"Byromania". Byron's Struggle With Celebrity

The Years 1812-1816

Term Paper, 2015
26 Pages, Grade: 1.0




I.1 The Study of Celebrity Culture
I.2 Defining the Term ‘Celebrity'

II.1 Byron's origins
II.3 Nourishing an interest in his persona - the ‘Byronic hero' and ‘Byromania'
II.4 The phenomenon of ‘Byromania'
II.5 A Life of Scandal

III.1 The Effects of ‘Byromania'
III.2 His marital failure turning him to a ‘social outcast'
III.3 Adjusting the definition of ‘celebrity'




“The important point perhaps is that being a celebrity is not, strictly speaking, the same as being celebrated.”[1] When George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron, sails from Dover to Ostend on 25 April 1816, he leaves his homeland forever. When he departed England for the first time in his youth, he was an unknown young poet seeking adventures in Albania, Turkey and Greece. Now, he is - after Wellington and Prince Regent - the best- known man in England and flees the outraged British public and into exile.[2] In the time between his first return and final departure from England, he achieved previously unheard levels of poetic fame and an interest in one's personality, which is why many critics regard him as “the first truly modern literary celebrity”[3]. The question that arises is, what it means to be a celebrity and why Byron nevertheless needs to leave England.

The phenomenon of celebrity has become a defining and omnipresent characteristic of our mediatized societies, but only for the last years scholars have begun to see celebrity's roots in 19th century Romanticism.[4]

This paper will focus on the time between 1812 and 1816 and will investigate the early beginnings of celebrity based on the life of Lord Byron: How far is celebrity different from fame? How does Byron become a celebrity and what effects does it have on his life? Claiming that Byron himself purposefully supports the interest in him as a person, I will furthermore show that slowly celebrity becomes a prison for him and forces him leave England.

Various biographies of Byron will be the basis for this investigation: Samuel Chew focuses on Byron's fame and after fame, whereas more recent biographies from Benita Eisler and Fiona MacCarthy also highlight Byron's sexual complexities.[5] Reference will also be made to his work Childe Harold, whose publication in 1812 makes Byron famous overnight. Other works of Byron will not be analysed in detail but rather the literary figure of the ‘Byronic hero’ that appears in many of his works.

The basis for the following investigation will be a brief introduction to the history of celebrity culture's study[6] as well as an attempt to define the term ‘celebrity’, or at least to distinguish it from ‘fame’. ‘Celebrity’ implicates focus on the person during their lifetime, not after their death. This distinction is important since before and still in Byron's lifetime the tradition of seeking posthumous fame as a writer is present.[7]

The second part will look at Byron's origins, showing that from childhood on, Byron had had a need for acceptance, approval and was in search for identity and freedom.[8] It will then continue with his early days of celebrity, marked by his famous exclamation “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”[9] Byron purposefully creates and supports the formation of his celebrity by two means: with the formation of the literary figure of the ‘Byronic hero’ in his works and its great amount of autobiographical references[10], his readership starts to draw a close connection between the poet and his literary figure. This leads to a phenomenon called “Byromania”, a term describing the contemporary rage for Byron and the Byronic, and having the effect of an unparalleled counter-culture of imitations, e.g. of his look or fashion.[11] Secondly, he lives a scandalous life, turning “scandal into an essential dynamo within the engines of publicity”[12].

Byron, however, slowly realizes that his celebrity and his connection to the Byronic hero becomes his prison. The third part will consider the effects celebrity has on Byron's life, especially in regards to his martial failure with Annabella Milbanke and its public presentation. Exploring various “rumours”, such as incest and homosexuality, and Byron's final/forced departure to exile, this paper will finish by returning to the definition of ‘celebrity’: showing that one can be loved and hated at the same time, Byron adds to the definition of modern celebrity the attribute of ‘living a life of contradictions’.[13]


I.1 The Study of Celebrity Culture

We live in a culture obsessed by celebrity, but until recently, there has been little discussion of celebrity culture's history. Many critics shared Richard Schickel's assumption that “there was no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century”[14]. Recently, however, a number of critics such as Elizabeth Barry and Tom Mole have argued to look at celebrity culture's history with a longer view and see celebrity culture's roots in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, the period of Romanticism and the industrialization of print[15]: On one hand, newly industrialised technologies such as the Stanhope press or the steam press make celebrated individuals occupying a highly commodified field of cultural production. One the other hand, Mole points out that in this period of time consumers experience a potent personal fascination with the individual behind the culture industry.[16] This leads to the question how the celebrity can be defined and what distinguishes it from the phenomenon of fame.

