cover image Byron: A Life in Ten Letters

Byron: A Life in Ten Letters

Andrew Stauffer. Cambridge Univ, $29.95 (300p) ISBN 978-1-00-920016-5

This scintillating study by Stauffer (Book Traces), an English professor at the University of Virginia and president of the Byron Society of America, vividly brings the poet to life by examining “ten of the most interesting and characteristic letters written between his teenage years and his last weeks” in Messolonghi, Greece, where Byron died at age 36 in 1824. Letters to family, friends, lovers, and publishers are presented in full, followed by discussion of their importance to Byron’s life. For instance, Stauffer covers Byron’s troubled marriage to Annabella Milbanke in the context of an 1816 message in which he unsuccessfully cajoled her not to move forward with a separation, and an 1823 letter to a university friend sheds light on his decision to move from Genoa, Italy, to Greece, which he viewed positively as “a place of bisexual freedom.” Stauffer’s immersive prose shines (“Once you pass through the massive sixteenth-century gate and emerge again into the light, the Great Court of Trinity College Cambridge unfolds in crisply manicured green squares, surrounded by the imposing stone walls of the chapel”), and he manages to acknowledge the difficulties of Byron’s life (he endured childhood sexual abuse and lifelong disordered eating) without excusing his cruelty, which included bragging to his wife about his affair with his half sister. This stands out in the crowded field of Byron biographies. (Feb.)