This essay suggests that Byron’s Manfred contains not an expression of Byron’s guilt about his incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, as previous critics have suggested, but rather considerable evidence of his lack of guilt. It argues that the play displays incest and torment, but in fact does not link the two, instead displaying Manfred’s love for Astarte as deeply felt without regrets. The essay then argues that one finds the same combination of deep love and lack of regret in Byron’s remarks about his relationship with his half-sister, as well as in the representations of incest in his other works. It suggests that this acceptance of incest links to Byron’s commitment to rational thinking and personal freedom, and it invites future criticism to explore this connection in more detail.
Love in the First Degree: Manfred, Byron, and Incest
1. Manfred has incest and guilt at its core. Manfred has committed incest, and he is obsessively guilty. Two hundred years' worth of critics and scholars have considered the significance and inter-relationship of these two, and most agree that Manfred expresses guilt for having committed incest with his sister, Astarte. Moreover, many acknowledge that Manfred's incest is a mirror of Byron’s incestuous relationship with his sister, Augusta Leigh, and suggest that Manfred's guilt is an expression of Byron’s own.  Without question, incest is a central concern in Manfred, and a central concern to the Byron who wrote Manfred. I would argue, however, that Manfred the text and Manfred the character show not Byron's guilt over his incest with Augusta Leigh, but rather his lack of guilt. Furthermore, this is a lack that Byron continues to display in various ways in his later work, and one for which he has larger intellectual reasons.
2. Byron plants the seeds of Manfred's lack of guilt in the character's opening monologue. Here Manfred proclaims: "Good or evil, life, / Powers, passions, all I see in other beings, / Have been to me as rain unto the sands, / Since that all-nameless hour" (I.i.21-4). This is a time-honored dramatic maneuver, a proleptic announcement that keeps the audience in suspense until a text reveals all at a later time. In Manfred, however, that time never comes. In the course of the play, "that hour" remains literally "all-nameless": no one ever explains when or what it was. The closest anyone comes is in the exchange between Manfred and the Witch of the Alps in the second scene of the second act:
- She was like me in lineaments—her eyes,Her hair, her features, all, to the very toneEven of her voice, they said were like to mine;But soften'd all, and temper'd into beauty . . .I loved her, and destroy'd her!
- With thy hand?
- Not with my hand, but heart—which broke her heart—It gazed on mine, and wither'd. I have shedBlood, but not hers—and yet her blood was shed—I saw—and could not staunch it. . . .Daughter of Air! I tell thee, since that hour—But words are breath—look on me in my sleep,Or watch my watchings—Come and sit by me!My solitude is solitude no more,But peopled with the Furies. (II.ii.105-31)
3. The text goes on to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Manfred has committed incest, and it persistently establishes that he is tormented, but it never actually connects the two. In fact, the construction of Manfred's revelation to the Witch figures his motive for incest not as lust or as a desire to do evil, but as love: "I loved her, and destroy'd her!" His soliloquy after she departs reiterates this:
4. But Manfred does not limit itself to repeated evidence that Manfred does not regret his sexual relationship with Astarte. It also emphasizes Byron's lack of compunction about his incest. It achieves this in part by Manfred's declarations of love for Astarte, in part by the strength of his lack of regret, and in part by the play's obsessive avoidance of naming the act of incest. If this last sounds counterintuitive, that is because it is. It needs to be. As D.L. MacDonald has pointed out, Byron could scarcely announce his love affair with his sister to the public, but Manfred nonetheless refers to it "obsessively, but by aposiopesis," as well as by persistent lacunae and allusions that draw attention to the act rather than disguising it (37). Manfred tells the Chamois Hunter that they loved each other as they "should not love" (II.i.27); he later informs the Witch that his beloved "was like me in lineaments" (II.ii.105); the servant Manuel is significantly interrupted just at the right moment in his description of Astarte,
5. Reviewers certainly understood precisely what was not being named. Francis Jeffrey deplored the "painful and offensive nature of the circumstance" on which the play's "distress was ultimately founded" (140). In the British Review, William Roberts wrote that Manfred's love "appears to have been of the sort that lies under a natural interdict" (86), while the Day and New Times put it more plainly, explaining that Manfred "committed incest!" In fact, the Day and New Times, at least, knew what had occurred outside the text as well as in: its announcement of Manfred's incest was followed by the assertion, "Lord Byron has coloured Manfred into his own personal features" (130).
