Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: We Shall Know You by Your Relationship to Your Office Supplies

Last night, I joked with my husband that what keeps our marriage together is our obsessive love of office supplies. While the rest of the Western world went out on hot dates last night, we spent our Friday going to Office Depot. And we were deliriously happy about it.

Today is the birthday of Lord Byron, whom I can't imagine being happy going to the Office Depot. I imagine Byron scoffing at us, telling us that our life lacks passion.

Compared to Byron's life, perhaps my life does lack passion. Byron's biography often eclipses his literary achievements. Lady Caroline Lamb labeled him "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Here we have another writer having sex with his cousins, which, as the commenter on Poe's birthday points out, was not that unusual in the 19th century. Byron bedded a wide variety of people, and we think of the England of the early 19th century having a Victorian prudery about these things--but they were amazingly tolerant, as long as everyone was discreet.

My students--oh so hip and postmodern--are shocked when I tell them that Byron had a passionate affair with his half sister. Even when I tell them that he didn't know her as a child, that they met as grown-ups, they still cannot wrap their minds around that idea. Byron's contemporaries had the same problem, and he had to leave England.

So, yes, if I compare my sexual history to Byron's, I come off looking like a passionless stick. I haven't gallivanted around the Continent, leaving suicidal abandoned lovers in my wake. I haven't fought in a war for independence (Byron is regarded as a national hero in Greece, for his role in the Greek fight to free themselves from the Ottoman Empire). I've lived almost 10 years longer than Byron lived, but have I produced poetry of the same quality?

My poetry is so different from Byron's that I can't even begin to compare it--we must leave something for future grad students to do, after all. I do wonder what Byron might have accomplished had he had a more stable life. I'm amazed that he wrote all those hundreds of pages while doing all the rest of the things he did in his brief life. Could he have done more?

We might protest that we have no right to expect more. When I teach Byron in the context of a Brit Lit survey, I make the case that his most important contribution to literature is the Byronic hero, who is still alive and with us. How many females fall in love with Byronic heroes? It seems almost like a phase we must all go through. A man tells us, "I'm not good enough for you. You deserve better." Life teaches us that when a man says that, the proper response is to say, "You're right. Good bye. I'm off to look for someone who deserves a jewel like me." Younger woman bend themselves into pretzel shapes to assure Byronic heroes that they deserve no better than Byronic treatment.

I think about my spouse, who once was my college boyfriend, before we got married and settled into a domesticity that might seem dull on the surface level. I once described my boyfriend as a Byronic hero: he smoked, he drove a muscle car and he drove it recklessly, he could drink copious quantities of alcohol that had no effect on him. Ah, adolescence. But he wasn't a Byronic hero in one important way: he had empathy for others. I can't imagine him treating others in the way that Byron treated so many women (and one assumes men, but they don't get much of a post-death voice the way that his female victims have).

It's interesting to go back to the Romantic time period and to rediscover the lives of the women of this period. It's a time of great Scientific discovery, many of them made by women (for a great study of this time period, see The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes). It's interesting to discover how many women tried to write, only to be upended by the tumultuous men to whom they tied their fortunes. When we play the "how might their lives have been different" game, it's irresistible to revisit Mary Shelley. What might she have accomplished if she had not had to spend so much time running from creditors, cleaning up Percy's various messes (including his last one, that untimely death), establishing his posthumous reputation while raising their children all by herself? Yikes!

So, yes, give me a life of quiet Friday nights going to Office Depot and delighting in replenishing the office supplies. Give me a spouse who cheers my successes, a spouse who once gave me as a Christmas present a ream of paper in every color available at Office Depot, a gift which gave me as much joy as diamonds would deliver to some women. Give me a life in a stable country that's not suffering war on its soil. Give me a steady job with benefits, a job which if I plan everything carefully, doesn't leave me too drained to write.


Kathleen said...

Sounds like you have a jewel, and he has a jewel!

Jim said...

my wife and I call it "old people dating"

Wendy said...

My decidedly non-Byronic spouse used to spend his bachelor Friday nights at Staples.

Love this post! I miss teaching the Romantic poets to 17-year-olds, though.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Ha! I just re-read parts of Byron's biography to prep for my Brit Lit class. The last time I taught Byron, I mentioned his "affairs" and that is what my student remember about him -- not his literary achievements.

Kristin said...

Thanks everyone, for reading and commenting. I've become intrigued by the idea of Byron at the Office Depot, and shall probably play with a poem.

And yes, I, too, miss those days of teaching the Romantics--although my financial life is more stable now than it was when I most recently taught the Romantics as an adjunct--probably a poem there too.