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Byron and the Victorians.

This book begins with an Introduction headed 'on influence' but recent critics, says Elfenbein, prefer the term 'intertextuality', but he is engaged in tracking the 'revolutionary relation between author, text and audience'.

His first chapter, 'Byron and the secret self', assures us that the first readers of Childe Harold and The Corsair, aside from what they had read, believed that they had seen the authentic depths of a 'real' human psyche, 'belonging to George Gordon, Lord Byron'. Why? Because of the passion, for unless he had experienced this passion himself Byron could not have described it. The 'key to the naked heart in Byron is the eroticization of all inner emotion in terms of desires so profound that they never can be fulfilled ... In Byron the description of a "genuine" inner self is linked with a discourse placing desire at the self's centre' (18, 19). Let us accept so much for argument's sake, and agree also that Byron's later poems took a second place to the cult of Byron himself, since the poems were interesting only 'for what they revealed to the "real" man' (21).

Next Professor Elfenbein turns to the marketing of Byron's 'subjectivity'. Letters, diaries, cheap editions, biographies, songs, dinner-services, engravings attest the growth of Byronism. And even the burning of the poet's memoirs was an 'economic masterstroke' (79). Those who had known Byron and those who had not made some quick money with volumes in the 'British bookseller's stock'. These multiplied until Murray commissioned Moore's official biography (1830) which 'extended the discussion between the social world of artistic genius and the ordinary world of community, convention and judgment' (79).

Then we come to 'Carlyle, Byronism and the professional intellectual', where Elfenbein considers Sartor Resartus. Carlyle's hostility to Byron centred on class difference, as well as his determination to see Byron as less - far less - a hero than Goethe or Schiller. In every aspect of life Teufelsdrockh expresses opinions, that Carlyle desires to make, to render the 'aristocratic upbringing of Moore's Byron look shallow by comparison' (111). He concludes, 'The function of "Byron" in Sartor has little to do with Carlyle's reading of poetry or with what Byron means to an academic audience in the late twentieth century. Rather, "Byron" and Byronism were for Carlyle emblems of a literary system hostile to all he represents' (125). Clearly 'influence' represents a strong reaction against someone or something as well as the positive sense generally accepted.

In the following chapter, 'Byron at the margins: Emily Bronte and the fate of Milo', would not have started, as it does, with 'the Bronte children's culture isolated in Haworth was even more extreme than Carlyle's in Scotland' (126). Elfenbein has been beguiled by Mrs Gaskell instead of waiting for Juliet Barker's The Brontes, in which we are told that Haworth's being 'a small industrial town was hotly disputed and culture thrived' (xix).

In his chapter on Tennyson ('The flight from vulgarity'), Elfenbein lists verbal echoes but makes clear Tennyson's efforts to distance himself from Byron. In Maud (1855), Tennyson is quite the master. Elfenbein's final sentence is wholly absurd: 'Tennyson's engagement with Byron demonstrated for modernism how to secure the artist's presence in the text without making the act of writing equivalent to transparent self-confusion' (205).

Bulwer Lytton and Disraeli gained 'symbolic capital' as homosexual Byronists in later Victorian times. The terms derived from Pierre Bourdieu, implying someone who performs - by means of dress, manner of walk, wearing of jewellery, etc. - as a homosexual to win the interest and esteem that Byron once enjoyed.

Finally, with Dorian Gray, he 'proves' the survival of Byronism a century after Childe Harold and The Corsair.

The writing of this book seems low and flat. It has its uses but, in the main, these are sociological rather than literary.

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Author:Berry, Francis
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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