6. It is not unreasonable to suggest that an author who wants to keep a secret should be more secretive, nor to suggest that an author who is not terribly secretive might not want to keep his secret. Byron was fully aware of the public horror and censure that would attend upon any clear revelation that his hero and his hero's sister, or he and his own half-sister, had committed incest. It is significant that Manfred takes care to clarify that he alone is responsible for what transpired with Astarte: "What is she now?—a sufferer for my sins" (II.ii.96-7). In an 1814 letter Byron exhorted Lady Melbourne, his confidant in the matter, not to reproach Leigh for having sex with him: "it was not her fault—but my own folly" (BLJ IV:27, Byron’s emphasis).  But his awareness of risk did not stop him from publishing a work that he knew would be widely read as confessional, featuring as its main character a version of himself who demonstrated no regret for what he had done. All this suggests that, while he may have been concerned about public reaction, he, like Manfred, did not regret the act itself.
7. In fact, Byron's justification for his actions also mirrors Manfred's, except that while Manfred cries his love, Byron confided it. He wrote to Lady Melbourne that Leigh was "twined round my heart in every possible manner—dearest & deepest in my hope & my memory" (BLJ IV:69). Still, for both creator and created, this love is rendered legitimate by reason of its uniqueness and the great gap it fills. "I have wandered o'er the earth, / And never found thy likeness" (II.iv.144-5) Manfred tells Astarte, while Byron wrote to Leigh, "we—at least—I—am by a crowd of circumstances removed from the only being who could ever have loved me, or whom I can unmixedly feel attached to" (BLJ V:95).
8. In light of this quotation, it seems significant that Byron was as reluctant as his hero to stop referring to his forbidden relationship. Even before Manfred, he inserted a reference in Childe Harold III, where the waters of Lake Leman "sound sweet as if a Sister's voice reproved" (95). More interesting, however, is a very carefully encoded reference in Don Juan two years later, in the passage in which Donna Julia is excusing her way toward adultery:
9. Jerome McGann has written that the job of Juan's reader is not so much to "decipher the text" as to "describe and retrace" Byron's "acts of encipherment,” and Gary Dyer has built on this to suggest that one might fruitfully focus on both the encipherment and its context and meanings (207; 573). Indeed, what is most fascinating about this moment in which incest is enciphered is the meaning of its existence in its context: the fact that, given contemporaneous notions of morality, Byron chose to include it in a published work at all. Literature is not thick with joking references to incest, because incest is not something authors or audiences usually take lightly. But Byron does. Now, it is true that the Byron of Don Juan takes pretty much everything lightly. That aspect, however, was precisely what most repulsed reviewers: William Hazlitt complained of the poem that "Our enthusiasm for genius or virtue is . . . turned into a jest by the very person who has kindled it . . . It is not that Lord Byron is sometimes serious and sometimes trifling, sometimes profligate and sometimes moral; but when he is most serious and most moral, he is only preparing to mortify the unsuspecting reader by putting a pitiful hoax upon him" (162). Hazlitt and others objected to this facet of Don Juan because to joke about morals is to suggest their insignificance, to announce that they are foolish enough to be the subject of jokes. By inserting his sly joke—that a woman may feel a preference for men "who are pleasanter than others, / But then they only seem so many brothers"—Byron suggests that the idea that brothers are, naturally, sexually off-limits is laughable, that sibling incest (not least his own, which is the basis for the joke in the first place) is something harmless enough to be the root of a joke. The meaning of this moment, then, is Byron's own casual relationship with incest and its prohibition.
