Paul Johnson

In Italy, He Could Live like a Lord

Byron: Life and Legend


John Murray 674pp £25 order from our bookshop

Is there anything more to be written about Byron? Yes: plenty. Fiona MacCarthy has been given the run of the immense Murray archive and has come up with interesting discoveries. She is a pertinacious researcher, with a good nose for the telling detail. This is the best and certainly the most readable Byron biography since Leslie Marchand’s three-volume work of half a century ago. I am not sure the ‘real’ Byron emerges, or whether there was one. Byron was Janus-faced, mercurial, a bit of an actor, a fantasist: ‘one man in his time plays many parts’, as Shakespeare observed. He even changed his appearance. Overeating and drinking made the handsome, slender young man fat and paunchy; then ferocious dieting on vinegar and boiled potatoes recreated his romantic figure. While making a point of being frank about himself, he was not always truthful (like Rousseau). Marchand’s twelve-volume edition of his letters forms perhaps the best work of epistolary entertainment in the language, but a lot of the author’s assertions have to be discounted: after all, Byron was a writer of fiction, albeit in verse, and the habit of inventing or exaggerating was ineradicable.  

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Ideas that I’d thought were set down in full continue to smoulder ... this book is only a snapshot of some larger… ,
    • 'Full of invention which, at its most pedestrian, is eminently Victorian, and at its most unrestrained wildly imagi… ,
    • 'What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holla… ,
    • RT : One of my favourite literary magazines is celebrating 40 years this year. Here is the September edition of… ,
    • 'Now that the Thames is too fast-flowing to freeze, its spirit’s devotees ... have found other climes for their pri… ,
    • 'Bythell glowers past his till at a world in slow free fall.' on the travails of a second-hand book… ,
    • 'It is a scent of animal wrath, of instinctive need, of brutal life which affects the cultured nostrils of our civi… ,