Biography: Byron

The most important biographies of Lord Byron are listed in the “Bibliography of Secondary Works” on this site.

1. The Affaire

Byron’s affair with Lady Caroline Lamb has been retold scores of times by his, her, and many others’ biographers. What these accounts generally do not recognize is that it lasted longer than merely the five months between March and September 1812. Though there was no question of their getting back together, Byron nonetheless agreed to see Caroline as late as fall of 1815, not long before his marriage to Annabella Milbanke, which took place in January 1816.

Two other aspects of their affaire are not widely understood. One is how intensely Byron responded to Caroline. It was a strong infatuation on both sides. The other is the intellectual nature of the infatuation. While they were undoubtedly sexually attracted, this was mostly an affaire of writing and talking.

After reading an advance copy of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lady Caroline wrote her first letter to Byron, dated March 9th, 1812, telling him, that he deserved to be happy and should not “throw away such Talents as you possess in gloom & regrets for the past.” She wrote again within forty-eight hours imitating Childe Harold. Byron’s poem begins,

Oh, thou! in Hellas deem’d of heav’nly birth,
Muse! form’d or fabled at the minstrel’s will!
Since sham’d full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill . . . (Childe Harold 1:1)

Lady Caroline wrote:

Oh that like thee Childe Harold I had power
With Master hand to strike the thrilling Lyre . . .
(see Malcolm Elwin’s Lord Byron's Wife, p. 141, for the text of this letter).

Byron was swamped with letters from such “star-gazers,” as Thomas Moore dubbed them (Moore, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron 1:260). On finding out his correspondent was Lady Caroline Lamb, however, Byron immediately broke his resolution not to answer such letters. Byron’s friend and literary advisor, Robert Dallas, described him as “so enraptured, so intoxicated, that his time and thoughts were almost entirely devoted to reading her letters and answering them.”

One morning in April, Dallas entered Byron’s rooms at 8 St. James’s Street and found the poet so absorbed in writing a letter to Caroline that he appeared not to notice when his friend spoke to him and sat down across the table for a while reading the newspaper. Byron had “a peculiar smile on his lips; his eyes beamed the pleasure he felt from what was passing from his imagination to the page.” Dallas thought his friend so completely in love that he had practically entered another world (Dallas, Recollections of the Life of Lord Byron, 246-47). The lovers wrote daily to each other, often multiple times.

Sadly, very little (and that mostly on Caroline's side) has survived out of a correspondence of more than three hundred letters—a conservative estimate. In October of 1813, Lady Caroline asked Byron’s publisher if he would be interested in publishing a collection of “250 letters from a young Venetian nobleman--addrest to a very absurd English Lady.” Byron continued for years afraid of what Lady Caroline might eventually publish from his side of the correspondence.

2. Glenarvon and Don Juan

Glenarvon paints Byron as attractive but pretentious, a manipulator who “unites the malice and petty vices of a woman, to the perfidy and villainy of a man” (Glenarvon, 2:359). When he was preparing to jilt Caroline, Byron made a show of “tears, which you saw & know I am not apt to shed.” Byron’s letter was reproduced as a lithographic facsimile, apparently by Lady Caroline for Thomas Medwin, after publication of his Conversations with Lord Byron. Leslie Marchand accepts the letter as undoubtedly Byron’s handwriting, suggesting that it must have been composed on 12 August, 1812, just after Byron had convinced Caroline to rejoin her husband (see Byron’s Letters and Journals 2:185). Caroline had portrayed Byron as a feminized man, and he embraced and elaborated this character in Don Juan.

In the conclusion of Canto 1 of Don Juan, Byron also created a (somewhat) masculinized woman: It was Donna Julia, who writes, “[m]y eyeballs burn and throb, but have no tears,” and the narrator underscores it: “[S]he did not let one tear escape her” (Don Juan 5.70, 5.72). Normally, for Byron, a woman’s teardrop “melts,” while a man’s “half-sears” and must be forced from his heart. Again, normally, for Byron, women employ tears to gain their ends, and their target is his alter-ego, Don Juan, who (in a later canto) dissolves “like snow before a woman crying” (Don Juan 5.118 and 5.141). Julia’s dry eyes, however, link her to Caroline, the woman who (in Byron’s words) “has no sex” (Byron’s Letters and Journals 5:93).

