This month I’m interviewing Emily Brand, who’s new book The Fall of the House of Byron, captures the scandals of three generations of Byrons, including a certain poet. With four other previously published books under her belt, Brand’s specialty of the history of love and sex c. 1660-1837 are fascinating and juicy reads. Brands other works also include writings for national and international media such as the BBC, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Telegraph, the Radio Times and CNN.com. Not to mention a feature discussing 18th century pick up lines, in Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast.
Let’s meet out author:
What do you like to read in your downtime?
Since only recently discovering audiobooks I find myself rattling through history books in this way – it’s so useful for making the best of travel time. On reading purely for pleasure I try to keep up with modern fiction but still sometimes have to remind myself to move beyond novels with historical settings, otherwise I eventually feel like I’ve been wallowing too much outside of the real world! I also tend to gravitate towards stories highlighting women’s voices and experiences – especially if those women are in some way problematic, or veer outside of the traditional ‘spirited but generally deserving and good’ heroine. A couple of recent books that seem to be really staying with me are Madeline Miller’s Circe and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, an inspiring study of the lives of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper – it’s an engrossing portrayal of common lives in the Victorian era and such an important moment in turning traditional historical narratives on their head.
I am now keeping everything clear for Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I’ve been anxiously awaiting since 2012!
What inspired you to forge a career in history?
I inherited my mum’s love for period dramas and family history, and as a result have been fascinated by the past since a young age – so she is partly to blame for that! My career has always been weighted towards history – in museums, as an editor, in genealogy and as an author. My enthusiasm is constantly fuelled by the idea of all the lost voices lying in archives just waiting to be uncovered, and all those forgotten personal stories that can unlock new perspectives on the past. Learning to step outside of our own world and try to understand the experiences of others is hugely important, and making even a small contribution with my research seems worthwhile.
Now and again we get to see historical object you own on your twitter, which one is your favourite and which one has the best story attached to it?
I’ve amassed quite a bit of 18th-century Byron family material, including prints and books that no one else seems to care about except me! My favourite is probably a large, hand-coloured engraving of Frances, Lady Byron – the mother of the three primary protagonists of my book – by William Hogarth, and dating to the 1730s. I’ve never come across another like it and it was my first buy at auction, so I will always associate it with the feeling of excitedly scampering across Nottingham to pick it up.
The most precious and personal, though, is something passed down from my late grandmother’s family, which I received for my 30th birthday. It’s a George III shilling (dated 1787) with a hole bored into it so that it can be fashioned into a necklace – a common form of love token in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sadly I doubt I will ever find out who it belonged to, or how it relates to my ancestors – but I wear it if I feel like I need an extra bit of good luck.
The Fall of the House of Byron
There are so many characters in your book each more scandalous than the last. Which Byron would you have loved to have interviewed for the book?
I think – partly out of some sort of morbid curiosity – I’d choose Jack Byron, the poet’s wastrel father, whose real life became almost irreparably clouded in myths after his son’s death in 1824. Almost three decades after his own demise he was branded as ‘mad’, as ‘worthless’, and even ‘evil’ by writers and biographers. The letters and debts he left behind do tend to confirm that he was a selfish, arrogant, and sexually deviant character, but a lot of questions are left unanswered – namely, how did he get away with so much?
Despite such obvious character flaws he managed to seduce at least two young heiresses, charmed his superiors and sent women into a flutter wherever he went. I think in order to get the measure of the man I’d have to see what he actually looked like – there are no reliable surviving images of him – and witness him in action in a candlelit ballroom. And, of course, give him a thorough interrogation to see what other terrible things (incest aside) that he might own up to!
Newstead Abbey plays a large role in the Byron dynasty, in some ways it stands as a Portrait of Dorian Gray for the decline of the House of Byron. Have you managed a visit there yet and traced your finger over the engraved window of the Byron children’s names?
I have been a number of times, both to tour the house and also to dig about in their archive. It’s been updated significantly since the time of the poet so it requires a little bit of imagination (and detective work) to envision how the interior must have looked in his day. Sadly the windowpane with his ancestors’ names and birthdates etched on was removed in 1809 when the poet was trying to prove his legitimate lineage – and has since disappeared! Which to me is an even sadder loss for Newstead than the artistic treasures that had already been sold off to settle debts. This was a poignant memorial made by a lonely young mother to her growing band of children, and a real glimpse at what life was like for women delivered into arranged marriages and sent off to live their lives on the other side of the country, whether they liked it or not.
