Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know
by Constance Russell
In 1812 Caroline Lamb wrote of a man she just met that he was ďmad, bad and dangerous to know.Ē The man was Lord Byron who was already famed for his poetry and his affairs. The affair which ensued between the two of them became the subject of scandalous gossip in London.
George Byron was born in January 1788. Raised in Scotland by his mother who had limited funds, his life was impacted by the fact that he was born with a clubfoot. At the age of 10, he inherited the title of Lord Byron from a great-uncle and moved to Newstead Abbey, the ruins of which excited a romantic streak in the young boy.
The next eleven years saw Byron educated in a number of ways. Officially his schooling took place at as school in Dulwich, Harrow and Trinity College; however he was also introduced to the world of sensual delights and gambling. An unrequited attachment to a cousin lead him to begin writing melancholy poetry, Before he was 21 he had self published two volumes of poetry.
When he reached his majority, he took his seat in the House of Lords and then headed off on a Grand Tour which became the basis of Childe Haroldís Pilgrimage. This poem was a romantic travelogue interspersed with moments of melancholy and disillusionment. On his visit to Troy Byron recreated Leanderís romantic swim of the Hellespont. Byron and his companion spent a great deal of time in Greece. The time he spent in Greece gave him a lifelong passion for that country.
On his return to London, Byronís poetry was published to great acclaim and he became the darling of London society. His clubfoot was no hindrance ; he had a number of affairs with well known society women. At the age of 24 he began a torrid affair with Caroline Lamb.
Caroline Lamb lived in a world where as long a wife provided the necessary heir and a spare she could discreetly conduct affairs of her own. Caroline was married as a teenager to William Lamb, but by the time she was 27 and met Byron her marriage was not satisfying her. She had heard about the clubfooted poet and had read his work and was desirous of meeting him. Once they met, the two conducted a publicly scandalous love affair. However, within months, Byron began to tire of the passionate Caroline and the more he trying to pull away, the harder she tried to cling. When he made it clear to her at a public gathering that it was over , she flung herself on the floor, and attempted to slit her wrists with broken glass and stab herself with scissors. After being carried out of the event in a straight jacket, Caroline Lamb found that her reputation was ruined.
A year later in 1814, Lord Byron, now 26, proposed to Caroline Lambís cousin, Annabella Milbanke. It was his first conventional relationship. Caroline seemed to quietly accept the marriage, but in less than 2 years, in early 1816, when the couple separated after the birth of their daughter, she began to spread stories about Byronís sexual relationships. Stories of his seducing young boys while he was at school were added to the tale that he had been having an affair with his half-sister. The couple had been having financial problems, but these stories of his debaucheries lead Annabella to file for a legal separation. After signing the papers, Byron left England never to return again.
Stopping first to see the battlefield of Waterloo, Byron headed to Switzerland where he encountered Percy Bysshe Shelley, another romantic poet, and his wife Mary. Maryís half sister, Claire Clairmont was also in the party; she had begun an affair with Byron before he left England. In June 1817, she gave birth to his illegitimate daughter. When Shelley and his entourage headed by to England, Byron went to Italy where he had several affairs with married women.
The sale of Newstead Abbey eased some of Byronís financial problems, but friends found that by 1818 he was getting fat,
greying (at age 30) and sunk into a world of promiscuity. Yet another love affair was soon to change his life. Falling in love with a 19 year old who was married to a man three times her age, he was introduced through her to the Carbonari, a secret revolutionary society. He supported the revolutionary activities of the group with guns and money. This proved to be a very creative period of his life.
When the Carbonariís uprising was put down, he left Ravenna where he had been living and moved to Pisa. There he lived in a home rented for him by Shelley. He and Shelley were to collaborate on a newspaper until Shelley was drowned. His young Italian lover had left her husband and was living with him in Pisa, but Byron was becoming bored. He wanted something glorious to do.
The opportunity came in 1823 when he was asked to be an agent for a group in London to help aid in the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. His love of Greece and his passion for a challenge led him to become involved in this cause. He provided 4000 pounds of his own money for the Greek navy and even took command of and paid for his own unit of soldiers. He tried his best to unite various Greek factions, but realized eventually that was a task beyond his abilities. Nevertheless, he was a strong supporter of the Greek independence movement.
Byron fell ill for the first time in February 1824; the bleeding prescribed by the doctors only weakened him. He also was emotionally distraught about his relationship with a young boy to whom he addressed his last poems. In April 1824 he caught a cold; the doctors were still bleeding him and he was too weak to resist. He died on April 19, 1824.
To the Greeks, he was a hero. They embalmed his body, but removed his heart which they buried at in Messolonghi. Westminster Abbey refused to accept his body for burial, thus he was interred near Newstead Abbey. In 1969, a plaque was finally placed on the floor of Westminster Abbey in Poetís Corner as his memorial.