By Benjamin Markovits
W.W. Norton, 2011
Lord Byron’s stature as the most celebrated poet
and personality of his age—the extent to which
he ruled over his contemporaries’ imaginations as
“the grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme,” as
he put it in his epic Don Juan—has no modern counterpart. Libertine, misanthrope, exile, freedom fighter: he acted out all these roles in his life, and dramatized them in his poetry so forcefully that the dark renegade persona of the Byronic hero
dominated the Romantic Movement not only in
Britain, but across Europe. Considering today’s fashion for historical fiction that reimagines the
lives of famous writers, it is surprising that this
gigantic figure has dwindled into a relatively neglected subject, compared with the likes of, say, Henry James—who is known, on the contrary, for having led a rather uneventful life, yet has starred in a handful of recent novels in this subgenre, including one of the best-received, Colm Tóibín’s The Master. What to make of this preference for the quiet subtleties and obscurities of the Jamesian style—in letters and in life—over the operatic passions and swaggering postures of the Byronic mode? Surely it says something about our own times, a post-heroic age in which celebrity is synonymous not with grandeur but triviality, and dramatic gestures are embarrassing instead of inspiring.
One novelist who has not shied away from Byron is Benjamin Markovits, who is in his late thirties, was raised in Austin, Texas, and lives in London. Childish Loves is the concluding volume of Markovits’s impressive trilogy of Byron novels, following Imposture (2007) and A Quiet Adjustment (2008). Each volume approaches Byron from a different perspective, based on actual people and events in his life. The trilogy begins, in Imposture, on the periphery of the poet’s circle, with the envious young doctor John Polidori, who accompanied him on his second tour of the European continent. A Quiet Adjustment examines Byron’s brief marriage and bitter separation from the point of view of his wife, Annabella. Childish Loves presents fragments of journals written in Byron’s own voice, first as a youth at once precocious and innocent, then as a dissolute college student and budding poet, and lastly on his final journey, to take part in the war for the liberation of Greece, where he died in 1824 at the age of 36.
The trilogy goes beyond the conventions of historical fiction to probe deeper questions of what Markovits describes as “impossible comparisons”: how people of ambition and talent struggle to reconcile the limitations of their own lives with fame and genius on a Byronic scale. The idea of “the sublime” in nature—that combination of awe and fear, of beauty and terror, inspired, for example, by the view of an enormous Alpine mountain or vertiginous chasm, and the thought of one’s own insignificant scale by comparison—was a concept central to the Romantic aesthetic. The trilogy shows that Byron’s reputation had just this kind of overwhelming effect on his contemporaries—and uses the framing device of a literary mystery involving posthumous manuscripts to suggest that it still retains that force even now, for those who would risk meddling with his legacy.
In Imposture, Polidori’s father warns him not to accept Byron’s offer of employment, fearing that “he might not survive the contact of ‘so fiery a comet’ as Lord Byron”—that it would “expose him to the full force of impossible comparisons.” That last phrase is insistently repeated throughout the novel, as the father’s prophecy comes to pass. Polidori, frustrated in his own literary aspirations, recalls how he was devoured by jealousy of Byron during their travels. He asks himself, “What difference between them, in their clay, in their spiritual soil, produced on the one hand such a harvest, and in his own heart, only dust?” During his stay with Byron and the Shelleys on Lake Geneva, Polidori took part in the ghost story contest that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; he wrote The Vampyre, a tale based on an idea given to him by Byron. Published anonymously in London, The Vampyre became a bestseller (and a prototype for Bram Stoker’s Dracula)—but only because it was rumored to be the work of Byron himself. After returning to London, Polidori makes a vain effort to assert his rights as the author, and then, in a second act of imposture, seduces a bookish young woman who mistakes him for Byron; but again the ease with which he succeeds in this impersonation only reinforces for him the power of Byron’s fame and the nullity of his own anonymity.
