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UNESCO City of Literature: Lord Byron

4 February 15 words: Christy Fearn
illustrations: Raphael Achache

He fought in wars, stood up for the poor, and kept a bear in his room at Trinity College, Cambridge. But Lord Byron also banged out a few poems - another reason why Nottingham is worthy of being a UNESCO City of Literature...

Arrive in Nottingham by train and one of the first things you see when leaving the station is a huge banner displaying Nottingham’s ‘Rebel Writers’: Alan Sillitoe, DH Lawrence, and Lord Byron. All three are worthy of the title, but it is perhaps most fitting for the poet, Lord Byron.

Abandoned by his father, George Gordon Byron was raised in Aberdeen by his poverty-stricken mother. He came to Nottingham aged ten when he inherited his ancestral home - the truly gothic Newstead Abbey. He and his mother lodged on Pelham Street and then St James’s Street, where he wrote his first poem about an old woman who also lived in Nottingham at Swine Green.

Born with a deformed foot and a limp, Byron championed the underdog. He viewed his disability as a challenge, so from his schooldays onwards would play cricket, ride, swim, fence and box. While he lived in Southwell, he took part in amateur dramatics, directing and starring in the play The Weathercock. His first poems Fugitive Pieces were published in 1806 by John Ridge, a local Newark printer. He kept many animals in his lifetime, but his beloved Newfoundland, Boatswain, was buried at Newstead in an elaborate tomb. During his time at Trinity College, Cambridge, Byron kept a pet bear in his room - dogs were not allowed.

Immediately after graduating, Byron travelled to Europe and then went on his Grand Tour (1809-11). When he returned, his travels inspired him to write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which made him an overnight celebrity. 1812 was a momentous year for Byron; as well as finding fame through his poetry, he made his Maiden Speech in the House of Lords. Originally, Byron was to speak about Catholic Emancipation. He chose instead to champion the local stocking-knitters, many of whom lost their employment due to new machinery. They banded together, called themselves Luddites, and smashed up the wide frames that had put them out of work.

While Byron did not approve of their vandalism, he insisted it was only done through desperation. Frame-breaking was hotly debated in parliament with PM Spencer Perceval’s government bringing in the Frame Bill, making frame-breaking, or even planning to smash the machines, a capital offence. When the Bill was passed, Byron wasted no time in writing An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill, railing against the injustice and lack of compassion the government had for its starving people.

Byron’s political activities are often overshadowed by his relationships and sexual exploits. He was vain and controlled his image with an almost contemporary awareness; young ladies who read Childe Harold were not disappointed when they saw his portrait. His open shirt, pale skin and dark, curling hair set hearts aflutter. Even as a teen, Byron fathered a child with a serving maid, and fell in love often, forming deeply romantic friendships at school and university. He wrote a poem about the Cambridge chorister, John Edleston, and tore his student gown while climbing into a chapel window to listen to his angelic voice. But it was Mary Chaworth from Annesley who stole his heart and later broke it, calling him “that lame boy”.

Despite marrying someone else in January 1815, Byron was in love with Augusta Leigh - his half-sister. They weren’t raised together but kept up a lively correspondence and became close when they met as adults. His wife, Annabella Milbanke, was intelligent and mathematical but lacked humour. It was doomed from the start. Byron had proposed to her by post, mainly marrying her for money and in the hope she might reform his wayward character.

Although Byron and Augusta spent time together at Newstead, he and his wife never did - by the time he married, Byron was trying to sell the Abbey to pay his debts. His lifestyle did not suit Annabella; he was often seen at the theatre, parading in Covent Garden with an actress on each arm as well as staying up all night writing and drinking. Soon after the birth of his daughter, Augusta Ada, Annabella left him and took the child to her parents’ house. A few months later, they were separated formally and Byron left England, never to return.

Despite the whirlwind of scandal surrounding Byron, he managed to enjoy his travels through Europe, visiting the recently-vacated battlefield of Waterloo. He settled in Switzerland, where he was joined by the radical poet Shelley, Mary Godwin (now calling herself Mrs Shelley) and Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron had a brief affair during the final months of his marriage. Claire gave birth to their daughter, Allegra, who Byron took away from her mother when he moved to Venice. In December 1816, Byron’s thoughts turned once again to the frame breakers, writing Song for the Luddites, which he sent to his friend Thomas Moore.

Byron’s fame had now turned into notoriety and young ladies were warned not to look at him. During the Venetian Carnival, Byron, like his latest hero Don Juan, boasted he’d ‘had’ over 200 women. He kept his intellect occupied by learning the notoriously difficult Armenian language and writing two books on Armenian Grammar. Later he was involved with the Carbonari, a band of secret freedom-fighters. Byron hoped that Italy could be united, instead of the predicament with warring factions and individual states. Eventually he tired of the situation, despite having a passionate love affair with the young Countess Guiccioli who had left her elderly husband for Byron.

The ‘broken Dandy,’ as he called himself in his poem Beppo, then wandered further - this time to Greece. The Turks had occupied it for almost 400 years and Byron dreamt of the Greeks finally achieving freedom, pouring money from the sale of Newstead into the cause. He united Greeks and Albanians against the Turks, and even adopted a Turkish girl who had been shipwrecked when a boat ran aground not far from Messolonghi.

Unfortunately Byron did not live to see his beloved Greece gain its independence. He caught a fever after riding in the rain and never recovered from his doctors bleeding him excessively. The great hero died on 19 April 1824. When he was young, Byron had expressed a wish to be buried with his dog at Newstead, later he asked to be buried in Greece. Neither of these wishes were fulfilled, nor his request “not to be hacked about”; the surgeons performed an autopsy, removing various organs.

Byron’s heart was interred in the Heroes’ Garden in Messolonghi, but his body was brought back to England. The poet who had scandalised a nation could not be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, so Byron’s funeral cortège wound its way slowly back to Nottinghamshire. The nobility sent their empty carriages to follow it as far as Hampstead - not wanting to publicly condone Byron’s behaviour - leaving only Byron’s closest friends, servants and, in place of the grief-stricken Augusta, her husband Colonel Leigh.

Byron’s embalmed body was put on show for four days at the Blackamore’s Head pub in Nottingham city centre. People flocked to see him and the newspapers that had criticised and satirised him wrote gushing obituaries. The out-pouring of grief is only comparable to that expressed after the death of Princess Diana. At Hucknall, the crowd was so large that it was difficult to get the coffin inside the church. Byron was finally laid to rest in the family vault underneath the church of St Mary Magdalene. His daughter Ada would also be buried there in 1852. He was eventually given a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey in 1969.

Today, Byron has enthusiasts, dedicated scholars and fans all over the world. People visit Nottingham, Hucknall and Newstead from many different countries with their own Byron Societies and as members of the International Byron Society. He is arguably Nottingham’s greatest export and the nation’s greatest poet, inspiring countless other poets and authors.  

Nottingham City of Literature website

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