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Frances Wilson, ed., Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Culture. London and New York: Macmillan and St. Martin's Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-333-68383-8 and 0-312-21220-8. Price: £42.50 (US$55.00).Jane Stabler, ed., Byron: Longman Critical Readers. London and New York: Longman: 1998. ISBN: 0-582-30393-1. Price: £13.99 (US$32.60).

  • William D. Brewer

…plus d’informations

  • William D. Brewer
    Appalachian State University

Corps de l’article

The word Byromania was invented in 1812 by Annabella Milbanke to describe the craze for Byron and his poetry following the publication Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I-II. In Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Culture, this term takes on a broader significance: the eleven essays explore the development of the Byron myth through analyses of his poetry, his literary commodification, his portraits, bioplays, films, silver-fork and romance novels, fictional vampires, and books inspired by his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. The underlying assumption of this collection is that outside of the academy Byron's poetic achievement has been eclipsed by his legend. In her introduction, Frances Wilson declares that "it is now forgotten that Byron became the master of the ottava rima and was Wordsworth's equal in the consistency and sheer quantity of his poetic output: one of the effects of Byromania is that Byron's quality as a poet has been left out of his reputation" (pp. 4-5). "Why," she asks, "is it that Byron is remembered more for sartorial splendour than for his satirical classic, Don Juan [?]" (p. 8). Two of the contributors to this volume, Ramona M. Ralston and Sidney L. Sondergard, also claim that Byromania has outlived Byron's verse: "the image of Byron as a poet and the excesses of his Romantic lifestyle are what remain in the popular imagination, while actual knowledge of his poetry, among any but English majors and scholars, has all but disappeared" (emphasis added, p. 150). Whereas the late twentieth-century film- and television-adaptations of Jane Austen's novels have greatly increased their popularity, the caricatures of Byron devised by screenwriters and romance novelists appear unlikely to spark much interest in his poetry. This is a sad state of affairs for those who believe that Byron's works have much to say to turn-of-the-millennium readers.

Although Wilson writes that "this collection of essays on Byron…leave out the poems" (p. 3), in the volume's insightful first article Peter Graham contends that both Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan "proved good vehicles for Byron's preferred mode of myth-making: the truth in masquerade" (p. 29). Graham shows how Byron fashions his myth "through combined self-revelation and self-concealment" (p. 28), creating narrators, protagonists, and other characters (like Don Jóse) who both resemble and differ from him. In Ghislaine McDayter's Marxist assessment of Byron's literary commodification, she argues persuasively against the "fantasy of poetic control which has been perpetuated by the poet's critics since his lifetime" (p. 45). According to her, the "unstoppable machine of literary production" (p. 57) appropriated Byron's myth, particularly after his self-exile from England. Imitations and forgeries of the poet's work flooded the marketplace, and the Byronic took on a life of its own. Goethe pronounced Polidori's The Vampyre Byron's masterpiece, and critics attacked his historical plays for their failure to be authentically Byronic. Far from Graham's artful masquerader, McDayter's Byron is the victim rather than the manipulator of his myth, estranged, like Marx's workers, "from himself in…the commodification of his labour" (p. 58).

Two of the essays in this volume evaluate the numerous film presentations of Byron. Although these articles differ from each other in tone—Peter Cochran's writing is more witty and engaging than Ralston and Sondergard's—they both point out that these historically inaccurate cinematic portraits reveal much more about the film-makers than they do about Byron. Cochran complains that in demonizing Byron screenwriters and directors make him boring. The film-makers who seek to portray the poet envy, hate, and loathe him because he was wealthy, handsome, sexy, cosmopolitan, famous, and talented. In Cochran's view, these attributes "plus the incest-rumours, and a suggestion that politically he was radical and even unpatriotic—that he wouldn't like them!—make him a gift as a cinematic bad guy" (p. 64). Cochran examines the depictions of Byron in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Bad Lord Byron (1948), Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), Gothic (1986), Haunted Summer (1988), Rowing with the Wind (Remando al Viento) (1988), Frankenstein Unbound (1990), and Dread Poet's Society (1992), focusing on their inaccuracies and eccentricities. Oddly, Gothic,Haunted Summer, and Rowing with the Wind all present nude Percy Shelleys, and in both The Bad Lord Byron and Rowing Teresa Guiccioli is played by Swedish actresses. The film-makers apparently consider Byron's poetry box-office poison and thus tend to ignore it. Ralston and Sondergard discuss all the films covered by Cochran with the exception of the truly weird BBC2 production Dread Poet's Society. They delve into the psyches and backgrounds of the directors, writers, and producers responsible for creating these cinematic Byrons. For example, the flamboyant Byron of The Bride of Frankenstein becomes for them an embodiment of the working-class director's social and artistic aspirations, "a fantasy self-portrait, [James] Whale's artistic alter-ego" (p. 139). Ralston and Sondergard conclude that despite the film-makers' idiosyncratic distortions and omissions of biographical facts, all of their Byrons share certain "mythic traits" (p. 149). They fail to explain, however, how Gonzalo Suárez, the director of Rowing with the Wind, could have imagined that Hugh Grant was a dead ringer for Byron.