In A Quiet Adjustment, the force of impossible comparisons again has destructive consequences. Young Annabella Milbanke, the future Lady Byron, thinks, speaks, writes and acts with the equipoise of a Jane Austen character, one who, like Emma Woodhouse, has supreme confidence in her own virtues, and only gradually comes to recognize her own weaknesses and misapprehensions. But Annabella’s learning process proves more brutal than any Austen heroine’s, when she collides with the force of Byron’s personality and discovers that the violence of his moods and passions is no mere literary affectation. She realizes how far out of her depth she is during a hellish honeymoon that unfolds as a series of sexual humiliations. Then comes the scandal of their separation, as they each try to win over public opinion by claiming the mantle of victimhood. Making his case in “poem after poem,” he has the advantage of unanswerable eloquence: “If this was to be a contest of persuasion,
she was made forcibly to feel, there could only be one winner.”
Yet despite the psychological damage done to them by their experience of Byron’s proximity, both Polidori and Annabella remember those times with him as the most exalted periods of their lives, when they felt they shared, in his orbit, something of the gravitational power of his fame. For Polidori, “It was wonderful for him to see the way the world shifted around you when you lived at the heart of it.” And at the unhappiest moments of her marriage, Annabella thinks, “She was living, at least, in the heart of things now and could hardly complain of the fact that it involved her in certain complications.” Even after their separation, “the sensation recurred within her of living at a high pitch, in the very refinement of that mode of feeling which Lord Byron’s eloquence had made so brilliantly public. It rose up in her like a bright little streak of effervescence in a glass of champagne.”
An irony emphasized in the last section of Childish Loves, the account of the fatal Greek expedition, is that Byron himself was sometimes overwhelmed by his own reputation and had trouble living up to it, especially nearing the end of his short life, prematurely worn out by his excesses. The role that Polidori played as Byron’s double in Imposture is here taken up by Edward Trelawny, his traveling companion, and later the author of the Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. The difference is that Polidori’s furtive attempts to imitate Byron drew from him only pity and and contempt, whereas the swashbuckling adventurer Trelawny boldly boasts himself to be the actual incarnation of the Byronic hero, and rebukes the poet for his chronic inaction. He tells Byron that he had thought “you might begin to act the part you have always pretended to play. You are fond of saying that a man should have something better to do than write verses; well, you have found something better, but you are not doing it.” And Byron himself admits that “every day it grows harder for me to act. I believe Trelawny was right.”
The trilogy’s framing device extends the idea of impossible comparisons to the present: to Markovits himself (or at any rate to “Markovits” the narrator), and to an eccentric former colleague on the faculty of a New York City private school, who, we are given to understand, was the author of these Byron novels. Upon his death, this older teacher, Peter Sullivan, supposedly left the unpublished manuscripts to Markovits. He sees them into publication while investigating an old scandal over Peter’s relations with a student, which seems to be reflected in his novels’ constant concern with the most scandalous aspects of Byron’s life: the strong suggestions of incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, his homosexual affairs and his pedophiliac tendencies. As Markovits says of Byron in Childish Loves, “By our own modern standards he was probably a pedophile and certainly a rapist, at least of the statutory kind; and it was hard not to imagine that Peter’s interest in him contained an element of something unpleasant.”
The framing device appears in the form of a brief prologue to Imposture, and is not used at all in A Quiet Adjustment. But in Childish Loves it dramatically expands and repeatedly obtrudes itself into the novel, surrounding the fictional fragments of Byron’s journals, which thus take on the episodic character of what Markovits calls “Byronic interludes.” It could be argued, with some merit, that this repeated intrusion of the unheroic lives of the two contemporary authors is a postmodern indulgence, a deliberate and perverse defacement that compromises the integrity of the historical fiction, which was so carefully sustained in the first two volumes of the trilogy. But the uneasy transitions between period portrait and modern frame do serve a serious and redeeming purpose: they are another way of demonstrating that “force of impossible comparisons.”
