[Note: A slightly shorter version of this review was published in the Gay & Lesbian Review (January-February 2011).]
Peter Cochran, Editor.
Byron and Women [and men].
Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
US $67.99 UK £44.99 .
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was the reigning male sex symbol
of the early 19th century. His sporadic personal beauty (alternating
between plumpness and emaciation), his flamboyant lifestyle, and his
real and imagined affairs with women all fed the image. But Byron's
love life also included males. His bisexuality was known, not only
within his own close circle, but “on the street”.
There is a cultural taboo against acknowledging homoeroticism in the
lives and works of canonized authors. The homoeroticism in Walt
Whitman's Calamus poems was immediately recognized by such gay men as
John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter, but biographers shied away
from it. When Charley Shively in two pioneering works — Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Comerados (1987) and Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers
(1989) — proved that Whitman really did have sex with his
boyfriends, this should have settled things — but no, the
“good grey poet” is still presented as straight or
emasculated. Even with Oscar Wilde — whose trial for “gross
indecency” (sex with hustlers) was the greatest sex scandal of
the century — it took an openly gay man, Neil McKenna (The Secret
Life of Oscar Wilde, 2003), to fully document Wilde's homosexual
activities, his gay consciousness, and the interest he took in the
emerging homosexual rights movement. Confronted with evidence of
Byron's bisexuality, Byron specialists been hard put to deny it
outright, but they have done their best to minimize it.
Byron and Women (and men) (BWM)
is a welcome contribution to gay studies. The editor, Peter Cochran, is
a major Byron specialist, and he is at least gay-friendly. BWM has
twelve chapters, written by ten different authors as well as the first
new edition since 1934 of the Don Leon poems.
First, a bit of background. Although the earliest accounts of Byron's
life, written by those who had known him personally, contained veiled
hints as to his gayness, most of his subsequent biographers disregarded
them. The truth emerged in bits and pieces. In the first comprehensive
English-language work on homosexuality, Xavier Mayne (The Intersexes,
1909) makes a strong case that in Byron's poem Manfred, the
“burden on the conscience of Manfred”, the
“unspeakable sin”, is not incest, as is commonly assumed,
but a hidden male relationship. Mayne writes: “Greek in his
intellectual and sexual nature, [Byron] was Englishman by birth but
Athenian by heart.”
In researching a
three-volume biography of Byron (1957), Leslie A. Marchand was given
access to the Byron archives of publisher John Murray, the largest in
the world, but only on condition that he not allude to Byron's
bisexuality. Marchand partially rectified his omissions in a later
single-volume work (Byron: A Portrait, 1970), which disclosed
that Byron had belonged to a gay circle at Cambridge, whose members
used coded language among themselves.
G. Wilson Knight, in Lord Byron's Marriage: The Evidence of Asterisks
(1957), examined Byron's marriage, Lady Byron's desertion, and the
subsequent scandal. He addressed the incest hypothesis — that
Byron had an “illicit relationship with his half-sister Augusta
Leigh” — and dismissed it as the primary reason for the
separation: “There is good reason to suppose that this
incest-motif has been all the time, whether or not there be truth
behind it, playing the part of a peculiarly effective red
herring.” Rather, Knight considered “that a more
important and more consistently motivating secret of Byron's life lay
somewhere within the area of homosexuality.”
The most influential of Byron's many female biographers was Doris
Langley Moore, whose infatuation with Byron led her to attack anyone
who discredited him. (In his BWM chapter David Herbert informs
us that when Ms. Langley Moore was married, the ceremony was performed
over Byron's Tomb in Hucknall Church.) Although Langley Moore
could not totally discount Byron's homoerotic attachments, she cut them
to the bare minimum, opining that for many years of his life “he
was not interested in any male.” (Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered,
1974) What she fails to grasp is that, when men in England could
be hanged for having sex with other males, Byron necessarily concealed
In 1985 the gay historian Louis Crompton (Byron and Greek Love,
1985) connected the dots throughout Marchand's work, and concluded that
Byron, both in practice and in consciousness, qualified as a gay man.
Another Marchand successor, Fiona MacCarthy (Byron: Life and Legend,
2002) was given full access to the John Murray archives, with no
constraints. MacCarthy dared to assert that Byron was more strongly
attracted to males than to females. As a result her fine biography
(reviewed in GLR, March-April 2003) was coldly received by the Byron establishment.
