Emily Brand, The Fall of the House of Byron, scandal and seduction in Georgian England,John Murray, 2020 – northernreader and I visited Newstead Abbey a couple of years ago – http://www.northernvicar.co.uk/2018/09/17/newstead-abbey-nottinghamshire/. I found it fascinating, she got frustrated that so much of the house is inaccessible if you’re in a wheelchair. Last month we listened to Emily Brand talking about the book at the HistFest Lockdown Festival – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_pbpV2COOk – and the lovely Cogito Books supplied me with a copy.
Newstead was owned by the poet Byron, and this book takes us back through his immediate ancestors – his father John (Mad Jack), his grandfather John (Foul-weather Jack), his grandfather’s brother William (The Wicked Lord), and his great grandparents William and Frances. There were times when the book is a bit complicated, it’s not always clear which Byron is which – so I decided I either read it slowly, looking back at the family tree at the beginning of the book, or I just read it as a good story. The historical research underpins the whole book, and there is a good index, bibliography and source notes, but Brand has written a good story. You can trace the decline of a family and a house – the Newstead we see today only survives because the poet Byron sold it to his friend Thomas Wildman, a man made rich by his plantations, the profits of slavery.
Brand tells a story made up of extraordinary characters, and she tells their story well. They are an amazing family (were they typical of the English dynasties of the eighteenth century?) and she has made them real people. The book would make a fun film. You can picture the children growing up, catch more than a glimpse of the role of the servant – especially Jo Murray, who lived and worked at Newstead for most of his 80 years, serving many different masters – and watch the financial and legal web that entwines them all. The sex and the scandal are certainly there, but the book isn’t written in such a way that sex overpowers the story. You realise how short life was, even for members of the Upper Classes. Their wives died in childbirth, their babies died before they became children, is it any wonder that they sought to live life to the full. Brand does not just write the life of the men, the women are characters in their own right as well – she gives them stronger profiles than is usual in history books. We see how the families, the men and women in them, fitted together – socially and geographically.
I was glad I had a little background knowledge of the period, but that Brand gave me the context I needed. It amazes me how these people travelled round the country in the days before the railways – the journey from Newstead to Castle Howard in Yorkshire, or to Naworth near Carlisle, or the young boy bought down from Aberdeen to visit his inheritance – how many days did it take on a coach from Aberdeen? Other stories take us to Europe, a succession of rented house in fashionable resorts, and across the world to be Governor of Newfoundland or to discover unknown islands in the Pacific. It would have been a fascinating time to be alive, as long as you had wealth and health. It is a good read, feed your imagination.
This guest post is from Northernvicar, (Husband) who found all the details of the book. I ordered it from https://www.cogitobooks.com/ who got it to us really quickly. Thank you for writing this post!