The Private Life of Lord Byron

Antony Peattie
Unbound ($45)

by Allan Vorda

Previous biographies of Lord Byron, including Leslie Marchand’s three-volume set in 1957, have seemingly covered and dissected every inch of the English poet’s fascinating and mythical life, which ended when he was only thirty-six. In the introduction to The Private Life of Lord Byron, Antony Peattie tells us to expect something completely different.

Recent studies of Byron have focused on his bisexuality, but Peattie investigates “two other areas (which may be related to one another): his intermittent eating disorder and his obsession with fatherhood.” Peattie’s unique approach draws on less-studied biographical facts—for example, that Byron suffered from bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa: “Considering his diet, what he ate, what he didn’t eat, when and why, yields insights into Byron’s love life and his intentions in his masterpiece, Don Juan.” Peattie tracks some of the reasons why Byron dieted, including battles with his obese mother, a misshapen foot that required him to walk with a metal plate in his boot, a prescription from a physician for a daily diet of six biscuits and soda water, and his relentless romantic and sexual pursuits. 

Byron’s issues with his father were complicated. He rarely saw Captain “Mad Jack” Byron, who was often at sea; when on land, he was a womanizer and gambler. He left his wife and three-year-old Byron for France to escape creditors before dying at thirty-five. From a young age, Byron began to follow in his father’s footsteps; the same habits landed him similarly in debt. He felt he inherited his father’s traits and that he was “predestined to evil.” Part of this thinking was drilled into him by his mother, whose Scottish Calvinism endorsed “predestination, man’s innate depravity and his hereditary taint.” Byron also learned that his particular heritage included “a long tradition of dissipation, incest, rampant promiscuity, decadence, murder and unbridled debauchery.”

Some of those family prophecies came true; Peattie traces Byron’s wide range of trysts that gained him a kind of infamy. Byron’s first sexual experience was being seduced at age nine by his nanny; at Trinity College a decade later, he became involved with a younger student, John Edleston: “I certainly love him more than any human being, & neither time or Distance have had the least effect on my (in general) changeable Disposition.”

Edleston died at age twenty-two from consumption, and Byron’s sexual conquests quickly escalated. After graduating from Trinity, he did a Grand Tour of Europe, during which he had numerous affairs. Upon his return, he published two cantos of poetry, titled Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which sold out in three days. He was only twenty-four.

Once Byron achieved fame, his affairs were countless. There was Lady Caroline, who stated, famously, that Byron was “mad—bad—and dangerous to know”; his niece Mary Chaworth; his half-sister Augusta Leigh; Annabella Milbanke, whom he married and who bore his only legitimate child; Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley, who bore his daughter; the Italian women Marianna Segati and Margarita Cogni; the nineteen-year-old Countess Teresa Guiccioli; the Maids of Athens (three sisters who were under the age of fifteen); fourteen-year-old Nicolo Giraud, whom Byron hired as an Italian tutor; and many others—and those are just the ones whose names we know. By the time Byron turned thirty, Peattie writes, the poet was “determined to make the most of his time for sex and for writing—the two activities were now closely linked in his mind.” Don Giovanni claimed 640 conquests; Byron is estimated to have had around one thousand sexual encounters.

Byron composed his epic poem Don Juan in Italy from 1819-24. Consisting of seventeen cantos and 1,950 stanzas, the mock epic poem shows Don Juan not as a womanizer, but as a sexual victim. When it was published, it was considered the greatest poem since Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In the final chapter in his life, Byron, wanting to achieve some glory like his hero Napoleon, decided to try to help the Greeks wrest their freedom from the Ottoman Empire. He went to Missolonghi to train some Christian Albanian troops and was ready to go into battle when he became ill. His doctor performed a blood-letting that he claimed “cured Byron’s ‘attack of epilepsy’ by drawing off ‘four pounds of blood’, half the total in his body.” During this time, Byron adhered to his strict diet, which compounded his illness, then decided to train his five hundred soldiers on horseback when he “was ‘caught in a shower.’” Byron came down with a cold and the doctor performed a second blood-letting, but after becoming delirious, Byron died on April 19, 1824 at age thirty-six.

Two congratulations must be given for The Private Life of Lord Byron. The first is to author Antony Peattie for offering such a unique insight into Byron’s life regarding his eating disorder—not to mention delving into numerous other aspects of the poet’s life from Satanism to Shelley, and discussing numerous poems and plays with aplomb. The other goes to British publisher Unbound for making the book such an extravagant and elegant production: Its 586 pages include amazing photographs, paintings, and sketches rendered in extraordinary color, and there is even an old-style ribbon bookmark sewn in. Everything is exquisite about this book.

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