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Byron: Life and Legend Paperback – May 26, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While biographies of Byron have appeared with regularity since his death in 1824 at age 36, British author MacCarthy's (William Morris: A Life for Our Time) engrossing, coolly perceptive study of the Romantic poet is notable for its refusal to swoon over Byron's legend while still attuned to the evolution of his powerful personality and its impact on the world of art and literature. She notes how Byron went from being a mediocre student mocked by other boys to a charismatic leader of his peers and an extraordinarily well-read young man (though he read in secret, "to keep up his pose of anti-authoritarian idler"). She discusses how carefully he had to suppress his homosexual impulses in an increasingly conservative England, and how crucial his 1809-1810 travels in Greece and Turkey were to not only Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, but to his own life. The familiar arc of his fame covers an abortive career in English politics and a disastrous marriage (rent with rumors of incest with his half-sister), and the years of his exile in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, during which, MacCarthy argues, he introduced England to Europe and vice versa. She considers his poetry; his influence on English and European writers from Victor Hugo to Charlotte Bront‰; and the cult of Byron that developed after his death. If her dispassionate approach succeeds more in describing his fascinating, contradictory character than penetrating his psychology, she nonetheless gracefully shows how the "life" and "legend" of the subtitle fed off each other.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Beginning with his childhood and the sexual abuse that he likely suffered in the care of his nurse, MacCarthy (William Morris: A Life for Our Time) here offers an evenhanded portrait of the legendary Byron. She chronicles a life filled with tempestuous relationships (John Hobhouse, John Murray, and Percy Bysshe Shelley) and affairs (Lady Caroline Lamb, Claire Clairmont, and Countess Teresa Guiccioli) and documents how Byron's appreciation of the East during his early travels through Greece and Turkey influenced both his life and his writing. The dissolution of his abusive marriage amid rumors of sodomy and incest led to Byron's self-imposed exile in Switzerland, Italy, and, finally, Greece, where he died contributing to the fight for Greek independence. Throughout, MacCarthy maintains an objectivity that is remarkable given the powerful emotions her passionate, troubled subject tends to evoke. Following on the heels of David Crane's The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons, this work is first-rate, offering a detailed account while refusing to judge its subject. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.
William D. Walsh, Chester Coll. of New England, Manchester, NH
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 26, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374529302
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374529307
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.8 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #642,047 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Emile Lucien on August 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Fiona MacCarthy's biography of Byron is a masterpiece of detail, insight and scholarship of a high order. It has already been acclaimed by the best critics as more than equal to her other fine biographies of Eric Gill and William Morris, and is a worthy successor to Lesley Marchand's definitive three-volume study, also published by John Murray. MacCarthy not only had the advantage of access to new material from the Murray archive, but her `re-assessment' of Byron's personal life benefited from being able to write without the severe restrictions and discretion placed upon earlier biographers, Marchand included. As a result, the inner conflicts and turmoil of Byron's life and loves emerge with a clarity and poignancy denied to earlier interpretations.

The life unfolds chronologically, the chapter headings specifying the countries and places representing the periods of Byron's life associated with them: Cambridge 1805-7, London and Brighton 1808-9, Greece and Constantinople 1809-10, and so on. The author's intellectual grasp and unstinting devotion to verifiable fact, all this no doubt enhanced by her five-year `pilgrimage' through the countries of Europe visited by Byron, lends authority and an authentic flavour to the style and language. The many references to correspondence, together with quotations from the poetry, are made with due regard to their relevance to particular places, people and events, the writer's occasional interpretative comment being well justified by her soundly-based acquaintance, and indeed intimacy, with the scope of her subject.

Such considered commentary, always unobtrusive, is necessary as much to the craftmanship and thematic working of the book as a whole, as it is to achieving a natural coherence and fluency in the language.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By John Lauritsen on July 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Fiona MacCarthy has written the most important Byron
biography for half a century, published by John Murray, Byron's
own publisher. She is responsive to Byron's poetry, and sometimes
brings considerable insight to it, but her main concern is Byron
as a man and as a phenomenon: his fame and ambition, his
manipulation of his images, the "complex and fascinating
intertwining of his personal celebrity and literary reputation",
his later notoriety and bitterness.
Byron was a bundle of contradictions. Shy, pale and
effeminate, short and with a strong tendency to become fat,
crippled with foot deformities, he nevertheless became the
reigning male sex symbol of the 19th century. To this day the
Byronic hero seen as the archetypal male adventurer, with his
sardonic and defiant virility. Byron had an abundance of
character defects -- he could be mean and petty to even his best
friends -- but he also had charm and a gift for empathy, which
gained lasting devotion from those close to him.
At the age of 18 Byron was chubby: 5 feet 8 inches tall and
weighing 194 pounds. But by 24 he had slimmed down to 140 pounds:
he was then at the height of his beauty and on the threshold of
fame, which would come from the publication of Childe Harold's
Pilgrimage. Soon females of all ages and descriptions would be
throwing themselves at him, exhibiting the sexual frenzy that
would later greet such celebrities as Franz Liszt, Rudolf
Valentino and Elvis Presley.
Fiona MacCarthy has written a full-scale biography, which
covers in vivid detail his affairs and friendships; his
unfortunate marriage; his residences, costumes, animals,
carriages, etc.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By T. Schmitt on July 22, 2006
Format: Paperback
Foremost, this is probably one of the most heavily researched books of Byron. Coming in at over 500 pages (and in small print!) this book exacting chronicles Byron's life. This tome certainly shows thousands of hours of research and work. Digging deep into the detail of Byron and the people in his life, this story reconciles different journalistic accounts of the same episodes, divines the truth when someone's memories are prone to hyperbole, and uncovers the mystery and motivation behind the stanzas in some of Byron's poems. For instance, the book even nabs Byron for fibbing at his cricket score! Undoubtedly, the research is first rate.

I take off one star for a couple of reasons. First, while the book is the complete life of Byron, the story itself feels academic and dry. It's the historic account of his life from one day to the next. So, in some places, the book becomes a run on of just one event to the next. There is no interpretation or anecdotes that bring Byron to life. It took some special effort to pay attention in some chapters.

Second, I wish the book would have developed the tangent of Bryon's dandyism and his dandy colleagues. Byron was familiar with two of histories greatest dandy's, Beau Brummell and Count d'Orsay. While Byron himself didn't label himself a dandy, he nonetheless had influence among this set and often hobnobbed with those who fashioned themselves as dandies. It would have been a rich vein if the book had told this tale a bit more.

Third, the mojo behind Byron's womanizing is left unexplained. While Byron was known as a great lady's man, the book never really uncovers his magic, his special charm that lead him to bed so many women. The tale is told, but not the special charm behind it.
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