This review appeared in the March-April 2003 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review. It has been slightly revised.

Fiona MacCarthy.
Byron: Life and Legend.
John Murray in Great Britain.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S.
London & New York 2002.
674 pages, $35.00.

Reviewed by John Lauritsen.

    Fiona MacCarthy has written the most important Byron biography for half a century, published by John Murray, Byron's own publisher. Critics are not sure how to respond. Anne Barton in The New York Review of Books praises MacCarthy's “empathy with Byron”, but deplores her “seeming lack of interest in poetry generally, and of Byron's in particular” — though Barton admits that the biography is “balanced, fair, thoroughly researched, and beautifully written.”
    The opposite tack is taken by Anne Fleming in the Times Literary Supplement. According to her, MacCarthy is admirably responsive to Byron's poetry, but thoroughly dislikes him as a man. Fleming is unhappy that MacCarthy portrays Byron's love interests as fundamentally male. Other reviewers followed suit, complaining that Fiona MacCarthy overemphasized Byron's homoerotic inclinations or slighted his poetry.
    Neither criticism is justified. Without overemphasis, MacCarthy was simply more forthright than her predecessors in discussing Byron's sexuality — a forthrightness made possible by changes in public opinion and the legalization of sex between males in England. She writes:

Our understanding of Byron's bisexuality, an open secret within his own close circle, throws important light on the pattern of his life. In an essay in her book Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered Doris Langley Moore has argued that Byron's love affairs with women were his main emotional focus, his relations with boys being no more than diversions. I believe the opposite is true. Byron liked the chase, the reassurance of heterosexual conquest. But in general, Byron's female attachments dwindled quickly in intensity.

    MacCarthy does not neglect Byron's poetry, and sometimes brings considerable insight to it, but her main concern is Byron as a man and as a phenomenon. In her words:

This book is about the nature of his fame: the ambition Byron felt as 'the most powerful of all excitements'; the degree to which he created and then manipulated his visual image, attempting to control the reproduction of his portraits; the complex and fascinating intertwining of his personal celebrity and literary reputation; his bitterness when fame turned to notoriety, and its consequences for the future generations of his family and entourage.

    Byron was a bundle of contradictions. Shy, pale and effeminate, short and with a strong tendency to become fat, crippled with foot deformities, he nevertheless became the reigning male sex symbol of the 19th century. To this day the Byronic hero is the archetype of the swaggering male adventurer, with his sardonic and defiant virility. Byron had an abundance of character defects — he could be mean and petty to even his best friends — but he also had charm and a gift for empathy, which gained lasting devotion from those close to him.
    At the age of 18 Byron was chubby: 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 194 pounds. But by 24 he had slimmed down to 140 pounds: he was then at the height of his beauty and on the threshold of fame, which would come from the publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Soon females of all ages and descriptions would be throwing themselves at him, exhibiting the sexual frenzy that would later greet such celebrities as Franz Liszt, Rudolf Valentino and Elvis Presley.
    Fiona MacCarthy has written a full-scale biography, which covers in vivid detail his affairs and friendships; his unfortunate marriage; his residences, costumes, animals, carriages, etc.; his travels; his political involvements; his writings; his grisly death in Greece from malnutrition, alcoholism, laxatives and bleedings; and the aftermath.
    MacCarthy has a sense of irony and can appreciate camp, the unique humor of gay men. From her Introduction:

In the cacophony of sophisticated voices, the female as self-assured and brittle as the male, Byron's own laconic tones stand out as irresistibly self-mocking. Accused of carrying off a girl from a convent: 'I should like to know who has been carried off — except poor dear me — I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan war.'  Here is Byron as progenitor of a high camp English manner of expression that extends to Oscar Wilde, Ronald Firbank, Noël Coward.

    My main disagreement with Fiona MacCarthy comes from her uncritical acceptance of the received verdict that Byron's male love interests were confined to adolescent boys. The fallacy here is two-fold: first, arguing that a paucity or lack of evidence proves a negative, and second, a failure to look closely at the evidence that does exist. A double standard has been in operation here: we are supposed to believe that Byron had sex with middle-aged and even elderly women, but that he had no interest in males who were out of their teens.
    I think that Byron did like post-adolescent men, including big butch types. From 1816 onwards his immediate circle always included good-looking young men, who ranged from the servant to the upper class. Most important among the former was William Fletcher, who “was at Byron's side from 1804, when Byron was sixteen, almost without interval until his master died.”  According to a local woman, the young Byron had observed Fletcher ploughing the fields on his estate, taken a fancy to him, and hired him for his household — first as groom, and then as his valet or personal servant.
    In 1809 Byron and Fletcher were travelling in Portugal, where they visited a monastery: “Fletcher complained that the ‘benevolent faced clergyman’ had been teaching him Greek and kissing him.”  In 1814 Byron and Fletcher were living in a Piccadilly apartment, where after exercise Byron would “get Fletcher to rub him down.”  The crucial question of whether Fletcher was good-looking is answered in the affirmative by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in an 1821 letter observes that William Fletcher, away from the dissolute atmosphere of Venice, had “recovered his good looks” and was sprouting “a fresh harvest of flaxen locks”. If Fletcher was still good-looking in 1821, he must have been strikingly handsome when Byron first spotted him seventeen years earlier.
    Byron and Fletcher may have been master and servant, but there was good-natured kidding back and forth between them, and friends regarded them as a couple. In his Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley & Byron, Edward John Trelawny playfully refers to Fletcher as “Byron's yeoman bold” — a marvelously evocative phrase. (From the OED: Yeoman = youngman, a man in the service of, or in attendance upon, a person of high rank ... a lover, a male sweetheart.)  At Byron's funeral, “Fletcher, who had been with Byron for so long, had to withdraw from the front ranks of the chief mourners, with whom in the commotion the servants were intermingled, to support himself against a pew in a paralysis of grief.”
    Another servant was Giovanni Battista Falcieri, known as "Tita", a gondolier acquired in Venice. Tita was assigned to be Shelley's valet, when he visited Byron in Ravenna in 1821. Shelley found Tita simpatico, describing him as “a fine fellow with a prodigious black beard, who has stabbed two or three people, & is the most goodnatured looking fellow I ever saw.” Perhaps Tita learned from Fletcher how to give a good rubdown.
    In 1820 Byron wrote to William Bankes (a fellow exile, who as a young man had indoctrinated Byron into the “already thriving subculture of sodomy” at Cambridge), urging him to visit Ravenna for Carnival: “Tita's heart yearns for you, and mayhap for your broad silver pieces.”  This passage suggests that Tita's sexual services, in the gondolier tradition, were for sale; that Byron had sex with the good-looking young men in his service; and that he shared them with his friends.
    Tita, described by contemporaries as muscular and herculean, was a popular young man. He went to England to attend Byron's funeral; then he was taken on for a year by John Hobhouse (Byron's overly possessive friend, an egregious closet quean); and then he joined the young and handsome Count Pietro Gamba, who had been Byron's constant companion for his last four years.  After Gamba died fighting for Greek independence, Tita entered the service of the young Benjamin Disraeli, future Prime Minister of England.
    For many reasons this is the finest Byron biography ever written. Fiona MacCarthy was given full access to the Byron archives of the John Murray publishing house, largest in the world, which had previously been opened only to Leslie Marchand in the fifties (on condition that he not allude to Byron's homoerotic proclivities). She could and did tell the truth about his sexuality. And she could utilize the scholarship of her predecessors. MacCarthy writes with intelligence and style, maintaining objectivity and good humor throughout. The book is handsomely produced, with 76 beautiful illustrations on heavy coated stock. I enthusiastically recommend it.

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