10. Admittedly, this revelation is only accessible to the initiated: those readers who know Byron's past and make the connection. By the time he writes Cain in 1821, however, Byron has decided to declare his feelings more openly than he did in either Juan or Manfred. As Heather Stansbury has recently pointed out, this final Byronic portrayal of incest represents it not as something to be condemned, "but, rather, entirely natural" (25). Astounded by Lucifer's revelation that brother-sister love will one day be a sin "in your children" (I.ii.361), Cain's wife and sister, Adah, asks rhetorically,
11. In addition, Cain portrays the incestuous love of a sister as the prop that outlasts all others. Exiled from the Garden of Eden, separated from his family and the life he has known, Cain goes forth hand in hand with Adah, who will join him both in sorrow and in peopling the world: "Now, Cain! I will divide thy burden with thee . . . Lead! thou shalt be my God, and may our God / Be thine! Now let us carry forth our children" (III.i.551-5). Stansbury writes that Byron "describes the product of incest," Adah and Cain's son Enoch, "as a means of strengthening the family bond," but Byron also shows sibling incest itself as a means of strengthening that bond (25). Cain's mother, Eve, calls down "the eternal Serpent's curse" on him for killing Abel (III.i.403); his father banishes him (III.i.444-5). Only the sister who is also his wife cleaves to him. Byron even goes so far as to transfer into Adah’s mouth the plea for mercy that Cain makes in the Bible. The Bible passage, "And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me" (King James Bible , Gen. 4.13-14), becomes in Byron’s play:
- This punishment is more than he can bear.Behold thou drivest him from the face of earth,And from the face of God shall he be hid.A fugitive and vagabond upon the earth,'Twill come to pass, that whoso finds himShall slay him. (I.iii.477-82)
12. The deeper question raised by all this discreet and indiscreet support for incest is “Why?” Why produce works that extol incest as love and that extol that love as the greatest support in life? Why hint at, make jokes about, and eventually openly approve sibling incest, when it would be much easier, safer, and more generous to the sister you say you love to keep quiet about having participated in that act?
13. The answer is both simple and complex, grounded in both Byron's psyche and his ethic. First, Byron liked being seen to be bad. He wanted and expected Manfred to cause some sort of scandal. In a surely unique combination of (hopefully) unconscious appropriateness and irony, he wrote to Augusta Leigh in March of 1818 asking if the publication of the drama had caused "a pucker" (CPW IV:466) Hints of incest more than ensured that pucker.
14. Second, there is the effect of distance. Just as his time in Europe had made Byron less aware of the habits and mores of English society, it may be that it had made the society and people he knew there less real to him.  In 1819 he wrote ruefully to Leigh, "Three years absence—& the total change of scene and habit make such a difference—that we have now nothing in common but our affections & our relationship" (BLJ VI:129). The loss of immediacy brought by distance would explain why he was not held back by the potential harm his revelations might cause to Leigh. 
15. Finally, he may simply never have considered what harm he might do, or he simply might not have cared. Daniel McVeigh argues that Byron's "hints about their incest would have been unconscionable had he perceived a real threat against" Leigh (611). But Byron did perceive a threat, as evidenced by his remarks to Lady Melbourne, about "my . . . folly" and, later, of his "misery . . . on her account" (BLJ IV:69, Byron’s emphasis). Perhaps the potential damage to Leigh did not outweigh his own wishes. Empathy for individuals was never Byron's strong suit.
16. It would do a disservice to Byron, however, to suggest that these were his only reasons for choosing to write what he did. He also had strong philosophical reasons for doing so. As Evan Gottlieb observes, Byron was highly rational, and predominantly interested in society, particularly in the structures and masks society imposed (99-100). Byron's personal experience would have given him empirical evidence that the incest prohibition was one of these imposed structures, not least because he began his liaison with his sister with a certain sense that what he was doing was wrong, but that sense quickly vanished. On August 11, 1813, when the affair was still in its early stages, he commented to Lady Melbourne that "I should have been glad of your advice how to untie two or three 'Gordion knots' tied round me . . . some are rather closely twisted round my heart" (BLJ III:87-88, Byron’s emphasis), and on August 22, he wrote to Thomas Moore, "I am, at this moment, in a far more serious, and entirely new, scrape than any of the last twelve months—and that is saying a good deal” (BLJ III: 96).  Yet he quickly sloughed off these worries. When Lady Melbourne wrote to him on April 25, 1814, "I could talk & reason with you for two Hours, so many objections to urge, and after all, for what—for the sake of Augusta—is it worth while!"  Byron responded firmly.
