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BYRON: Life and Legend

Fiona MacCarthy, Author
Fiona MacCarthy, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $26 (688p) ISBN 978-0-374-18629-6
Reviewed on: 10/07/2002
Release date: 12/01/2002
Paperback - 674 pages - 978-0-571-17997-8
Hardcover - 640 pages - 978-0-7195-5621-0
Hardcover - 688 pages - 978-1-4447-9986-6
Paperback - 674 pages - 978-0-374-52930-7
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While biographies of Byron have appeared with regularity since his death in 1824 at age 36, British author MacCarthy's (William Morris: A Life for Our Time) engrossing, coolly perceptive study of the Romantic poet is notable for its refusal to swoon over Byron's legend—while still attuned to the evolution of his powerful personality and its impact on the world of art and literature. She notes how Byron went from being a mediocre student mocked by other boys to a charismatic leader of his peers and an extraordinarily well-read young man (though he read in secret, "to keep up his pose of anti-authoritarian idler"). She discusses how carefully he had to suppress his homosexual impulses in an increasingly conservative England, and how crucial his 1809–1810 travels in Greece and Turkey were to not only Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, but to his own life. The familiar arc of his fame covers an abortive career in English politics and a disastrous marriage (rent with rumors of incest with his half-sister), and the years of his exile in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, during which, MacCarthy argues, he introduced England to Europe and vice versa. She considers his poetry; his influence on English and European writers from Victor Hugo to Charlotte Brontë; and the cult of Byron that developed after his death. If her dispassionate approach succeeds more in describing his fascinating, contradictory character than penetrating his psychology, she nonetheless gracefully shows how the "life" and "legend" of the subtitle fed off each other. (Nov.)

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