When Phyllis Grosskurth's biography Byron: The Flawed Angel came out first in Britain this February it got lavish attention. Being the first major one since Leslie Marchand's 1957 three-tome work, it was after all an event of some literary importance to Britons. Yet while the reviews were long and detailed, there was a grumpy undertone to most of them. This took the form not of deep condescension but of sniffling and angry throat-clearing. While some reviewers complained of Grosskurth's Freudian approach to this most complicated of British poets, something else seemed to be going on that surprised even Grosskurth. She had had good luck, after all, with her previous biographies of British figures, the critic John Addington Symonds and the sexologist Havelock Ellis. Symonds and Ellis, though, were relatively minor figures.
By contrast, Byron was an British icon, one of the few people in history whose name has been turned into an adjective. To ascertain what "byronic" means is to take a hard swallow of early nineteenth-century European romanticism, literature, and revolutionary politics. As Grosskurth herself writes, "Byron, more than any other single individual, contributed to the birth of a new sensibility. For a good part of the century European literature was to be dominated by the noble isolated hero who stands aloof from the petty preoccupations of the bourgeoisie while at the same time representing defiance of traditional attitudes." The image of the man, in other words, has nearly always overshadowed his work.
While few British intellectuals have strong preconceptions about many of their figures-Symonds and Ellis included-most of them certainly do about Byron. As a result the reviewers tended to avoid Grosskurth and in some cases they used her book as a means for discussing their own favourite anecdotes and views of Byron. There were a few salutary exceptions. In the Times, the biggest name among the reviewers, Peter Ackroyd, had no bone to pick and was enamoured of Grosskurth's insights, like her "shrewd and significant point that all his life Byron lived in large and empty rooms: this is the strongest image to be found of the man.."
The general negativity may have came down to a simple question of territory. In an interview in May in her Cabbagetown cottage in Toronto, Grosskurth wondered if her Canadian identity weren't a factor. "I was a bit naive, perhaps. There wasn't a bit of protest when Michael Millgate's Hardy biography came out, but Hardy wasn't an icon in quite the way Byron is. I think they resented very much that I was the first person to go through those Lovelace papers carefully. It was one intimidating job. I think it would have been easier if I were an American but a colonial-come on!-they speak so rudely of colonials. I think there is a great deal of idealization about Byron among a segment of the British. The Byron Society has huge numbers. It's like a big fan club. They don't want to hear all this stuff, like all that correspondence with Kinnaird, his banker, how he wouldn't pay Baxter, how he treated Annabella, who has always been badly treated in England. But Byron wasn't the man of action he is usually portrayed. On the other hand, to me he was a more interesting person. This is the third time I've got into trouble because I've humanized these people."
Compared with the British reaction, the response almost everywhere, in Ireland and North America, was vastly more generous and tended to save the reputation of what is really a most comprehensive and refreshingly anti-heroic view of Byron. In the New York Times Book Review, Terry Castle positively glowed over her approach: "Ms. Grosskurth's work is psychoanalytic biography in the best sense.her book is a poignant record of a soul on the way to an inevitable, much sought-for oblivion."
All this, however, rather begs the question of why Grosskurth had the temerity to take Byron on in the first place. In a convoluted way, it was really the meeting of scholarly and personal need. For quite some time the president of the Byron Society, William St. Clair, had been hoping to interest someone in a comprehensive new biography. There was not only the need for a fresh approach, it was an opportune moment for someone to attack the Lovelace papers, mostly correspondence, formerly restricted by the descendants of Byron's hapless wife of one year, Annabella. Although Byron had died in 1824, his life had been so tempestuous and scandal-ridden that it wasn't until 1976 that Annabella's family seemed willing to release the papers unconditionally to Oxford University for researchers.
Phyllis Grosskurth was certainly a logical candidate. As an academic she'd shown most interest in the nineteenth century. Since the early sixties, she'd worked in British archives and had many connections in and out of academia. She was moreover at a difficult stage in her writing. Her last book, The Secret Ring, on Freud's inner circle, had been bitterly attacked by Freudians. It was a painful book to write and it exhausted her interest in the history of psychoanalysis. She was moreover beginning to doubt her wisdom in proceeding with a book she had started on exiles, which she hoped to pattern on The Great Victorians. She had done a lot of work on one exile, the eighteenth-century American Count Rumford, and was planning to add an artist-perhaps Goya-and the journalist Janet Flanner.
