Ever noticed how Tom Sturridge always plays the bad boy? He was Captain Francis Troy in David Nicholls’ amazing adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, Jake in the Starz adaptation of Sweetbitter, and in the incredible biopic about Mary Shelley that came out last year, he played the original Bad Boy of Literature, Lord Byron.
One of Lord Byron’s paramours, Lady Caroline Lamb, is attributed with cooking up the phrase ‘Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to know’ about old George Gordon Byron, the sixth Baron Byron. He was widely regarded as the greatest of the Romantic poets, and well-known for his hedonistic lifestyle. Rumours circulated that he had affairs with both men and women, and there was even gossip that he had a relationship with his half-sister. These days, sexuality is more fluid. Aside from the incest, he might not be so interesting to talk about.
The thing that fascinates me so much about Lord Byron is the legacy that he left. Sturridge portrays him in Mary Shelley as being cruel, callous and selfish. It is partly in response to influence on the behaviour of Percy Shelley that Mary is spurred on (supposedly) to write Frankenstein, but to say that without Byron and PB Shelley there would be no Frankenstein is, I think, reductive of the remarkable achievement of writing it. Still, if not for people like Byron and his ilk, if not for cruel men who caused women to despair of the fact that they did not have autonomy over their own bodies, would Frankenstein’s monster have ever occurred to the young Mary Shelley?
Byron’s other great legacy was his daughter, Ada Lovelace—instrumental in the creation of the first computer program, based on notes written about Charles Babbage’s analytical engine.
By his own admission, Byron described himself as ‘such a strange melange of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe him.’ But centuries of literature that followed have attempted exactly that, and the Byronic Hero is a type that continues to appear in novels, films and television. The bad boy of literature lives on in characters who are talented, eschew society and think they are superior to others, are rebels, have pasts that are shrouded in mystery, and usually have extremely self-destructive tendencies. The man himself has inspired countless biographies, and his wife Annabella used the term ‘Byromania’ to describe the way that people were drawn to him, the way they are today to celebrities and rock stars.
It makes me shudder to think what his Instagram profile would like like.
Emily Paull is a former-bookseller and future-librarian from Perth who writes short stories and historical fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. When she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book.