Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity, by Clara Tuite

Jane Stabler on a fascinating account of the aristocrat-poet’s fame

March 12, 2015

Shakespeare’s I Henry IV provides one of the most completely unnecessary public relations lessons in history when Henry, unaware that Prince Harry has already planned to perform the role of the glitteringly reformed prodigal son, advises him to inspire wonder by being “seldom seen…like the comet”. Advertising Don Juan alongside reports of a comet was one of the ploys of Lord Byron’s shrewd publisher, John Murray, who managed between 1812 and 1816 to keep Byron’s name almost permanently in the public gaze while also bestowing on his prolific output the aura of extreme scarcity.

Clara Tuite notes the overlaps between royal appearances and celebrity culture in her kaleidoscopic account of Byron’s fame, and its multiple “strategies of immortality” (Zygmunt Bauman’s term), including marketing magic, rituals of risk and transgression, violent scenarios of degradation and forgiveness, and self-staged melodrama. Whereas previous accounts of Byron’s celebrity have examined the technologies and economic impact of authorship, Tuite traces the human relationships involved in the manufacture of a popular (or unpopular) idol.

Byron emerges as an active party to scandal, but a passive victim of celebrity. Baffled by the rumour that he had kidnapped a nun, his wry complaint that “I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan war” pre-empts Jacqueline Rose’s argument that “there is something…murderous in our relation to celebrity”. Refusing to treat Byron in isolation, and placing sociability and “imbrication” at the heart of her book, Tuite analyses the intertwined aspects of fame and notoriety in scandals across post-Waterloo Europe. “Byronism” begins to look unspectacular when placed in the context of the Regency penal system, blackmail, satiric scourging and pornography.

Bringing her expertise as a Jane Austen scholar into sophisticated decodings of social space, Tuite scrutinises the production of celebrity scandal in semi-public aristocratic interiors: the locket that enclosed Caroline Lamb’s gift of pubic hair to Byron, the box at La Scala where Stendhal thought he should be on his knees before Byron, the Napoleonic carriage that carried Byron into exile, the dressing room in which Viscount Castlereagh cut his own throat and finally the coffin in which Byron was conveyed past silent London crowds on its journey to the family vault in Hucknall, Nottingham. Tuite contrasts the distinction of their metaphorical “pageants of the bleeding heart” with the vulgarity of the gibbets and gallows upon which transgressive working-class blood was spilled. One of the book’s fascinating correspondences links the domain of publishing piracy and Byron’s funeral cortège as sites where the social elite and the labouring class united in scandalous common causes.

Tuite’s multiple symbolic readings of sensational detail, and the plethora of recent studies of celebrity that she applauds, leave little room for Byron’s writing, although there are suggestive paragraphs on the rarely discussed Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte and Byron’s unfinished drama, The Deformed Transformed. In an illuminating section on Don Juan, she rereads the scandal of an epic poem that leaked hints about Byron’s marriage, contained lines that had to be replaced by asterisks, alluded to Castlereagh’s suicide, treated adulterous women and Napoleon with sympathy, and publicised Byron’s split with the respectable Murray. None of this, she says, matters as much as the scandal in which Byron – in this sparklingly unregenerate poem – “gives the laboring classes the Enlightenment of which they had hitherto been deprived”.

Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity

By Clara Tuite
Cambridge University Press, 346pp, £65.00
ISBN 9781107082595
Published 8 January 2015

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