A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Mad, Bad And Dangerous

I have no consistency except in politics; and that probably arises from my indifference to the subject altogether. LORD BYRON

The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain. LORD BYRON

A writer certainly secures an emblematic and lasting place in literary history if his or her name becomes adjectivized and is then widely used adjectivally in common parlance. There's Joycean, Dickensian, Shakespearian. There's Kafkaesque of course. And then there's Byronic. We all know what this means in an instant - romantic, heroic, swashbuckling, sensual, greedy for experience, yearning for travel and distant lands, poetic, sensitive, sexually turbocharged, desirous of women (and perhaps men too), extravagant, generous... Can such a man of action, yet a man also endowed with both good looks and a good vocabulary, actually exist?

In early 19th century Europe and America many women seemed to think so. His name was Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824). Newstead Abbey, which we visited yesterday, was his ancestral home. It's little more than half an hour's drive from here, but I hadn't been there since a school trip 40 years ago. We really enjoyed meandering through both house and gardens in the warm sunshine - the latter were very beautiful, especially the Japanese Garden with its stone sculptures, hostas and yellow azaleas (1st pic). Ducks and peacocks fussed round us as we ate our picnic on a bench in a quiet corner.

Until Byron's friend Thomas Wildman invested some of his money in the place in 1817, and attempted to restore it, at least partially, to its former glory, Newstead was gradually sliding into ruin. Byron (2nd pic) lived mainly elsewhere (on Burgage Green in Southwell just down the road from here) as the place was uninhabitable. When he did live there, his life was far from conventional. There are accounts of dogs running wild (one dog was a huge beast described by some as half wolf) and also of a bear roaming at large. The Great Hall was used for fencing, boxing and wrestling bouts. It's faithfully recorded that his female servants were chosen for the comeliness of their physical attributes; and his female guests, many of whom were some of Nottinghamshire's most attractive and desirable women, were most times easily persuaded to stay the night (3rd and 4th pics).

Eventually Byron was forced to leave England under a cloud of scandal. There were tales of numerous love affairs, mounting debts, orgies and wild living; and rumours of marital violence, incest (with his half-sister Augusta Leigh) and sodomy. How exaggerated these stories were is open to conjecture - certainly Lady Caroline Lamb (5th pic), acting as jilted and jealous lover, had a vested interest in aiding and abetting the rumour mill. Her description of Byron as mad, bad, and dangerous to know has famously gone down in history.

He never returned to England again, journeying to Geneva and Venice and Genoa (with more liaisons along the way including one with Mary Shelley's stepsister Claire Clairmont and one with the Italian Countess Guiccioli) until he reached Greece where he ended up fighting on the side of the Greeks against the occupying Ottomans. He died in Messolonghi of a fever at the age of 36 after having planned an attack on the Turks at Lepanto. Byron is a national hero in Greece to this day.


Rachel Fox said...

My Mum used to live near Newstead so I went a couple of times. It has a real atmosphere and I love it (and Byron).
Less keen on the monstrous birds in the grounds though (peacocks?). I got chased once when pregnant and trying to eat a sandwich (comical for onlookers no doubt). I don't really like any bird bigger than my hand...

The Solitary Walker said...

Suitable place to be pregnant in, Newstead. I think many of Byron's servants, escorts and mistresses must have ended up that way..!