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Lord Byron & his women - Poets & Storytellers
2934    Dibyendu Banerjee    30/05/2018

Lord Byron, regarded as one of the greatest British poets and a leading figure in the Romantic Movement, was born as George Noel Gordon Byron to Captain John Byron and his second wife, the heiress Catherine Gordon, on 22 January 1788. At the insistence of the Gordon family, John Byron legally changed his name to John Gordon. Hence, Lord Byron was technically born a Gordon and not a Byron. However, on the death of his granduncle, William, Lord Byron, the poet inherited the family title and the estate.

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From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot, which has generally been referred to as a ‘club foot’. However, some maintain that it may be a consequence of infantile paralysis or a failure of the bones to form properly. Whatever may be the cause, he was afflicted with a limp that caused him lifelong psychological and physical trauma. He was extremely self-conscious about it from a young age, nicknaming himself as the ‘limping devil’. He could not dance, due to his foot. But, he was athletic, being a competent boxer and horse-rider and an excellent swimmer. With a height of 5 feet 8.5 inches (1.74 m), he was renowned for his physical beauty, which he enhanced by wearing curl-papers in his hair at night. Above all, he had that tremendous magnetic power which attracts the fair sex irresistibly and with his numerous love affairs, he is often described as the most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics.

Mary Chaworth
Mary Chaworth

Byron confessed that his passions were developed very early, even before he was ignorant of adult sexuality. He was bisexual and had male and female lovers. He thought that men were smarter, but women kissed better. At the tender age of 15 he fell madly in love with his cousin, Mary Chaworth, who did not return his feelings. Byron was deeply hurt at it and only to avoid her, refused to return to Harrow in September 1803. Later, in his memoirs Byron portrayed Mary Chaworth as the first object of his adult sexual feelings. This unrequited passion was the basis for his later works ‘Hills of Annesley’ and ‘The Adieu’.

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Byron had the incurable romantic habit of falling in love with all the pretty women in the circle. With his poetic talent, pleasing presence and irresistible charming looks, Byron became a celebrity at an early age. The men jealous of him, while the women of each other.

Lady Caroline Lamb – Painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Lady Caroline Lamb – Painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1805)

In 1812, he embarked on a turbulent affair with the passionate, eccentric and married Lady Caroline Lamb. She was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and novelist, married to The Hon. William Lamb, who later became Viscount Melbourne and the Prime Minister. She had read ‘Childe Harold’ before meeting Byron, as she had a friendship with Byron’s publisher John Murray. Since she wanted to meet Byron, she was told that Byron has a clubfoot, and he bites his nails. But, Caroline insisted and replied that she must know him, even he is ugly. When they were introduced, Byron was initially disappointed. She was tall and very thin, with short, curly blonde hair and hazel eyes.She did not resemble his traditional conquests, or his concept of feminine beauty, as her figure was too thin to be good. But Caroline was instantly fascinated and helplessly attracted by his charm and knew it for sure that his beautiful pale face was her fate. Caroline was a bright, breezy, seductive and coquettish woman. Byron had his doubts that she wanted to seduce him to fulfill her vanity. Naturally, he was always insecure and Caroline sensed this insecurity in him and that again increased his charm for her. Ultimately they became lovers and shocked London with their turbulent and illicit love affair through much of April and May 1812.

Lady Caroline Lamb - Painted by Thomas Phillips
Lady Caroline Lamb – Painted by Thomas Phillips

Caroline branded Byron as, ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’, but she was as crazy as Byron. Often, she dressed and disguised as a page and sneaked into Byron’s chambers to enjoy passionate bouts of lovemaking that may have been even too wild for Byron. Byron was a Romantic paradox, a man with a strange contradictory personality. He loved to pursue women, but once captured, he longed to leave them. Caroline was the first woman of Byron’s class to captivate the poet completely, yet he treated Caroline badly after his grand infatuation faded. He tried his best to make her despise him. He told her of the unpardonable acts he had committed in his past. He admitted his affair with his sister Augusta Leigh and to having sex with boys. Even he forced anal sex on Caroline to make himself loathsome to her.

Lady Caroline Lamb
Lady Caroline Lamb

Byron regularly informed her by writing that he no longer loved her, but Caroline could not make herself free of the love she felt toward him. She lost all pride. In her twisted sense of intimacy, she exchanged locks of hair with him and in a desperate move, she sent him a letter on 9th August, enclosed therein a very personal gift – her pubic hair. She never stopped writing to him, never stopped begging for meetings with him. When they finally broke up, she burned his effigy in a strange, pagan-like ritual, and maintained a venomous hatred of him for the rest of her life. In 1816, she published a well-received Gothic novel novel ‘Glenarvon’, where the main character is a caricature of Byron.

