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February 27, 2017

Byron's Maids

On this day in 1812 Lord Byron spoke for the first time in the House of Lords, choosing for his topic the recent Luddite rioting. Byron was twenty-four, recently returned from the obligatory Grand Tour of Europe, and ready for a career; had his speech been the success he hoped for, there is every chance that the career might have been in politics, rather than in poetry and persecution. Byron had joined the Whig Club at Cambridge; he had taken his seat in the House at twenty-one, and before leaving for Europe he had begun to attend debates on a weekly basis, even to do committee work. He had a heroic view of things, but this was no bar to politics, and his passions were spectacular only in degree. If few men of his class had swum the Hellespont, or been told by their doctor to take a rest from the physical demands of romance, or written good lines of verse about lovers of both sexes, many might have wished to.

Byron had chosen the sensational Luddite riots as his topic mainly because it was the issue most likely to cause a stir, but the ancestral home was in Nottinghamshire, where the rioting had broken out the year before. In his speech Byron decried the Tory government's Frame Work Bill -- this would provide the death penalty for frame-breakers -- saying that while home that Christmas he had seen with his own eyes the "most unparalleled distress" and "squalid wretchedness" of their lives. Some biographers suggest that Byron had an uncertain grasp of the local problem, and that while home that Christmas came no closer to the working poor than the bed of one of the Newstead Abbey maids: "I am at present principally occupied with a fresh face & a very pretty one too," he wrote in a Christmas Day letter to a friend, "a Welsh Girl whom I lately added to the bevy, and of whom I am tolerably enamoured for the present." This strutting was replaced by a different sort of pose about two weeks later, when he truth about the Welsh Girl became all too clear from an intercepted letter to her new lover: "Return to your relations," Byron now wrote, "you shall be furnished with the means, but him, who now addresses you for the last time, you will never see again."

Byron thought the speech a triumph too, based on the congratulations he received. Privately, the response was different: he had written the entire speech out beforehand, and a friend who listened to him rehearse it heard his "remarkably easy and natural" normal voice turn to declarative wood; the leader of the Whig opposition found the speech "not exempt from affectation nor well reasoned, nor at all suited to our common notions of Parliementary [sic] eloquence," and mentally moved Byron to the back benches for his "fastidious and artificial taste and his over-irritable temper."

More than this, a week and a half later Childe Harold was published, turning Byron overnight into a poetic hero, and bringing such a line-up of coaches delivering social cards that there were traffic jams outside his apartment. Soon he was as embroiled with the ladies of London as he had been with the help in Nottingham, and soon the Nottingham estate would be sold in order to pay for it. His poetry, condemnation and self-exile dominated the next decade; his death in Greece in 1824 would come from his politics, and from being Byron.

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