26 October 2014

The Byronic Hero

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

I warned you, in the last two fortnights, against the Darcys and Rochesters of the world, the menacing Heathcliffs, the brooding Gatsbys, the embittered Snapes, the loners, all dark, cynical, sinister men who cannot abide by authority and who are dangerously, bewilderingly attractive. They struggle with personal integrity (think Don Draper), have tortured pasts (think Heathcliff) and are dominant characters (think … er … Christian Grey), carved in Byron’s own shadow, because, of course, all girls just want bad boys. Byron himself described these heroes perfectly in The Corsair: 'That man of loneliness and mystery, / Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh […] Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt / From all affection and from all contempt.'

James Bond will never commit to you, but his past is so mysterious and sexy, so that must be why. Dr Gregory House will be cold and ruthless and awful to you, but really, he’s a wounded tiger lashing out at the world. Don Draper will cheat on you every day of the week, but that’s only because he’s so terribly anguished by his past. Captain Ahab is really just hiding all the hurt inside his crusty exterior. Jay Gatsby is a loathsome criminal, but at least that’s because he loves you so. Severus Snape is petty, cruel and entirely lacking in compassion, but he had a crush on your mom, so that explains everything. Edward Cullen wants to suck your blood out and kill you, but don’t worry, that’s just his bloodthirsty instinct, he can totally control it. Hamlet treats you like dirt, but he’s so cute when he delivers his suicidal monologues.

They treat you badly because they love you: that’s the message of the Byronic hero. They’re flawed, but they’re beautiful; they’re violent because they’re damaged, and that makes it all okay; they’re the bad boys who can be fixed, the rogues who need to be loved, the villains who are capable of being heroes.

Byron almost undoubtedly modelled his protagonists after himself – roguish, lonely, complicated, gorgeous, deeply flawed, tortured, brooding, broken, outwardly sociopathic but capable of intense passion. He was, in fact, the original vampire, Edward Cullen before Edward Cullen, rich, lordly, weighed down by unspeakable fervour and severe dissatisfaction: John Polidori modelled his villainous vampire – that sexy, aristocratic creature with a troubled heart – on Byron, whose personal physician he was. Byron himself was described by Lady Caroline Lamb – a former lover – as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. She wrote a bizarre gothic novel based on her affair with Byron (he called it a ‘fuck-and-publish’ – as in, kiss-and-tell). There too was a Byronic hero carved in Byron’s mould.

But first, before, before Polidori’s The Vampyre and Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon, there was Byron’s own Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in which Byron created an antihero described by Macaulay as ‘a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.’ It is that final part of the description – that sense that a man so flawed can love more deeply and more intensely than a less flawed, more reliable man can – that makes the Byronic hero so delectable. This is the inexplicable appeal of the bad boy, a bizarre and worrying tendency that people, often women, have to romanticize cruelty.  

In many dark and frightening ways, it sows the seeds of abuse and domestic violence – the psychology behind, ‘Yes, he hurts me, but he doesn’t mean to, it’s his way of loving me.’ The Byronic hero – and the romanticization of the prototype – perpetuates dangerous standards of abuse, frequently mistaking violence for romance, spreading the mythology that women wish to be hurt, normalizing the very idea of male power and female subordination. The exploitation of female vulnerability is celebrated through Byronic heroes, rather than seen as morally abhorrent or reprehensible. It translates, even more terrifyingly, into physical exploitation (back to Christian Grey), gathering all of its fiery, intense momentum into a sexual axis of pain seen as pleasure, of captivity seen as romance. This just cannot be good news for anyone.

Byronic heroes are devilishly handsome and alarmingly seductive, they tease, they woo, they charm. Ultimately, though, they are the sweetest of poisons: delectable but dangerous, tantalizing but terrifying.