Byron’s affair with Lady Caroline Lamb and his reading of Glenarvon help account for certain elements of his masterpiece, Don Juan, from the dedication, in which he tries to dissociate himself from any Glenarvon-like betrayal of Irish Patriots, to certain aphorisms on sex and marriage. But it is Byron’s near elopement with Caroline in August 1812—as revised and retold in Glenarvon—that takes shape as Don Juan’s “earliest scrape” with Julia in Canto 1 (Don Juan 1.199). Julia’s letter from the convent to which she has retreated at the end of the Canto is a touché for Caroline’s inclusion of Byron’s letters in her novel. Julia’s letter begins with a benediction: “I have no further claim on your young heart, / Mine was the victim, and would be again.” But a reproach lies implicit in Julia’s forgiveness:

“I loved, I love you, for this love have lost
State, station, heaven, mankind’s, my own esteem,
And yet cannot regret what it hath cost,
So dear is still the memory of that dream;
Yet, if I name my guilt, ’tis not to boast,
None can deem harshlier of me than I deem:
I trace this scrawl because I cannot rest—
I’ve nothing to reproach or to request. (Don Juan 1.193)

Byron had probably gotten just such phrases from Caroline’s own letters to him (now virtually all lost), but he also had the ones Lady Calantha writes in Glenarvon: “Remember that you are all on earth to me; and if I lose that for which I have paid so terrible a price, what will be my fate!” Another letter says, “I forsook everything for you” (Glenarvon 3:61, 78). Calantha never tires of naming her guilt: “It is myself alone I blame, on me, on me be the crime.” Yet she won’t regret: “Think not that I wish to repine, or that I lament the past” Glenarvon 3:60, 61). She repeats many times Julia’s sentiment that she has “nothing to reproach”: “Glenarvon, I do not reproach you, I never will”; “Oh fear not, Glenarvon, that I shall intrude or reproach you”; “I will never learn to hate or reproach you” (Glenarvon 3:58, 59, 77).

Another stanza of Julia’s letter focuses upon the contrasting possibilities for men and women:

Man’s love is of his life a thing apart,
‘Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range
The court, the camp, church, the vessel, and the mart,
Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange
Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
Man has all these resources, we but one,
To love again, and be again undone. (Don Juan, 1.194)

These ideas have been traced to other sources, like Madame de Staël’s De l’Influence des Passions (1796) and Corinne (1807). They occur also, however, in Glenarvon, where Calantha says, “You know not what a woman feels when remorse, despair, and the sudden loss of him she loves, assail her at once” ( Glenarvon, 3:79). Glenarvon’s narrator underscores this theme: “That which causes the tragic end of a woman’s life, is often but a moment of amusement and folly in the history of a man. Women, like toys, are sought after, trifled with, and then thrown by with every varying caprice. Another and another still succeed; but to each thus cast away, the pang has been beyond thought, the stain indelible, and the wound mortal.” The narrator subsequently comments that “Calantha saw Glenarvon triumphant and herself deserted” (Glenarvon 3:90-91, 119).

The conclusion of Julia’s letter offers many parallels with Glenarvon. Julia writes,

My breast has been all weakness, is so yet;
I struggle, but cannot collect my mind;
My blood still rushes where my spirit’s set,
As roll the waves before the settled wind;
My brain is feminine, nor can forget—
To all, except your image, madly blind;
As turns the needle, trembling to the pole
It ne’er can reach, so turns to you my soul. (Don Juan 1.195)

In Glenarvon, Calantha also complains that her lover has seduced her with his power of attraction: “I am nothing, a mere cypher: you might be all that is great and superior. Act rightly, then, my friend . . . I have followed you into a dark abyss; and now that you, my guide, my protector, have left my side, my former weakness returns, and all, that one smile of your’s could make me forget, oppresses and confounds me.” (Glenarvon, 3:60-61). Repeating the theme that the man will go on to glory, Julia writes, “And so farewell—forgive me, love me—No, / That word is idle now—but let it go.” These lines echo Calantha’s sentiments: “Generously save me: I ask you not to love me” ((Don Juan,1.196 and Glenarvon, 3:80). In the conclusion of her letter, Julia says: “My misery can scarce be more complete.” Calantha’s words are: “Glenarvon, my misery is at the utmost” and “I am as lonely, as miserable in your absence as you can wish” (Don Juan, 1.197 and Glenarvon, 3:76, 58). These typical recriminations and rationalizations of the jilted might have come from many places, but the evidence argues that Glenarvon gave them their particular form in Byron’s poem. When Juan comments that Julia’s seal read “Elle vous suit partout [She follows you everywhere],” the phrase comments on Caroline’s notorious pursuit of Byron, a recurring theme of his letters (Don Juan, 1.198).