written by Paul Witcover
As The Fire opens, the year is 1822, and Ali Pasha, the ruler of Albania, is about to meet his end in an isolated monastery at the center of a mountain lake. With the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire closing in, the old but still vigorous ruler sends for his 12-year-old daughter Haidée and unburdens himself of a shocking truth: he is not her biological father. That man is an English lord, a close friend of Ali Pasha’s whom Haidée must now seek out in order to secure his help in protecting a key piece of the Montglane Service: the black queen. Thus it is in a context of desperate adventure and dubious paternity that we first encounter the name of George Gordon, Lord Byron.
This is altogether fitting, for by the late summer of 1822, when he had but two years remaining in his life, the 34-year-old poet had blazed across the European firmament with an ostentatious brilliance that any celestial comet would envy.
George Gordon Byron was born in London on January 22, 1788, to Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and Catherine Gordon. Although both families could boast an aristocratic pedigree, young George’s parents had fallen on hard times, not least because of the profligate ways of “Mad Jack,” who drained his fortune dry and then did the same to his wife’s portion before deserting her and his son, fleeing creditors and responsibilities alike. He died in France, destitute, in 1791, a possible suicide.
The future poet’s childhood years were spent in poverty and hardship in Scotland, with his sometimes abusive, sometimes doting mother, who was forced to dodge creditors and beg money from her more affluent relations. Exacerbating these financial and social handicaps, which undoubtedly left their mark on Byron, was a handicap even more influential in shaping his character: like the chief protagonist in The Eight, Byron was born with a deformed right foot, probably, like Talleyrand’s, a club foot. This flaw in an otherwise perfect physique caused Byron physical suffering at times, and even more emotional pain. Yet despite it, he went on to become a renowned sportsman and athlete, excelling at cricket, riding, fencing, and especially as a swimmer: in 1810, at the age of 22, he would swim the Hellespont in imitation of the mythical Leander, who swam the distance nightly to sleep with his lover, Hero. As Byron wrote of the experience to a friend, with an appealing wit typical of his letters: “This morning I swam from Sestos to Abydos; the immediate distance is not above a mile but the current renders it hazardous, so much so, that I doubt whether Leander’s conjugal powers must not have been exhausted in his passage to Paradise. . . .” As we swiftly discover in the opening pages of The Fire, Byron’s own “conjugal powers” were rarely handicapped by his handicap.
But the course that Byron’s life might have taken was changed by a cannonball. The grandson and heir of the current Lord Byron (known as “Wicked” Lord Byron, brother of Byron’s grandfather, “Foulweather Jack” Byron; colorful sobriquets were a family tradition) was killed by a cannonball in Corsica, leaving six-year-old George Gordon Byron heir to the title. Four years later, upon the death of young George’s “wicked” great-uncle in 1798, he became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale.
Part of Byron’s inheritance from his great-uncle was Newstead Abbey, an ancient and dilapidated estate in Nottinghamshire. Although he and his mother lived there for some time, life was difficult, for the fifth Lord Byron had saddled them with his own considerable debts and it eventually proved more economically feasible to them as a rental property. Still, debt seemed more manageable somehow when it came with a title attached.
Another event in Byron’s early life that was to have lasting repercussions was his repeated molestation, between his ninth and eleventh years, by his mother’s maid, the ostensibly devout May Gray. Although the woman was dismissed for other reasons, a precocious sexuality had been awakened in Byron that biographers have linked to a lifelong penchant for transgressive sexual experiences-not only in his well-documented bisexuality but in a long-rumored if still-unproven incestuous liaison with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh–one of the many rumored and real Byron scandals that are woven into the fabric of The Fire; it has been suggested, with some evidence, that Byron was the father of her third child, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, born in 1814. Among those who believed this were Byron’s estranged wife, Annabella Milbanke, as reported in Lady Byron Vindicated, a scandalous tell-all written with Milbanke’s cooperation by the noted American novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Byron’s poetic gifts were apparent from an early age. In 1800, when he was twelve, an unrequited passion for a cousin prompted his first forays into poetry, and his school years at Harrow and Trinity College provided him with literary models and honed his naturally sharp intelligence and critical discernment to an even finer edge. His first book of poetry, Fugitive Pieces, was privately printed in November 1806, but Byron, repenting an over-hasty publication, called the volumes back and burned them. In 1807, judging his work ready at last for public scrutiny, Byron published a collection of old and new poems, Hours of Idleness. Critics, however, did not agree with his self-assessment, and the book was savaged, particularly in the Edinburgh Review. In a response that showed the combative side to Byron’s nature, he attacked his critics in a scathing verse satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, first published anonymously in 1809 and then in an expanded edition, under his own name, later that same year. The satire proved a greater success-albeit a succès de scandale-than the verse it was composed to defend, a lesson that was not lost on the aspiring poet: “Prepare for rhyme-I’ll publish right or wrong: Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.”
