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Debauched or lonely Lord Byron in his own words ? Insane or heroic

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Published Time: 11.02.2024 - 15:40:23 Modified Time: 11.02.2024 - 15:40:23

Andrew Stauffer’s rollicking biography Byron A Life in Ten Letters tells the Romantic poet’s story through his own wild words DeAgostini/Getty Images Lord Byron (1788–1824) is among the UK’s greatest exports

Andrew Stauffer’s rollicking biography Byron: A Life in Ten Letters tells the Romantic poet’s story through his own wild words

: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Lord Byron (1788–1824) is among the UK’s greatest exports. Why, then, do so many treat him with embarrassed wariness? Perhaps we judge him for his shocking passions (not least with Augusta, his half-sister, and numerous women and men of the ton, the Grand Tour and the demi-monde) – or abhor his evident abusiveness. Perhaps it’s the extent of his work: thousands of pages of febrile, sometimes puerile rhyme. Or perhaps we simply fear that he is – as Wordsworth once declared – “insane”. In Greece, meanwhile, he’s a national hero: he died at 36 in Missolonghi, during the Greek War of Independence, in which he led campaigns and gave material support, 200 years ago this spring.

Most poets’ biographies are either unwritten or unreadably dull, but Byron has dozens, all of them rollicking. Every Byron chronicler since Thomas Moore (1830) has had in some way to account for the poet’s ribald memoirs. They were burnt by Moore, John Cam Hobhouse and John Murray in 1824, but because they were circulated in private before that, and Moore drew on them for his writing, we know they annotated Byron’s ill-starred match with Annabella Milbanke and his sybaritic years in Venice, 1816–19. (Letters suggest that at least 200 women notched his bedposts in this time, some sisters, many bought.) And we know what wasn’t in them: Byron’s final transformation, into a relatively lonely military man.

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