Tuesday 30th July 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
At 24, the poet George Gordon, more famously known as Lord Byron, published the first two cantos of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and in his own words, “awoke one morning and found [him]self famous.” Brooding, handsome, and undeniably a genius, Byron was an irresistable figure in 19th century London, where his tumultuous love affairs added to his reputation of being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He allegedly had a love affair with his half-sister; and one of his many jilted lovers, the aristocrat and writer Lady Caroline Lamb, once dressed as a page-boy to surprise him at a ball, where she pulled a knife on him.
While Byron’s treatment of women didn’t exactly win him any proto-Feminist awards, it was clear that women played a complex and important role in Byron’s life and poetry.
Under a cloud of scandal in 1816, Byron quitted the “tight little island” of England, travelling eventually to Italy where he hoped both the women and the way of life there would replenish his poetic coffers. For three years, from 1816 to 1819, he lived in Venice, colouring the history of that city forever with his extravagent love affairs and wild lifestyle. He eventually settled in a palace on the Grand Canal, where with characteristic flair he kept a menagerie of animals—monkeys, birds, even a wolf. In a letter to a friend he boasts of his “Gaunlet” of Venetian lovers:
“It is the Tarruscelli—the Da Mosti—the Spineda—the Lotti—the Rizzato—the Eleanora—the Carlotta—the Giulietta—the Alvisi—the Zambieri—the Eleanora [...] some of them Countesses--& some of the Cobblers wives—some noble—some middling—some low—& all whores […] I have had them all & thrice as many to boot since 1817…”
Upon arriving in Venice the incorrigible Byron even took up with his landlord’s wife, Marianna Segati, whom he quickly traded in for another passionate young Venetian he nicknamed “la Fornarina” (she was a Baker’s wife). In another letter he describes an occasion when he was caught in a thunderstorm in his gondola, and la Fornarina waited on the steps of his villa, sick with worry:
“I found her […] with her great black eyes flashing through her tears and the long dark hair which was streaming drenched with rain over her brows & breast […] like Medea alighted from her chariot […] On seeing me safe—she did not wait to greet me […] but call[ed] out to me—“Ah! Can’ della Madonna xe esto il tempo per andar’ al Lido?” (Ah! Dog of the Virgin!—Is this a time to go to the Lido?) […] Her joy at seeing me again—was moderately mixed with ferocity—and gave me the idea of a tigress over her recovered cubs.”
In 1819 Byron began his most profound and lasting love affair with Teresa Guiccioli, wife of the Count Guiccioli, who he eventually followed to Ravenna. The two would often hole up together in Byron’s country villa at Mira, escaping the social life of Venice, as well as Teresa’s husband. Here, Byron wrote some of his most important poetry, including the first two cantos of Don Juan, his masterpiece. Byron always liked to write with his lover in the room with him, and he would tell her to go on “chattering” while he composed “for he worked much better while he saw her and heard her voice.”
Five years after his idyllic love affair Byron would die fighting for Greek independence. But as his poetry attests, that summer of love in 1819 was a touchstone for Byron, a vision of the domestic happiness that he both longed for and eschewed throughout his brief but complex life:
“Yet they were happy—happy in the illicit
Indulgence of their innocent desires;”
(Don Juan, III, 13)