Mad, bad and dangerous to know – Byron, the ultimate regency rake.
George Gordon, Lord Byron died in 1824, but he lives on, not only in his poetry and as a national hero of the Greek War of Independence, but as an inspiration and a ‘type’ in romantic fiction, particularly regency romances.
To describe Byron’s background and upbringing as ‘troubled’ would be the ultimate understatement. His father has been described as brutal and a fortune hunter. He was certainly a spendthrift who drained his wife’s estates and died when Bryon was still a toddler. The fifth Baron, from whom Bryon inherited when he was ten, was nicknamed the ‘Wicked Lord’.
An ungovernable child, Byron was full of intense passions. His callow infatuation with a local girl saw the fifteen year old Baron refuse to leave her to return to school. He was writing poetry while still at university but, when he was savaged by critics, he turned to satire to repay the favour.
Byron acquired a taste for travel on his grand tour after leaving university, travelling from Portugal to Albania and on to Athens. He indulged himself with a variety of lovers and also wrote poetry, including Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was to bring him fame on its publication after his return to England.
It was Lady Caroline Lamb who (reputedly) called Bryon, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. The wife of the Hon William Lamb, she and Bryon had a torrid affair but she was devastated when he ended it. In her later novel, Glenarvon – which would today be described as ‘revenge fiction’, the protagonist ‘Lord Ruthven’ is based on Byron, and all of society knew it.
Byron however was no longer in England. After the endless humiliation of her husband’s affairs, his wife had left him, taking their infant daughter with her. Byron would spend the rest of his life in Italy with the Shelleys and their set, and in Greece, there he spent a fortune helping the Greeks win their freedom from the Ottoman Turks.
There is evidence that Byron was becoming a steadier man. He paid more than two hundred soldiers out of his own pocket and dabbled in diplomacy. He also sold his estate in England to channel funds to the Greek cause and adopted a little Muslim girl, in order to protect her.
‘Lord Conrad’, from Byron’s poem, The Corsair, is an early example of what is described as the Byronic hero, now a figure beloved by Regency readers everywhere. Lady Caroline Lamb’s ‘Lord Ruthven’ is another, and Ruthven is (perhaps not coincidentally) the name given by Polidori to the vampire in The Vampyre, conceived at the same time as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, when the friends were whiling away a ‘wet ungenial summer’ by Lake Geneva.
Another brilliant and satirical Byronic hero is Georgette Heyer’s ‘George’, one of the dear friends of the hero ‘Sherry’ from Friday’s Child. George is a baron (Lord Wrotham –which does sound a little like Ruthven). He is described as ‘a startlingly handsome young man’ with ‘luxuriant black locks in a state of disorder’, ‘fiery dark eyes’ and ‘throbbing voice’. He is full of intemperate passions, has an impoverished estate, already wasted by his predecessors and marries the heiress ‘Isabella Milborne’ (Byron’s wife’s name was Anne Isabella Milbanke). If you haven’t read Friday’s Child, I highly recommend it.
There are a zillion heroes of romantic fiction who owe a debt to Byron or one of the later literary depictions of him. I’d love to hear what you think, so why not leave me a message in the comments; which is your favourite Byronic hero?