THE MARCHESA LOIS ORIGO, who is a young Englishwoman, has already proved her literary skill with a little study of Leopardi which appeared last year. In this book she undertakes the study of one episode in the life of another Romantic poet, Byron, whom contemporaries regarded as the chief of all. To this day he enjoys a greater reputation on the Continent than even Wordsworth, as Senor de Madariaga was once gracious enough to remind us.
Allegra, who is the subject of this little book, was the daughter of Lord Byron by Jane Clairmont (generally talled Claire), and she was born out of wedlock. She lived to be only five years old, but her life touched the lives of such interesting people as the Shelleys--Shelley appears to have been generally more solicitous for the child's welfare than Byron was. "And did you see Shelley plain?" Allegra did many times. Her death brought genuine grief to Byron, who loved her as the image of himself, after the manner of so many egoistic parents. The Marshesa is justified in emphasizing this point.
What is the reader to decide about Allegra and Byron, now that moralistic criticism is out of fashion? One is always at loss somehow in endeavoring to avoid becoming the Pharisee and declaring self-righteously, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." For the Romantics were good poets but very unlovely men, and Byron was the most unmanageable of the lot. Despite his years at Harrow and at Cambridge, Byron never quite learned what was cricket and what was not. If many of his acts had been committed by anyone other than a poet, that person would long ago have found himself in the dock of the historians' Old Bailey, and the unanimous verdict of those moralists would have condemned him to everlasting infamy as a cad. Even as it is, his biography is not a pretty tale, but it has the sort of satanic interest which always clings to the "roses and raptures of vice." Of all its episodes, the one involving Jane Clairmont and Byron, with the Countess Guiceioli bobbing up and down and Allegra abandoned to the Carbonari and the managerie and the Hoppners and the Capuchin Convent in Bagnacavallo is the least edifying.
The Marchesa's book belongs to the class of literature in which one finds Mrs. Virginia Woolf's "Flush" and Thomas Mann's "Bashan and I," attempts of highly sophisticated writers to plumb the depths of child or animal minds and to reconstruct the experience of events witnessed by such minds.