We like to think the reading that wrote us, the works that most profoundly shaped our desires, our aspirations, the identities we’ve taken on as our own, the lives we’re living out as if we invented them, were the best of what we thought and read. The stamped and approved, canonized stuff. What if that’s not so? Take Byron’s life, for instance. What if the catalytic shaper of his life was not the works of his writing idol Alexander Pope, or even those of his close friend and intellectual sparring partner Percy Bysshe Shelley, but an unacknowledged and long-forgotten pulpy read that he publicly condemned but privately devoured—and, perhaps, was devoured by?
What if the twin facets of his personality, the Jekyll-and-Hyde sides of Byron—the rakish, scandalous English expatriate (mad, bad, and dangerous to know and all that) and the noble statesman sacrificing his life for the liberty of Greece—had been seared into his imagination by a romance novel he read at age 21?
At some point along Byron’s post-graduation Grand Tour in 1809-1810, the impressionable young poet, wandering Europe wondering just what to do with his life, read Sydney Owenson’s hot-off-the-press Woman; or, Ida of Athens. In it he found himself presented with two competing possible visions of his future, two dramatic personae: a raffish English traveler (curiously named “Lord B—”), who tries to seduce the heroine Ida of Athens, and a patriotic Greek revolutionary named Osmyn, who marries her. Byron would oscillate between these two identities for the rest of his life. (Cool it with the theatrical overstatement? Let’s recall that “the rest of his life” would be just fourteen more years. He died young, at age 36.)
Now, Ida of Athens isn’t an influence that Byron would admit; he slyly put down Owenson’s novel in a footnote to Childe Harold (they were competitors for the same market, after all, and he was promoting his travel-romance of Greece). But we are often unconscious of what has stirred our desires and repress the influences we don’t want to acknowledge. Particularly the seemingly trivial ones.
As Mary Shelley, Byron’s Villa Diodati haunted-summer companion, observed in a draft of Frankenstein, “those events which materially influence our future destinies often derive their origin from a trivial occurrence.” So true, don’t you think? The song lyrics, the celebrity interview, the television episode, the B-movie, or in this case, the popular genre fiction, the sentimental novel, which tugged at something deep inside you, pulled you into a scene featuring you as you wanted to be. Why don’t we want to acknowledge these shapers and sculptors? Are they embarrassingly unambiguous, naïve, unnuanced, a picture of raw longing marking you in that particular moment in time, like the 1979 family photo of me, awkward bespectacled 13 year old standing in Times Square in white bell bottoms, flip flops, and a red t-shirt that read “UFO: Ultra Foxy Object”?
Huddling together in primary-shaping position for me are the easily-acknowledged, even celebrated progenitors: Jane Eyre (the fierce independence; the ruined-me-for-any-real-man Rochester). Hamlet (actually, I would probably be farther along in life if he were less influential on me). Anne of Green Gables (so loved that scope for imagination). Nancy Drew (from whom I learned to reapply fresh lipstick after nabbing the crook). The quavering but true to herself academic Heidi “I covet my independence” Holland of The Heidi Chronicles.
But all of those, in their own way, flatter me. What about the books I don’t want to confess having loved? The ones that have probably affected me far more than I’d like to admit? Bubbling up now and again:
the observer-of-the-drug-scene diarist of Go Ask Alice (which I took as cold hard fact at the time),
the conservative fledgling writer in New York who has to learn to let loose and hang with her bohemian artist family in Why Not Join the Giraffes?
And then, while we’re digging: what are my completely buried, wholly unacknowledged kindlers of desire?
What are yours?