- Byron and Women [And Men]
Byron scholarship has been greatly enriched by the writings of Peter Cochran. His latest edited volume, containing thirteen biographical and critical essays, is yet another testament to his scholarly assiduity. The volume covers a wide range of topics: from Byron’s depictions of men, boys and women, and his sexual life in Nottingham and Venice, to the representation of bisexuality in his own and in Shakespeare’s works and the significance of his and Mozart’s heroines. Freshly edited versions of Don Leon and Leon to Annbella, along with comments on the disputed authorship of these poems, constitute the appendices to the volume.
The volume opens with Cochran’s extensive and highly informative account of Byron’s bisexuality. The essay admirably tracks down all that there is to know about Byron’s sexual orientations, based on the painstaking scrutiny of primary biographical sources. Equally rewarding is Cochran’s critical analysis of the sexual orientations of the main characters in Byron’s works, for example the strong sexual urges of the women in Don Juan and the Giaour’s male narcissism. Cochran also contributes an essay entitled ‘Byron’s Boyfriends’, a highly informative, precise and persuasive account of several persons falling into this category. Among the notable figures discussed are William Bankes, John Edleston, Robert Rushton, Ali Pacha and Loukas Chalandritsanos.
Among the many excellent critical essays in the volume, Bernard Beatty’s ‘General Laws and Variant Readings: Byron’s Men and Women’ and Richard A. Cardwell’s ‘The Male Gaze in the Oriental Tales: Byron’s Specularization and Appropriation’ deserve special notice. As always, Beatty’s writing abounds in insights and is strikingly fresh in its perspectives. The essay offers several illuminating comments on the modern re-evaluation of Byron, Byron’s ambivalent stances on gender and sexuality, and the triumph of sexuality over gender in the harem cantos of Don Juan. Equally engaging is Beatty’s elucidation of how the Ottoman Sultana, Gulbeyaz, eventually attains self-regeneration, ‘humanity’ and ‘moral awakening’. It must nevertheless be added at once that Byron’s probing into the subversion and reversal of sexual roles is unmistakably present in his portrayal of the Oriental heroine Gulnare in The Corsair. In sketching such an unconventional female as Gulnare, Byron appears to be unsettling the customary assumptions about womanly character and conduct. Some of Beatty’s comments on Gulnare’s rebellions and strong-willed assertions, stemming from her defiance of both divine and moral law and culminating in her murdering her tyrannical husband and out-Conrading Conrad by securing his freedom, would lend their weight to the opinion of those critics who place Byron ‘on the post-modern side of the instability of gender rather than of the stability of sexuality’. Besides his masterly analysis of selected passages of Don Juan, Beatty’s enlightening [End Page 65] observations on the distinctions, divisions and overlappings between gender and sexuality, as well as gender-crossing, are bound to help readers appreciate better the complex nature of Byron’s treatment of these topics.
Richard A. Cardwell’s essay complements and supplements Beatty’s as it brings out sharply Byron’s representation of women in his Oriental Tales. While Cardwell may be correct in his assertion that ‘only two critics, Susan Wolfson and Caroline Franklin, have examined Byron from a feminist critical viewpoint’, he does not show any familiarity with any of the numerous recent critical studies of the women in Byron’s Oriental Tales. Yet he succeeds in meticulously and fruitfully elucidating various aspects of Byron’s configuration of the feminine, and the language or discourse employed by him to ‘embody – or dis-embody – women’. As Cardwell aptly points out, Francesca in The Siege of Corinth is an ‘absence’, ‘a spiritual lady’ and the ‘epitome of self-sacrifice’, while Leila in The Giaour and Zuleika in The Bride of Abydos are sketched in terms derived solely from the viewpoint of the men in these tales: though Leila prompts all the action she does not utter...