17. Nor does Byron seem to have changed his mind over time. In April 1817, he wrote to Leigh from Switzerland, "I shall never find any one like you—nor you (vain as it may seem) like me. We are just formed to pass our lives together" (BLJ V:96); three years later, after four years away from her, he wrote: "I always loved you better than any earthly existence, and I always shall unless I go mad" (BLJ VII:159). Manfred's moving pleas to the Phantom of Astarte,
18. When one considers Byron’s own experience, then, as well as his more general philosophical stance that any certainty and knowledge beyond the most basic are subjective, his skepticism about the incest prohibition seems more understandable. In response to Adah's astonishment that incest might be deemed a sin, Cain's Lucifer responds that it "cannot be a sin in you—whate'er / It may seem in those who may replace ye in / Mortality" (I.ii.375-7), yet later on he declares to Cain, "Evil and Good are things in their own essence" (II.ii.657). If both of these are true—and Cain endorses both, and it appears to offer Byron's own opinions—then it stands to reason that the incest prohibition is not good "in its own essence," but rather is a taboo imposed for certain reasons. Thus, for Byron, it is open to question. Byron's relationship with Leigh, like Manfred's with Astarte, is a sexual connection between people of equal age, non-coercive, and apparently without issue.  In and of itself, free from social constructs and impositions, it would cause no wider damage. Adah's lines to Lucifer, pre-dating socialization, support this: what can be wrong with a love that springs from and only produces more love?
19. Such reasoning is understandably difficult for audiences, since Byron's vision assumes a sexual world free of coercion and of what one might argue is an instinctive repulsion. Yet Byron's deduction is based on a standard empirical model. Like any good Enlightenment scientist, he has done the experiment then drawn the conclusion based on concrete experience (his own), rather than on the abstraction and assumption that is conventional morality.  The flaw in his conclusion, however, is that he reasons inductively, from particulars (himself) to generalities (the majority of people), assuming that his general readership feels, or could feel, as he does. On the other hand, Cain shows that part of what underlies Byron's view on incest is a belief that the generality labor under morals that have been impressed on them. This, too, has validity: both the Romantics and contemporary scholars wrestle with the question of the degree to which morals are innate and the degree to which they are imposed. Byron's thinking here, then, engages with that of his contemporaries, and with our own questioning.
20. It takes a deeply unusual man to put empiricism before morality—most people do the reverse. But Byron was, and remains, deeply unusual. Moreover, the gift of his uniqueness is that it offers scholars many layers of thought to unfold. Nowhere does this complexity seem more true than in the case of his thinking about incest. The topic features even more frequently in Byron's writing than it does in Romantic texts generally,  and, in virtually every work in which it appears, it is portrayed positively, or at least not negatively: The Bride of Abydos, Parisina, Epistle to Augusta, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage III, Manfred, Cain. Both this repetition and this portrayal suggest that for Byron incest is the expression of something central to his understanding of how the world should be. It is up to us to discover what that something is. Some twenty years ago, D. L. MacDonald suggested that examination of Byron's incest and its use in his works might yield fruitful results (37). That fruit remains ripe for the plucking.
Boker, Pamela. "Byron's Psychic Prometheus: Narcissism and Self-Transformation in the Dramatic Poem Manfred." Literature and Psychology, vol. 38, no. 1-2, 1992, pp. 1-37.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Edited by Leslie Marchand, Belknap Press, 1973-82
———. Complete Poetical Works. Edited by Jerome McGann, 7 vols., Cambridge UP, 1980-93.
Dyer, Gary. "Thieves, Boxers, Sodomites, Poets: Being Flash to Byron's Don Juan." PMLA, vol. 116, no. 3, 2001, pp. 562-78.
Glass, Loren. "Blood and Affection: The Poetics of Incest in Manfred and Parisina." SEL: Studies in Romanticism, vol. 34, no. 2, 1995, pp. 211-26.
Gottlieb, Evan. Romantic Realities: Speculative Realism and British Romanticism. Edinburgh UP, 2016.
Gross, Jonathan David. Byron's Corbeau Blanc: The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne, 1751-1818. Texas A&M UP, 1997.
Hazlitt, William. "Lord Byron." The Spirit of the Age, or, Contemporary Portraits, edited by Henry Colburn, 1825.
Holy Bible. King James Version. Collins, 1991.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. London, 1738.
Jeffrey, Francis. Contributions to the Edinburgh Review. Longman, 1844.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Beacon, 1969.
Manning, Peter. Byron and His Fictions, Wayne State UP, 1978.
———. "Don Juan and the Revisionary Self." Romantic Revisions, edited by Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley, Cambridge UP, 1992, pp. 210-26.
Marchand, Leslie. Byron: A Biography. John Murray, 1957.
Review of Manfred, by Lord Byron. The Day and New Times. Rpt. in The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 87, Jul. 1817, pp. 45-7.
Richardson, Alan. "The Dangers of Sympathy: Sibling Incest in Romantic Poetry." SEL: Studies in English Literature, vol. 25, no. 2, 1985, pp. 737-54.