Markovits uses a fellowship at Harvard to research the idea that Peter inscribed elements of his own life into his novels, however unlikely the affinity with Byron may seem for “a guy who never did anything more adventurous in his life than feel up some kid,” as the principal of his old school describes Peter. For that matter, Markovits also presents himself as a decidedly anti-Byronic figure, and increasingly it seems that his inconclusive detective work tends to reveal more about him than about Peter, who remains a mystery to the end. He even declares, after a few drinks at a literary dinner, “Maybe there should be more writers who write about what it’s like not to experience very much, and not to feel new feelings. That sounds to me like the real human condition.” He is married with a small daughter, and unhappily “trying” with his wife for another child. A renewed acquaintance with a woman he went to high school with in Texas seems to offer illicit romantic possibility: “I could feel my heart quicken, and a phrase from Byron or Peter (I wasn’t sure which yet) would come into my head: ‘That I should live again impassioned days.’” But nothing much comes of it, apart from some guilty dreams. A prominent literary critic, whom Markovits consults about his project, comments on “what an odd pair you are, you and Peter, to be writing about Lord Byron. Because he quite liked sex.”
The novel’s Byronic interludes, with their recurring themes of violated innocence and unspeakable shames, seem designed to superimpose the sexual melancholy of that odd pair onto
the notorious libertine’s love life, as if the intention is to cut
him down to a more human size. In the first interlude, the 15-year-old lord writes in his diary of a summer spent alone at
his dilapidated ancestral estate of Newstead Abbey, and of
his unrequited crush on his cousin Mary Chaworth, who lives nearby. The section ends with his initiation into gay sex by
Lord Grey, a young rake eight years his senior, who is renting the abbey until Byron comes of age. Markovits notes that this incident is similar to the climactic scenes of Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment, which he describes as “sex-acts involving dubious consent.” He elaborates insinuatingly: “Rape scenes had featured in both of Peter’s novels, scenes of sexual initiation, but this one struck me as a departure from the
others: it was the only one involving a man and a boy…I don’t want to say a writer can’t write a scene like that without drawing on personal experience. But if there has been some personal experience, I also don’t see how he can leave it out entirely.”
In the second interlude of Childish Loves, Byron himself assumes the role of the corrupter of innocence. He begins his student days at Cambridge and joins the “set” of the flamboyant William Bankes, who hosts a bibulous luncheon every Sunday for which he hires half the college’s choir of teenage boys to serenade his guests. Byron falls for one of them, an orphan named Edleston, who inspired one of his early love poems, “The Cornelian.” The interlude ends on an ambiguous note, with Byron recalling, “He looked up at me (for he was still in the bed beside me), but something about the whole business disgusted me, his innocence and his air of innocence, and after a long embrace, which was tender enough in its way, I sent him to bed.” This cynical distrust in innocence is echoed in unpleasant remarks that Markovits and others remember Peter making about the students at their school.
Byron’s deepest humiliation in the last interlude comes not from Trelawny’s scorn, but from the realization that he has become that pitiful spectacle, a Don Juan past his prime. He takes a 15-year-old Greek youth, Lukas (who “reminds me in some respects of the choir-boy Edleston”), under his wing, but the boy shows little gratitude for his gifts and provokingly mocks his ravaged looks and club foot, his credulity and eagerness to please: “Your hair is grey and not very thick, and your teeth are brown. And then, your foot makes you limp, which no one remarks on; indeed, people often say to you what they know to be false, as if you were a woman or a child. And you do what I ask, which I would not do in your situation.” Byron concedes, “It is clear to me that I am nothing to him, except as a source of some amusement and…many fine things. But at the moment it strikes me still as something to be grateful for—that I should live again impassioned days.” Byron’s feelings of mingled frustration and exaltation over this dubious relationship are made the occasion for one of his last poems, “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year,” which begins:
’Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move,
Yet though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
In the interlude’s final scene, Lukas laughingly escapes Byron’s pathetic, tearful attempt to “seize” him. This moment, which strongly echoes one witness’s account of a similar incident involving Peter, becomes the catalyst for Byron’s last poem, “Love and Death,” which ends:
…and yet thou lov’st me not,
And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will.
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.
