Byron The Years of Fame : Peter Quennell (1943)
Byron The Years of Fame covers Byron’s life from 1811-1816; from his arrival back in England after his continental travels, to his departure in the wake of his divorce. As an introductory guide to Byron’s character or life, let alone his verse, Quennell would be a grossly inaccurate and misleading choice. His meandering attempts to psychoanalyse Byron are often so tangled as to be nearly risible. His comments on the verse, which thankfully are few in number, are risible. They are also very much of his period – this is the second book I have read recently (the other was Carr on Herzen see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/the-romantic-exiles/) where judgements made in the first-half of the twentieth century appear, in the early twenty-first, much more dated than the nineteenth century original material on which they comment.
Given these defects it might be thought that I would condemn this book, but that is not at all the case. In its favour it is delightfully readable, gossipy and it does have much to say about the social scene of London at the relevant time. Read as an addition to more serious and considered biographies it has much to commend it as additional material, quite apart from the pleasures of Quennell’s light prose style. His main sources, and certainly those with whom he is most at home, appear to be the various aristocratic hostesses who played such a large part in the ‘years of fame’. Ladies Melbourne and Holland, Jersey and Oxford, and of course Caroline Lamb, flit (or burn in the case of the latter) across the pages and Quennell has clearly read many of their letters. He is captivated by them and at one point produces a wonderful comparison with two women from Proust (the latter writer clearly had a big part in Quennell’s consciousness). What is good about his treatment of these women is that he takes them all seriously and makes clear just what a leading intellectual and social role they played at the time. The Years of Fame writes women back into history, even if on a somewhat classist basis, and that is certainly not a bad thing. Naturally Quennell also devotes a great deal of attention to the Augusta/Annabella situation although once again I am, to say the least, unconvinced by his attempts at psychoanalysis.
As far as an overarching design is concerned I would say that there are two central contentions. The one is that the decisive emotional event of Byron’s life was his incestuous relationship with Augusta (Quennell is somewhat circumlocutory about this – as he is to an absurd but probably understandable extent about Byron’s gay relationships – but makes clear that he thinks they did sleep together). The other is that Byron was what Quennell terms an Immoralist which is…
a man who sins with a consciousness of wrong-doing, and sins again because the sense of guilt demands always fresh fuel
…this is set against being amoral, where one has no moral sense at all. Quennell places the foundation of this immoralism in Byron’s Calvinist upbringing. I think there is some truth here, but believe that Quennell underplays Byron’s sensuality (which he is inclined to dismiss), and in terms of his psychoanalysis fails to understand how well Byron’s behaviour chimes in with that of the depressive. I do recognise the cycle which Quennell describes and it is an important factor in Byron, but there is also a defiance of there, a refusal to accept normative values. Still the idea of the Immoralist is a useful and interesting one.
I would recommend Byron The Years of Fame but only to those who have read another good biography previously (probably Marquand which as a basic straightforward account has still not been surpassed), and with the caveat that one should take no notice at all of anything Quennell says about the poetry. Given those reservations this is a pleasant quick read, which is of particular interest because of Quennell’s fascination with and knowledge of the remarkable women whose lives intersect with Byron’s during these years.