———. "Rethinking Romantic Incest: Human Universals, Literary Representation, and the Biology of Mind." New Literary History, vol. 31, no. 3, 2000, pp. 553-72.
Roberts, William. "Review of Manfred, by Lord Byron." British Review, vol. 10, Aug. 1817, pp. 82-90.
Shilstone, Frederick. Byron and the Myth of Tradition. U of Nebraska P, 1989.
Stansbury, Heather. "Bound by Blood: Incestuous Desire in the Works of Byron." The Byron Journal, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 17-28.
Stein, Atara. "I Loved Her, and Destroyed Her: Love and Narcissism in Byron's Manfred." Philological Quarterly, vol. 69, 1990, pp. 189-215.
Stelzig, Eugene. "'Though It Were the Deadliest Sin to Love as We Have Loved': The Romantic Idealization of Incest." European Romantic Review, vol. 5, no. 2, 1995, pp. 230-51.
Strachey, Lytton. "Byron, Shelley, Keats and Lamb." Characters and Commentaries, Chatto and Windus, 1933, pp. 53-68.
Thorslev, Peter L. Jr. "Incest as Romantic Symbol." Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 1965, pp. 41-58.
Twitchell, James. Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture. Columbia UP, 1989.
For relevant twentieth-century readings, see, for example, Peter Thorslev, "Incest as Romantic Symbol," Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 2, no.1 (1965), pp. 41-58; Peter Manning, Byron and His Fictions (Wayne State UP, 1978); Frederick Shilstone, Byron and the Myth of Tradition (Omaha: U of Nebraska P, 1989); Atara Stein, "I Loved Her, and Destroyed Her: Love and Narcissism in Byron's Manfred," Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pp. 189-215; Pamela Boker, "Byron's Psychic Prometheus: Narcissism and Self-Transformation in the Dramatic Poem Manfred," Literature and Psychology, vol. 38, no. 1-2 (1992), pp. 1-37; Eugene Stelzig, "'Though It Were the Deadliest Sin to Love as We Have Loved': The Romantic Idealization of Incest," European Romantic Review, vol. 5, no. 2 (1995), pp. 230-51; and Alan Richardson, "The Dangers of Sympathy: Sibling Incest in Romantic Poetry," SEL: Studies in English Literature, vol. 25 (1985), pp. 737-54. BACK
On Byron's growing distance from English society, see Peter Manning, "Don Juan and the Revisionary Self," Romantic Revisions, eds. Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley (Cambridge UP, 1992), pp. 210-26. BACK
A passage did follow this announcement, but Moore put asterisks in its place. This is not entirely unusual: in order to make Byron’s letters palatable to a wide audience (one that would include women), Moore replaced with asterisks numerous passages that he deemed unacceptable to such readers. Unfortunately for scholarship, Moore’s published versions of these letters are now the only ones that exist. Because of this, it is impossible for us to guess what Byron added here. BACK
 Although Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne that Augusta "was not to blame...she was not aware of her own peril—till it was too late," in the same letter he refers to her "subsequent 'abandon', and in an 1819 letter to Augusta makes it plain that he ceased their sexual connection when she requested it: "we may have been very wrong—but I repent of nothing except that cursed marriage—& your refusing to continue to love me as you have loved me" (BLJ IV:110; BLJ VI:129). As for children, at one point Byron was concerned that Augusta was pregnant by him and might give birth to a damaged baby, but that concern vanished with the birth; "it [the baby] is not an ape," he wrote to Lady Melbourne (BLJ IV:104). In fact, the Byrons had already practised a more acceptable form of interbreeding that nonetheless led to less obvious damage: their habit of marrying their cousins ensured replication of a mania and manic depression that haunted the family. BACK
 In this way, Byron continues the alliance with David Hume that is a hallmark of his advancing career, for Hume argued that morality was originally a social construct rooted in the practical advantages it brought to those who practiced it. Here one might also consider Claude Levi-Strauss's theory of incest and exogamy in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Beacon, 1969). On the other hand, in his Treatise Hume warns against the kind of inductive reasoning Byron uses. BACK
 Alan Richardson has shown that incest featured heavily in Romantic writing. See Richardson, "Rethinking Romantic Incest: Human Universals, Literary Representation, and the Biology of Mind, " New Literary History, vol. 31 (Summer, 2000), pp. 553-572. BACK