The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England

The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England

Emily Brand
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
Review by metellus cimber II.

At 349 pages, this is a good, long book with which to while away a Covid-19 furlough. As exciting as a George MacDonald Fraser novel, it offers elopement, murder, kidnapping, adultery, coercion, naval and military adventure against a background of London, provincial aristocratic society, pre-revolutionary France, Scotland, North America, the South Pacific and Greece.

The Fall of the House of Byron would make a good TV mini-series, although it would have to be "Parental Guidance" (PG) and shown late at night. At times it reminded me of one of Hogarth's more horrible pictures. There is, for example, a charming vignette of the cheerful Yorkshire gentry crowding York Racecourse to witness the execution by hanging, drawing and quartering, followed by decapitation, of the local Jacobites in 1746, while the gentry shouted loud "Huzzas" and encouraged the executioners.

During his lifetime George Gordon Byron, the 6th Lord Byron, was the subject of adulation, horror, fear and wild rumour. He was in some respects more like a modern rock-star than a contemporary poet. Apart from being the celebrated author of Don Juan, Manfred and other famous Romantic poems, he had good looks, chutzpah, charisma, spectacular mistresses, one of whom was Lady Caroline Lamb; innumerable groupies and some distinguished, discerning admirers who included Goethe and Sir Walter Scott. He was a brilliant linguist,who mastered Armenian, among other tongues. He died tragically, aged thirty-six, while leading the Greeks in their war of independence against the Turks. All the elements of a legend were in place; the legend duly soared away. As a result, the sixth Lord Byron overshadows the other Byrons, who are now mostly forgotten.

However the poet Byron was not the only notorious member of his dynasty. Holders of the Byron title from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries tended to be colourful characters. The 4th Baron was a popular composer and artist, but the 5th, William, “The Wicked Lord Byron” and the poet's great-uncle, lived up to his nickname. Among other things he was tried in the House of Lords by a jury of his Peers for the murder of a country neighbour. He got off with the lesser charge of manslaughter and a fine. He had delightful friends, four of whom actually voted for his acquittal: they included Lord le Despencer, aka Sir Francis Dashwood, the founder of the Hellfire Club, and Lords Orford and Beaulieu; both notorious debauchees who were later confined as lunatics. (William was also a connoisseur, whose art collection was famous.)

There were some admirable Byrons, including the poet's grandfather, Vice-Admiral John "Foul-Weather Jack" Byron, a distinguished and intrepid naval officer, explorer, geographer and best-selling author. Two of his great-uncles led less-dramatic, but exemplary, lives as a clergyman and in local government.

However most of the Byrons showed a marked talent for going through money, both their own and that of the heiresses whom they married, for violence and for sexual misconduct. Other characteristics that recurred through the generations included an irresistible urge to keep exotic pets. The 5th Baron's menagerie, for example, included a large but amiable wolf, which was on friendly terms with his other livestock. Both he and his great-nephew liked large dogs, especially Newfoundlands. The Byrons may have introduced the breed to England; Vice Admiral Byron did a shore posting as Governor of Newfoundland. The poet himself kept dogs, monkeys, a tame bear, an eagle and other exotic birds in his house in Venice.

Another Byron characteristic was military talent. The first Lord Byron was a Royalist cavalry commander in the Civil War. So was the 2nd Baron, his brother, who had fought gallantly for the King at Edgehill. The poet Lord Byron's father, Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, was a Regular Army Officer and his paternal grandfather was a senior Royal Navy Officer. The 6th Lord Byron, although he had no formal military training, seemed to take to guerrilla soldiering in Greece instinctively.

The Fall of the House of Byron is also the history of a remarkable country house, Newstead Abbey, which belonged to the Byrons from 1540 until the poet was forced by debt to sell it in 1817. Today Newstead is a neat, well-managed museum belonging to Nottingham City Council; little remains to recall either the opulent, Xanadu-like treasure-house of the 4th and 5th Barons, whose contents were dispersed long ago, or the romantic ruin with which the poet fell in love as a plump schoolboy with a Scots accent. The present Lord Byron lives in Australia.

A few years ago I was startled to notice that the arms adorning the plinth of the poet Byron's statue at Missolonghi were surmounted, not by a baronial coronet but by an imperial crown. This was not a simple error on someone's part; it represents an unfulfilled aspiration. Had Byron not died of malaria in Greece in 1824, he could easily have been elected King of the Hellenes a few years later. The idea of Byron at the head of the army and navy of even a small European State is rather alarming.

I gave the book 4.5/5 mushroom-heads because of some minor, but annoying, mistakes that ARRSE-ers are sure to spot. One example is Newfoundland. This is repeatedly referred to as part of Canada, which it never was in Byron's time. It did not join Canada until 1949. The correct term to use at that period was 'British North America'. Another is that Byron's Scots mother, the Chieftainess of the Gordons of Gight, is described as the 'Laird' of Gight. In those times, and even today, she would definitely have been the Lady. (Is this just ignorance or PC gone mad?) Those however are minor quibbles; this book is deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.

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