William Byron, 5th Baron Byron, saw the height and decline of Newstead. By the end he reminded me of Charles Dickens’s Scrooge before the ghostly visit. He could have been great, why do you think he kept choosing the wrong path?
Almost all surviving evidence provided by the life of the 5th Lord points towards his having had a poor reputation ever since his youth – in particular for cowardice – and I think his bitterness about this only made things worse. Both his actions and his correspondence show him to have been selfish, entitled, irresponsible and immature. He was likely spoiled as a child; perhaps the death of his father and his inheritance of the family title when he was just 13 gave him unrealistically grand ideas. He certainly fell into a debauched and pleasure-seeking set of gentlemen even before he turned 21 – which laid the groundwork for a lifetime of extravagant spending,
Especially compared to his brother John, who was acclaimed for his feats of war and voyages of exploration, William’s lack of success was obvious. Where people were concerned he was utterly unable to hold his temper when criticised, which only led to further criticism. Where money was concerned, he simply didn’t know where to stop – leading to the downfall of his family’s fortune. He loved pursuing the trappings of an aristocratic life but had very little skill or interest in attending to his responsibilities – I think in order to have made a success of his life as a lord, he would have needed a complete personality transplant.
Happy Birthday for February! You celebrated the day by visiting the HMS Victory, immersing yourself in Nelson and Naval history. The Byron’s have a strong connection to the Navy and there is a fantastic telling of Foul Weather Jack’s adventures in your book. Do you also have a personal connection to the navy?
Thank you! And yes, I have been drawn to the history of the Georgian-era navy since I fell in love with Horatio Hornblower as an impressionable young teenager. The survival story of ‘Foul-Weather Jack’ Byron is really one of the most incredible I have ever read, and it was a privilege to re-tell it for the first time along with the wider context of his personal life and career.
A number of my near relatives and ancestors have been involved in the military, covering all three of the armed forces in three generations and also going back as far as Waterloo – perhaps that does inform my interest a bit. During the Second World War my grandfather was involved in Arctic Convoy duty when he was just a teenager, and just reading about those brutal conditions makes me shiver.
Isabella Byron, is a fantastic character, out of all her husbands and lovers which one would you say was the one that got away?
Isabella is actually my favourite of the Byrons, with her head so stubbornly full of romance! I was so delighted to find her unpublished letters to her second husband, through their whirlwind secret engagement to their cold-hearted separation – she had such a passionate and stream-of-consciousness style of writing, on reading them I felt like I was living through it with her.
She had a string of romantic attachments and flirtations throughout her life, and there is one I’d love to know more about. Sir Edward Swinburne was a baronet, a widower 12 years her junior and a talented artist – little survives of their relationship other than that Isabella seems to have followed him to Europe when in her early fifties, according to the gossips simply hoping to rekindle their relationship. Unbeknownst to her, he had already taken up with another woman in Vienna. They certainly met up during her travels, but clearly he had little intention of inviting scandal by travelling as her companion.
Like many a family at the time, the Byron liked to name their children after each other. By the end of the book, the fertile Byron family had three generations interconnecting, how did you manage to keep track of who was who?
Fortunately my years of experience in genealogical research and chart-making helped me here! I compiled a family tree (which will be included in the book), and have attempted to differentiate between characters by applying their preferred pet names (e.g. ‘Jack’, ‘Betty’, ‘Sophy’) used in their correspondence.
Certainly, the Byrons did not make things easy with their recurring tendency to marry, elope with, and commit incest with each other (both half- and full-siblings).
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently gearing up to do a book tour of the UK in the coming months, to share my love for the Byrons – there are details on my website for anyone who is interested: www.emilybrand.co.uk
I’m also scouring archives and looking for inspiration for book two!
How can we follow you and keep in touch?
I’m most active on twitter as @EJBrand, but also have an instagram @historian_emily and facebook page @HistorianofLove. Please do say hello!
And you can also pre-order my new book about the Byrons here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-fall-of-the-house-of-byron/emily-brand/9781473664302