BYRON IN LOVE by Edna O’Brien


A Short Daring Life
Age Range: 1788 - 1824
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A concise, humorous analysis of Lord Byron as archetypal lover and “embodiment of Everyman.”

Novelist O’Brien (The Light of Evening, 2006, etc.) revels in describing the excesses of the poet’s larger-than-life personality. The precocious George Gordon Byron (1788–1824) was translating Horace at the age of six, read the entire Old Testament before he was eight and went on to attend Harrow and Cambridge. From an early age he assumed a hedonistic, profligate approach to life that unceasingly attracted both men and women. His early loves included the Earl of Clare at Harrow (“a love interrupted only by distance…he could never hear the word ‘Clare’ without a murmur of the heart”), Mary Chaworth back home during vacations and the “chiselled and beautiful” choirboy at Cambridge, John Edleston, in whose memory Byron wrote “Thryza,” a series of elegies that disguised the subject’s gender. O’Brien contends that Byron’s continual need to be in love is what propelled his creative genius, allowing him to create the bawdy yet erudite poems “Don Juan” and “Childe Harold,” which he composed while traveling through Greece and Turkey. Remarkable amorous conquests followed Byron’s success—a swooning, hysterical Caroline Lamb, who stalked Byron once he broke off their relationship; Lady Frances, who Byron seduced in full view of her husband; and his half sister Augusta Leigh, with whom he could not desist from an incestuous love, and which led to his shaming and exile from England. All are described in delicious detail by O’Brien. The key architect of Byron’s public infamy was Annabella Milbanke, the fastidious heiress who married Byron to find herself in a love triangle with Augusta. Once separated, she made it her life’s mission to destroy his name. Byron sought respite in Italy, finding more lovers, including Countess Teresa Guiccioli, his muse for “Don Juan.” He died at the age of 36, amid a “deathbed scene that many an artist would have painted…but only Rembrandt would have caught the fear and bewilderment in the eyes of those onlookers, all of whom venerated Byron but in their zeal and their helplessness differed as to what could or should be done.”

An apt rendering of the life of a charismatic man whose smile Coleridge compared to “the opening of the gate of Heaven.”

Pub Date: June 15th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-393-07011-8
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2009


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