Thursday, 8 December 2011

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Lord_Byron_coloured_drawing.png

A post by Elea over at British Baby Names got me thinking about my favourite poet. There is just something about George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, that has always fascinated me. His poetry is beautiful, his Don Juan is hilarious, but it is the man himself, and his life, which is captivating. I think Jonathan David Gross summarises the man extremely well in the tile of his book Byron: The Erotic Liberal. Even better, his lover Lady Caroline Lamb described him as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. 'Nough said.

He was the only son of John 'Mad Jack' Byron and his second wife, Catherine Gordon. He did have a half-sister, Augusta Maria, from his father's first marriage to Amelia Osborne. Although George was his first name, he is better known by his title of Lord Byron. His status as one of literature's most infamous writers has perhaps made his name even the more appealing today. In England and Wales, Byron was at number 466 in 2010, a slight drop from its position at 424 in 2009. In the US, Byron makes a constant appearance in the top 1000, although it has been losing popularity since the 90s. 

A man as flamboyant and as keen on debauchery as Byron was, he doesn't seem exactly like marriage material. But tie the knot he did. His marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke, better known as Lady Annabella, bore one daughter, Augusta Ada, who went by her middle name. Ada was popular at the end of the nineteenth century, and is making a comeback. In 1880, it was at number 33 in the US charts, disappearing in 1987, and reappearing in 2004. In England and Wales, Ada remained in the top 100 in 1904, 1914 and 1924. Currently, however, it barely makes the top 500, sitting at number 499.

Although married, Byron was well-known for his scandalous extra-marital dalliances. His affair with Claire Clairmont resulted in a daughter, Clara Allegra. Her mother had at first named her Alba, meaning 'dawn', but her name was later changed when she was in her father's care. Alba has become well-known as the surname of Jessica Alba, but also as the name of a character in The Time Traveller's Wife. Byron preferred Allegra, meaning 'cheerful'. At first, Byron appeared to be somewhat taken with his daughter, describing her as 'very pretty—remarkably intelligent'. Any fondness he might have had for her wasn't enough to keep her in his care. He sent Allegra to live in an Italian convent, believing it was the best place for her. She was doted upon by the nuns, but died at five years old from typhus.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0f/Ada_lovelace.jpg
But, most controversially, it is disputed that he had a third daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh. Not only was she illegitimate, but if she was indeed Byron's, she was the result of his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Maria Leigh. It doesn't seem to have come as a surprise to those who knew Byron. When told the news, Ada wrote to her mother that she was 'not in the least astonished'. It is significant that Medora was named after the heroine of The Corsair, one of Byron's poems. The name has ranked once in the US, in 1885, but has remained mostly unused. Nevertheless, one does find some Medoras in English records, especially in the late 1880s.

But the plot thickens even further. Medora was one of six in her mother's family. While the identity of her father is uncertain, it is know that Medora ran away with her sister's husband, Henry Bettesworth Trevanion, and together they had a daughter, Marie Violette. Her daughter's middle name is a French variation of Violet, but it reminds me of the Villette, the title of a novel by Charlotte Bronte. The couple later separated, and Medora met Jean-Louis Taillefer, whom she married and had a son, Elie, with. His name is a French variation of Elijah, and is perhaps best known for its association with the fashion designer Elie Sabb. I believe it is pronounced as Ee-lee, but my French is atrocious so I could be wrong (and very likely am). The name was given to just six boys in England and Wales in 2010.

His only legitimate daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, had a more respectable life than her sister, marrying William King. Together they had three children, Byron, Anne Isabella and Ralph Gordon. Ada is perhaps now best known for being the 'world's first computer programmer'.

Lastly, a quick peek at Byron's work. Below are just some examples of character names in Byron's poems:

Giaffir
Salim
Zuleika
Haroun
Lara
Otho
Parisina
Hugo
Azo
Manfred
Chamois
Herman
Giuseppe (Beppo)
Inez
Julia
Adeline
Haidée
Aurora
Lambro

Images: Byron. Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon.