In this day and age of the celebrity bio show-and-tell-all, where the celebrity du jour hasn’t the slightest qualm in not only baring the soul, but also the backside and everything in between, and not only willing to air every single piece of dirty laundry, but also the washer and dryer, it is refreshing to have come across John Galt’s (May 2, 1779-April 11, 1839) biography of the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know poet, Lord Byron.
What better way to give you a taste of the Victorian-man-of-letters style than by quoting the opening paragraph from the author’s introduction: “My present task is one of considerable difficulty; but I have long had a notion that some time or another it would fall to my lot to perform it. I approach it therefore, without apprehension, entirely in consequence of having determined, to my own satisfaction, the manner in which the biography of so singular and so richly endowed a character as that of the late Lord Byron could be treated, but still with a wide difference between determining a rule for one’s self, and producing, according to that rule, a work which shall please the public.”
In forty-nine short chapters, John Galt covers Byron’s family history; early education; publication of “English Bards and Scottish Reviewers”, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, and “Don Juan”; his travels; a brief and discreet account of his involvement with the Countess Guicoiolo; and his death in Greece and subsequent funeral. Interspersed throughout the book are excerpts from Byron’s poems along with comments from the author including his opinion that the poem, “Manfred,” is founded on “magical sacrifice” rather than personal guilt. Galt concludes with a final chapter summing up the his own personal impression of Lord Byron’s character, which I suspect was of great importance to a Victorian gentleman to include in an literary biography: the measure of a man.
In the end, John Galt has written a discreet and tactful biography of so notorious a poet as Lord Byron which would have pleased the Victorian reading public of his time–a time more civilized and courteous and definitely more discreet, when dirty laundry was best kept in the laundry hamper and out of sight.