A History of Single Life

Pin it


  Send to a Friend
  Printer Friendly Format
  Leave Feedback
  Read Feedback
  Nerve RSS

A series about hooking up through the ages.

Lady Caroline Lamb’s statement "mad, bad and dangerous to know" succinctly sums up the life of early nineteenth-century Britain’s most notorious raconteur, rake and revolutionary, George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is oddly appropriate that Byron made his maiden speech in the House of Lords defending the rioting textile workers known as Luddites (whose modus operandi was breaking the industrial machinery that was putting them out of jobs), since Byron and his fellow Romantics similarly saw themselves as the saboteurs of society. They were a self-proclaimed avant garde locked in a death struggle with conservative middle-class values — a pose knowingly or


unknowingly copied by everyone from Greenwich Village bohemians of the 1920s to the counterculture of the 1960s to the punk rock movement of the 1970s.
    Even if his defense of the Luddites was ultimately unsuccessful, the amount of chaos Byron managed to personally wreak was remarkable. Caroline Lamb, the married woman with whom Byron scandalized London society through much of 1812, was only one of his many lovers. The fame and fortune Byron earned from his poetry was soon eclipsed by his reputation for seducing women ranging from aristocrats to serving-girls, sodomizing everyone from choirboys to his long-suffering wife Annabella, and committing incest with his half-sister Augusta. But then, madness and badness ran in the family: His father, Captain "Mad Jack" Byron, had spent his fortune on high living; and his uncle, "the Wicked Lord" Byron (from whom he inherited the family estate, despite the latter’s doing his damnedest to destroy it) had killed his own cousin in a duel and was infamous for once shooting his coachman, throwing the corpse on top of his wife in the carriage, and driving himself home.

Byron’s methods made him the role model of countless pale, Joy Division-listening young men in black.

    All of this only added to Byron’s sex appeal. His sneer caused women to swoon, his poetry caused them to queue up to relieve his terrible sadness and atheism, and the success of his methods has made him the role model of countless pale, mascara-wearing, Joy Division-listening young men in black. The abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing on behalf of Annabella in the September 1869 issue of The Atlantic Monthly had a particularly wise insight on the appeal of the "bad boy": "Marriage has often been represented as the proper goal and terminus of a wild and dissipated career, and it has been supposed to be the appointed mission of good women to receive wandering prodigals, with all the rags and disgraces of their old life upon them, and put rings on their hands and shoes on their feet, and introduce them, clothed and in their right minds, to an honorable career in society."
    Byron’s fellow Romantics were no less scandalous than the man himself. His friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, for instance, was a political radical and atheist who proclaimed in his poem "Queen Mab," "When the power of imparting joy / Is equal to the will, the human soul / Requires no other heaven." Shelley put his rejection of conventionality into action in 1811 when he ran off to Scotland to marry Harriet Westbrook, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a coffeehouse keeper. Love, to at least this collection of influential Romantics, was not only the one true source of happiness, but also a mad beast that thought nothing of transgressing lines of age, class, and even religion. Trying to imprison eros is a sure way to destroy it, for true poetic emotion is wild and free, something that cannot possibly exist within the constraints of social forms.
    Less poetic souls might see Byron and Shelley as spoiled, irresponsible young aristocrats who wanted others to love them as much as they loved themselves. The self-absorption of lovers, after all, is nothing more than narcissism for two. However, their defenses for their actions were eloquent, indeed: By seeking to reunify physical and spiritual love, they raised sex from the mere "voluptuous rubbing of two intestines" (as the Enlightenment philosopher Diderot had put it) to a higher realm. Passion without affection, they believed, was a sin, and a man who slept with a wife he did not love might as well go to a whore. Rather than Jane Austen’s characters’ frank assessment of the financial worth of their potential partners, the Romantics’ idea of love sprang from the contemplation of internal, not external things. One became enamored of the other person’s very soul.
    Byron might have been terrified of commitment, but he was no hypocrite where his sentiments were concerned. In the summer of 1816, the poet, together with his doctor and companion John Polidori, fled London society (and his marriage to Annabella) for the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. They were soon joined there by Shelley, his eighteen-year-old lover, Mary Godwin, for whom he had forsaken Harriet two years earlier, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with Byron’s child. The unusually cold and rainy weather, caused by the immense amount of volcanic ash thrown up by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, kept them indoors all summer with Byron’s menagerie of dogs, cats, monkeys, horses, and birds, but it did give Mary the chance to write Frankenstein.