I.2 Defining the Term ‘Celebrity’

Defining the term ‘celebrity’, this paper tries to go back to Byron's lifetime in order to find out its origins and how the use of the term has changed, as well as investigating the reason why this phenomenon developed. Finally, a link will be drawn to what our 21st century culture connects ‘celebrity’ most with: scandal.

One challenge in finding a definition is that the term has changed its meaning over time: Lady Blessington, one of Byron's contemporaries, recognized celebrity as part of Byron's personal aura and writes that “Byron had so unquenchable a thirst for celebrity, that no means were left untried that might attain it...”. Important to note is that she is not using the word ‘celebrity’ in a positive way, but for her, ‘celebrity’ is largely pejorative and means ‘notoriety’.[17] Nowadays, Heinzelman criticizes on MacCarthy's assumption that its meaning is transparent, ‘celebrity’ is largely unvalorized and is left vaguely synonymous with ‘fame’ or ‘reputation’. De facto, ‘celebrity’ is a word that was in the process of acquiring an utterly new valence in the nineteenth century.[18] In which why is celebrity different from renown or fame?

In the following, the words ‘renown’ and ‘fame’ will be treated as having a similar meaning, since the main focus will be to distinguish their meaning from ‘celebrity’.

Inglis claims that celebrity has to a large extent replaced the archaic concept of renown. Renown was assigned to men of high accomplishment in a handful of clearly defined and prominent roles and, what distinguishes it from celebrity, it brought honour to the official not to the individual. Therefore “public recognition [is] not so much of the man himself as of the significance of his actions for the society.”[19] Thus, the first characteristic of ‘celebrity’ is its focus on the person, not the works of the person.

Secondly, critics such as Thrale, Hazlitt, Reynolds and Coleridge identify celebrity as an inferior kind of fame. This leads back to the idea that was still present in Byron's time, that true fame is achieved slowly, but lasts forever, whereas celebrity arrives overnight (which is true in Byron's case) and can vanish just as quickly.[20] John Keats, one of Byron's contemporaries, who does not receive lots of attention and praise for his poems during his lifetime, still thinks that he will be “among the English Poets after [his] death”[21] and can thus be seen as a representative of this tradition, that true fame is always posthumous.[22] What changes is that the new culture of celebrity uncouples fame from achievement or social position. For a long time, it was possible to achieve fame for writing a great poem, fighting a great battle or fulfilling a public role, but by the end of the eighteenth century it becomes possible “to be famous simply for being yourself’[23]. According to Inglis, celebrity can therefore be seen as a feature of the individualisation of fame[24]. To sum up, the second characteristic that distinguishes celebrity from fame is that it focuses on the person's recognition during their lifetime. But why did people start to focus more on the person than the work itself?

The modern culture of celebrity of the late 18th century and the new technologies in print leaves readers feeling swamped with new reading material, yet estranged from its writers. Hence, the apparatus of celebrity is a structure the Romantic culture develops to mitigate this sense of information overload and alienation. Mole claims that celebrity is the response to the surfeit of print by branding an individual's identity in order to make it amenable to commercial promotion. With this, it palliates the feeling of alienation between cultural producers and consumers “by constructing a sense of intimacy”.[25] In addition, this celebrity culture grows out of a fascination with the individual subjectivity that is radically privatized: readers of poets as Byron read, lend, borrow and discuss their poetry and aim at investigating the individuals behind the poems, in order to know more about them or relate more intimately to them.[26] In II.3 and II.4 it will be discussed in more detail how his readership tries to find connections between the literary figure of the ‘Byronic hero’ and Byron the poet. Conclusively, it can be said that celebrity is no longer something you have, but something you are[27] and in the course of this paper it will be shown that this leads Byron to slowly experience his celebrity as a prison.