The whole interlude, with its mood of gathering mortality, combining the comic ineffectuality of the Greek expedition with Byron’s desperate need for love and his resigned belief that he no longer deserves it, resolves itself into a beautifully compassionate gloss on both poems, a persuasive feat of imaginative interpretation—and a daring one, considering the political incorrectness of the love object. It also completes the cycle of innocence lost, by ending with a kind of innocence regained: a rake’s progress leading to the mournful apotheosis of hopeless love.
From that last interlude, an unfamiliar portrait of Byron emerges: not the brooding man of action or the carefree libertine, on a sublime scale, but a diminished, tragicomic figure, dwarfed by his own legend, deserving of our sympathy rather than arousing our awe. This may well be a portrait better suited to our disenchanted age, and it does capture a certain side of Byron; at times, as in those last poems, he cast an unsparing gaze on himself. But it also excludes some important aspects of his complicated character. Anyone who leafs through Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage or Don Juan will be struck immediately by the force of Byron’s intellect, the extent of his erudition and his passionate engagement with the politics of his time, often expressed in bitter satire, for example in his virulent attacks on the Duke of Wellington and the British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, men he despised for defeating Napoleon and restoring the old monarchical balance of power over Europe. These intellectual and political commitments were integral to Byron’s persona, and had much to do with the influence—the persuasion—that he exerted in his own age. The only time they are glimpsed in the Markovits trilogy is in the last interlude of Childish Loves, as when Byron playfully boasts that he has “half a mind to go to Greece—and play at governments, like Washington.”
Not coincidentally, a perusal of Byron’s actual diary from the Greek expedition, the Journal in Cephalonia, reveals that Markovits has lifted paragraph-length sections from it, unattributed and almost verbatim. He has also helped himself, for this last interlude, to lines from Byron’s letters, and dialogue from Lady Blessington’s Conversations with Lord Byron in Italy. One might call this liberal borrowing an act of surreptitious imposture, were it not for Markovits’s open and detailed descriptions of how he reconstructed Peter’s method of composing the novels, discovering that he cribbed passages from Byron’s letters and diaries “almost word for word” and interpolated his own fictional elaborations between them. Going over his late friend’s papers and sources, Markovits says, “I was getting closer to Peter, to the way he worked. I saw him again and again take a line from a letter or biography and spin it out into a scene or a piece of analysis.” He muses, “But once you figure out how much is true, I don’t know what you’re left with. ‘Pure invention is but the talent of a liar,’ Byron once wrote. But what should we make of the talent of impure invention?” That notion of impure invention goes to the heart of Childish Loves, and its themes of suppressed shames stitched into literary disguises: desperate measures used to cope with impossible comparisons to sublime standards beyond one’s reach.
The epigraph to Childish Loves is another quote from Byron that says in part, “I have written my memoirs—but omitted all the really consequential & important parts,” hinting that one aim of the novel is literally to fill in the gaps, which were left all the more gaping by the decision of Byron’s friends to burn his memoirs after his death. Markovits accomplishes that feat of gap-filling so cleverly that it becomes quite difficult to tell, without consulting the original materials, where the real Byron ends and the imposture begins. (Some of the most striking passages, of course, turn out to be Byron’s own prose, as in his description of “a distant outline of the Morea traced between the double azure of the waves and skies.” But this is yet another instance of impossible comparison.) In the frame, however, Markovits often falls back on a sort of Jamesian pastiche, even when his setting is the present day, which sometimes strikes an excessively mannered note. Though the prose is considerably toned down from the first two novels (perhaps under the salutary influence of Byron’s comparatively straightforward prose style), the plotting of the framing sections in Childish Loves calls to mind The Aspern Papers, the James novella about the endless importunities of an unscrupulous scholar determined to wrest the relics of a long-dead Byronesque Romantic poet from the latter’s superannuated mistress. Markovits’s pursuit of the truth about Peter through his Byron novels likewise takes the form of a prurient prying into the past that ends in inadvertent (or perhaps calculated) self-exposure. What he captures in his mirror is not, by any means, Byron in full—it is a partial, fragmentary reflection, but a revelatory one—Byron as reflected by a painfully self-conscious, neo-Jamesian sensibility: a hero of our time.
Joshua Lustig is a senior editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York.