Christy Fearn - photo by Carla Mundy
Christy Fearn is a self-confessed Byron nut. Her debut novel Framed explores the stocking knitter demonstrations of 1812 when folk rebelled against unemployment, social injustice and greed. So not much has changed then...
Who were the frame breakers?
They were the stocking knitters who had been put out of work by manufacturers bringing in new machines that could be operated by unskilled workers. So six men were made unemployed for every one employed on the new ‘wider’ frames. The new frames produced inferior quality work, more quickly. As a result, the workers smashed up the new machines at night.
What would rebellion have been like in 1812?
It was like a secret society. Everyone knew what was going on, but there was a code of honour that you did not reveal the identity of your fellow Luddites. They had a ceremony where you had to swear that you would never tell the authorities who your fellow frame breakers were, on pain of death. This was serious as unemployment meant starvation; there was no welfare or benefits in those days. People were desperate.
How relevant are these issues today?
Today people don’t starve from unemployment, but poverty causes obesity and malnutrition. The situation in this country today has similarities with the Regency: an elite of monarchists and public schoolboys gambling away our money and wasting it on foreign wars. If you object, you’re seen as unpatriotic. The House of Commons recently spent £420,000 of taxpayers money (that is yours and mine) on wine. That’s the kind of excess the Prince Regent was guilty of.
Who was Ned Ludd?
Ned Ludd was the name adopted by a number of Luddites. Supposedly it was the name of a real worker who threw a clog into a machine to make a point about being asked to do extra work (in the eighteenth century) - but how true this is, I don’t know. Ned Ludd was the name used in 1812 when the Luddites made threats to the frame owners. There are lots of letters signed ‘Ned Ludd’ but it’s quite clear they were written by different people. As to the Nottingham Luddites having a leader, who knows...
How did Byron support them?
Byron made his maiden speech to the House of Lords supporting the plight of the Luddites. Although he didn’t condone their criminal damage and violence (some frame owners were injured and killed during the raids) he could understand their desperation and had seen how it was affecting the ordinary people in his own county. In the speech he said: “Nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families and their community. You may call the people a mob, but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people.”
Is this why you had the tattoo done?
(Laughs) Well... he was also the greatest poet Britain ever produced. Personally I think he’s superior to Shakespeare, though I know a lot of people will disagree. He was a great personality and a show off, but famous for actually doing something, and doing it brilliantly. He had great sympathy with the underdog - literally, as he always had a menagerie of rescued animals - he despised oppression and hated hunting. He is our international hero.
He’s also “the first rock ‘n’ roll star” according to the show you perform...
Byron certainly lived like one. He had a coach with a wine cabinet, a library and a bed which was large enough for two people. He attracted groupies and sold thousands of copies of his poems. Childe Harold sold out in one day. He was a style icon and he also controlled his image, something not really done by authors in the past.
You perform this show with your partner Greg who’s also a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll star. What’s it like working with him?
Marvellous. Did you expect me to say anything else? Seriously, though, he’s used to being onstage with his bands Poze, and Surge. He’s a great public speaker - his union are always asking him to speak at rallies and demos. He takes direction very well and enjoys the challenge of reading poetry aloud. Plus he has a very distinctive image.
How did Byron land his gaff at Newstead?
He was only ten years old when he inherited Newstead Abbey, from his uncle who had no other male heir. He wasn’t made wealthy by it - there was very little inheritance as such and Newstead Abbey was a bit of a ruin. Byron and his mother lived at St James’s Street in Nottingham and then Burgage Manor in Southwell, while he was at school and then Trinity College Cambridge, where he ran up massive debts. Byron visited Newstead as a teenager, where the tenant, Lord Grey De Ruthven ‘tried it on’ with him. Byron’s friend Hobhouse commented later that this had a “great effect on Byron and his morals.” When Byron came of age (21) he and his mother moved in properly. Byron’s mother died soon after he arrived back in the UK after his Grand Tour (1809-1811) and he was alone in the family seat. At Newstead there were holes in the roof and Byron could only inhabit a couple of rooms - the dining room, the library and his bedroom. He used the long gallery for pistol practice - there are holes in the wall to testify to this. He kept a pet dog and a raven in the Great Hall. He also used to write in the study at the other end of the house - in his letters he describes having, “a mile to walk to my bedroom” - bit of an exaggeration, but it must have felt a long way in the dark, with a limp. Especially after draining a whole bottle of red wine from his goblet, made from a monk’s skull.
Christy Fearn - photo by Carla Mundy
Lord Grey De Ruthven isn’t the only person to have tried it on with Byron. A recent biographer alleges he was abused by his nurse when he lived on St James’s St and that this may have shaped his ‘unconventional’ approaches to relationships…
I think that being interfered with as a child would affect anyone. I don’t think this caused his ‘incest’ though. Maybe it gave him a cynical view of sexuality and people in positions of authority.. The incest was with his half-sister (different mothers) who was not brought up with him. They met once or twice when he was at Harrow school, but not as adults. When they did meet again, there was a powerful connection between them. I wonder why it’s assumed Byron was the instigator of their relationship? Augusta clearly loved him, and not in an idol worship way. It’s clear from their letters to each other just how much they loved one another.
Any other notable Byron locations in the city centre?
There’s a plaque on the corner of Victoria Street and Pelham Street commemorating his first poem, written at the age of ten, about an Old Lady of Swine Green. The area was once used for grazing pigs. At the bottom of Pelham Street there was once a pub called the Blackamoor, where Zara is now. When Byron’s body was brought back from Greece in 1824, it was put on show there. Thousands of people queued to see the embalmed corpse, so many in fact that the police had to be called out to stop the crush. The only modern day thing I can compare it to was thefuneral of Princess Diana. He wasn’t allowed to be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, so was laid to rest in the family vault. Byron’s funeral cortège and ceremony gripped the hearts of everyone, especially in Nottinghamshire.
Christy Fearn’s debut novel Framed is available for £10 from Open Books and will be launched at Southwell Library on Sunday 14 April. You can also catch her at Newstead Abbey Sunday 12 May 2pm, Southwell Library Saturday 18 May 2.30pm
Open Books website