George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born January 22, 1788, to "Mad Jack" Byron and Catherine Gordon. The elder Byron, notorious for his carousing and attempted seduction of women of means, took his wife's family name due to his own financial desperation; in Catherine he believed he had found his escape from chronic poverty. Having married her, however, Byron almost immediately abandoned his wife and newborn son to continue living like a debaucherous bachelor, communicating to his wife mainly to ask for money. "Mad Jack" only once mentioned his only son (his only licit son, at least) in his correspondence.
For her part, Catherine was an overprotective and domineering parent, herself given to financial folly. She doted on her son but also flew into rages when he misbehaved or contravened her parental edicts. Her oppressive influence led the young George to grow up despising her while paradoxically idealizing his absent father.
Byron underwent a tumultuous schooling at three different schools (Harrow, Trinity, and Cambridge), through which he was forced to fend for himself due to mockery from peers about his club foot and his weight. By the end of his schooling, Byron had forged himself into the lordly, urbane, slim and debaucherous man who would become famous. Like his father, Byron accumulated debts through his excesses and fiscal irresponsibility, all in the service of removing himself both socially and emotionally from his painful, shame-filled youth. He avoided his mother as much as possible and gathered around him a circle of friends with whom he could discuss politics and poetry or carouse with equal verve. He enmeshed himself in several affairs with lovers from both genders, including a deep connection to a choirboy and later a series of relationships with live-in prostitutes. Byron also entered a one-sided romance with his cousin Mary Chaworth, going so far as to temporarily suspend his education to be near her at Annesley Hall. Chaworth was unattainable—she became engaged in the midst of Byron’s pining for her in 1803—and would become the basis of many future unattainable beauties in his life, both real and literary.
In 1804 Byron began corresponding with his half-sister Augusta, to whom he grew emotionally attached to even as he withdrew his sympathies from his mother. This relationship would eventually culminate in reputation-destroying rumors of incest and end Byron’s marriage.
In 1806 Byron self-published his first book of poetry, Fugitive Pieces. His mentor, the Reverend John Thomas Becher, raised objections to some of the more erotic lines of verse, so Byron suppressed the book. He republished many of the poems—now heavily edited—along with new verse in his 1807 Poems on Various Occasions, followed later by an expanded edition titled Hours of Idleness, this last edition being the first published work bearing his name.
Upon completion of his schooling and assuming the peerage (being recognized as belonging to the House of Lords), Byron took a long-delayed journey to see the rest of Europe. Arriving in Lisbon at the height of the English-French conflict, Byron remained mostly oblivious to the political climate of the world around him, so focused was he on enjoying himself. It was from this journey that Byron produced the work that would make him famous: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The first two cantos, written during his European travels, were published in 1812. The print run sold out in three days, making Byron suddenly famous. Soon Byron was a sought-after attendee at salons throughout England, where he also met a number of influential and impassioned women and engaged in several affairs. One such affair was with Lady Caroline Lamb, whose pursuit of Byron eventually wearied him. Perhaps to cool Lady Caroline’s affections, Byron proposed to Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. She declined, and Byron shortly thereafter began an affair with Jane Elizabeth Scott.
From 1813 to 1816, Byron published several works, most of them inspired by his travels in Turkey and Greece: The Giaour in June of 1813, followed by The Bride of Abydos later that year; then The Corsair in February 1814 and Lara in August; finally The Siege of Corinth and Parisina in February of 1816. All the while, Byron continued revising and adding to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
In 1813, Byron began his affair with his half-sister, Augusta. That same year, Milbanke wrote Byron indicating that she had reconsidered his proposal of marriage. The next year Byron again proposed to Annabella, and in January of 1815 he married her. This marriage proved terrible for Annabella, who was in turns wooed and abused by her eccentric husband. Financial difficulties, along with Byron’s increasing problems with alcohol, further exacerbated the marital discord; Annabella gave birth to a daughter, Ada, but feared her husband had become mentally unstable. In January of 1816 Annabella took her daughter from London and never returned to her husband. Although she wrote to him from her family home in Kirkby Mallory, England, urging him to join her and their daughter, Annabella’s parents had turned against Byron and instead urged him to separate from their daughter. The sudden emergence of rumors of incest between Byron and Augusta finally broke Byron’s relationship with Annabella for good; on March 17, 1816, Byron and Annabella agreed upon legal terms of separation.
Byron’s vocal affection for his estranged wife at this time did not prevent him from having an affair with Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Godwin Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of the famous Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In April the separation was formalized and the papers signed. Byron then left England to travel the continent again, never returning to England.
In May of 1816, Byron met Percy Shelley in Geneva, Switzerland. Although his enjoyment at this visit was tempered by the presence of Clairmont and her unborn child—Byron’s—the two men nonetheless enjoyed boating on Lake Leman and discussing poetry and politics. It was at this time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Byron’s travels with Shelley inspired him to write The Prisoner of Chillon, published in 1817. He also completed and published Cantos iii and iv of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, completed Manfred, and began his mock epic Don Juan.
Although prolific and gaining a reputation as a great writer of his time, Byron settled in Genoa, Italy, and became bored with his self-imposed exile from England. He was drawn again to the cause of Greek independence, this time donating large sums of money to refit and arm the Greek military. Byron eventually gained a division of Greek soldiers under his own command, but before he could sail to attack the Turkish fortress, he became ill. The favored medical practice of the day, bloodletting, only weakened him further. He eventually developed an infection and died in 1824, leaving his military action and several of his literary works unfinished.