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The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England

by Emily Brand

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(London Times)

In 1814, when the publisher John Murray went to visit his close friend and superstar poet signing Lord Byron at his “melancholy mansion”, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, he was quite perplexed.

Byron dwelled in a pale stone country house attached to a crumbling medieval priory near Sherwood Forest. Weeds crept along the stone, and rainwater wept down the walls where Titians and Holbeins once hung. Murray was amazed that he lived in a place that could “present nothing but a perpetual memorial of the wickedness of his ancestors”.

Those wicked ancestors are the subject of Emily Brand’s delectable family biography, published in a synchronicitous twist by John Murray, still going strong two centuries later.

Long before the dashing poet became the 6th Baron Byron, inheriting the title and property from his great-uncle, “Wicked William”, generations of his forebears had been kicking up all manner of high-society dramas — duels, orgies, incest, inquests, mock naval battles, the lot. Even the most level-headed Byrons squandered their fortunes at the card table or in the hatters and swordsmiths of Piccadilly. “If there was one thread that wound itself into all strands of the Byron dynasty it was a perennial and divisive shortness of cash,” writes Brand. “That disease is epidemic in our family,” the poet had reminded his half-sister, Augusta — also rumoured to be his lover. Their wastrel father had likewise lusted after his sister Fanny — as Augusta told a friend: “I think we are very degenerate!”

A lot has been written about Lord Byron’s brief, boisterous 36-year existence, but Brand is more interested in romping through roughly 100 years of his ancestors’ rackety exploits. We begin with Byron’s great-grandfather, the 4th Baron Byron, whose second wife gave birth to four doomed children, before dying of a venereal disease that she caught from her husband. At 50, he then married a 17-year old who bore him six children and as a result “quite lost her youth”, according to her father, Lord Berkeley — who had, in fact, been the one to push her into the match in the first place.

But the book focuses mainly on one hair-raising generation — that of the poet’s seafaring grandfather, the plucky Admiral John Byron, his devilish older brother William (the 5th Baron Byron), and his spirited sister Isabella. Born in the 1720s, they lived through Jacobite rebellions, the Seven Years’ War, the French and American Revolutions and Britain’s colonial expansion.

Brand, a young historian specialising in 18th-century romance, traces the many ways that historical events cut across their lives, complete with observations from family acquaintances Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson. However, her history is as much caught up with the “fiddle-faddle” of the bon ton, and is all the more enjoyable for it.

“Wicked William” had a castle built in the woods, from which he and his guests would observe his fleet of replica warships, and their cannon fire, on Newstead lake. He also treated London as his aristocratic playground. Within days of his marriage, he was stalking an actress around the West End, threatening to abduct her unless she submitted to his lecherous demands. Life got more sticky when he plunged his sword into his cousin, William Chaworth, after an argument about whose estate had more game. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London on murder charges, and eventually let off with manslaughter.

As William staged pretend battles, his younger brother John sailed into the real thing. In his late teens, he spent five years missing at sea, surviving on wild celery and seagull, eventually reappearing in Soho caked in mud. His seafaring capers — complete with tribal temptresses and giants — read like a cross between The Odyssey and Gulliver’s Travels and earned the nickname “Foul Weather Jack”. While an honourable sailor, he was bad with money and with women. His “constantly pregnant” wife Sophia later found him in flagrante delicto with her teenage chambermaid.

Isabella was no less frisky. Married to Lord Carlisle, she revelled in the giddy whirl of balls with European royalty. When Carlilse died, she wasted no time in finding a replacement: a lawyer 14 years her junior. But while she liked to dance until 4am, her new husband was a young fogey. She tore off to France, where she was taken in by a bogus Baron — much to the scorn of her society friends.

Some of the next generation shared this talent for turbulent living. John’s son, “Mad Jack” — Lord Byron’s father — was a military man who shamelessly seduced married mother of three Lady Carmarthen. The servants reported the bedsheets “very much tumbled” and the fallen lady was soon carrying his child. They married but she died a year later, prompting Mad Jack to hunt for another gullible heiress. He fell upon Scottish orphan Catherine Gordon, the poet’s mother, whose high spirits were quashed when she was abandoned by her scapegrace husband.

Brand’s ravishing family saga is as much the story of women who yearned for the romantic life — art, culture and adventure — as it is a story of men who abused their right to it. Married women were trapped in a cycle of baby-bearing, barely able to dance a cotillon before they were once again loosening the stays of their corsets.

Brand maintains an even, amused tone throughout — preferring to let male hypocrisy speak for itself. But while she never exalts the Byrons, she can’t help but be moved by that Byronic lust for life — even when it is thwarted. As Isabella, travelling outside of Britain for the first time, writes to her friend: “There is so much more to be seen.”

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