BYRON by Phyllis Grosskurth


The Flawed Angel
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 This fairly routine psychobiography adequately chronicles the life, loves, and poems of Romantic literature's most famous rake. Lord Byron (17881824) was, as one of his most notorious mistresses put it, ``mad, bad, and dangerous to know.'' His violent, overweening ego was in great measure fostered by a doting mother. Estranged from her husband, she raised her son in modest circumstances in her native Scotland; but a series of unexpected deaths in the family brought ten-year-old George Gordon the Byron title, thrusting him from his childhood idyll into the world of the English peerage. Grosskurth (The Secret Ring: Freud's Inner Circle and the Politics of Psychoanalysis, 1991; Humanities and Psychoanalytic Thought/Univ. of Toronto) vividly limns Byron's school days at Harrow, although his years at Cambridge, and indeed his intellectual formation generally, remain hazy. She judiciously presents the evidence for Byron's very early sexual initiations by a servant woman and by a lecherous lord. Upon his return from his Grand Tour of the Continent, the thinly veiled autobiography of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage caused a sensation. Years of tremendous extravagance followed, marked by huge debts and scores of polymorphous sexual conquests, but Byron outdid himself by conducting a liaison with his own half-sister. Driven to the Continent by creditors, moralists, and a failed marriage (about which Grosskurth offers important new research), Byron fell in with the Shelleys and reached new maturity as a poet. Grosskurth's best chapters treat his final exile, ending in Greece, where he fought for that nation's independence and died of a fever at age 36. In these chapters her underargued psychoanalytic claims--for instance, that Byron was ``tortured by guilt about both his homosexuality and the incest with Augusta''--go on the back burner, and everyday vignettes that show his charisma come to the fore. But too often, unfortunately, Grosskurth's meticulous cataloguing of Byron's madness and badness deadens the reader to this mercurial sadist's attractiveness--that is, to what made him dangerous. (24 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: April 15th, 1997
ISBN: 0-395-69379-9
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1997