Against this background — with many dozens of lesser books and
thousands of articles and theses on Byron — does BWM have
anything new to offer? Yes, it does. Peter Cochran unpacks the
homoeroticism in Byron's works, which previous critics and biographers
had overlooked or suppressed. For example, Cochran cites a female
biographer, Ghislaine McDayter, who ponders why Conrad, the hero of The Corsair,
persistently denies his desire for the heroine, Medora. Cochran
comments: “But she does not take the analysis on its next logical
step, which is to look at the possibility that the reason why Conrad's
desire has to be deferred is because it was never for Medora at all,
but for the young sailor Gonsalvo.”
readers and biographers not only blank out the homoeroticism in his
poetry, they go on to fantasize nonexistent heterosexuality. Again
Cochran quotes McDayter, who portrays Byron or the Byronic hero
“either striding toward a helpless (female) victim, cloak blowing
and shirt open, or desperately trying to disentangle himself from his
adoring herd.” Cochran comments dryly: “A man
striding towards a helpless female victim occurs nowhere in Byron's
work. But in the post-modern twenty-first century, post-9/11, who needs
Cochran turns the tables on this heterosexist fantasy of a bodice-ripping stud:
Byron's most thorough portrayal of a bisexual (leaning towards the
homo.) is in his notorious earlier creation, the Byronic Hero: though
it's a covert portrayal. The Byronic Hero is a stroke of marketing
genius, even though he didn't start out that way. Very sexy, he seems
misogynist for much of the time, but possesses tender qualities which
suggest that he might be redeemed by the Love of a Good Woman. This
gave him an instant appeal to sentimental female readers.... But the
Byronic Hero has no time for women.
Cochran convincingly argues that the Byronic heroes in The Siege of Corinth, The Corsair, and The Giaour not only reject females, but are covertly attached to their male companions.
Two stanzas of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (CHP)
allude to Byron's homoerotic adventures in 1811. These were bowdlerized
by R.C. Dallas, “who introduced Byron to the market-conscious
John Murray.” In consequence, “thanks to legions of pure,
fastidious editors, the poem's confessional message has been muted out
of existence ever since.” In his Internet edition of CHP Cochran has restored the expurgated stanzas. Here is one, describing the court of Ali Pasha in Albania:
Here woman's voice is never heard — apart,
And scarce permitted guarded, veiled to rove,
She yields to one her person & her heart,
Tamed to her cage, nor feels a wish to move,
For boyish minions of unhallowed love
The shameless torch of wild desire is lit,
Caressed, preferred even woman's self above,
Whose forms for Nature's gentler errors fit
All frailties mote excuse save that which they commit.
Cochran concentrates on Don Juan (DJ), which is considered Byron's masterpiece. DJ
is a very long poem — thousands of stanzas, each with over 60
words — and I suspect that few have ever read all of it. At times
DJ can be tiresome, but at its best it is brilliant satire on a
wide range of themes, which include, in Cochran's words,
“politics, war, literature, religion, and education” as
well as “love and sex.” DJ is permeated with
camp, and is best read by gay men, who know the conventions, rhythms,
and language of camp. (For brief examples, the Empress of Russia,
Catherine the Great, is described as “This modern Amazon and
queen of queans”; her attraction to Juan is explained:
“Besides, the empress sometimes liked a boy.”
The women in DJ
all have powerful sexual urges, which are directed towards the
eponymous hero, Don Juan, who in the course of the poem passes from
late adolescence to early manhood (late teens to early twenties, which
the late Warren Johansson called the “classic age of the
hustler”). “Juan, with his virgin face” is pursued,
but does not pursue; he is “always the seduced, but not the
seducer ... the passive victim of active women.” The male
narrator of DJ is clearly in love with Juan — who is in
love with himself: “He, on the other hand, if not in love, / Fell
into that no less imperious passion, / Self-love....” (DJ, Canto IX: LXVIII).
Byron delights in dressing up Juan, just as in real life he enjoyed
dressing up his boys — he called them “pages” —
from Robert Rushton in 1808 to Lukas Chalandritsanos in 1824. In
Russia, Juan is dressed up militarily to please the lusty and
super-dominant Catherine the Great. In a long comic episode Juan is
kidnapped and held in a seraglio, where he is forced to wear women's
clothes. The poor boy didn't really want to, but once in drag he
makes the best of it. When the Sultan inspects his seraglio, his eye
immediately picks out Juan from among the hundreds of concubines:
His Highness cast around his great black eyes,
And looking, as he always looked, perceived
Juan amongst his damsels in disguise;
At which he seemed no whit surprized nor grieved,
But just remarked, with air sedate and wise,
While still a fluttering sigh Gulbeyaz heaved,
“I see you've bought another Girl, 'tis pity
“That a mere Christian should be half so pretty.”
is filled with double entendres and in-group references hinting at male
love. In four lines Byron discloses that he is writing for the
initiated — a word that was used in Byron's time (including by
Shelley) as a code word for “gay”:
The grand Arcanum's not for men to see all;
My Music hath some mystic diapasons,
And there is much which could not be appreciated
In any manner by the uninitiated.
