Gothic Labyrinth

The poet George Gordon, Lord Byron is famous for such works as Manfred, The Prisoner of Chillon and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. However, he is even more famous for being the model for the Byronic hero, a fictional individual characterized by brooding pride, impulsive passion and a penchant for self-destruction. This character, in turn, had a profound influence on the evolution of the vampire. Lady Caroline Lamb, briefly Byron's mistress, in her thinly veiled roman à clef Glenarvon, named the Byron character "Lord Ruthven" and Polidori, relishing the joke, used the name for the vampire in his work based on Byron's Diodati story (see Polidori).

Byron's larger than life persona and unconventional lifestyle made him the hottest topic of his day even before rumours erupted about an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta†. Augusta's daughter Elizabeth Medora is now widely conceded to be Byron's child. At any rate, Byron seemed to believe it, writing to Lady Melbourne (see under Caroline Lamb), it is not an Ape and if it is--that must be my fault. Here he is alluding to a folk superstition about the appearance of babies born of incest. Medora's name comes from the heroine of Byron's The Corsair. Lamb (who had labelled Byron Mad, bad and dangerous to know) precipitated the scandal by vindictively revealing to his wife, Byron's confidences concerning his sexual experiments with Augusta and with other men. Lady Byron, an extremely self-righteous and unforgiving woman, saw to it that his life in England was over.

During his exile, Byron wrote Don Juan in which the mathematically gifted Annabella, (Lady Byron, nicknamed by Byron the Princess of Parallelograms) is clearly the model for the mathematical Donna Inez. The passage, She kept a journal, where his faults were noted,/And open'd certain trunks of books and letters.( Don Juan I, XXIX.) likely refers to Annabella's discovery of laudanum and a copy of de Sade's Justine in one of his trunks. For more on the implications of Justine, see Mary Shelley.

Byron's references to Donna Inez are more teasing than caustic. Annabella, on the other hand, never forgave Byron for the loves he had before her and denied him access to their daughter named Ada Augusta in honour of his sister. Not only was Ada not allowed to read his work or view his portrait least she be corrupted by it--it hung in their home for years swathed in cloth, like the mysterious portrait in Radcliffe's Udolpho--she was not allowed any fiction or poetry at all. The too-seductive portrait was the one in Albanian dress, shown on two of the covers at right.

Curiously, Ada died at 36, the same age as her father and grandfather. On her deathbed she requested Charles Dickens to attend her and read her the passages from Dombey and Son about Paul's death. At the end, she defied her mother by stipulating that she be interred next to her father in the Byron family vault, her coffin to touch his, the closest she might ever come to him. The epitaph she chose is from the Epistle of James and reads You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you. Ada is now best known for her work on the Babbage Difference Engine, an early computer.

Gwendolyn Harleth in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda is based on Byron's granddaughter Maria Leigh. Maria was the daughter of Medora, fathered by her at only fifteen by her brother-in-law, Henry Trevanion, a distant cousin of the Byron family (Byron's grandfather had married a Trevanion). The Byron and Leigh families had a surprising number of these incestuous ties. Another is that Augusta married her cousin, George Leigh, whose mother, Frances Leigh, had had an affair with her brother Jack, Byron's father.

Dickens may have drawn on the Byron family tragedy for the character of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, a jilted woman who seeks her revenge by proxy. For some years Annabella supported Medora and her daughter Maria refusing to allow Augusta to see her, while she and Medora circulated false stories that the Monster (Augusta) had encouraged her son-in-law's predations on the underage girl, even to the extent of drugging her for the purpose. Annabella had previously circulated such poisonous stories about Byron that he was forced into exile.(See right, The Kindness of Sisters). She also tortured Ada whenever she had her in her power. Even when Ada was dying of cancer Annabella stormed her home, dismissed her servants, turned away her friends and threw away her pain medication.

Byron's friends included Matthew Lewis, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin; Dr. John Polidori was at one time his personal physician and travelling companion. Byron entertained these guests among others at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, where the works Frankenstein and The Vampyre were begun. There he read to his guests from an early manuscript of Christabel, requested from Coleridge. I do not know that even Love or the Antient Mariner are so impressive--and to me there are few things in our tongue beyond these two productions. Byron thought the influence might be too evident in his Siege of Corinth. For the implications of Christabel on the evolution of the vampire, see Coleridge and Le Fanu.

Rumours of orgies at the Villa Diodati involving two sisters were clearly aimed at Mary Godwin and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, both unmarried teenage girls. The rumours may be based in fact. Shelley believed in free love and encouraged his wife Harriet and lover Mary to sleep with his friend Thomas Hogg while Claire's two daughters Allegra and Elena are attributed to Byron and Shelley respectively. At the time, sharing sisters (even though they were not blood related) would have been perceived as incestuous.


He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
An erring spirit from another hurl'd;
A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
By choice the perils he by chance escaped;
But 'scaped in vain, for in their memory yet
His mind would half exult and half regret


† Epistle for Augusta

For thee, my own sweet sister, in thy heart
I know myself secure, as thou in mine;
We were and are--I am, even as thou art--
Beings who ne'er each other can resign;
It is the same, together or apart,
From life's commencement to its slow decline
We are entwin'd--let death come slow or fast,
The tie which bound the first endures the last!

More Byron trivia

The frantic gallop in Bürger's Lenore is relived in The Giaour. Sardanapalus was dedicated to Goëthe (Byron figures in the 2nd part of Faust as Euphorion).

Byron took the plot of Werner from The German's Tale by the Lee sisters.

The Ali Pasha, whom Byron visited in Albania, rid himself of troublesome subjects by throwing them into the sea. One of Byron's lovers is said to have come close to this fate, which Byron uses in Don Juan and The Giaour.

Browning's Childe Roland is a dark reworking of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

As a satirist in the tradition of Pope, Byron took many sly shots at fellow writers in his works. Scott, Lewis, Coleridge, Wordsworth and particularly the Epic Renegade, Southey, come in for abuse. The Vision of Judgment was a parody of Southey's A Vision of Judgment, which lacerates Byron in the introduction.

Byron's work and personal affectations—Lord Ernle relates that he modelled his scowl on that of Schedoni in Radcliffe's The Italian—influenced many other writers, among them Edgar Allen Poe, and the Brontë sisters.

Byron had a great admiration for Beckford's Vathek, which influenced The Giaour and which he mentions by name in Childe Harold. For correctness of costume, beauty of description, and power of imagination, it far surpasses all European imitations, and bears such marks of originality, that those who have visited the east will find some difficulty in believing it to be more than a translation. As an eastern tale, even Rasselas must bow before it: his 'happy valley' will not bear comparison with the 'Hall of Eblis.' For implications of Byron and Vathek, see Lamb.

Byron's heart, like that of his friend Shelley, was buried apart from his body. The scandal attached to his name prohibited his burial in Westminster Abbey and there was no memorial in the Poet's Corner until as late as 1969.

A wonderful fictional treatment of Byron and Ada, in the tradition of Byatt's Possession.

Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England

A sympathetic look at Byron's other loves. Highly recommended

Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons.

The systematic and pitiless destruction of Ada Lovecraft, Augusta Leigh, and the reputation of Byron by Annabella, Lady Byron and (surprisingly enough) Medora Leigh.

Compelling and devasting.

Gothic Labyrinth