British journalist and author Antony Peattie traces the condition of anorexia in England’s celebrated poet, Lord George Byron, in his soon-to-be-released book
Lord Byron, the 18th-century, Romantic era poet, was known as much for his flamboyant affairs, as he was for his literary genius. However, it is only in the past decade, that details of his health — his eating disorder, anorexia, in particular — are being talked about.
This is what acclaimed British author Antony Peattie has been researching for the past 14 years. The result is a book, The Private Life of Lord Byron, set to be published soon. On his India tour, he narrated what he learnt about Lord Bryon’s past that may have led to him developing the disorder. Edited excerpts:
What did you discover about Lord Byron’s condition of anorexia?
1873 was when anorexia was first recognised by the medical profession, 49 years after Byron’s death. His own condition was diagnosed retrospectively in 1982. But going through his correspondences and biographies now suggests that he was severely anorexic. His Italian lover, countess Teresa Guiccioli (who was with him during the period that he wrote Don Juan), describes, that for him, fasting was a philosophical endeavour. Accounts say that he ate only six biscuits, along with soda water, in one day, in the latter part of his life.
When is it that the first symptoms of anorexia began appearing in Lord Byron?
Like all eating disorders, his anorexia was also psychological. To understand that, we’ll have to look at his childhood history. His father Jack Byron married his mother Catherine Gordon, who was the heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. They met at Bath, which by the way, was the informal marriage market of that time. Jack Byron, unfortunately, was a ‘rake’ — he tended to gamble away his money, and also had affairs with other women. Catherine soon lost her estate paying off Jack’s debts.
Catherine moved to France, along with Jack, to get away from the creditors, returning to England to give birth to Byron. Lord Byron was only three-and-a-half years old when his father passed away; he was raised by his mother, alone. She was said to treat him coldly. She also scorned him for his lameness. They were poor for six years, until he turned 10, and inherited some property.
Byron’s anorexia began when he was 18. He was overweight as a child, and was advised by doctors to diet. However, even after he reached his target weight, dieting was something that he continued to do, throughout his life. He had found that he could live without eating much.
Did psychologists throw any light on the causes of Byron’s anorexia?
I did speak to psychologists to understand the condition. In Byron’s case, he was trapped in debt, and living alone with his mother, who he wasn’t on great terms with. He never saw his father after the age of two- and-a-half, but idolised him. But he blamed his mother, and rejected her for being overweight. He was also born with a stiff right ankle that drew ridicule. Being thin, for him, became a way to exert control over his body.
As an adult, Byron has been described as ‘an alabaster vase lit up from within’. He felt proud of starving himself, and felt it appealed to women. In his relationship with women as an adult, he tended to look towards ones who provided him with ‘motherly’ love and care. He liked being coddled; his half-sister, also his lover, would call him ‘Baby B’.
Later in his life, he gave it a philosophical context, treating fasting as a part of anti-materialism, going against the flesh. He remained active, however, swimming in the Thames in England, the Tagus, the Grand Canal in Venice and across the Hellespont in Turkey.
Why is it that when we think of anorexia, we tend to picture a woman, and not a man? Are there any sanctions that society poses on ideal body types for women?
Anorexia in women is well documented, but not in men. On an average, it is more likely for a woman to be anorexic. However, the condition is not any different in males: both are victims of compulsion. The cause for starvation is the same.
It is possible that women’s bodies surprise them more, and undergo bigger changes, so the need to exert control over the body may be higher. It is also possible that body image is more central in women’s lives.
But it would not be correct to say that the society’s ideals are entirely responsible. In Lord Byron’s time, in fact, the ideal body type for men was John Bull: the personification of England, as a stout, sensible and cheerful man. Being mean, or having muscles, was a sign of being from the lower classes, and doing physical labour.
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