"Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know": Lord Byron, the 19th Century Sex Bomb.
Updated: Feb 11
It's someone's birthday today! Lord Byron was born on this day in 1788, and so I thought I'd do a lil post on the first contemporary celebrity, and one of disability history's most well known sons.
Born in 1788 as George Gordon, the 19th Century bad boy and sex bomb (feel free to put on Tom Jones while reading this) inherited his lordship from his uncle aged 10, as his father (Mad Jack Byron) had already died, but the estate had many debts so it wasn't like he fell into a pot of gold. He entered the House of Lords (as that's how it worked back in the day, unlike now when you can be created a Lord or Dame by nomination) because he had genuine ambition to work in politics, but was seen as a supreme liberal rebel that the conservative factions needed to get rid of.
Part of this was down to his reaction to the Frame Work Bill, which would make destroying new mechanical looms, the cause of many fabric workers losing their jobs, punishable by death. Byron thought that was a bit far. Fairly. However I imagine his reputation preceded him so I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't keen on what they heard about all that either.
Criticism of him from the rest of the political classes was often directed towards his club foot, comparing it to the Devil's cloven hoof. He wasn't keen on that, as he was very sensitive about his foot, apparently not sleeping in the same bed as his (extremely numerous) lovers. He was so sensitive about it that he went to a significant effort to hide that he had a foot at all, let alone a clubfoot. He would wear wide legged trousers, and even when he was sick just before he died, he still covered it with a sheet. He put so much effort into hiding his disability, that we're still not certain which leg it was. Seriously, I read an entire research paper which was just debating which leg his clubfoot was on (they think right.)
While he was a child at an all boys boarding school, he wore a leg brace which he was
apparently mercilessly bullied for, but by the time he left school and was going to university (Cambridge obviously, where he kept a pet bear) he had made a number of good friends, and some other "very good friends", if you know what I mean (and if you don't, lovers.)
Like most young noblemen, he went on the Grand Tour after he left Cambridge (not with Jeremy Clarkson et al) which was essentially a gap year, but longer. Most would travel around Italy, France, Greece, learning about the classical arts, but Byron was a bit different. He went to all the normal places sure, but he went much further east than a lot of them, like Albania. There is a famous painting of him kept in the National Portrait Gallery (?) in Albanian traditional dress, one of a pretty small number of portraits of him from his lifetime as he was so picky. Only a small number of paintings were sanctioned by him, and they had to make him look gorgeous.
It was the poetry he wrote on these visits that catapulted him to fame. He very quickly became extremely well known and liked, highly sought after by all the brightest and best, but he was also famous for his promiscuity (I don't really like calling that these days, but I can't think of another word for it that encompasses all genders.) He was famously described as "mad, bad and dangerous to know".
He did marry, but him and his wife Anabella divorced after having one child (who was none other than Ada Lovelace, an incredibly successful mathematician I believe in spite of Byron rather than because of anything he did) due to philandering with all genders, but also because Anabella considered him legitimately insane. What what caused the most shock to his adoring public though was the accusation at the divorce proceedings that one of his affairs had been with his half sister (and that her child might have been his). He also had numerous illegitimate children but that's hardly a surprise.
It was these rumours, of his affair with his half sister and his bisexuality as well as his mounting debt, that caused him to leave England in 1816 and never return. He writes that his last few weeks in England were marked by ostracisation and warnings not to go out in public, due to potential violence from the public.
It was after leaving England that he becomes friends with Mary Shelley and members of her family, where takes place the famous story of how Shelley's book Frankenstein came into being. (The short version is that it was a horrible, rainy, dark summer, thanks to a volcano eruption in Indonesia which coated so much of the world in darkness. During this summer, the friends would tell each other ghost stories, and those stories became the basis of a number of excellent literary works, including most famously Frankenstein.)
While living in Italy in 1823, he voiced his support for the Greek independence movement and was highly lauded for the public stance, particularly by the Greeks (obviously). He travelled to Greece and paid 4000 to refit the Greek fleet of ships, and then carried on, saying he wanted to spend his whole fortune for Greek freedom.
He was given control of a rebel army, despite his lack of experience but before they had a chance to go anywhere, Byron contracted a fever and died. He is still a hero in Greece and is seen by many as the first example of a modern celebrity, with people (mainly women) sending him locks of hair (and many many other things…) but he said of himself that "I am such a strange mélange of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me".
- British Library profile of Lord Byron
- Lord Byron, 19th Century Bad Boy- Clara Drummond, May 2014- British Library
- Poet of all the Passions, Fiona MacCarthy, November 2002- The Guardian
- Byron: Life and Legend- Fiona MacCarthy, 2002
- Lord Byron's Orthopaedic Boot, Science Museum
- You're Dead To Me podcast, Lord Byron episode, BBC podasts, 2019