Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy - review by Paul Johnson

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.  

MacCarthy makes many points about this elusive figure, but two stand out. First, she stresses his fascination with Napoleon, his senior by a generation and the other great figure of the age. This took many practical forms, including the construction of a giant coach modelled on the Emperor’s, with additional

Sign Up to our newsletter

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

The Incomparible Monsignor

Kafka Drawings

Follow Literary Review on Twitter