The Byron family’s astonishing, hilarious, morally abhorrent lust for life

A reading of Emily Brand’s Fall of the House of Byron showed the wrath of shame and destruction brought on little George by his family, but where is the poetry?

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Much has been written about the fleeting, rakish life of Lord Byron – but did you hear about his family? This rollick through the poet’s ancestry (11 May, 9.45am), written by Emily Brand, is savagely abridged and beats tantalisingly at the ear – not least because it’s delivered by Susannah Harker, sounding every bit as sinisterly pliant as she does playing Jane Bennett in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, currently (praise God) being repeated on BBC Four.

We open with the young poet, all club foot and black waves of too much hair, arriving aged ten at Newstead Abbey to take possession after the death of his villainous great-uncle. Byron finds the family seat reduced to “mouldering ruined facades” thanks to the “bottomless pits of extravagance” dug by various associated dipshit earls who were the opposite of average. They were, instead, legendary generators of legal battles and ravaged maids called Betsy. Death by French cannon. Gout stools. One uncle, an admiral, was lost at sea – the unfamiliar coast of Chile – after failing to avoid a mutiny thanks in part to a miserly wages master called (wonderfully) David Cheap. For five wandering years his meals were soup of “biscuit dust”. Meanwhile, back at Newstead, a supply of aghast Amelias and other orphaned heiresses offered their joyless virginity. Words most used: murder, and claret.

Somewhere mid episode three (of five) I did vaguely think: where are we going with all this? I mean, I’m glad Brand researched and set it down in a book, but it’s kind of for naught if not in preparation for, say, a following week of fevered, non-stop readings of all Byron’s poetry. Just imagine. Picture Andy Serkis reading The Hobbit cover to cover, live online, as he did on 8 May, with no breaks for even a morsel of lembas, his eyes doing that Serkis thing, like a lunatic on the Underground. A week of the Byron family’s astonishing, hilarious, morally abhorrent lust for life blowing the wrath of shame and destruction down on little limping George and his good hair. And then a week of Byron giving his resulting full-body jolts of things beautiful, electric and addicting. We would be rendered powerless to that force. The endorphins! “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.”

Fall of the House of Byron
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 15 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion

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