We often read Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage Canto III as revealing autobiographical details of Byron’s own feelings succeeding his exile from England, and assume Don Juan to hold a basis in Byron’s past. Given these exemplars, it was natural for me to read “Fragment of a Novel” with an emphasis on details that seemed to parallel what rudimentary biography we are provided about Byron in most anthologies. “Fragment of a Novel” is especially interesting in that it was also written soon after Byron’s final separation from England, and a biological reading may also turn up further or differing interpretation of Byron’s thoughts than what has previously been read in CHP III.
From the very first paragraph, it struck me that it was possible to see Byron in the mysterious character of Augustus Darvell. Darvell is a “man of considerable fortune and ancient family,” while Alice Levine describes (map of Europe in 1816) George Gordon Byron as a member of the peerage descended from a combination of Scottish lairds and contemporaries of William the Conqueror (Byron). In his youth, Byron made pilgrimages to Spain, Portugal, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, and this recalls Darvell’s having been “deeply initiated into what is called the world” and his having “already travelled extensively” (Byron). These are the superficial characteristics of biography that render the two as comparatively alike.
What solidified this connection for me were recurrent comments about Darvell’s somber emotional qualities: the narrator in “Fragment” ventures to guess that Darvell’s “cureless disquiet…arose from ambition, love, remorse, grief…or all of these.” From what we know of Byron’s psychological state after his separation from his wife and daughter, as well as the scandal and separation from his half sister, he was likely to be experiencing a similar turbulence of unhappy emotions. A “shadowy restlessness” that Darvell exhibits seems to echo the “wandering outlaw of his own dark mind” who traverses Europe in CHP III (CHP III, line 20). I imagine that Darvell’s final moments in the ruins of a Turkish cemetery “without springs” might represent Byron’s fears about his future prospects in life as dying, drying up, or becoming barren, now that he has had to leave England.
It is interesting to note that Byron wrote this during the “year without summer” while at Lake Geneva (portrait of Lord Byron) (August Darvell) with the Shelleys. It was upon his suggestion that they pass the time indoors writing ghost stories and from these stories that resulted, neither “Fragment” nor “Frankenstein” were about literal ghosts. Rather, they were about monsters or more specifically, about a monstrous or mysterious identity with a haunting presence. If Augustus Darvell is the “monster” of “Fragment” then it is suggestive to think that Byron played the role of the “monster” in certain contexts of his life.
Maybe this is an incendiary statement to make about an acclaimed English poet, but I have a hard time excusing Byron for the heinous way he appeared to treat women. It is in the context of his scandalous relationships that I see Byron as a “monster.” Even brief mentions of Byron’s serial love affairs – with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh; with Clare Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s half sister; with Lady Caroline Lamb, who declared Byron “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but got to know him anyway, at the expense of her reputation; and with Annabelle Milbanke, his wife who left him – is enough to provide the reader with a dishonourable image of the man.
CHP III paints Harold/Byron as a sympathetic figure, a self-exiled former rebel who may never see his daughter again, and who writes a hundred and eighteen stanzas in order to excite the audience’s compassion. In contrast, Darvell as Byron’s double in “Fragment” suffers mostly in reserved silence and seeks solitude, even asking the narrator to eventually “conceal [his] death from every human being” (Byron). I like to think that “Fragment” contains a reflection of Byron’s authentic feelings at the time of writing, and that Darvell’s silent suffering suggests that Byron may have sincerely repented or felt secret shame for his ignoble deeds. Darvell goes to the cemetery with the intention of dying there, and I see this as Byron’s former self burying itself in recognition of the “monster” it had become. I feel that it is also nobler to die without lamenting over one’s suffering for a hundred and eighteen stanzas, so reading Darvell as Byron in “Fragment of a Novel” reconciles me as a reader to Byron’s appeal as a charismatic poet who is not entirely without humanity or humility.
By Audrey Ling
Byron, Lord (George Gordon). Byron’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Alice Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.
Byron, Lord. “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage Canto the Third.” Byron’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Alice Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010, pp. 196-228
Byron, Lord. “Fragment of a Novel.” Literature of the Fantastic. http://www.sff.net/people/DoyleMacdonald/l_frag.htm. Accessed 11 September 2016.