Byron and Shelley’s once-shocking ideas were co-opted into newspapers sold by children.

    Naturally, they all came to bad ends: Shelley’s unfortunate wife Harriet drowned herself in a London park in 1816; his lover Mary suffered a nervous breakdown in 1819, the year after Frankenstein was published; as for Shelley, he drowned in the Bay of Lerici in 1822 after his ship, the Ariel, was overtaken by a sudden storm. Byron and Claire’s young daughter, Allegra, died of typhus in the Italian convent where Byron had put her, for which Claire blamed him until her dying day, and Byron himself died of a fever in 1824 while bravely, but foolishly, attempting to free Greece from the Turks. His friends, fearing the scandal if the truth about his many affairs was made public, burned his memoirs.
    Of course, from the Emperor Constantine making Christianity into the glue that held the failing Roman Empire together to the serious attempts to entice the Sex Pistols into playing Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, it is the inevitable fate of any truly original or subversive voice to be eventually turned to serve the social order. Queen Victoria’s ascent to the throne in 1837 began an era firmly dominated by the bourgeois and bourgeois values. The Victorian Age — the attitudes of which may be said to have only died their final death in the cataclysm of the First World War — was torn between desire and discipline, propriety and sensuality. Whereas the Romantics were unafraid to undermine the fa├žade of respectability, the Victorians appropriated their emotional language to buttress the middle-class foundations of the monogamous, two-parent family.
    Thus, Byron and Shelley’s once-shocking ideas about the world were co-opted into cheaply printed books sold from stands in railway stations, serialized in newspapers sold by children on city streets, lent out by libraries, preached by exponents of the Spiritualist movement, defended by scientists and pseudo-scientists, incorporated into pamphlets sold to workingmen, and repeated in magazines published across the Atlantic. In works by such populist writers as Dickens, a happy ending, together with a marriage based on romantic love, was virtually obligatory.
    Rather than the Gothic castles of literature, however, a flesh-and-blood young lady of the middle class was likely to meet her future husband

The wild and free had been transformed into the disgustingly banal.

in the most ordinary of circumstances — at a ball, on a picnic, as a business associate of her father’s or a school friend of her brother’s making a call to the family home. Though arranged marriages had become all but unknown (practiced only amongst Orthodox Jews and upper-class French families) her beau would, naturally, still be of about her own social class and level. The wild and free had been transformed into the disgustingly banal. The Victorian girl’s courtship was one of house calls and carriage rides, of emotional messages coded into an elaborate language of flowers, of walks in the park and talks of nothing in particular, of small liberties, such as hand-holding and gentle kisses breathlessly taken.
    It was, nonetheless, expected that our respectable young lady would be "in love" with the man she married, and he with her. The aim of seeking marriage — rather than the treasure hunt for a trousseau it had been in the ages before the Romantics had had their way with the popular imagination — was ostensibly the pursuit of true companionship (not to mention avoiding the constant specter of old maidhood). For the vast majority of well-to-do Victorian girls, making a good match was the meaning of life itself. Love was what made one fully alive; without experiencing it, no life was complete, and true happiness was impossible — and if we doubt that this attitude is still with us today, we need only examine our own beliefs concerning those unfortunate souls who, for one reason or another, fail to find love. In many ways, our modern idea of romantic love is Byron’s real legacy.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and

Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.