While this was an interesting idea, the commercial publishing climate of the early 1990s was lean and mean and distinctly uninterested in obscure names. While one major American university press was eager, it was not willing to put up much money. Grosskurth admitted, "They were going to give me a very small advance. It just seemed like a tremendous amount of work and I could see myself getting into financial hot water." While her agent in London was attempting to broker an alternative deal with a commercial publisher for a biography of either Jung or Byron, Grosskurth knew as a Freudian she could never endure years of Jung. Byron did interest her, though, and right from her agent's office, she put a call through to St. Clair, who brightly noted, "Here's your exile." Byron was, of course, such a determined exile he had to be in his coffin to return to Britain. It was a suggestion which worked decisively for her. Still, Grosskurth said it wasn't an easy decision. "I found it a bit scary, quite overwhelming, but I tried not to think about it. I avoided all the Byron group who are powerful in England. I was determined to do it quietly my own way."
This was in fact the third time in her long writing career-she is now seventy-three-that she ended up with a major subject on which she hadn't at all planned. Her career as biographer was in itself completely accidental. A native of Toronto, Grosskurth was the oldest daughter of an insurance executive, Milton Langstaff, who lost the company he founded, Empire Life, in a hostile takeover. He had to pick up the pieces in the late thirties by setting up insurance agencies in the Caribbean. The first posting was an idyllic beachside setting in Barbados, which Grosskurth adored, but the second, in Trinidad, put the family back in an isolated jungle where there were no schools. In her own life it was a first taste of exile, which she has often experienced and pondered as a central theme. Sensing the complete inadequacy of school by correspondence, her mother brought Phyllis and her sister Joan back to Toronto for Anglican private school. After studying English at the University of Toronto, she married an engineering graduate, Robert Grosskurth, who joined the navy. When she raised her three children through the fifties, she read voraciously. "When my husband was away at sea once, I wrote him that I would like to go back to college and I wanted to be a university professor. He was very, very supportive. He was not the usual naval officer in that way at all. So I went ahead, not knowing if there were a job at the end of it."
While her husband was based in Ottawa for two years in the late fifties, she earned an M.A. at the University of Ottawa, with her thesis on Faulkner. When her husband was reassigned to be naval attaché in London, she again took advantage of his posting by studying for a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century English criticism at the University of London. The first idea was to focus on Matthew Arnold, but her supervisor, Geoffrey Tillotson, suggested other names, including John Addington Symonds, about whom Grosskurth had never heard.
At a used book store, she happened upon a copy of the 1895 biography of Symonds by Horatio Brown and spent much of the night reading it. She was amazed. "Here's a biography coming out three years after the man is dead and there are all these excerpts from an unpublished autobiography. Why didn't he just publish the autobiography? There was something strange about all this and it was my curiosity about the mystery that started me." She advertised for letters and tracked down the manuscript of Symonds's autobiography in the vault of the London Library. While it was still restricted, she was allowed to read it and eventually use but not quote its contents.
The secret, which made many people extremely nervous even in the early sixties, was that while Symonds was an outwardly conventional family man, he carried on a secret life as a homosexual. His autobiography focused on his hidden feelings and experiences. Plainly she had hit biographer's gold, the prominent man who led a double life. Grosskurth promptly wrote her thesis on Symonds's criticism. She then wrote the biography for a general readership. Because it looked as if her husband was soon going to be transferred back to Canada, Grosskurth knocked out the manuscript in less than ten months. For any serious biography, this is almost unheard-of.
When it appeared in Britain in 1964, it was unusually well received. Philip Toynbee rated it one of the three best books of the year along with Hemingway's The Moveable Feast and Sartre's The Words. There was of course much interest in Grosskurth's immediately doing another. Graham Greene wrote her several times urging her to write a biography of the critic Walter Pater. In anticipation of her husband's reassignment to Ottawa-which didn't come through-the family resettled in Ottawa and Grosskurth taught at Carleton University for a year. But her marriage soon collapsed. She moved to Toronto with her children to become the first female professor of English at University College, largely on the reputation of her biography.
