I’ve become a late-in-life stalker of Lord Byron. Charlotte Brontë introduced us in 1996 when I gave a presentation on how she became “Byronized” (although I’d accept the answer that I’d long before joined the Byronic cult through my lifelong love of her creation Mr. Rochester), but other than that fleeting glance my graduate education, even though I was studying eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature, his temporal stomping grounds, had no Byron in it. My Romanticist professor was a Wordsworth and Coleridge man—more earnest, less ironic—and I took seminar after seminar on Blake, Shelley, Keats… Every one of the “Big Six” poets except Byron.
It wasn’t until the year 2000, when I visited Greece for the first time, fell madly in love, and decided right then and there to shift the axis on which my life revolved, orienting it toward Greece, that Byron swam into my ken.
(Are any of my students reading this blog? Here’s your lesson: follow love!)
Since then I’ve realized I’m not at all unique; many (oh, so many) women have stalked Lord Byron. Caroline Lamb steals all the press as Stalker Number One—cross-dressing as a page, sending him a lock of her pubic hair, furiously recounting their relationship under the novelistic veil of Glenarvon—but she’s far from the only one to pursue him in writing.
Take Dutch novelist Tessa de Loo, for instance. I’m enamored by In Byron’s Footsteps, which alternates between historical narratives of Byron’s voyage through Albania and letters she writes to him as she travels—on horseback!—along the path he and his bud John Cam Hobhouse took. She hooks me right away with the opening description of Albania. Like de Loo, I too had stood in Corfu and looked east, “intrigued by the massive grey hulks of the mountains on the other side of the narrow strait.” To her they look like “the backs of patiently waiting elephants.” I was silenced by how barren it all seemed; in Corfu in April everything was green, but across the water, in the same climate zone, all was grey and denuded, stripped of trees that simply had to have been there once. In Corfu Town the evening sky was filled with lights, but across the water I couldn’t see a single one, as if the entire country had turned in early, or was left behind as the rest of us embraced electricity.
De Loo is a beautiful writer (and has an elegant translator in Andy Brown) and she captures the contradictions of her crush precisely: Byron is “engaging yet insufferable, noble yet malicious, a hedonist yet prone to melancholy, sensual yet austere.” But what really draws her to him is the freedom of his being: “I admired you for the naturalness with which you dared, from a young age, to be yourself, to be authentic.”
Australian journalist Julietta Jameson also seeks to emulate Byron more for his derring-do than his way with words. She travels to another Byronic hotspot, Italy, with, she says, a suitcase crammed with his texts, but Me, Myself, and Lord Byron is primarily focused on the Me and Myself of its title; Byron is an occasion for travel and renewal of herself.
In what is essentially a memoir of recovery it is Byron’s vulnerabilities that Jameson identifies with: his damagedness: the clubfoot, the melancholy, the obsession with his weight. Her unabashed openness and chatty prose style—more Eat, Pray, Love than A Romantic Education—are disarming but I didn’t find myself underlining sentences and sinking into reflection over them as I did with Tessa de Loo’s work. Let me read you a lively one, though, a depiction of Byron to compare with de Loo’s: “smart, funny, good looking, troubled, scandalous, sexually comme ci comme ça and a guy who would have been featured in the celebrity diets issue of People magazine, had he been alive today.”
(And now we interrupt our programming for a word of advertisement for beloved London bookshops. Me, Myself and Lord Byron: purchased at Daunt Books, June 2011. [Thanks, Sarah, for pointing it out to me as I was paying for another book, an academic one on Byron in the Greek War of Independence. Had to buy both.] In Byron’s Footsteps: discovered in the secondhand section of Waterstones on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, during that same trip, June 2011.)
What both de Loo and Jameson really love is the freedom they find in Byron: the freedom not to be nice, not be constrained. Stalking him becomes a way of pursuing and claiming your own life. I can identify with that, and especially with the longing de Loo expresses in this contrast between herself and Byron: “In everything you did, you jumped in at the deep end. I am more the type who lies down flat on the diving board and spends a long time starting into the depths.”