Heroic unhappiness

While Byron was separating from his wife, a few months before he took off for the Continent (never to return), he received a letter from a 17-year-old girl. "If a woman," it said, "whose reputation has yet remained unstained, if without either guardian or husband to control she should throw herself upon your mercy, if with a beating heart she should confess the love she has borne you many years . . . could you betray her, or would you be silent as the grave?"

Byron had been a celebrated poet ever since the publication between 1812 and 1818 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. It is a loosely autobiographical travelogue about a young lord who, tired of the debauchery of his life at home, sets off for the European continent. Harold almost longs for woe. Nobody loves him, not even the revellers who gather at his house. Sometimes he seems to join in, but mostly he stalks apart in joyless reverie. The one woman he loves is, for some reason, out of reach. But although Harold is sick of his sins, he has no particular desire to atone for anything.

This is the figure London fell in love with. Even though Harold believed that he had run through "sin's long labyrinth", his author used the character's fame to turn a few more corners. Byron started a scandalous relationship with Lady Caroline Lamb, the daughter-in-law of his friend and adviser Lady Melbourne. He slept with Lady Oxford, the wife of Edward Harley, the 5th Earl. She was 14 years Byron's senior and had had so many lovers that her children were known as the Harleian Miscellany. And he had an affair with his half-sister Augusta - one of the reasons his wife wanted to leave him. Lady Caroline told her about it, probably in order to get Byron back. She was obsessed.

Like many of his lovers, Caroline was introduced to Byron by way of his verse. The writer Samuel Rogers gave her a copy of Childe Harold and said: "You should know the new poet . . . he has a club-foot and bites his nails." After she had read it, Lady Caroline said: "If he was as ugly as Aesop, I must see him."

These days the man is more familiar than the book. People who haven't read a word of Childe Harold know that Byron stands for a certain kind of sexual attractiveness and moral looseness. His instant celebrity makes him a natural point of comparison with modern rock stars and actors. This is a shame, because he was also a very good poet, and spent the second half of his career undermining the myth he created in the first. Which may explain why Byron the character has survived better than any of his literary creations: he has become a type.

Probably the most literary example of that type was written by a woman whose life was as quiet in incident as Byron's was loud. When Emily Brontë made it to the Continent, in 1842, it was to study languages with her sister, and she came home again when her aunt died. She probably died a virgin. And yet Heathcliff may be the best-known Byronic hero in English literature. Wuthering Heights is a standard A-level text and Heathcliff has made his way out of the classroom and into our lives; people keep making films about him (Andrea Arnold's version of the story was released in November).

Like Byron, Brontë has attracted a readership with great interest in her biography, though for different reasons. People like the idea of her
isolated, intense, imaginative family life - the literary sisters, the talented but unfulfilled brother, their childhood spent in the company of nature. One way of working out why the Romantic hero remains so popular might be to discover what Brontë and Byron had in common.

The first thing you run into is contradictions. Brontë seemed to live the life of the imagination, Byron the one of experience. Wuthering Heights
is thick with nature, but although Byron, like any good Romantic, had a Wordsworth-nature phase and inherited an ancestral pile, Newstead Abbey, as Romantic and run-down as Cathy's home, he is also a very cosmopolitan writer who made the most of high and low society in Venice, London, Athens and Istanbul.

Heathcliff and Byron operate on different planes, but the two have a funny way of blending: the appeal of Mr Darcy is similar to that of Heathcliff, which is strangely similar to the appeal of Lord Byron. What Darcy, Heathcliff, Byron and Harold all have in common is an air of unhappiness. This seems to me what the Romantic hero is selling - the notion that unhappiness is more real than happiness.

Cathy tells Nelly Dean that Heathcliff is "more myself than I am". Which is another way of saying that the real and the true don't just
exist: you need access, and Heathcliff gives her access. She also decides not to marry him because Heathcliff would "degrade" her. Instead, she chooses a conventional marriage, which does not make her particularly happy.

And what happened to Byron's lovers? The fate of that 17-year-old schoolgirl is instructive. Her name was Claire Clairmont. She was a stepdaughter of the philosopher William Godwin and stepsister of the woman who became Mary Shelley. The letter did the trick (she subsequently promised Byron the Regency equivalent of a dirty night at a motel). After a short affair in London, Claire followed Byron to Geneva. "I could not exactly play the Stoic," he wrote, "with a woman who had scrambled 800 miles to unphilosophise me."

He quickly tired of Claire and refused to see her, even when she bore him a daughter, Allegra. He put the girl in an Italian convent, where she died at the age of five. It is possible that Shelley also had an affair with Claire. If part of what attracted her to Byron and Shelley was poetical unhappiness, her relations with them gave her a strong dose of the unpoetical variety.

Claire lived on long after both men's deaths. She worked as a governess and travelled the world. Eventually she settled in Florence, still obsessed with Allegra. She sometimes seemed to believe the girl was alive. But it was an ambiguously asexual American novelist, not either of the English poets, who cemented her place in literary history. She shows up again as the model for Henry James's Miss Juliana Bordereau - the elderly American who was once the lover of the great fictional poet Jeffrey Aspern.

When a biographer tries to get access to Aspern's love letters, which he believes to be in her possession, Juliana dangles her spinsterish niece Miss Tina in front of him. He holds back. "You publishing scoundrel!" she cries out when he breaks into her apartment to look for the letters. Yet the historical facts make another argument. The real-life Miss Tina (Claire's niece Pauline) was a sexually emancipated woman who had had a child out of wedlock and probably proposed marriage to "the biographer" to make her daughter respectable. They became lovers, which did not stop her from selling her aunt's cache of literary papers to a rival biographer for £150, but keeping some of the plums of the collection back, which she later sold for a second sum. I'm not sure what the moral of this story is. Maybe some variation on the first law of thermodynamics - that, sooner or later, everything turns into money. Even poetry.

Benjamin Markovits's trilogy of novels about Byron is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...