Andrew Elfenbein and Roger Sales discuss the Byronic figures in, respectively, the silver-fork novels in the early Victorian era and the romances of Barbara Cartland. Elfenbein describes how silver-fork novels like Benjamin Disraeli's Venetia (1837) and Catherine Gore's Adventures of a Coxcomb (1841) link Byron and the Regency period "with glittery elegance and moral emptiness" (p. 78) in order to affirm Victorian middle-class values. These works anticipate, in many ways, Cartland's Regency romances, which became enormously popular in the 1970s. In sharp contrast to Lady Byron, Cartland's heroines routinely succeed in transforming aristocratic rakes into model husbands. As Sales observes, Cartland's romances show "readers how to catch, tame and domesticate the latter-day Byronic heroes of their own time" (p. 168). Whereas the silver-fork novelists present the Regency rake as an exemplar of moral bankruptcy, in Cartland's fiction he becomes a titillating fantasy-figure whose wickedness evaporates as soon as he falls in love with the right woman.

Werner Huber assesses three "Byronic bioplays": Liz Lochhead's Blood and Ice (1982), Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry (1989), and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (1994). His illuminating essay explores the ways in which these postmodern dramas reconstruct Byron as a biographical subject. In Blood and Ice Byron plays a surprisingly positive role as Mary Shelley's supportive confidant and "the counterforce which dialectically engages the optimism and idealism of the Shelleys" (p. 99). He also serves as foil in Bloody Poetry, in which he vainly attempts to dislodge Percy Shelley's utopianism. Decentered in Lochhead's and Brenton's bioplays, Byron remains off-stage in Stoppard's Arcadia. According to Huber, of the three playwrights Stoppard "appears the most conservative" in his approach to the poet: in Arcadia "the Byronic aura is kept intact" (p. 106).

In a groundbreaking essay, Christine Kenyon Jones reveals how Byron created his physical appearance through "weight control, clothes, fashion and costume…and…through his interaction with the many portraits made of him during his lifetime" (p. 110). He wore wide trousers to conceal his lameness and maintained his distinctive "look" with purgatives and stringent dieting. He also collaborated with the artists who painted his portraits to create suitably Byronic images for his contemporaries and posterity. Tom Holland, the author of a series of novels featuring Byron as a vampire, examines the poet's influence on vampire fiction, particularly on Polidori's The Vampyre. He asserts that most famous film Dracula, Bela Lugosi, has absolutely no resemblance to Bram Stoker's pointy-eared old Count: in the popular imagination, the vampire has "Lord Byron's face" (p. 155).

Although Byron disputed the comparisons his contemporaries made between himself and Rousseau, James Soderholm notes that both men wrote public confessions. He contrasts their exhibitionistic and sometimes discrediting confessions to Wordsworth's quasi-Augustinian self-revelations. As Soderholm points out, however, Byron does not seek to make himself completely transparent to the reader as Rousseau does in The Confessions. For example, in Manfred he makes veiled rather than explicit allusions to his incestuous relationship with Augusta. The collection's last essay is by its editor and focuses on "the melodramas of Caroline Lamb" (p. 196) narrated in two biographies, a fictional biography, and four novels. These texts present Lamb as either an innocent child or a repellently sexual and hysterical woman, depending on the author's pro-Lamb or pro-Byron bias. Wilson's article is as much about Caromania as it is about Byromania and concludes with the impersonations of Lamb and Byron by that other famous Spencer woman, the late Princess Diana.