Shortly after publication of his satire, Byron, accompanied by a friend, John Cam Hobhouse, embarked on a Grand Tour whose impact on the rest of his life it is scarcely possible to exaggerate. Not only was he able for the first time to pursue his romantic inclinations wherever they might lead, but he discovered in himself an appetite for untamed places and people. For the next two years, with most of Europe off limits due to the Napoleonic War, Byron visited Spain, Portugal, Malta, Greece, and Albania. These last two countries made an especially powerful impression and left him the fervent champion of their peoples, cultures, and long-thwarted hopes of liberty from the Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks, which had controlled these lands for centuries. It was on this trip that Byron met and befriended Ali Pasha. The 68-year-old despot took a liking to the handsome young English lord. In a letter to his mother, Byron wrote: “His Highness is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, so good a general that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte . . . but as barbarous as he is successful.” One can read between these lines the attraction that such a larger-than-life figure held for Byron’s romantic imagination.
Letters home were not all that Byron was writing during his two-year idyll. He had begun the long semiautobiographical poem that would be titled Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and would introduce the popular and–what would soon prove to be the extraordinarily influential–literary archetype of the “Byronic Hero,” a concept that can be aptly summed up by the famous words used to describe Byron himself by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his more notorious mistresses: “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
Byron returned to England in 1811, missing his mother’s funeral by mere days. In 1812, the first cantos of Childe Harold were published by the firm of John Murray, which would continue to be his publisher. The release was an immediate and unprecedented success. As Byron put it: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” That is, if anything, an understatement. Byron grew so famous that he coined a word, “Byromania,” to describe the hyperbolic enthusiasm of his imitators and followers; he became, in effect, the world’s first rock star. And like some modern-day exemplars–Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin–death would only spur his legend to greater heights.
The year of 1812 inaugurated a tempestuous period for Byron. It was in March of that year that he began a torrid affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of a powerful politician and herself no slouch when it came to being “mad, bad, and dangerous.” Byron had a pattern of losing interest in women once he had wooed and won them, and it was no different with the passionate Lady Caroline. But Caroline was obsessed with Byron, and her pursuit of him, long after he had broken off their affair, bordered on the unbalanced and became a source of embarrassment and stress even as he added to his literary reputation, and always-precarious funds, with such swashbuckling poems as The Giaour (1813) and The Corsair (1814).
Nor was Lady Caroline Byron’s only controversial relationship at this time. He also entered into a close friendship with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh, the daughter of “Mad Jack” Byron by his first wife, who had died shortly after giving birth. Byron and Augusta had not seen much of each other while they were children, but now, as adults, the half-siblings became unusually intimate, their clear attachment giving rise to rumors of incest that the birth in 1814 of Elizabeth Medora Leigh did nothing to dispel-the name “Medora” taken from The Corsair.
Feeling a need for stability and respectability amidst so much scandal, Byron began to think of marrying, and his eye settled upon Annabella Milbanke, an intelligent, attractive, but exceedingly pious young woman whom he dubbed the “princess of parallelograms.” He proposed to her in 1813 and was rejected; the following year he tried his luck again and was accepted. They were married in 1815. Their daughter, Augusta Ada, was born on January 2, 1816. Little more than a year later, Annabella, convinced that her husband had gone mad and was a danger to himself and to their daughter (and, as she would later state, repelled by his immoral sexual proclivities), took her daughter and left Byron forever. He would never see his wife or his daughter again; the former condition he did not regret, but the latter was a source of continuing pain.
While Ada was raised by her mother to scorn her father’s memory, the young woman would prove as independent-minded and extraordinary in her own way as Byron, though it was in the mathematical realm, not the literary, that she excelled. After her marriage, she would work with Charles Babbage on his early computer, the difference engine, and devise the first programming language; Babbage called her the “Enchantress of Numbers,” and the computer language Ada was named in her honor. As an adult, she was able to see Byron in a less partisan light and became his fervent admirer; indeed, when she died in 1852, she was buried, by her express wish, beside him. She was thirty-six, the same age at which her father had died.
