Byron: A Biography
ANDRÉ MAUROIS’S reputation is twelve years old. Destined for his family’s textile mills, it was the war which gave this Frenchman the bent which seems so natural to him. His knowledge of English made him invaluable as a liaison officer between the armies; his associations with the 9th Scottish Division and the British G. H. Q. led directly to his first book, Lcs Silences du Colonel Bramble, written in his early thirties. Two more Anglo-Gallic war books followed, until in 1918 he began to experiment with that form of ‘novelized’ biography which in Ariel: The Life of Shelley (1923) and Disraeli (1927) bears his individual stamp.
In an introduction to Ariel, Maurois describes his aim as that of a novelist rather than that of a historian or critic. An able psychologist, with a winning sense of humor and a style perfected from the best French models, Maurois presents the facts with his own color and emphasis. He is not a literary photographer, but an artist, and thus the relation between art and truth is not seldom at stake. Whatever the truth in Maurois’s books, whether fiction or biography, his delicate art is become an international possession.
IT was inevitable that M. Maurois should wish to exercise his experienced pen on one of the most fascinating of literary personalities. M. Maurois’s habit is imaginative rather than scholarly; he usually attempts, not to present us with new facts, but to fuse known facts into a vivid portrait. In the case of Byron, candidly, he has done neither; and to any reader familiar with the Byron literature of the last twenty years the book is less entertaining than one had a right to hope.
Unfortunately M. Maurois, like other recent writers, has been misled into over-emphasizing certain famous scandals. Here, as elsewhere, Don Juan’s catalogue of ladies outweighs some of the more significant elements of Byron’s life. There is no point in discussing, in a brief review, this latest digest of the Astarte evidence, especially as it has been better presented by others than M. Maurois. The only thing necessary to be said is that some competent judges hold the fact of incest, however probable, still unproved; largely, I take it, because most of the evidence for it —even Augusta’s ‘confession’ — derives from Lady Byron. If one fact has definitely emerged from all the recent books written in that lady’s defense, it is that Lady Byron was, for various reasons of temperament and character, a totally untrustworthy witness in any matter that concerned Byron and herself. The famous Lushington statement amounts to nothing except the fact that Lady Byron eventually convinced herself of the incest. We have one letter to Augusta, one letter to Lady Melbourne, more easily interpretablc in that sense than in any other, and that is all we have to go on, after we are forced to realize that Lady Byron’s word cannot be taken.
M. Maurois, I think, comes very near to the right appraisal of Augusta’s value to Byron and her significance in Byron’s life, which were not primarily a passionate value and significance. Unluckily, the matter of the incest (which he credits, but thinks of little importance) throws him off the track, and he funks a true summing up. If there is nothing to be said for Lady Byron (who emerges, more odious, from each new book about her), there is equally nothing to he said for Augusta. Even Lady Byron could not have frightened Augusta into chronic imbecility if the wits had been very strong to begin with. Yet the fact remains that Augusta, to Byron, was immensely important. She understood his difficult heritage; the need to explain did not exist; they could laugh together all day like children; he found peace in her society.
M. Maurois has no special thesis about Byron except that he was an incurable Calvinist. Calvinism, early impressed, is hard to eradicate, as we know; hut Byron was more complicated than most people admit, and Calvinism is by no means the whole story, though it makes for good paradoxes. M. Maurois states that ‘the most striking trait she [Lady Blessington] found, after Byron’s innate goodness of heart, was his common sense — an anti-romantic, anti-individualist common sense which was prodigiously surprising in one who, according to his own legend, was the least social of all human beings.’ M. Maurois is frequently struck with Byron’s common sense — apparently as prodigiously surprised by it as was Lady Blessington. He brings frequent evidence to corroborate the innate goodness of heart, too — yet never weaves either it or the common sense into a final formula. There is, indeed, no final formula; one can gather M. Maurois’s impressions only by counting the points recurrently made. The point made most often is Calvinism; next, the perpetual antagonism between Byron as he could have been and Byron as he was, which the critic considers the chief source of Byronie suffering.
M. Maurois somewhat diffidently admits that Byron was a man of genius. It is the unhappiest result of Lord and Lady Lovelace’s activities that for twenty years the reading public has been induced to forget that Byron was a man of genius and to consider him only as a libertine. Byron, as it happens, was not only one of the great English poets, hut one of the great English prose writers. When the last and least of the journalists has had ‘access’ to the Lovelace papers and said his say, it may he that some man of taste and learning will give us a new biographical portrait of Byron, lie will not pause too long over Lady Byron’s memoranda or Augusta’s ‘damned crinkum-crankum,’ but will betake himselt to the poetry, the letters, and the journals of Byron himself, and to the memoirs of Byron’s own friends. Drinking deep of that living verse and prose, fed on proved and friendly judgments, abiding by authentic chronologies, he may manage to surmount the easy paradoxes, the cheap coincidences. Byron is not an easy subject, and the critic will have need of all his taste and learning, of sympathy and laughter, of honest reverence and Attic salt. A formula for Byron’s personality could never be easy, and it may he impossible, to find; but it is only by some such method that any critic will ever hit upon it. No whitewashing of Byron could or should be attempted. He was, at certain moments and in certain situations, grievously at fault — indefensible, indeed, if one accepts any standard whatever for social relationships. But these instances of misbehavior cannot soberly he said to outweigh the courage, the generosity, the patience with fools, the loyalty, that were abiding qualities, proved over and over again during thirty-six brief years. We do not nowadays feel that everything should be forgiven to the man of genius, but the sorry mismanagement of Byron’s case in the last fifteen years should lead us to reflect that a man of genius has at least as much right to fair appraisal as the man who tucks it.
KATHARINE FULLERTON GEROULD