The assumption of many of the volume's contributors that Byron was the first literary celebrity seems questionable in light of the career of Mary "Perdita" Robinson (1758-1800), whose fame as an actress and notoriety as the mistress of the Prince of Wales ensured a wide readership for her literary productions. Like Byron, she took an active role in developing her public persona through posing in various costumes for her numerous portraits and experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of fame. This oversight does not, however, detract from the collection's value. Supplemented by Alex Alec-Smith's list of texts which portray Byron or "related characters," Byromania offers the reader some fascinating insights into the poet's past and continuing importance as a myth and cultural icon.

The Longman Critical Readers Byron, edited by Jane Stabler, has a pedagogical mission. It provides extracts from books and essays which are intended to help instructors introduce their undergraduate students to contemporary theoretical approaches to Byron's works. In her helpful introduction Stabler outlines trends in Byron studies from the 1920s to the present. Her collection of recent scholarship exposes students to "new historicism, cultural materialism and post-colonialism; gender, feminism and queer theory; varying forms of post-structuralism; psychoanalysis, intertextuality and new formalism" (p. 23). Stabler supplies each essay with an explanatory headnote.

Since many of Stabler's selections are well-known and all them have been previously published, my summary of the volume's contents will be brief. Predictably, the first essay is by Jerome McGann, unquestionably the most influential Byron scholar and editor of the last twenty years. In the excerpt from Towards a Literature of Knowledge (1989), McGann describes Don Juan as a dialogical work in which "knowledge…must remain provisional" (p. 44), contradictions are never resolved, and the text's readers become part of its self-imagining. Five other extracts focus on Don Juan: Caroline Franklin and Susan Wolfson examine its sexual politics from different perspectives; Peter Manning explores its deconstruction of language; Anne Barton uncovers Byron's use of Shakespeare in the Haidée episode, and J. Drummond Bone celebrates the art of Byron's masterwork through an analysis of its metrics. Scholarship on Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is also well-represented. Paul Elledge considers the ending of the first two cantos within the context of John Edelston's death, and William Galperin bases his analysis of the poem's postmodernism on Julia Kristeva's neo-Lacanian psychological theories. In his discussion of Canto III, Vincent Newey examines Byron's explorations of the self and its limitations. Extracts by Daniel P. Watkins and Jerome Christensen focus on Byron's dramas. While Watkins provides a materialist interpretation of Manfred and Marino Faliero, Christensen argues that Marino Faliero is a satire which "mark[s] the digressiveness of all authoritative utterance" (p. 177). An extract by Nigel Leask applies the insights of post-colonial theory to Lara and The Island, and Andrew Elfenbein shows how Edward Bulwer Lytton and Benjamin Disraeli performed as Byronic homosexuals in order to achieve celebrity status in London society and pave the way for their political careers.

Stabler is careful not to privilege a particular critical orientation, and most of her selections combine various theoretical approaches. For example, post-colonial theory, psychoanalysis, and gender studies all inform Leask's essay. But while numerous critical trends in Byron studies are represented in this volume, some important texts are slighted. It strikes me as odd that this collection includes two extensive discussions of Marino Faliero but contains only a few references to such major works as Cain and The Vision of Judgment. I also question the volume's effectiveness as a pedagogical tool. According to the book's back cover, it is designed for "undergraduate students and advanced pupils" who need to be guided "through the different ways in which new literary theory has enriched readings of Byron's work." The extracts that Stabler has selected were, however, written with scholars rather than college students in mind. I would imagine that most undergraduates would find Galperin's Kristevan approach to Childe Harold (to cite one example) impenetrable, with or without Stabler's explanatory headnote. After reading the essay, they might find themselves wishing that Galperin would explain his explanation. Instructors and teachers who assign this critical reader should be prepared to supplement Stabler's introduction and headnotes with student-oriented explications of the volume's extracts and the sophisticated theories which underpin them.