The final characteristic of celebrity used for the definition of ‘celebrity’ in this paper points out what also the celebrities of our 21st century are most known for: scandal. Clara Tuite notes that one of the primary features of celebrity as distinct from frame is its “reliance on the ambivalent affective charge of scandal” and she argues that from this perspective, the economy of celebrity does not rely purely on fame as positive publicity, but can incorporate and capitalize on the effects of negative fame.[28] This will be seen in II.5, especially in Byron's marital failure to Annabella Milbanke and its public presentation, discussed in III.2. Moreover, only for the last years, Byron's scandal such as his homosexuality have become the centre of attention, e.g. in MacCarthy's biography Byron: Life and Legend, since for many years, biographers, although knowing about Byron's scandals, disregarded them.[29]


II.1 Byron's origins

Byron has not always been famous. Born as the only child, he was raised by his mother in relative obscurity in Aberdeen, his father being absent and dying in penury in France when Byron was three years old. Byron was born with the deformity his contemporaries referred to as a “club-foot” and modern medical experts see Byron's malformation as a failure of a body part to form properly. During his time at Harrow, his foot attracts cruel derision from other boys and he therefore has purpose-made boots to counteract his deformity. Clearly this physical disability heightens his hunger for approbation and acceptance. Being ten years old, Byron succeeds his great uncle, the fifth lord, and inherits the vast Gothic pile of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire.[30] Although the building is dilapidated and no funds are there for its upkeep, Byron becomes attached to it and in later years, when it is about to be sold, Byron is very hesitant, since for him this property, more than the title Lord Byron, is his tangible patent of nobility. The abbey reassures Byron of his place “that might have reached to his own heirs”[31]. Nevertheless, Byron is acutely conscious of status and knows that in comparison with other schoolfellows of him at Harrow, he can be regarded as only a minor peer.[32] Byron's life-long seeking for acceptance and approval can be clearly found in his childhood and family history and it helps to understand why Byron at the beginning of his celebrity revels so much in the status of being known by everyone. So how does Byron experience his sudden celebrity?

II.2 ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous’

Thomas Moore, in his 1830 biography of Byron, is one of the first who mythologizes the speed with which Byron's celebrity arrives. He writes, “the effect was [...] electric. [..] His fame had not to wait for any of the ordinary gradations, but seemed to spring up” and he first attributes to him the famous words “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”[33]. His poem Child Harold reaches the public on the tenth of March and within three days the five hundred folio copies are sold out, creating a word-of-mouth excitement among the hundreds who left the bookshops disappointed.[34] Walter Scott also claims that with the publication of Childe Harold “the impulse received by the public mind [is] instantaneous through all but the lowest classes of society”[35]. The picture painted here is that while Byron slept in the innocence of obscurity, celebrity was thrust on him and almost came as a shock. In her biography of Byron, Eisler gives detail to the effects Byron's celebrity has: his presence is suddenly solicited at all sorts of social gathers and he reacts to it by accepting as many invitations as can be fitted into the twenty-four hours of the day, crowning the efforts of the most ambitious hostesses.[36] Whereas he earlier announced to Dallas his distaste for society and the parties, Byron soon owns that ”I begin to like them”[37]. This change of mind can be seen as a reflection of his hunger of approbation that is now being satisfied by the pleasure of being sought after.

During this time, Byron acquires an almost royal charisma and it is not surprising that he will later refer to this period as his “reign”. Awakening “by literary exertion, a more intense interest in his person than ever before resulted from literature”[38], all doors are open for him and he frequents the great Whig house of the period, mingling with the Hollands, the Melbournes and the Jerseys. His remoteness and lingering awkwardness only added to Childe Harold's allure and intensifies the eagerness of the leading London hostesses.[39] With Childe Harold telling far exotic eastern tales based on his own travels in Turkey, Albania and Greece, Byron has brewed up a flavoursome and intoxicating mixture. Ablaze not only with romance but also with the novelty of confessional poetry, and a hero amazingly handsome, now gypsy, now gothic and strangely-cross gendered, Inglis concludes that it is plain as day that the poem describes the innumerable sexual escapades of its author.[40] Before moving on to explore the connection between Byron and his literary figure of the ‘Byronic hero’, it is important to ask if his celebrity has really come over night. For many years, this sudden “fame” (Byron's contemporaries did not use the word ‘celebrity’ since it was still in the making) has distinguished Byron from others, but MacCarthy cautions us against taking this Eureka Moment too literally. She argues that Byron's celebrity dramatically precedes the popular success of his initially anonymous publication. Additionally, prepublication copies of Childe Harold strategically circulated to influential readers and critics, made clear that the author is Byron. MacCarthy concludes that this is important in order to understand the following effect of ‘Byromania’, since because of this a priori celebrity Byron has already been understood to resemble the fictional hero he created in his work.[41] To sum up, Byron's celebrity has not come as sudden as often presented, but regardless of the speed, his celebrity brings forth an interest of his readership in his persona like no other poet before him has experienced. In the following, it will be analysed how Byron purposefully nourishes this public interest in his persona by two means: the creation of the ‘Byronic hero’ which leads to ‘Byromania’, and secondly by living a scandalous life.

