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Opening the Open Secret: The Stowe-Byron Controversy Susan McPherson In 1869, Macmillan's Magazine and theAtlanticMonthly published Harriet Beecher Stowe's "The True Story of Lady Byron's Life," which was written as a rejoinder to the recendy published memoirs of Countess Teresa Guiccioli, Lord Byron's mistress. Stowe argues that Guiccioli's Recollections (1869), as like other auto/biographical writings both about and by the poet, was predicated upon a construction of Lord Byron as a "sensitive victim" of his marriage and upon a construction of Lady Byron as a "narrow-minded" woman without the "intellect" or "heart" to understand her husband's life and works (378). Stowe challenges these constructions and previous versions of the Byrons's relationship. In her account, Stowe names what she sees as the secret behind the Byrons's separation - she spells out that Lord Byron had committed incest - while also pointing out that this part of Byron's life history had long been an open secret. Stowe writes that the "history of Lord and Lady Byron in its reality has long been perfectiy understood in many circles in England" (382). She continues: "From the height which might have made him happy as a husband of a noble woman, he fell into the depths of a secret, adulterous intrigue with a blood relation" (385). Six months later, Stowe published Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), an extended volume in which she further challenges Byron's supporters and the contemporary men of letters, in both England and North America, who sought to repudiate her version of events. Stowe's article and book can be perhaps understood in relation to Andrew Elfenbein's definition of Byronism, both in terms of the category of the texts themselves and as rejoinders to other Byroniana. 86volume 27 number 1 Opening the Open Secret Elfenbein writes that Byronism "involves roughly three interpenetrating levels: Byron's poems, biographies of Byron, and adaptations and responses to both" (9). This article examines Stowe's writings as "responses" to biographical writings about Byron; but most especially as they relate to what I shall argue are two interdependent constituents of the open secret in these writings. That is, male-male desire and incest. As Elfenbein has shown, both Byron's contemporaries and Victorian men of letters who moved in "elite" literary and social circles understood the open secret as a hint of these two sexual secrets. However, while incest was named in some materials privately circulated between men of letters, male-male desire was not; in public documents both remained unnamed. Either way, the two sexual secrets, whether named or not, "still appeared side by side in language about Byron's separation" (21 1). This configuration of the two sexual secrets is uncovered in Stowe's texts, but in ways which show that there is a discursive reciprocity between incest and male-male desire in writings about Byron which is conditioned by the ideology of the family. The open secret of Byronism is a potential threat to this ideology as both incest and male-male desire undermine the sanctity of the family and its function to perpetuate patriarchal relations. Claude Levis-Strauss's explanation of the prohibition and the taboo of incest helps to unsnarl this point. He points out that: "The prohibition of incest is less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister, or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister, or daughter to be given to others" (481). However, this prohibition does not, in effect, prevent incest; rather, it is the taboo of incest which ensures a silence over incest. In particular, the taboo, as shaped by familial relations, is constituted out of patriarchal relations (Champagne; Irigaray 170-91). Recognition, understanding and definitions of male-male desire varied throughout the nineteenth-century (Cohen; Sussman; Weeks). Nevertheless, heterosexual relations are necessary to the family's role as a patriarchal institution (Tosh). It is thus my intention to argue that Stowe illuminates how the status of the two Byronic secrets are shaped out of the ideology of the family on the one hand, Victorian Review87 S. McPherson and that their reciprocity manage the threat to patriarchal relations on the other. Most especially, it is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 86-101
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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