(DJ XIV, 22, 5-8)
Unless I missed it, Cochran neglected to cite one of Byron's most
significant hints to the initiated, the two lines:
But Virgil's songs are pure, except that horrid one
Beginning with ‘Formosum Pastor Corydon’
(DJ, Canto I: XLII).
Byron is camping here, and “horrid” is just mock disapproval. The reference is to Virgil's Second Eclogue,
where the shepherd Corydon expresses his burning love for the boy
Alexis, his master's darling. This is significant because for centuries
the Eclogue has been used by gay men to identify each other
— along with such references as Shakespeare's sonnets, Antinous,
Orestes and Pylades, Achilles and Patroklos, David and Jonathan, and so
on. Byron is saying to the initiated that he is one of us.
Although women went wild over Byron's earlier poems, many of them
(including his mistress, Countess Teresa Guiccioli) were hostile to DJ,
which not only had pederastic overtones, but made fun of women's
hypocrisy, sentimentality, and self-delusion. After asserting that
“few modern academics enjoy poetry” Cochran takes on modern
feminist critics, who, concerned with politically correct gender
issues, approach DJ “in a guarded, tight-lipped way.” As an
example, Cochran quotes passages from the writings of Princeton
Professor Susan J. Wolfson, who, without really enjoying DJ, grudgingly
Jack Gumpert Wasserman, in his chapter, “Homosexuality in Venice
in the time of Lord Byron”, vehemently denies that he is
concerned with Byron's sexuality, or whether Venice's gay community
attracted Byron to the City or influenced his work. Rather, his paper
“addresses two broad questions: first, what was it about Venice
that made it attractive to the homosexual, and second, how did the gay
community comport itself in the public life of the City during Byron's
poem does not, finally, escape the roles fashioned and maintained by
his culture, but it does explore the problems of living with and within
By Byron's time “most of
the areas of Italy had eliminated criminal prosecution for
sodomy” [thanks to the Code Napoléon]. Wasserman
poses the question: “Why, then, did Venice attract a
disproportionately large and overtly gay community?” He
gives six reasons, beginning: “First, and certainly foremost was
the absence of all criminal and civil laws proscribing sodomy. It is
worth emphasizing again that homosexuality was still a capital offense
in England.” (Here Wasserman might have said “sex
between males” rather than “homosexuality”.)
Wasserman's other five reasons concern associations with the culture of
antiquity, a historically close connection with Greece, the
“topography of Venice” (which “provided unparalleled
opportunities for clandestine meetings”), and the artificiality
or magic quality of Venice.
the Venetian Carnival, in which gay men exuberantly took part. The
traditional Carnival costumes, the volto and tabarro, disguised the
features and physiognomy so that “it was impossible to tell
whether the masked wearer was male or female.” But as always,
guys with good bodies wanted to show them off, and they wore skin-tight
garments and masks to impersonate Hermes, Eros, Pan, or Harlequin.
Wasserman quotes a passage from Byron's Beppo, which sings the delights
of the Venetian Carnival:
The moment Night with dusky mantle covers
The skies (and the more duskily the better)
The Time — less liked by husbands than by lovers —
Begins, and Prudery flings aside her fetter,
And Gaiety on restless tiptoe hovers.
Giggling with all the Gallants who beset her;
And there are Songs, and quavers, roaring, humming,
Guitars, and every other sort of strumming.
we note Byron's use of “Gaiety” — almost certainly a
code word directed to the initiated. Byron frequently uses
“gay” or “gaily” or “gaiety” in
homoerotic contexts. Rictor Norton (Myth of the Modern Homosexual, 1997) has demonstrated that by Byron's time, the words gay and lesbian were already used and understood in their current, homoerotic sense.
Wasserman demonstrates that Venice had a large and vibrant gay
community. Obviously Byron went there for the same reason that gay men
in the previous and present centuries have gone to Provincetown or
Amsterdam or Mykonos.
