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The Byronic hero is everywhere. From the autonomous assassin in recent instalments of the James Bond franchise to the stylish vampires that proliferate in popular fiction and on screen, this figure has captured the imagination of generations of readers and viewers.3 The first Byronic hero, and a blueprint for the rest, became an overnight sensation in March 1812, when Cantos I and II of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published and sold out within three days.4 Successive poems showcasing a spiritually isolated superman secured the literary fame and longevity of this Romantic poet and the legendary figure that bears his name. The Byronic hero remains, some 200 years after Byron became a bestselling poet, ‘an unprecedented cultural phenomenon’.5 His presence persists, for instance, in the immensely successful Twilight and Fifty Shades series, fantasy romances that reinscribe our fascination with a damaged and damaging anti-hero — a seductive outsider who is superior in suffering, sinfulness, subversions, and perversions — as encountered by an inexperienced, yet curious, young woman.6 That girlish innocence can triumph over manly experience through the redemptive power of love constitutes the staple ingredient in countless Regency romances and Mills and Boon novels. This gendered formula for fiction appears in the following ‘tip sheet’ for writing mass-market contemporary romance: ‘The hero is 8 to 12 years older than the heroine.
Sarah Wootton

1. Jane Austen’s Byronic Heroes I: Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen and Lord Byron are strange bedfellows. Perhaps even more so than Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, the focus of subsequent chapters, the inclusion of Austen in this book may seem misplaced. Yet, despite the seeming incompatibility of Austen and Byron, authors and critics have commented on this unlikely couple if only to emphasise differences in the scope and style of their work and in their respective life experiences. As Rachel Brownstein suggests,
Austen and Byron, close contemporaries, beg to be talked about together, and frequently have been. They seem to embody and invite and thus reinforce familiar binary oppositions: male and female, free and constrained, celebrated and obscure, self-indulgent aristocrat and saving, respectable homebody; Romantic poet and domestic novelist, careless producer of endless versions and careful rewriter, oversexed and asexual, sinner and saint; a handsome creature we have many gorgeous portraits of and a sharp little face in a sketch.1
Sarah Wootton

2. Jane Austen’s Byronic Heroes II: Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice

Persuasion (1818) is, like Northanger Abbey (1818) and Sense and Sensibility (1811) before it, concerned with misreading and masculinity. It is also, above Austen’s other novels, conversant with the literary scene of the day. As Janet Todd and Antje Blank explain,
In the years just prior to her death, then, Jane Austen showed herself more open to her immediate historical and literary moment than at any other period of her life. […] But only in Persuasion does she interact profoundly with the major writers of her present moment, with the poets Byron, Southey, the later Crabbe and Scott, with the political prose of Helen Maria Williams, and with the latest novels of Scott, Burney, Hawkins and Edgeworth.1
Sarah Wootton

3. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Byronic Heroes: Wives and Daughters and North and South

The remaining chapters of this book move on from the reception of the Byronic hero in the Romantic fiction of Jane Austen, and adaptations of her work, to the reception of this figure in the Victorian fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. The focus on these authors, and adaptations of their work, may be as surprising as the previous focus on Austen, and yet it is equally revealing. Establishing previously neglected connections between these authors and the legacy of the Byronic hero achieves a dual purpose. First, it opens their fiction to new lines of enquiry and new critical approaches, as well as situating their work within new literary contexts. For Gaskell and Eliot, the figure of the Byronic hero is central to the interrelated concerns of masculinity and Romanticism. Second, re-evaluating the relationship between these authors and the afterlives of this Romantic poet enables a reassessment of the extent and significance of Byron’s influence, and the cultural reach of Byronism, in women’s writing of the Victorian period. The Byronic hero presented a unique opportunity for Eliot and Gaskell to enter current debates about masculinity and the fate of the hero. This figure served both novelists as a means of surreptitiously transgressing gender conventions and of engaging with, if not endorsing, a Byronic voice of dissent, a position established more broadly in the introduction.1
Sarah Wootton

4. George Eliot’s Byronic Heroes I: Early Works and Poetry

George Eliot, like Austen and Gaskell before her, was equally engaged with the reformulation of Romanticism and models of masculinity. For U. C. Knoepflmacher, Eliot’s ‘fiction offers what is probably the richest and most variegated cast of male characters created by any woman nov-elist’.1 The fleshing out or dissolving of masculine stereotypes is a distinctive feature of Eliot’s fiction, with the title characters in works such as Adam Bede (1859), Silas Marner (1861), Felix Holt: The Radical (1866) and Daniel Deronda (1876) remaining in the foreground. Adam Bede, Eliot’s first novel, explores conventional as well as emerging models of masculinity through the theme of work, the interrelated issue of class, and the family.2 The charming yet feckless aristocratic seducer, Captain Arthur Donnithorne, is found wanting when compared with the integrity of the carpenter, Adam Bede. Middlemarch (1871–72) is populated by, among many others, the mutable shades of Will Ladislaw’s artistic sensibilities and Casaubon’s pitiful frailties. In her last novel, Daniel Deronda, the title character’s delicacy of feeling and Mordecai’s spirit of self-sacrifice provide the counterpoint to Grandcourt’s hard, yet meticulously studied, masculinity. Both Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.
Sarah Wootton

5. George Eliot’s Byronic Heroes II: Later Works

Edward Dramin, in his article ‘Romanticism in the Late Novels of George Eliot’, argues that ‘Eliot’s ambivalence toward Romanticism in her late novels differs from the typical Victorian response in its intensity and complexity: finding more reasons for criticizing the Romantics than do other Victorians, she also finds more ways in which the Romantics are appealing’.1 The ‘intensity and complexity’ of Eliot’s divided response to Romanticism is best illustrated, for Dramin, in her last novel: ‘Daniel Deronda presents Eliot’s […] fullest examination of Byron. The growth of Eliot’s fiction from Felix Holt to Daniel Deronda shows the evolution of her view of Byron from bemused disdain to a broader, more ambivalent image which acknowledges the complexity and attractive dimensions of his creations and of Byron himself’ (‘Romanticism in the Late Novels’, p. 292). Put another way, Eliot’s preoccupation with Byron’s poetry and his reputation, not to mention his compelling politics, becomes more pressing in, and elemental to, her work. The persistent and intriguing presence of Byron in Daniel Deronda (1876) will be examined in Part II of this chapter. It is necessary, however, to pause over Dramin’s comment about Eliot’s earlier novel, given the number of direct references to Byron, and specifically the Byronic hero, in Felix Holt: The Radical (1866).
Sarah Wootton


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