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Byron: A Life in Ten Letters by Andrew Stauffer – promiscuous, comedic and ‘darkly charismatic’

This new book updates Thomas Moore’s biography for the bicentenary of Byron’s death

Byron: A Life in Ten Letters
Author: Andrew Stauffer
ISBN-13: 978-1009200165
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Guideline Price: £25

The last time Thomas Moore saw George Gordon, Lord Byron was in Venice in 1819, when Byron entrusted to his fellow poet 78 folio sheets containing his memoirs. Moore was a fitting custodian for the manuscript, as the loyal confidant and drinking companion whom Byron called “my father confessor”. The memoirs were not to be published until after Byron’s death – though wanting Moore to profit from them, Byron approved Moore’s sale of the manuscript to his publisher, John Murray. But soon after Byron died, aged 36, from fever in Greece on April 19th, 1824, Murray burned the memoirs in deference to the wishes of others, including Byron’s widow. Moore remained determined to commemorate his friend in his own words, and in 1830 published The Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life, the first big Byron biography.

Andrew Stauffer’s new book updates Moore’s project for the bicentenary of Byron’s death, presenting 10 letters from transitional periods of Byron’s life alongside lively, accessible commentaries and photographs of some of the manuscripts. Stauffer’s necessarily selective approach is to focus on those aspects of Byron that still “resonate”. The featured letters demonstrate the “rhetorical force” of Byron’s written voice, with its dazzling versatility of tone and register, which he deployed mercilessly against hypocrisy and injustice. Stauffer highlights Byron’s unusual status as both a hereditary peer and a media celebrity in Regency England, who was also a man with a disability (by a deformed right foot) and bisexual, and who courted public disgrace with his challenges to conventional morality. Stauffer also traces the Byronic stereotype of “darkly charismatic” masculinity back to its roots in Byron’s narrative poems featuring tortured, saturnine anti-heroes, and celebrates Byron’s comedic spirit – which still lives in his letters.

The organisation of Stauffer’s book is inspired by another early Byron biographer, Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington, who in Conversations with Lord Byron (1834) recalled firsthand the chameleonic “mobility” of Byron’s character, observing that 10 individuals might each describe him differently, but all correctly. These 10 letters are, however, written to nine individuals, with Murray’s two appearances as a correspondent reflecting his importance in Byron’s personal and professional lives.

Later letters reveal Byron as the tormented lover of his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and the abusive husband of Annabella Milbanke, who left him one year into their marriage

Stauffer’s Byron appears first as a dissolute Cambridge undergraduate and newly published author in 1807, already attracting controversy with irreverent satires and erotic lyrics. He is last seen two months before his death, actively engaged in the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman empire. The younger Byron exploited his privileged status in homoerotic adventures abroad, and affairs with married society women – narrating one such intrigue in a series of high-spirited letters to Lady Melbourne, mother-in-law of his former lover Caroline Lamb. Later letters reveal Byron as the tormented lover of his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and the abusive husband of Annabella Milbanke, who left him one year into their marriage. Self-exiled in Switzerland and Italy, Byron befriended Percy Bysshe Shelley, and fathered an illegitimate daughter by Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Shelley’s wife, Mary Godwin. (Byron’s only legitimate child was the mathematician Ada Lovelace, whose marble bust was recently installed in the Long Room of the library at Trinity College Dublin.)

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Byron’s headlong career of promiscuity in Venice is economically represented in Stauffer’s selection of the 3,000-word letter to Murray in which Byron documented his relations with Margarita Cogni, a baker’s wife. After seven years in Italy, Byron was as domesticated as he ever became with his last mistress, Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, while deepening his commitments to republican independence movements in post-Napoleonic Europe – his earlier priorities as a Whig peer in England having included promoting the civil rights of Irish Catholics after the Act of Union.

Stauffer, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, communicates enthusiasm for his subject while maintaining a judicious critical distance. He acknowledges the limits of the entitled, aristocratic Byron’s appeal to 21st-century sensibilities, observing how Byron “[turns] up the gaslight” in his letter of attempted conciliation to Annabella, after months of drunken violence and infidelity. Stauffer also notes gaps in Byron’s archive – losses include most of his “very voluminous” correspondence with his beloved Harrow schoolfriend John Fitzgibbon, second Earl of Clare (son of the lord chancellor John Fitzgibbon, who instigated the 1798 visitation at Trinity College Dublin, where Moore was among students questioned about their political activities).

In Stauffer’s account, Byron emerges from his letters as the familiar Regency wit, performing his dandyish poses – but also as a more obsessive, risk-taking practitioner of “deadly serious method-acting” in his quest for varied sensations. As Stauffer suggests, Byron’s openness to new experiences enabled his poetry to mature beyond angst-ridden melodrama, into the sophisticated, ironical comedy of his unfinished epic Don Juan. If Stauffer’s compelling discussions of the poetry are sometimes tantalisingly brief, he fully succeeds in showing Byron’s mastery of letter-writing as a literary art in itself.