Although BWM is
generally pro-gay, Cochran and other contributors sometimes downplay
the homoerotic aspects of Byron's life and work. The title of book does
this, by putting men in parentheses.
Byron biographers, even including openly gay Louis Crompton, Cochran
believes that Byron was not attracted to post-adolescent males. While
it is true that we lack forensic evidence of Byron's sex acts with
other adult males, we should not expect to find such evidence,
considering that Byron's very survival depended on discretion — that his
writings were expurgated during his lifetime, while his letters and Memoir were burned after his death.
In fact, there is some evidence that Byron was attracted to
post-adolescent males. Take William Fletcher, who “was at Byron's
side from 1804, when Byron was sixteen, almost without interval until
his master died.” (MacCarthy) The teenage Byron had
spied the teenage Fletcher plowing the fields, and then taken him on as
his valet or personal servant. Well now, the Fletcher behind the plow
may have had a good body, but did this qualify him to be a valet
(“gentlemen's gentleman”), whose duties included taking
care of clothes and other personal services?
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.” (MacCarthy) So, Fletcher in his early twenties
was good-looking, and didn't resist being kissed by a clergyman. In
1814 Byron and Fletcher, then in their mid-twenties, were living in a
Piccadilly apartment, where after exercise Byron would “get
Fletcher to rub him down.” (MacCarthy) When a gay man
receives a massage from a handsome and well built young man — a
young man he is paying to perform personal services — we may
imagine that the massages become erotic and one thing leads to another.
When Fletcher was in his early thirties
he was still good-looking and had flaxen hair, according to a 1821
letter written by Percy Bysshe Shelley. At Byron's funeral, overcome
with grief, Fletcher collapsed and had to support himself against a
pew. This is the reaction of a lover, not just a loyal servant.
Another of Byron's servants was Giovanni Battista Falcieri, known as
“Tita”, a muscular young gondolier he had acquired in
Venice. It should be noted that Venetian gondoliers traditionally sold
their sexual services. Apparently Tita had sex (for “broad silver
pieces”) with one of Byron's guests, William Bankes, who as a
young man had initiated Byron into the gay world at Cambridge.
Whether or not he had sex with them, Byron liked the company of
handsome young men. These would include his travelling companion, Dr.
John Polidori; his companion for the last four years of his life, Count
Pietro (“Pierino”) Gamba; as well as Edward John Trelawny,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Edward Ellerker Williams. In London Byron
frequented a boxing club, which was patronized by wealthy men. Very
likely the boxers did a bit of hustling on the side.
Cochran quotes from a letter Shelley wrote to his good friend, Thomas Love Peacock:
[Byron] associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait
& physiognomy of man, & do not scruple to avow practices which
are not only not named but I believe seldom even conceived in England.
He says he disapproves, but he endures. (17 or 18 December 1818)
merely comments that “Shelley may be being polite” in
attributing the inconceivable practices to the malformed wretches
rather than to Byron. Other critics, including Crompton and Wasserman,
have read homophobia into the passage, but this reflects a failure to
appreciate the need to write defensively, not to say ironically.
Cochran grasps the principle involved: “Fearful that his letters
would be opened, C.S. Matthews [Byron's gay friend at Cambridge] had to
take refuge behind a facade of pretended horror.” Clearly,
Shelley is writing defensively and tongue-in-cheek, as one of the
initiated to another, feigning horror as Matthews did. The unnameable
practices allude to the crime of sodomy (or buggery). “Seldom
even conceived” is written in jest. Read with the proper
inflection, the entire passage becomes high camp.
Perhaps as a sop to his less-than-gay-friendly colleagues, Cochran
sometimes gratuitously bolsters Byron's heterosexuality. After quoting
from a letter in which Hobhouse describes Byron dressing in drag,
Cochran writes: “But this is a rarity.” What is
Cochran's point? — that most of the time Byron did not dress in
drag? The same could be said of Provincetown's famous female
impersonators, who only wear drag when performing (and some of them can
be charmingly butch in their “boy clothes”).
After citing Byron's letter to Kinnaird, which describes a “firm
of flesh” Venetian woman, Cochran comments: “This is not
the language of a man with an exclusive preference for other
men.” True, but who ever claimed Byron had such an
exclusive preference? To the point: it is to be expected that
Byron would flaunt his female and conceal his male relationships.
