Alexander Larman's "Byron's Women" and the conjoined but contrasting myths of Shelley and Byron

Last week Byron's Women was released in paperback. In recognition of this, I have re-released my original recommendation as part of Throwback Thursday at TRPBS.  I suppose it is fair enough to draw a line between the character of a poet and his or her poetic output, however, the Byron that emerges from these pages is so odious, so repellent that I find it impossible to do so.  I can understand why Shelley was increasingly troubled by his behaviour and why he was so worried for the well-being of Allegra.

Alexander Larman's new book Byron's Women is just out and you need to buy it; now.  In what may be one of the best written blogs I have come across in a very long time, he encapsulates his thesis. Larman does not mince words:

The greatest falsehood propagated about Byron is that he loved women. On the contrary, his attitude towards those in his life was mainly a mixture of contempt, violence and lordly dismissal.

In the pages of his book it would appear that we finally we have someone speaking truth to power and by power I mean what Larman calls the "Byron establishment"; an establishment which he asserts has been "permeated by a lazy misogyny for decades". You can find his article here. If his blog is in any way representative of what is to come in his book Byron's Women, it will be a blockbuster.

Larman's book interests me for a very particular reason: I am fascinated by "reputational history." Students and advocates for Shelley have battled for literally 200 years over who the "real" Percy Bysshe Shelley is. I think there is an important lesson for fans, students and critics alike: and that is that very little can be taken at face value when we speak about "cultural heroes".  In the case of Byron, in order to maintain his place in the pantheon, his supporters have chosen to almost completely ignore a dark side.  In the case of Shelley, advocates constructed a version of Shelley which never existed.  Byron's reputation benefited when what can only be called a "coalition of the willing"  either ignored his misogyny or painted out of existence.  Shelley's reputation suffered when his advocates (for a multiplicity of reasons, some of them well-meaning) chose to block out his political radicalism.

Let me give a stark example.  Here are two descriptions of Shelley drawn by two famous, erudite Victorians:

“Enchanted child, born into a world unchildlike; spoiled darling of Nature, playmate of her elemental daughters; "pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift," laired amidst the burning fastnesses of his own fervid mind; bold foot along the verges of precipitous dream; light leaper from crag to crag of inaccessible fancies; towering Genius, whose soul rose like a ladder between heaven and earth with the angels of song ascending and descending it;--he is shrunken into the little vessel of death, and sealed with the unshatterable seal of doom, and cast down deep below the rolling tides of Time.”
and this:

"...there can be no mistake whatever about the attitude Shelley took the whole body of his writing toward the established system of society, which, as he avowed in one of his later letters, he wished to see, "overthrown from the foundations with all of its superstructure, maxims and forms." His principles are utterly subversive of all that orthodoxy holds most sacred, whether in ethics or in religion..."

The first comes from Francis Thompson's arch-Victorian paean to Shelley that was published in 1909.  The second comes from the roughly contemporary Henry Stephens Salt, writing in his seminal book "Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Pioneer" in 1896 .  Can these possibly be the same person?  Clearly not. Yet in the contest of competing visions, I would suggest that Thompson's image of Shelley has for the most part won out, to the detriment of Shelley. One scholar (Karsten Klejs Engleberg) produced a bibliography of over one thousand essays and monographs that were written about Shelley up until 1860. Mark Kipperman commented in his 1992 article, "Absorbing a Revolution: Shelley Becomes a Romantic, 1889-1903" that these essays invariably,

"centered on the spectacular events - the elopement, the rumors of hallucination and madness, the death, cremation, and ghoulish passing on of relics - to sustain the myth of a poet either ludicrously incapable, criminally irresponsible, or gloriously and ineffably transcendent."

Newman Ivey White's landmark 1940 biography of Shelley devoted an entire chapter to Shelley's posthumous reputation.  At the time of his death, Byron was literally the world's first superstar; Shelley, on the other hand, was virtually unknown. It is a quirk of history that the survival of Shelley's reputation as a poet in the early years after his death owed a noticeable debt to the accidental factor of his connection with Byron. Thereafter, it slowly gathered steam and within 20 years Shelley had accomplished one of the greatest and most unlikely comebacks in literary history - he joined his contemporaries Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Byron in the accepted pantheon of the great writers of the 19th Century.

White traces the manner in which the feat was pulled off but a detailed analysis of this is beyond the scope of this short note.  What I will say is this: what Shelley became famous for would most likely have been anathema to him.  The man who was, according to White, "perhaps the greatest radical voice in poetry since Lucretius" became a sentimentalized caricature of himself. The later Victorian critics, whose voice I think dominates to this day the lay perception of Shelley, believed that while he was one of the great poets, “on everything that really mattered to him except his purely personal emotions and his fine art, he was dead wrong.”  In short, the Shelley ends up widely regarded as one of the great 19th Century writers based upon a completely erroneous understanding of what he actually stood for.  As White observes, "Matthew Arnold's 'beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain', was protested by Stopford Brooke in his Shelley Society inaugural address [1886], but it remains today one of the most influential critical dicta on Shelley." Thus White concludes, "undoubtedly a large part of Shelley’s popularity for a hundred years has been based upon an evasion of the real Shelley."