In March of 1816, a legal separation agreement was entered into between the estranged wife and husband, and soon thereafter, pursued by rumors ranging from cruelty to sodomy (the latter a hanging offense at the time), Byron left for the Continent. He would never set foot in England again. That summer he traveled with his physician and friend John Polidori to the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where he joined the poet Shelley, as well as Shelley’s future wife, Mary Godwin, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron had enjoyed a brief liason before leaving England. During a spell of inclement weather, the group told each other stories to pass the time. Godwin’s became Frankenstein, while Byron’s contribution was turned by Polidori into a gothic short story, The Vampyre, which set the tone for all subsequent treatments of the vampire, from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and beyond. Shelley’s contribution to this storytelling circle is unrecorded, as is that of Clairmont, unless the birth of her daughter by Byron, the unfortunate Allegra, on January 12, 1817, may be counted as such. Byron’s feelings toward Clairmont were of the same ilk as those he harbored for Lady Caroline, and very possibly stemmed from a similar source: stubborn pursuit by a woman he had already grown tired of. Allegra died five years later, in an Italian convent where Byron had placed her after extorting custody from Clairmont upon a promise to provide the girl with a comfortable upbringing in exchange for Clairmont leaving him alone. Byron was distraught at the child’s death, and Clairmont never ceased to blame him for it. And in truth it is one of the darkest blots on his memory. Their tumultuous relationship would later be recapped in fictional form by Henry James in The Aspern Papers.
By 1818, Byron was in Italy and hard at work on the narrative poem that would become his masterpiece, Don Juan, the work that would forever cement his reputation as the greatest English epic poet since Shakespeare and Spenser. Goethe called the poem “a work of boundless genius” and was inspired by the force of Byron’s persona to complete his own masterpiece, Faust. Many writers before and since have taken as their subject the legendary lover whose powers of seduction were irresistible; Byron was the first to see the satiric possibilities in the legend and employ an ironic reversal whereby Don Juan became an innocent, helpless to resist the depredations of more experienced seductresses. The reception of the first cantos of what was to be Byron’s great opus–which were published anonymously in July of 1819–surpassed even the appearance of Childe Harold; everyone immediately guessed the author’s real identity, and Byron’s scandalous reputation imputed a delicious taint of the forbidden and immoral to the poem, which more than lived up to such characterizations on its own terms, with its earthy language and, in the delicate words of John Murray, “approximations to indelicacy.”
It was at this time, in Venice, that Byron met Countess Teresa Guiccioli. Teresa was only nineteen but married to a man almost forty years her senior. Byron was initially shy of meeting the young countess. “I do not want to make any new acquaintances with women; if they are ugly because they are ugly-and if they are beautiful because they are beautiful.” La Guiccioli, as Shelley called her, fell into the latter category, and Byron was soon smitten, following her back to her home in Ravenna taking on the position of her cavalier servente-an Italian convention by which a married woman might acknowledge a special relationship with a male friend. Of course, in the case of Byron it went quite a bit further than that.
In the early chapters of THE FIRE, we learn of Byron’s involvement–through Teresa and her father–with the secret society of the Carbonari, whom he supported with money and arms. When the Guicciolos were exiled from Ravenna for their revolutionary activity, Byron went too, following Teresa over the next two years as she and her family-she had since separated from her husband-moved from city to city, always quickly outstaying their welcome.
Thus the situation in the late summer of 1822, when we first find Byron based in Genoa for the proximity it affords him to Teresa, and when the poet is at a major turning point in his life. His beloved Allegra had died in April at the age of five, and his close friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had perished in July, drowning in the Bay of Spezia while sailing to the town of Lerici, just north of Genoa, where he was living with his wife, Mary. We discover Byron–depressed and dissatisfied, feeling the pinch of age and worried about the waning of his creative powers–restlessly looking for something new, something glorious: a fresh challenge against which to test himself. It is just at this fraught moment of Byron’s mourning and dissatisfaction, when the fictional Haidée comes to him in the pages of The Fire, and he embraces both her and the challenge she brings, to safeguard the “Black Queen,” and the independence that the historical figure, Byron, had always cherished above all other elements of life.
Just as in the historic eyewitness accounts that we have of Byron’s last days, in the moving depiction of these same scenes in The Fire, Byron will throw his fame and his fortune into the Greek fight for independence, and in the process lay down his life-not on a battlefield, as he may have wished, but on a sickbed in Missolonghi, a small Greek town, on April 19, 1824, fewer than three months after his thirty-sixth birthday.
Byron’s body was taken back to England for burial, while his heart, removed from the corpse, was buried in Greece, where Byron, to this day, is regarded as a great hero and a martyr for the cause of independence.
Lord Byron’s native land proved less gracious. He was refused burial in Westminster Abbey and instead laid to rest in the tomb of his ancestors in Newstead. Not until 1964, one hundred and forty-five years after his death-and after three prior attempts had been dismissed sternly, even scornfully, by the Church of England-was permission at last granted for a memorial to Byron in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The simple stone bears a quote from Childe Harold: “But there is that within me which shall tire/Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire.”