II.3 Nourishing an interest in his persona - the ‘Byronic hero’ and ‘Byromania’

Interestingly, as the publication of Childe Harold drew closer, Byron begins much revision since he is anxious to offend in this new work others whom he dismissed in earlier works. He intentionally wants to distance himself from the posturing of his literary alter ego and announced, “I by no means intend to identify with Harold, but to deny all connexion with him. [...] I would not be such a fellow as I have made my hero for all the world.”[42] Despite Byron's announcement, the record of his collaboration in his legend is, according to Eisler, clearer than the origins of this famous disclaimer. From his first privately printed poems, he has crafted a persona of romantic extremes: the glamour of rank, of privilege, beauty, and brilliance, with the mystery of privation, of sin and lovelessness and punished by solitude.[43] This persona, or ‘Byronic hero’, can also be found in later works, such as The Corsair and The Bride of Abydos[44] What are the characteristics of this literary figure dominating Byron's works?

The ‘Byronic hero’ is often seen as someone dark and roving, now gypsy, now gothic. Additionally, he appears not only as very sexy but also as cross-gendered and bisexual, even showing signs of being misogynist for much of the time. At the same time, he nevertheless possesses tender qualities suggesting that he might be redeemed by the love of a good woman, which gives him an instant appeal to sentimental female readers.[45] Another characteristic, which will become important for Byron's downfall, is that the ‘Byronic hero’ suffers under some secret sin, and the entire structure of alienations, which he both exposes and represents is a function of that sin - but this sin is never identified, it has no name.[46] In John Wilson's view, Cantos I and II of Childe Harold are primarily personal, not objectively descriptive documents, neither satirical, nor didactic; they rather reveal “a mind [.] enslaved to itself.”[47] I suggest that “enslaved to itself’ in this case means what Inglis argues, namely that Byron's life becomes synonymous with his work: he places no gap between passion and poetry but writes very fast and spontaneously, just as he lives.[48]


[1] Heinzelman, Kurt. "Lord Byron and the Invention of Celebrity". Southwest Review 93.4 (2008): 489-501.

[2] See Massie, Allan. Byron's Travels. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1998: 74.

[3] Knowles, Claire. “Poetry, Fame and Scandal: The Cases of Byron and Landon.” Literature Compass 4.4 (2007): 1109.

[4] Driesens, Olivier. “The Celebritization of Society and Culture: Understanding the Structural Dynamics of Celebrity Culture.“ International Journal of Cultural Studies 16.6 (2012): 644.

[5] See Chew, Samuel C. Byron in England. His Fame and After-Fame. London: Murray, 1924.; Eisler, Benita. Byron. Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.; MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. London: Murray, 2002.

International Journal of Cultural Studies 11.3 (2008): 343-361.; Inglis, Fred. A Short History of Celebrity. Princeton/Oxford: Princeston University Press, 2010.; Driesens 2012.

[6] See Salmon, Richard. “Signs of Intimacy: The Literary Celebrity in the ‘Age of Interviewing’.” Victorian Literature and Culture 25.1 (1997): 159-177.; Knowles 2007.; Mole, Tom. “Lord Byron and the End of Fame.”

[7] See Mulock Craik, Dinah. The Ogilvies. New York/London: Harper and Brothers, 1878.; Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler. 4 vols. Ed. Alex Chalmers. Philadelphia: E. Earle, 1812.; MacCarthy, Fiona. “Poet of All the Passions.” Rev. of Byron: Life and Legend, by Fiona MacCarthy. The Guardian. 9 Nov. 2002. The Guardian. 26 Aug. 2015

<http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/nov/09/classics.poetry>.; Knowles 2007.; Heinzelman 2008.; Mole 2008.; Driesens 2012.

