Shadowbox: Mad, bad and dangerous to know

They said of Lord George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron FRS, that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

“Mad, bad and dangerous to know” – Lady Caroline Lamb on Byron (links to BBC article online)

He’s regarded as one of the greatest European poets and remains widely read and influential, both in the English-speaking world and beyond. He had a short life packed with the sort of adventure that only someone who doesn’t have to work for a living can indulge in.

Byron’s fame rests not only on his writings but also on his life, which featured upper-class living, numerous love affairs, debts, and separation. He served as a regional leader of Italy’s revolutionary organisation, the Carbonari, in its struggle against Austria. He later travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence , for which Greeks revere him as a national hero.

Plenty of men – and women – had lives which took them across continents, in the early part of the 19th century. Without them, we wouldn’t have the world as we know it now: David Thompson (film link), Mungo Park (Google map link), Isabelle Eberhardt, Matthew Henson.

What made Byron famous was the circles within which he moved, and their ability to influence what was written in the popular press of the time. For most ordinary folk the picture painted of Byron – then, as now – was a cross between Captain Jack Sparrow and Bear Grylls, with a wild hint of Errol Flynn. Byron’s antics, real or imagined, sold newspapers. Being from the nobility helped, in other words.

Byron also lived such a magical life that his image pops up in cameo across much later popular fiction.

He makes an appearance in “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in Tennessee William’s play “Camino Real”, and the events featuring the Shelleys and Byron at the house beside Lake Geneva in 1816 have been fictionalised in film at least three times. He appears as a character in Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”(2004) and also in Tim Powers “The Stress of Her Regard” (1989), where he and his entourage on the Villa Deodati perform a pivotal role within in the story.

Whatever the demon that rode Byron to his infamy, he relied very much on his wealth. But even wealth in a period where it was concentrated in the hands of a global elite, complete with slaves and factories and child labour, couldn’t help save a man’s life when illness struck.

As it was with Byron. He died, at the age of 36, from a fever contracted while in Messolonghi in Greece.

So how does this fit into this series on the influences of my novel, SHADOWBOX?

I can’t stress how strongly the young poet’s influence had on the people of the early 19th century. A life lived to the full, with permissive morality and a flagrant disregard for public opinion, appeals both to the young Louis Beauregard in SHADOWBOX as much as it attracted Austin Powers and the rest of the Swinging Sixties crowd.

And in his desire to mimic the life Byron lived – to understand the driven nature of a rich man tortured by events over which he has no control, and whose memories will not let him escape – the young Louis Beauregard channels his energies into a life of “debauchery and revels… in a city famous for glittering seductions and violent Revolution.”

How he behaves there – and whether he survives – is revealed in the novel.


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: In Byron’s Shadow.

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Published in: on June 9, 2014 at 2:00 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Next in the SHADOWBOX series: Mad, bad and dangerous to know. […]


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