Brand’s book has its flaws. Its prologue and epilogue, two present-tense visions of the faithful retainer Joe Murray musing at the Byrons’ ancestral home Newstead Abbey, add nothing, and the choice to shoehorn the poet Lord Byron into the beginning of every chapter suggests that someone felt the book wouldn’t sell without him. But Byron isn’t necessary here. The Fall of the House of Byron is a perfectly serviceable entry into the “scandals of the eighteenth century” non-fiction genre all on its own.
Brand strains to keep a hold on the ever-multiplying characters (who, unfortunately, tend to have the same name). The epilogue, in which she briefly sketches out the life of by far the most famous Byron of all, is disappointingly brief. But as a crisp and seductive tour through the history of a family who never knew when to say no – to a drink, a bet, or a sexual invitation – this is a treat. Alas for the blasted Byrons.
Brand’s ravishing family saga is as much the story of women who yearned for the romantic life — art, culture and adventure — as it is a story of men who abused their right to it. Married women were trapped in a cycle of baby-bearing, barely able to dance a cotillon before they were once again loosening the stays of their corsets. Brand maintains an even, amused tone throughout — preferring to let male hypocrisy speak for itself. But while she never exalts the Byrons, she can’t help but be moved by that Byronic lust for life — even when it is thwarted.
Brand runs several stories simultaneously while moving back and forth through time. The effect of her narrative elasticity is to give the book a novelistic depth, which is added to by rich topographical descriptions and a packed historical backdrop. The Byrons, she concludes, were less cursed than the product of an age of upheaval. What with Jacobite threats, mad kings and the French Revolution, they had ‘weathered some of the most turbulent moments in British history’. They were all, in other words, a Foul-Weather family.
Frustratingly, however, Brand tells us little about what he thought of his ancestors, or how they haunted his verse. Having tacitly promised to elucidate the poet’s life through the lens of his family history, she instead neglects to mention him for chapters at a time. The parallels between their lives and his are so tantalising that at times it seems perverse of Brand not to draw them. For instance, we don’t find out what Byron made of his great-aunt Isabella, who like him absconded to the Continent, refusing to be bound by the sexual mores of her era.
The Fall of the House of Byron is pacey, well observed and written with gusto. There is little in the way of original research here and much of the book is pure speculation, but it is composed with affectionate glee. I suppose the present Lord Byron might reasonably object to the title, with its echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and suggestions of a clan gone dead. Newstead Abbey may, as it happens, no longer be theirs. But despite the best efforts of previous generations, the Byron line lives on.