Session 8A: Byron's New Clothes

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8A. Byron's New Clothes

Laura George (Eastern Michigan): "Byronism and the Dandy as Hero: New Varieties of Masculinity under Commodity Capitalism"
Nicholas Mason (SUNY-Stony Brook): "`Bookselling, backshop, Paternoster Row, paltry proceedings': Byron and the Creation of the Brand-Name Author"
Jacqueline Pitcher (Acadia): "`A path to perpetuity of fame': Byron and Celebrity"

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"'A path to perpetuity of fame': Byron and Celebrity"
Jacqueline Pitcher

The study of Byron's reputation as a poet throughout the nineteenth century makes for a fascinating anatomy of shifting tastes-a textbook case history in the vicissitudes of literary fame. The unprecedented magnitude of this celebrity, however, distinguished Byron from other celebrated authors. His habits and preferences became general trends and popular inclinations. His fame escaped the literary world in which it was engendered and populated other cultural spheres through the perpetuation not just of his poetry, but a variety of cultural media and artefacts connected with him, including oral histories; continuing written records and biographical accounts; images of him, both authentic and spurious; and finally, the places and spaces with which he was associated. Thus after he died, Byron achieved icon status through his presence in the full spectrum of cultural memory. This paper will examine some of the more glaring lights in the constellation of cultural acts and practices inspired or made famous by Byron in the nineteenth century.

Byron's presence on the Victorian literary scene was an ambivalent one and his reputation suffered the vagaries of critical opinion. The literati found themselves at times damning him with faint praise (Arnold), or rejecting him outright (Carlyle). The scandals that were to circulate about Byron after his death (the Stowe controversy in 1870; the apocryphal publication of the sensational Don Leon in 1886, as well as other forgeries) are a testament to his continuing fame; whether adored or reviled, he was known. But Byron's influence and celebrity extended far beyond his readership. The Phillips portrait of Byron in Albanian dress became the most famous example of the convention of painting Westerners in Turkish costume, a trend that remained popular throughout the century. Delacroix, on the continent, drew inspiration from a translation of Byron's work and made several versions of three of Byron's verse tales. Berlioz chose Childe Harold to express the Romantic hero in opera. Spode even produced a line of glazed dinnerware containing scenes and views from Finden's Illustrations of the Life of Lord Byron. Thus, Byron was available to be consumed by the Victorians not just through his texts but through the "phenomenon" of Byron-his fame outside his literary production. I will show several instances of the above-mentioned non-literary cultural artefacts associated with Byron in a visual presentation, obtaining permission where required.

The effect of these various permutations and reconstructions of Byron was to democratize his fame and his reputation; the price for such renown has always been the sacrifice of control and authority, accompanied by the merging of the private with the public spheres. For Byron, this has also meant the obscuring of his literary achievements for the sake of his celebrity. His poetry was, and in some ways remains, a hostage to his reputation's fortune. I will close with a consideration of how Byron's fame still makes itself felt today-in novels, in film, and on the internet, Byron can be found in the oddest reconstructions-concluding with a short commentary on a contemporary reproduction of Byron's poetry in the form of a bookmark. What is most intriguing about the bookmark is not the quotation from Don Juan-"Alas! there is no instinct like the heart"-but the illustration that provides the background for the quotation, the visual text for the verbal text: a very conventional version of the paperback cover of a bodice-ripper.

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Last updated June 1, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell