The clan of Byrons, one of the oldest in English aristocracy (which, in turn, is the youngest among European aristocracies), descended from the Norman Ralph de Buron (or Biron), an associate of William the Conqueror. The name of the Byrons is mentioned with honor in English chronicles. Their family's title was created in 1643. It is said that Byron valued his noble birth more than his literary works. A very understandable sentiment! The lustre of his forebears and the honors which he inherited from them elevated the poet; on the other hand, the fame he himself earned brought him merely petty insults which often humiliated the noble Baron, consigning his name to the mercy of hearsay and rumor.
Captain Byron, son of the famous admiral and father of the great poet, won illustrious and seductive fame. He stole the wife of Lord Carmarthen and married her immediately upon her divorce. Soon thereafter, in 1784, she died, leaving him one daughter. The following year, in order to right his upset state of affairs, the calculating widower married Miss Gordon, the only daughter and heiress of George Gordon, a Gight landowner. This marriage was unhappy: 23,500 pounds sterling (587,500 rubles) were squandered in two years, and Lady Byron was left only with her 150 pounds of annual income. In 1786, husband and wife departed to France and returned to England towards the end of 1787.
On the following January 22, Lady Byron gave birth to her only son, George Gordon Byron. (Following some family tensions, the Gight heiress was obliged to bestow upon her son the name Gordon). His leg was harmed during the birth, to which Lord Byron imputed his mother's bashfulness or obstinacy. The newborn child was christened by Duke Byron and Colonel Duff.
In 1790 Lady Byron left for Aberdeen and her husband pursued her. For a while they lived together. But their characters were too irreconcilable, and soon they separated. Her husband went to France, but not before bilking his poor wife out of the money he needed for his trip. The following year, 1791, he would die in Valenciennes.
Once, during his short stay in Aberdeen, Captain Byron took in his small son, who ended up spending the night. The next day, however, he rendered the fidgety child back to his mother and never again invited him over.
Lady Byron was a simple woman, irascible, and, in many respects, reckless. But the solidity with which she was able to endure poverty did credit to her rules. She retained only one servant and by 1798, when she accompanied young Byron to his inheritance of an estate in Newstead, her debts had not surpassed 60 pounds sterling.
It is worth noting that Byron never made any mention of the domestic circumstances of his childhood, deeming them mean and debasing. Young Byron learned to read and write at an Aberdeen school. He was among the last in his class, gaining greater distinction in games. According to his coevals' accounts, he was a lively, irascible, and rancorous boy, always ready to fight and avenge some offense.
A certain Patterson, a rigorous Presbyterian, but a calm and scholarly thinker, was his mentor then, and of him Byron would always have very good memories.
In 1796, Lady Byron took him to the mountains to recover after he had a bout of scarlet fever. They settled close to Ballater. The severe beauty of the Scottish natural surroundings made a deep impression upon the lad. Around that same time, eight-year-old Byron fell in love with Mary Duff. Seventeen years later, in one of his journals, he described this early love:
"I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word. And the effect! – My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour; and, at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, 'Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby, and your old sweetheart Mary Duff is married to a Mr. C.' And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment; but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much, that after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject – to me – and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance. Now, what could this be? I had never seen her since her mother's faux-pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grandmother's at Banff; we were both the merest children. I had and have been attached fifty times since that period; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother's maid to write for me to her, which she at last did, to quiet me. Poor Nancy thought I was wild, and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary. I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children's apartment, at their house not far from the Plain-stones at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way.
"How the deuce did all this occur so early? Where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder-stroke – it nearly choked me – to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of every body. And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever. I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me? Or remember her pitying sister Helen for not having an admirer too? How very pretty is the perfect image of her in my memory – her brown, dark hair, and hazel eyes; her very dress! I should be quite grieved to see her now; the reality, however beautiful, would destroy, or at least confuse, the features of the lovely Peri which then existed in her, and still lives in my imagination, at the distance of more than sixteen years. I am now twenty-five and odd months."
In 1798 old Lord William Byron died in Newstead; four years before him, his own grandson had died in Corsica. As a result, young George Byron became the sole heir to the wealth and title of his clan. As a minor he was placed under the guardianship of Lord Carlisle, his distant relative, and, delighted, Lady Byron left Aberdeen that same fall for old Newstead with her eleven-year-old son and her faithful servant Mary Gray.
Lord William, the brother of Admiral Byron, the child's grandfather, was an odd and wretched man. He once stabbed his cousin and neighbor, William Chaworth. They fought without witnesses in a bar at candlelight. The case made a great deal of noise and the House of Lords declared the murderer guilty as charged. He was, however, freed from punishment and from that time on lived in Newstead where his whims, stinginess, and gloomy character made him the subject of slander and gossip. The most preposterous rumors circulated as to why he divorced his wife. It was believed that he once attempted to drown her in a Newstead pond.
He tried to ruin his properties out of his hatred for his heirs. His only interlocutors were an old servant and a housekeeper who served another purpose as well. In addition, the house was filled with crickets, which Lord William fed and raised. Despite his niggardliness, the old Lord was often in need of money and got it by means often reprehensible to his heirs. But such a man could not possibly care about these matters. In this same way he sold Rochdale, his family estate, without having any right to do so (a fact known full well to the buyers, who wished to make a profit before his heirs succeeded in demolishing the illegal sale).
Not once did Lord William get in touch with his young heir, to whom he referred only as the boy who lived in Aberdeen.
Lord Byron's first years, spent in impoverished conditions that did not befit his birth and under the watchful eye of an ardent mother who was as reckless in her displays of affection as in her fits of rage, would have a powerful and lasting effect on the rest of his life. His injured self-esteem and eternal sensitivity bound his heart with the acrimony and irritability that would later become the marks of his character.
The strange qualities of Lord Byron were partially innate, and partially bestowed. Moore has justly noted that Byron's character reflected both the virtues and the vices of his ancestors. On the one hand, we find his daring entrepreneurship, magnanimity, and the nobleness of his sentiments; on the other, his unchecked passions, caprices, and insolent disdain of public opinion. Doubtless, the memory of Lord William strongly affected the imagination of his successor: he adopted many of his great-uncle's customs and one cannot but concur that Manfred and Lara recall that solitary Newstead baron.
Trivial circumstance, it seems, had just as great an influence on his soul. At the very minute of his birth, his leg was injured, and Byron would remain lame the rest of his life. This physical shortcoming also wounded his self-esteem. Nothing could compare with the fury he felt when Lady Byron once berated him as a "lame brat." Although a very fine-looking fellow, he imagined himself ugly and shunned the company of those who did not know him well, all because he feared their mocking leers. This very shortcoming strengthened his desire to distinguish himself in every feat requiring physical strength and agility.