One decent one: John Byron by Joshua Reynolds, 1758

It ran in the family

Alexander Larman reviews Fall of the House of Byron, by Emily Brand


‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” The clichés abound when it comes to the most notorious of all the Romantic poets, the infamous Lord Byron. Critical and public interest in his work has (unfairly) waned over the decades, and has instead been concentrated on his public persona, that of a swashbuckling and at times diabolic figure who lived a riotous life before perishing in the cause of Greek independence in 1824 at the age of 36.

Biographer after biographer has struggled to penetrate the inner core of a figure simultaneously capable of enormous compassion and wit and cruelty beyond conventional imagination. I include myself in this number. I wrote a book a few years ago about some of those he victimised most horribly, Byron’s Women, and was surprised at how many admirers of Byron defended him, despite his distinctly problematic status in the #MeToo era. At one public event, the present-day Lord Byron rose from the floor to castigate me for my “anachronistic and liberal portrait of a bygone age”.

Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand, John Murray, £25

Emily Brand is smarter than many of her predecessors. The title might threaten yet another rehash of old material but the most famous possessor of the Byron name barely features in her book, even if he appears in an atmospheric and dramatic prologue, as the ten-year-old boy and his mother Catherine arrive at the family home, Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, in 1798.

Newstead was a grim, troubled place. Owned by the Byron family since 1540, it was ransacked by anyone from opportunistic brigands to parliamentary troops. When the young Byron arrived, the Great Hall was “deserted and forlorn”, and the grandeur of bygone ages had long since disappeared. There was nonetheless something about its decayed glories that appealed to the young boy, as it subsequently did when he grew up; he was driven to say that “Newstead and I stand or fall together.”

Brand’s approach might have been more fruitful had she approached the subject as a literal biography of Newstead Abbey. Her focus instead is upon the period 1720-1798, with the most famous Byron being threaded through the narrative at opportune moments.

The narrative really begins around 1743, when William, fifth Baron Byron of Rochdale, attained his majority, after an uneventful career at sea. He entered “an influential and thoroughly debauched circle”, thanks to being both a Freemason and an enthusiastic participant in rural activities. One fellow peer called him “a disgrace to nobility”, and he soon became known as “the Wicked Lord”. He failed to take part in the battle of Culloden, resigning his commission out of boredom or cowardice, and, after a failed attempt to bully an actress into becoming his mistress, married a wealthy heiress.

The two were a dreadful match for one another, being inclined to both childishness and extravagance, and William ended up erecting a “large and pretty Gothic tower” at Newstead, which he named Folly Castle and which housed lavish orgies of drink and depravity.

In 1765, he killed his fellow landowner William Chaworth in a drunken argument over estate boundaries. He was arrested, and his aloof and unpopular mien saw the court packed with those eager to witness the rare sight of an aristocratic conviction. They were to be partially disappointed: he was convicted, probably fairly, of manslaughter but acquitted of murder.

As brand writes, “the blot on his character” — and by extension the name of Byron — “was now immoveable”, and the only way it could be recovered was by focusing his attention onto his son William, who he schemed to obtain a fortuitous marriage for, thereby alleviating his own financial difficulties. Th is went awry when William eloped with and married another woman on the eve of his wedding: his bride was also his cousin, which worsened matters considerably.

There were other, more distinguished bearers of the Byronic name. John Byron, the so-called “Foul-Weather Jack”, was as gallant and heroic a sailor as his older brother was venal and cowardly on land, serving with distinction in the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. He had been inured to disaster when, barely 18, he had had to contend with mutiny and being stranded on the remote South American territory of Wager Island.

His subsequent adventures, including near death from starvation, lasted nearly five years, and saw him return to England as a considerable figure. His subsequent voyages of discovery into the South Seas prefigured his successor’s wanderlust. He even gave his name to “Byron’s Island”, now known as Nukunau.

By necessity, this is a male-focused narrative, but Brand balances the phallocentrism with the saga of Byron’s great-aunt Isabella, Countess of Carlisle, one-time chatelaine of Castle Howard. Married to an affable but much older man, who died in 1758, she quickly remarried the much younger barrister Sir William Musgrave, declaring, “I am continually with you and can dream of nothing else.”

They separated in 1769, before she headed to Europe on a lengthy odyssey. Her social (and, Brand suggests, sexual) emancipation was a rarity for a middle-aged woman in the late eighteenth century, suggesting an independent spirit that was synonymous with Byronia. Yet the entire era was one that was rich in social change and radical ideas of liberty and romance.

The last major figure in Fall of the House of Byron took these ideas of liberty and romance and exploited them ruthlessly. Captain John Byron, also known as “Mad Jack”, firstly seduced the heiress Amelia Osborne “from the time of their first acquaintance”, and then, when she died young in 1784 — although not before giving birth to Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh — he remarried the naive young Scottish aristocrat Catherine Gordon, sneeringly remarking “Still the Birons are irresistible”.

Heavily in debt despite squandering her fortune, and prone to both a quick temper and lecherous impulses, he eventually abandoned his family, fleeing to France where he died dissipated. His son, George Gordon, inherited the Byron title after the death of his great-uncle William, ensuring that the family name will remain immortal.

Brand should be commended for her command of detail and use of often extremely obscure period sources to illuminate both character and setting. This will justly be regarded as the definitive work about the wider Byron family.

This does not make it flawless, however. The device at the beginning of each chapter, attempting to connect some aspect of Byron’s life to an ancestor, swiftly grows irritating, and attempting to rush through many of the key incidents in his life in a brief epilogue feels perfunctory.

Likewise, despite or because of the plethora of scandalous and thrilling incidents and characters depicted, the narrative often seems confusing. Nonetheless, this is still an engaging and intelligent account of a family where rather more than one of its members was dangerous to know.

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