We know that archive materials offer a window to the past, giving us the materials of history free of interpretation: this odd little book takes us away from the academic books and seminars analysing Byron’s radical politics or innovations in poetic form, to show us how some of Byron’s contemporaries actually read his work.
…Guest post by Carina Hart
The ‘Address’ that prefaces the book, written by the editors W. and E. Finden, explains that the book offers “drawings by the most eminent Artists [which] endeavour to rescue the Muse of Byron from those calumnious delineations which have heretofore deformed her creations.” A charming phrase, but one that might require translation.
What this means is that the Findens are not interested in Byron’s politics or poetic form, but they are interested in the beautiful ladies who populate his work – and they are sure that their audience are interested in them too. They go on to claim that the book’s imagined portraits of Byron’s female characters arise from “extraordinary expense and labour, combined with that discrimination which can alone result from a long and intimate study of the highest principles of art”. Sounds impressive, but what does such intimate study actually give us? It gives us “that which is most difficult of accomplishment – the impersonation of ideal beauty.”
So they have employed some eminent artists to delineate the personal and moral complexities of Byron’s heroines through their appearances. I sense a problem here, one that hasn’t quite gone away in the 21st century: the idea that someone’s personality and moral status is visible in their face.
Byron critic Charles Donelan discusses virtue and vice in the Regency period, making the telling claim that from the late eighteenth century, all kinds of things were considered vices: “corruption, bad habits, foolishness, appetite, even physical deformity” (p.2).
Even physical deformity? The notion that vice is visible in fact presents a problem for the Finden brothers: as we will see, they are quite keen to condemn some of Byron’s heroines, but if they have them drawn as ugly wicked witches they might find their audience suddenly losing interest…
So this is what they do.
From the array of beauties in the Findens’ book I have chosen to look at four ladies who feature in Byron’s epic poem Don Juan (and I mean epic – it’s more than 16,000 lines long). We’ll begin with Don Juan’s mother.
The Finden brothers seem to have trouble with Byron’s description of Donna Inez as a fundamentally intellectual woman. Byron himself refrains from obvious judgement of her character in the poem, but the artist who drew Donna Inez, J. E. Lewis, drapes her in black with a downcast look of… shame? Or calculation?
The Findens themselves accompany the picture with this charming statement: “Nothing can be more repulsive than her mental perfections, accompanied, as they are, by the hypocrisy which reveals – not immorality, but heartlessness – not vice, but the absence of virtue.” To me this sounds very much like they are inventing reasons to condemn her, when Byron has so scrupulously avoided providing any. Admittedly, there is the suggestion that Donna Inez may have poisoned her husband, but it is not enough to breed actual suspicion. I’m surprised the Findens didn’t pounce on that, rather than her “mental perfections”, but perhaps that tells us more about the attitudes of 1834.
J. E. Lewis has the lovely Donna Julia gazing into the middle distance with an expression of yearning, presumably for the sixteen-year-old Don Juan: she has introduced him to the world of love, but when her crotchety old husband finds out she loses everything and Don Juan is sent off to practise his new seduction skills across the globe.
The Findens are not much impressed by Donna Julia, considering her “the slave of every impulse”. However, they are happy to enjoy her pretty yearning face because “condemnation is lost in pity”; Donna Julia possesses “neither information to occupy her intellect, nor good principles to regulate her conduct”. She didn’t know what she was doing, poor thing.
But I do wonder here whether the Findens and I are reading the same poem. Byron has Donna Julia weighing up what to do about her lust for Don Juan, and deciding to face and conquer it. She doesn’t manage to do that, but Byron hardly presents her as a thoughtless slave to her emotions. It’s very tempting at this point to think of Byron as a feminist ahead of his time – but would that be anachronistic? I wonder how his contemporaries beyond the Findens read him… from what I know most condemned him for his liberal sexuality.
I think the most illuminating thing to do here is to simply juxtapose some quotations:
Byron in Don Juan:
Her hair, I said, was auburn; but her eyes
Were black as death, their lashes the same hue,
Of downcast length, in whose silk shadow lies
Deepest attraction; for when to the view
Forth from its raven fringe the full glance flies,
Ne’er with such force the swiftest arrow flew;
‘T is as the snake late coil’d, who pours his length,
And hurls at once his venom and his strength.
They are right; for man, to man so oft unjust,
Is always so to women; one sole bond
Awaits them, treachery is all their trust;
Taught to conceal, their bursting hearts despond
Over their idol, till some wealthier lust
Buys them in marriage—and what rests beyond?
A thankless husband, next a faithless lover,
Then dressing, nursing, praying, and all’s over.
Caroline Franklin in Byron’s Heroines (1992):
“The hero travels to various countries, encountering the daughters, wives, and queens of the ancient regime, and finding their condition symptomatic of the type of political authority wielded, whether patriarchal (Haidée), despotic (Dudù), feudal (Catherine is a mock queen of chivalry), or oligarchic (Adeline).” (106)
The Findens choose not to discuss the patriarchal oppression of Haidée, instead quoting Sir Egerton Brydges praising Byron’s “beauty and life of description”. They then express sympathy for Haidée’s father when he finds out that she has been “polluted”.
I think this picture of Dudù is absolutely spot on, and the Findens obviously think so too, since they simply quote Byron:
A kind of sleepy Venus seemed Dudù
Yet very fit to murder sleep in those
Who gazed upon her cheeks’ transcendent hue;
Thinner she might have been, and yet scarce lose;
Yet, after all, t’would puzzle to say where
It would not spoil some separate charm to pare.
And that’s how you tell a woman that yes, she’s plump but you like it. If you must.
I feel that this is not a sufficiently 21st-century, feminist conclusion, and that I may have been seduced by the “ideal beauty” of the Findens’ book. So I’ll end with a reading of Don Juan very different from the Findens’ which makes clear how much interpretation has changed:
“Byron’s Don Juan abandons the myth’s original (exhausted) cultural function of re-enacting the ritual repression that founds monogamy and rejects a commercialized fetishization of monogamy as female chastity. All the women visited by Don Juan are portrayed realistically, while at the same time they are positioned as objects of male fantasy.” (Donelan, p.8).
Doesn’t that make you feel better?
Donelan, Charles. Romanticism and Male Fantasy in Byron’s Don Juan. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
Franklin, Caroline. Byron’s Heroines. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Today’s #hiddengem: Finden’s Byron Beauties: A Series of Ideal Portraits of the Principal Female Characters in Lord Byron’s Poems. London: Charles Tilt, 1834.
MRC reference: PR4377.F4
Carina Hart has her own blog dedicated to theorizing about beauty. Check it out: here.
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