Because of the demands of her job, her still-growing family and her new husband, the hard-working arts mandarin Mavor Moore, she wrote very little except for book reviews for over a decade. She finally received an extended leave and returned alone to London, once again determined to work on Matthew Arnold. She was again agreeably run off the rails. The adoptive son of Havelock Ellis, François LaFitte, contacted her and offered her complete co-operation if she were to write his biography. His papers from his mother, who had recently died, included hundreds of letters stuffed into cubbyholes and boxes at his house in Manchester. What they revealed were a lot of secrets. While appearing to be extremely liberal and forgiving in his attitudes, Ellis agonized constantly over the infidelities of his bisexual wife and his subsequent lover, Françoise LaFitte-Cyon. The encyclopaedist of inverted sexuality, he himself had a passion for viewing female urination. Because Ellis was a good-natured bohemian, "the sensual faun", and a popular theorist of the arts who loved dance in particular, there is nevertheless a lightness of spirit in the biography missing in most of Grosskurth's books.
With Symonds, Ellis, and her third major subject, the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, Grosskurth had free rein. She was the first to really delve into these lives, to read letters never before touched by scholars, to make new discoveries. By contrast, Byron had few of these fresh possibilities. His life was burnt over by nearly two centuries of intense scrutiny. Most of Byron's friends and lovers wrote detailed letters and diary entries about him; there seems to be hardly a day we don't know something about Byron. Grosskurth sardonically wonders at one point if anyone did not keep a diary.
If there was to be a new perspective it was to be in the Lovelace papers, which outlined the intense storm of emotion raised by Byron among his female lovers and confidantes in the period after the publication in 1812 of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, when he became "the first modern celebrity". It was quite a furious knot of interrelated women, all radically different in personality from each other, who sought advice from each other and just as frequently bitterly fought. At the centre was Byron's confidante, the mother surrogate Lady Malborough. There was the unstable Caroline Lamb, who coined the famous phrase about Byron, "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". Grosskurth turns the phrase around to indicate that it was Lamb who was mad and bad and dangerous to know. While high society prattled about his affair with Lamb, who was married, Byron's real undoing was his curious incestuous affair with his own half-sister Augusta, who would be the love of his life. Then there was Lady Malborough's niece, the prim "country mouse" Annabella, who improbably became Lady Byron, the mother of Byron's only known surviving child, Ada. She and Byron were not in the least suited for each other, and he called her "the most prudish & correct person I know." As Caroline intensified his wildness, he was hoping that Annabella would cool him down and make him respectable. She didn't, of course.
Rather than being a diabolical womanizer, Grosskurth notes, Byron largely just let it happen. Women flung themselves at him. Facing fires of scandal he couldn't put out, he left Britain as a pariah in 1816, just four years after he'd been made an overnight sensation with Childe Harold. With an eye to the psychology of exile, Grosskurth saw that Byron may have preferred a good excuse to go. To make sure that he stayed away, the dreary Annabella devoted her life to stirring up evil gossip about both Byron and Augusta.
For months, Grosskurth went over this material in Oxford, handling the original documents with hands that sometimes trembled with excitement. Suffering a common affliction among researchers, curiosity got the better of her and she frequently skipped meals to keep working. While there is an overlay of Freudian analysis throughout her biography, which could easily give the book a deductive artificiality, it is obvious that she really worked inductively. She confesses she often changed her opinion of the characters as she came across new material. It's clear that if there was a bright image or anecdote, she would use it even if it wasn't exactly perfect for the argument. Her biography is in a sense a book of marvellous, often decadent, images: Byron the romantic brooding in his dark peacock-filled palace in Ravenna, the exile lumbering through northern Italy in his coach built as a replica of Napoleon's, the fatty trying to fight his girth with an anorexic's diet of mashed potatoes and vinegar, the revolutionary sick and dying in Greece with hair turned white at thirty-six.
Her inductive sense comes through too in her lack of interest in heavy theoretical considerations. A little embattled after the criticism of her last three books, Grosskurth tends to view her work in the simplest personal terms. "It's like Scheherazade, telling stories. I tell stories to myself about someone I know had a very interesting life. I really don't think about how the reader is going to react. Deirdre Bair said she wrote about people who made a difference about how we looked at life. I think I do too. I suppose I wouldn't find them so interesting perhaps unless they had made a difference about the way we look at life. But the real joy is to sit down at the desk each morning and see these stories unfold." As she sits down in her office these days, it's to study two women she refuses to identity. One of these subjects will emerge the stronger in her mind, and the whole long process of spending years of one's life to deeply examine the life of another person will begin anew.
John Ayre is the author of Northrop Frye: A Biography.