The last 79 pages of BWM consist of Cochran's attractive and heavily annotated edition of two poems, Don Leon (DL) and Leon to Annabella,
which were published, attributed to Lord Byron, in 1866 (though an
earlier edition has been lost). This edition is available gratis on
Cochran's personal website. Don Leon is important as a powerful plea,
the first published in English, for the reform of England's sodomy (or
buggery) law; it gives information on Byron's sexuality, most of which
has since been shown to be true; and the best passages qualify as great
Don Leon was rescued from obscurity by G. Wilson Knight (op. cit.), who made two main claims: that DL
tells the truth about Byron's sexuality, and that “the quality of
the writing is of the highest order. Indeed, no such brilliant
manipulation of the rhymed couplet has been known since
Pope.” Although parts of DL are obscene (Byron has sex with Lady Byron per anum), its best passages are forceful, moving, and elegantly crafted. DL
is not just a neglected masterpiece, but one which has been rigorously
suppressed. The Fortune Press edition of 1934 was immediately
confiscated by the London police, and most of the copies were
destroyed. (In my personal library I have one that did survive.)
The authorship of DL is contested. Although the 1866 Dugdale edition attributes DL
to Lord Byron, he cannot be the sole author, since the poem relates
events that occurred after his death. Among the authorship candidates
advanced are George Colman the Younger (by G. Knight) and Richard
Paternoster (by Langley Moore). Louis Crompton, begged the question,
simply referring to the author as “Byron”. Cochran puts
forward Byron's often troublesome friend, John Cam Hobhouse, later
Baron Broughton, the subject of his 2010 biography Byron and Hobby-O.
None of the above writers seem to have considered that DL may be a group effort, with Byron as one of the contributors. This hypothesis is at least tenable, given the variability of DL
in terms of style and subject matter. Cochran does make a good case
that Hobhouse, with his intimate knowledge of Parliamentary affairs,
may have had a hand in DL, but he fails to convince me that Hobhouse had the talent to be the sole or major author.
Langley Moore despised DL
(“two dirty, dingy poems ... full of sniggering puns”), but
neither Crompton nor Cochran fully appreciated its quality. The
question, in my opinion, is not whether DL is worthy of Byron, but whether Byron had the power and gravitas to write DL.
Much of the earlier editions of DL
consist of notes, which appear to have been written by several hands
over time. These notes include newspaper accounts of scandals and
trials for homosexual offenses, excerpts from works advocating legal
reform, and quotations from classical and contemporary literature.
Hundreds of lines of the notes are in foreign languages, mostly Latin
and French, and some of these are obscene even by present-day
standards. Cochran deleted most of the notes, which is a shame, but
probably done on economic grounds.
Quibbles aside, BWM
has important information for gay scholars and students of English
literature. If it seems expensive, make an acquisitions request to an
Cochran, Peter. Personal website. http://petercochran.wordpress.com/
— (2010). Byron and Hobby-O: Lord Byron's Relationship with John Cam Hobhouse. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Crompton, Louis. (1983). “Don Leon, Byron, and Homosexual Law Reform”. Journal of Homosexuality, 8:3/4.
— (1985). Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England. Berkeley: U of California P.
Hunt, Leigh. (1828). Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. London.
Knight, G., Wilson. (1957). Lord Byron's Marriage: The Evidence of Asterisks. Macmillan.
Langley Moore, Doris (Levy). (1974). Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered.
London: John Murray.
Lauritsen, John. (2005). “Hellenism and Homoeroticism in Shelley and his Circle.” Journal of Homosexuality (Volume 49, Numbers 3/4 2005). http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/HHREV3.HTM
MacCarthy, Fiona. (2002). Byron: Life and Legend. London: John Murray and New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Marchand, Leslie A. (1970). Byron: A Portrait. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Mayne, Xavier (pseud. for Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson) (1908). The Intersexes. Privately printed.
McDayter, Ghislaine. (2009). Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. SUNY Press.
McKenna, Neil. (2003). The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. London: Century.
Medwin, Thomas. (1966). Conversations of Lord Byron — Revised with a New Preface by the Author (E.J. Lovell, Jr., Ed.) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP. Originally published 1824.
Norton, Rictor. (1997). The Myth of the Modern Homosexual, London & Washington: Cassell.
Peacock, Thomas Love. (1830) Review of Thomas Moore's Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of his Life. Westminster Review.
Shively, Charley. (1987) Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Comerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press.
— (1989) Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press.
Trelawny, Edward John. (1858). Recollections of Shelley and Byron. London: Moxon. Repr. with Introduction by David Crane, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.
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