[8] See MacCarthy. “Poet of All the Passions.” 2002.

[9] Thomas Moore first attributed to Byron this bon mot, see Moore, Thomas. Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of his Life. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1830: 1346-1347.

[10] See Michasiw, Kim Ian. “The Social Other: Don Juan and the Genesis of the Self.” Mosaic 22:2 (1989): 29­30.

[11] The term “Byromania” is first used in 1812 by Annabella Milbanke, see Wilson, Frances (ed.) Byromania. Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Culture. Houndmills/Basingstoke/Hampshire/ London: MacMillan 1999: 3, 6.

[12] Inglis 2010: 68-69.

[13] See ibid., 66-67.

[14] Schickel, Richard. Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity. New York: Doubleday, 2000: 23.

[15] See Barry, Elizabeth. “Celebrity, Cultural Production and Public Life.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 11.3: 252.; Mole 2008: 343.

[16] See Mole 2008: 349.

[17] See Heinzelman 2008: 490-491.

[18] See ibid., 491.

[19] Inglis 2010: 4.

[20] See Mole 2008: 347-348.

[21] Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. Ed. Alex Chalmers. Philadelphia: E. Earle, 1958: 394.

[22] See Mole 2008: 348.; Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. 21 vols. Ed. P.P. Howe. London/Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1930: 5.143. Andrew Bennett has shown in detail how Romantic poets linked poetic achievement to posthumous recognition, see Bennett, Andrew. Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[23] Mole 2008: 347.

[24] See Inglis 2010: 5.

[25] Mole 2008: 345. See also: Mole, Tom. Byron's Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007.

[26] See Mole 2008: 347.

[27] See ibid., 346.

[28] See Tuite, Clara. “Tainted Love and Romantic Literary Celebrity.” ELH 74.1 (2007): 78.

[29] See MacCarthy. Byron: Life and Legend 2002. MacCarthy was given full access to the John Murray archives, with no constraints, and therefore dares to claim that Byron was more strongly attracted to males than to females, see Lauritsen, John. No title. Rev. of Byron's Boyfriends, by Peter Cochran. Pagan Press Books. No date of posting. 17.08.2015. <http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/COCHRAN.HTM>.

[30] See MacCarthy. “Poet of All the Passions.” 2002.

[31] Eisler 1999: 363.

[32] See MacCarthy. “Poet of All the Passions.” 2002.

[33] Moore 1830: 1.346-1.347.

[34] See Eisler 1999: 330.

[35] Scott, Walter. “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Prisoner of Chillon, A Dream, and other Poems.“ Quarterly Review 16 (1816): 175.

[36] See Eisler 1999: 330.

[37] Dallas, R.C. Recollections of the Life of Lord Byron. Philadelphia: A. Small and H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825: I, 157.; Eisler 1999: 331.

[38] Scott, John. “Living Authors, No. IV: Lord Byron.” London Magazine 3 (1821): 50-51.

[39] See MacCarthy. “Poet of All the Passions.” 2002.

[40] See Inglis 2010: 63-64.

[41] See Heinzelman 2008: 494.

[42] B to RCD, October 31, 1811, BLJ, II, 122.

[43] See Eisler 1999: 330.

[44] See Heinzelman 2008: 497. The Corsair sold 10.000 copies in a single day in 1814, leaving even the most popular writer oft hat time, Sir Walter Scott, in the proverbial dust, see McDayter, Ghislaine. “Conjuring Byron: Byromania, Literary Commodification and the Birth of Celebrity.” In Francis Wilson (ed.) Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Culture. Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1999: 46.

[45] See ibid.; Lauritsen no date.

[46] See McGann, Jerome J. “My Brain is Feminine.” In Rutherford, Andrew (ed.) Byron: Augustan and Romantic. London/Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990: 39-40.

[47] Wilson, John. No title. Rev. of The Fourth Canto of Childe Harold, by Lord Byron. Blackwood's Magazine 3 (1818): 217.

[48] See Inglis 2010: 66.

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"Byromania". Byron's Struggle With Celebrity
The Years 1812-1816
University of Constance
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Celebrity, Celebrity Culture, Byronic Hero, Byromania, George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron
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Janina Madlener (Author), 2015, "Byromania". Byron's Struggle With Celebrity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/415665


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