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.  

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