Jane Harley, Countess of Oxford
Jane Harley, Countess of Oxford

In the aftermath of his affair with Caroline Lamb, Byron had a short relationship with Jane Elizabeth Harley, Countess of Oxford. She was known as a patron of the Reform movement and frequently took lovers from among the pro-Reform party. Byron was fourteen years her junior and their affair lasted until 1813, when she and her husband went abroad, but Byron refused to follow them, as she had hoped.

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As a child, Byron had seen little of his half-sister Augusta Leigh, as they were not brought up together. She was 5 years older than him but, did not meet her until he went to Harrow School and even then only very rarely. However, from 1804 onward, she wrote to him regularly and became his confidante. As he became an adult, they were almost like strangers to each other. In 1813 Augusta came to visit Byron while her husband and three children vacationed elsewhere. Within a short time, rumours of incest surrounded the pair. They got on so well together that it appeared they are in deep love with each other. In fact, the two began a relationship of extreme and unsettling closeness and were having an incestuous affair. Augusta became pregnant, and on 15 April 1814 she gave birth to her third daughter, Elizabeth. Though the child was christened with her father’s surname of Leigh, she is believed to be Byron's daughter.

Augusta Leigh
Augusta Leigh

In January 1814, Byron published the long poem ‘The Corsair’, which became an instant bestseller. Though his relationship with Augusta continued, he began to court Caroline’s cousin, a woman named Annabella Milbanke, a highly educated and strictly religious woman. She seemed an unlikely match for the amoral and agnostic poet. Often described as prim and stout, Annabella was not the kind of woman Byron usually went after. Scholars speculate that, for Byron marriage may have been a bid for respectability, or a way to distance himself from the relationship with his half-sister that even he knew was wrong. Nevertheless, Byron was attracted to Annabella’s modesty and intellect and seeking to escape his love affairs in marriage, he proposed to Annabella in October 1812, through her aunt. Annabella however, did not accept the proposal, as she was well aware of Byron's shortcomings. But, when Byron proposed a second time, in September 1814, she agreed and they were married privately on 2nd January1815.

Within a short time, it became evident to both of them that the marriage was a huge mistake. Almost immediately after the wedding, Byron took his wife to visit Augusta, whose husband was away. It is said that, during the two-week visit, Annabella slept alone in a guest room while Byron and Augusta shared the master bedroom. Naturally, the marriage fell apart spectacularly hard and fast.

In the meantime, Byron was in extreme financial distress. He refused to accept payments from the publishers for his written works, as he believed that business was below the dignity of a gentleman. Instead, he gifted his copyrights to people who had helped him. On the other hand, he was having difficulty selling his estates to clear his debt. During the summer of 1815, he began to unleash his anger and hostility on Annabella. He became depressed and started to drink heavily. Strangely, he wrote a letter to Augusta, expressing his suspicions that his wife had broken the lock on his desk and searched it. Later in the year Byron became involved in an affair with Susan Boyce, a London actress at Drury Lane Theatre, where he was a director.

Annabella, Lady Byron
Annabella, Lady Byron

Gradually Annabella became increasingly upset. In the late stages of pregnancy, she feared her husband might be going mad. In November 1815, she wrote to Augusta about Byron's moods and his unusual behaviour. In reply to her sister-in-law's letter, Augusta traveled to the Byron’s' home to tackle the situation. However, it did not work and Augusta became the subject of Byron's wrath. It seemed that he has become temporarily insane. Annabella gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Ada, on 10 December 1815. But, apart from Byron's continued obsession toward Augusta, his unrestricted sexual escapades with Susan Boyce and other women made their marital life a misery. Finally, in January 1816, Annabella took her baby and left him, ending the marriage after one year and fourteen days.

By that time, Byron was in a complete mess. The scandal of the separation, the rumours about his bisexuality, his incestuous affair with Augusta and the increasing debts forced him to leave England in April 1816, never to return. He felt deep in his heart that, he was unfit for England and England was unfit for him.