Shelley's admirers went to absolutely extraordinary lengths to cement his reputation as anything other than the "atheist, lover of humanity and democrat" which he described himself as.   For example look at these images:

A biographer of Shelley's, Buxton Forman, actually commissioned this 'portrait' of Shelley. The drawing was explicitly imitative of da Vinci's "Head of Christ" and bore no relation to what Shelley looked like at all (yeah, okay, he got the open-necked shirt right).  Forman then went on to present this falsified image as a "portrait" of Shelley in two successive editions of his biography. I have an article coming on the manner in which Shelley has been represented throughout the last two centuries.

Let's now turn to Byron and go back to that opening salvo of Larman's:

"The greatest falsehood propagated about Byron is that he loved women. On the contrary, his attitude towards those in his life was mainly a mixture of contempt, violence and lordly dismissal."

There has to be an irony in this somewhere.  To promote their hero, Byron's advocates have disguised or ignored distinctly unappealing aspects of his character.  Exactly the same could be said about Shelley.  But in Shelley's case the character traits which were suppressed and considered to be unappealing had nothing to do with misogyny, contempt or violence; they had to do with political radicalism, republicanism and in particular atheism. Let us also not forget that Byron was more a cynic than a skeptic and that his republican values were a thin gruel indeed; a fact that grated continually on Shelley. Marx brilliantly and succinctly captured the contrast between the two poets:

"The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism."

Byron, unlike Shelley, never demonstrated the slightest desire to repudiate his aristocratic title and privilege. He was a man born as George Gordon, who by accident of birth (and a lot of other fortuitous circumstances) manged to inherit a title. Perhaps it is an accident of my birth in Canada that I find this uncomfortable and irksome. George Gordon is never referred to by his real name - only his lordly title.  And I think his reputation has benefited from this for the simple reason that title and aristocratic privilege clearly matter - and not just in England, around the world.  I think this dismaying deference to aristocracy has in many ways contributed to the Byron cult. You can imagine what Shelley might have thought of that.  Here is Larman on the subject:

"In a hurry to put their beloved lordly poet on a pedestal, scholars, critics and general readers alike have been all too keen to overlook the obvious faults that he had as a man."

So, Shelley and Byron, two remarkably dissimilar poets, at least share this much: they each have a carefully cultivated myth. Larman's stated objective is to "delve beneath the surface of the myth" and warns his readers to "be prepared for what we may find there."  As a student of Shelley, I find the contrast between the history of the reputations fascinating.  Like many other Shelley scholars, I have spent much of my life engaged in my own archeological project - delving beneath the surface of Shelley's own myth to resurrect the "real" Percy Bysshe Shelley. This is a theme I will continue to develop in this blog

Larman recounts movingly the obstacles he faced in writing his book:

"And what of ‘the Manager’ himself, as Annabella and Augusta nicknamed Byron? At times, as I wrote about his grotesque cruelty towards Annabella and Claire, I found myself loathing him so much that it was almost an ordeal to continue to chart his misdeeds. Yet I must confess that I have, like so many others, been at least been half-seduced by Byron. Like the women he associated with, he was a pioneer in thought and deed. Of all the Romantic poets, it is his writing that speaks most clearly to us today, as his hatred of ‘the cant’ will find a warm reception with readers who have themselves long since wearied of being told what they should think and feel."

I hope you will allow me a little advocacy for Shelley.  On the question of who speaks most clearly to us today, Larman and I must part company.  Shelley despised much more than "cant". It was Shelley's politics and philosophy that inspired generations of Chartists and socialists; not Byron's. Newman Ivey White goes so far as to say, "If Robert Owen was the founder of British socialism, it is possible for modern socialism to claim Shelley as a sort of grandfather.”  I think it is reasonably clear today that even the political event Byron is most famous for - the Greek war for independence - was something he poorly understood. He was heard to remark shortly before his death in Greece: "this is Shelley's war"; as in, I think, "What am I doing here?" Marx had so much wrong, but in his opinion of Byron and Shelley, I think we can see a startlingly accurate insight.

I suppose it is controversial of me to pit Byron against Shelley, but history has conjoined them. Therefore is it perhaps not so terribly wrong to open the door to a contest of ideas and philosophies.  In any event, for my part, I can't wait until my copy of Byron's Women arrives from my local book seller.

Alexander Larman is an author and journalist who read English at Oxford and graduated with a First.  He writes regularly about literature and the arts for publications including The Guardian, TLS, New Statesman, Spectator, Telegraph, Five Dials, the Erotic Review and the Observer. He also reviews restaurants and hotels for luxury titles such as The Arbuturian, The Resident, Quintessentially Insider and Mr and Mrs Smith. You can find him online here. His blog about his book can be found for the Wordsworth Trust here. Follow him on Twitter.