We think we know the Romantics. Their endlessly retold lives have become familiar through shorthand vignettes: Blake and his wife sitting naked in their summer house; Coleridge scribbling poetry under the influence of class A drugs; Wordsworth jumping his own sister; Shelley committing suicide by sailboat; Keats born in a stable.
What does any of this show? Not only that we know very little, but also that what we think we know is mostly redundant. Take, for instance, the way we use the adjective ‘Byronic’, flinging it around as if its significance were obvious: Lord Owen, the Daily Telegraph told us on 28 May this year, has a ‘Byronic dash of Richard Burton’; in an interview for the New York Times earlier that month, D A Pennebaker referred to Bob Dylan’s ‘Byronic quality’; in a recent performance of Adelson e Salvini, The Guardian assured us, the Italian tenor Enea Scala looked ‘dashingly Byronic’.
When making judgements about what historical figures were really like, a good place to begin would be eyewitness testimony. Accounts of Byron are remarkably consistent. In youth he was, Isaac D’Israeli recorded, ‘all rings and curls and lace … more like a girl than a boy’. He remained so throughout his life; in his final year, as James Hamilton Browne noted, his ‘delicately formed features were cast rather in an effeminate mould’. Not only that: Byron liked to wear diamond necklaces and earrings, rolled his hair in the early 19th-century equivalent of curlers and hankered after pubescent boys.