Byron spent that summer at Lake Geneva with his friend, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary and Mary’s half sister Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had an affair whilst in London. However, before he left London, Byron made it very clear to Claire that she would not be a part of his life. But, Claire was determined to change his mind. It was she, who insisted her half sister Mary and Shelley to invite Byron to join them at Lake Geneva. She was an attractive, lively and voluptuous brunette and at Lake Geneva she used her sexual charm to rekindle Byron’s interest in her. Claire became pregnant, but Byron discarded her again, as he was tired of the sharp tongued woman. In fact, he never loved her, nor pretended to love her. Later, in 1817, Claire returned to London and gave birth to their daughter, Allegra. She once confessed that, her relationship with Byron had given her only a few minutes of pleasure, but a lifetime of trouble. The following year, Claire, Mary and Percy Shelley visited Byron in Italy and Byron agreed to raise the child on the condition that Clairmont keep her distance from him.

Claire Clairmont
Claire Clairmont

Byron was really tired of Claire, discarding her for a string of lovers that he seemed to regard with general distaste. In his letter to friends Byron listed the names of all the women he had slept with since he had been in Italy and concluded that, some of those women were Countesses and some were Cobblers wives, some were noble, while some were middling, some low and all of them were basically whores.

Lord Byron and Marianna
Lord Byron and Marianna

In Venice, Byron had a love affair with Marianna Segati, the twenty-two-year-old wife of his Venetian landlord, a draper. Byron described her as being very pretty, not too tall, with dark curly hair and large black oriental eyes. She had a beautiful voice and Byron found her quiet manner very calming. It is interesting to note that, in those days it was quite usual in Venice and in other parts of Italy too, to have a sort of ‘official’ lover, called ‘cavalier servente’, whose duty was to accompany the wife to the theatre and in many cases his services were not confined to only that. This peculiar system, so common in Venetian society, was a kind of ‘safeguard institution’, for both the husband and the wife, because marriages were often arranged, and separation, not to mention divorce, was out of the question. It is not impossible that the ‘poor’ draper accepted money from Byron to carry on with Marianna. In spite of this enthusiasm, his affair with Mariannna did not last through the following year.

After a short visit to Rome, when Byron came back to Venice, Margarita Cogni, a baker’s wife, replaced Segati as his mistress, and his descriptions of this ‘gentle tigress’ are among the most entertaining passages in his letters describing life in Italy. She could not read or write and she left her husband to move into Byron's Venice house. Due to their conjugal fighting often Byron had to spend the night in his gondola and when he asked her to leave the house, she threw herself into the Venetian canal.

Teresa Guiccioli
Teresa Guiccioli

Byron accidentally met Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli in 1819. During that time, she was only 19 years old and married to a man nearly three times her age. She re-energized Byron and changed the course of his life. Soon after the first meeting, the two became inseparable and Byron moved in with her in 1820. Some of the most famous works of Byron, including ‘Beppo’ and the ‘Prophecy of Dante’ were written during this period in Italy. He also started the great satiric poem ‘Don Juan’, which he never finished.

Byron followed Teresa to Ravenna and she later accompanied him back to Venice. However, as the Count Gamba was expelled from Ravenna for taking part in an abortive uprising, Byron followed Teresa and her husband to arrive in Pisa, in November 1821. In the meantime, Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra had arrived in Italy, sent by her mother Claire to be with her father. Byron sent her away to be educated at a convent near Ravenna, where she unfortunately died in April 1822. Byron also lost his friend Shelley in the same year, who died when his boat, the Don Juan, went down at sea.

Teresa Guiccioli
Teresa Guiccioli

Byron moved to Genoa at the end of September, as Teresa’s family had found an asylum there. By that time Byron was in search of a new adventure. In July 1823, after publishing the remaining cantos of ‘Don Juan’, he left Genoa for Cephalonia in Greece to assist the Greeks in their revolution against Turkish rule. He made efforts to unite the various Greek factions and took personal command of a brigade of Souliot soldiers. Unfortunately, on 9 April 1824, Byron fell ill with a fever. Doctors bled him with leeches as his illness grew progressively worse. He was writhing in deep pain and was delirious. The end came after ten days. On 19 April 1824, Lord Byron died in Missolonghi, Greece at the age of 36. His body was brought back to England and since refused burial in Westminster Abbey, was placed in the family vault near Newstead. Ironically, after 145 years of his death, a memorial to Byron was finally placed on the floor of the Abbey, adjoining the memorials to Dylan Thomas, Lewis Carroll and D.H.Lawrence.

Memorial Stone Westminster Abbey
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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