While the poet Lord Byron is well-known as being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, as it turns out his ancestors may have had something to do with that reputation. Byron’s heritage is full of adventures and wealth but also ruin, promiscuity, and even murder.
Emily Brand’s meticulously researched history of the Byron family draws on correspondence of the Byrons and those who knew them, newspaper and tabloid reports of the family’s doings, and other historical records to paint a portrait of the lineage of one of literature’s most notorious poets.
Newstead! what saddening change of scene is thine!
Thy yawning arch betokens slow decay!
The last and youngest of a noble line
Now holds thy mouldering turrets in his sway.
I know very little about Byron, and even less so about his lineage, so this was a fascinating read. The book focuses on the generation of siblings that formed Lord Byron’s grandfather, great uncles, and great aunt. The five siblings all live very different lives. The adventures of Admiral John Byron were captivating and I couldn’t look away from William’s descent towards complete self-destruction.
I liked the motif of Newstead Abbey running through the narrative; an anchor that seemed to reflect the affluence and then the downfall of the family line. Emily Brand’s prose lends a poetic tone to the evidently incredibly well-researched writing, but the structure was a little confusing.
After the first few chapters it branched off into providing a chapter for each sibling, charting most of their life before returning to the next sibling, and doing the same again. By the time I had gotten used to the back-and-forth, the final chapters then talked about all five of the siblings in their final years and the exploits of their offspring. I also thought it was a little strange that Richard got very little attention in the book whilst the other siblings (bar Charles, who died young) had whole chapters devoted to their lives. I don’t know if this is because there is little recorded about his life, or if it just wasn’t interesting. A note explaining why Richard got so little ‘page-time’ would have satisfied my curiousity, but he just was simply hardly mentioned.
I was also surprised to find a mere handful of pages devoted to George Gordon Byron in the form of the epilogue. Maybe the author felt that there was plenty about his life already readibly available and the focus was on his ancestors, but considering that the poet Byron is unavoidably the ‘draw’ for the book I couldn’t help but feel that it could have used an additional chapter, at least to provide some closure on the Byron family’s turbulent occupation of Newstead Abbey. Overall, a well-written, well-researched and enjoyable read, but one that left me wanting a little more.
Rating: a high 3 out of 5 stars
The Fall of the House of Byron is out on 14 April 2020.
*I received a free e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*