Did Byron ever actually say that he awoke one morning and found himself famous? The poet (as Byron hated to be called, preferring to see himself as a man of action) had been dead for six years when Thomas Moore cited this allegedly authentic declaration – but how did he know? – in a biography perfectly suited to an age that loved a hero and relished a scandal. By 1830, when Moore published that book, the world was mad about Byron. It was his widow, Annabella Milbanke, who concocted the word ‘Byromania’, which best describes the international and still-thriving cult of her wayward husband.
It’s clear that Byron was always obsessed by how he was perceived, not because of his literary ambitions but because the calf and foot of his left leg were deformed. An early painting of him, commissioned by a doting mother and suggesting that she did nothing to reduce her son’s self-consciousness, attempts to obscure the boy’s withered calf behind a strategically placed plant. Mary Shelley, writing in the flyleaf of her copy of Byron’s unfinished verse drama The Deformed Transformed, noted that ‘his personal defect’ influenced everything that he wrote and did.
The pictures in this wonderful book testify to that. Aged eleven, Byron was forced to wear a padded leather boot with a metal sole; by the age of eighteen, he had adopted Beau Brummell’s innovative loose trousers. Posing in 1814 for a celebrated portrait of himself – one over which,