Fiona MacCarthy makes a breakthrough in interpreting Byron's life and poetry drawing on John Murray's world-famous archive.
She brings a fresh eye to his early years: his childhood in Scotland, embattled relations with his mother, the effect of his deformed foot on his development. She traces his early travels in the Mediterranean and the East, throwing light on his relationships with adolescent boys - a hidden subject in earlier biographies.
While paying due attention to the compelling tragicomedy of Byron's marriage, his incestuous love for his half-sister Augusta and the clamorous attention of his female fans, she gives a new importance to his close male friendships, in particular that with his publisher John Murray. She tells the full story of their famous disagreement, ending as a rift between them as Byron's poetry became more recklessly controversial.
Byron was a celebrity in his own lifetime, becoming a 'superstar' in 1812, after the publication of Childe Harold. The Byron legend grew to unprecedented proportions after his death in the Greek War of Independence at the age of thirty-six. The problem for a biographer is sifting the truth from the sentimental, the self-serving and the spurious. Fiona MacCarthy has overcome this to produce an immaculately researched biography, which is also her refreshing personal view.
While biographies of Byron have appeared with regularity since his death in 1824 at age 36, British author MacCarthy's (William Morris: A Life for Our Time) engrossing, coolly perceptive study of the Romantic poet is notable for its refusal to swoon over Byron's legend while still attuned to the evolution of his powerful personality and its impact on the world of art and literature. She notes how Byron went from being a mediocre student mocked by other boys to a charismatic leader of his peers and an extraordinarily well-read young man (though he read in secret, "to keep up his pose of anti-authoritarian idler"). She discusses how carefully he had to suppress his homosexual impulses in an increasingly conservative England, and how crucial his 1809 1810 travels in Greece and Turkey were to not only Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, but to his own life. The familiar arc of his fame covers an abortive career in English politics and a disastrous marriage (rent with rumors of incest with his half-sister), and the years of his exile in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, during which, MacCarthy argues, he introduced England to Europe and vice versa. She considers his poetry; his influence on English and European writers from Victor Hugo to Charlotte Bront ; and the cult of Byron that developed after his death. If her dispassionate approach succeeds more in describing his fascinating, contradictory character than penetrating his psychology, she nonetheless gracefully shows how the "life" and "legend" of the subtitle fed off each other.