusiast – was both the big strength – because the day was varied, you never knew what to expect, it was splendidly digressive (a Byronic virtue) – but also a partial weakness in that at the end it felt slightly unfocussed. Perhaps this was a result of fatigue. The papers are to be published and if they become available at an affordable price I very much look forward to seeing what I make of them upon reading rather than hearing. Still overall most definitely a positive experience.