Sunday, July 06, 2008

When the whole of your defense is that they weren't sisters and I only slept with one of them . . .

might it not be best to let the rumors go unanswered?

Perhaps not unexpectedly, that absurdly provocative lede carries us to a letter from Lord Byron, dated November 11, 1818, sent from Venice to his friend and informal agent John Cam Hobhouse along with a manuscript:
There are firstly--the first Canto of Don Juan . . . containing two hundred Octaves--and a dedication in verse of a dozen to Bob Southey {at the time Poet Laureate, reminds your obliging blogger}--bitter as necessary--I mean the dedication; I will tell you why.--The Son of a Bitch on his return from Switzerland two years ago--said that Shelley and I "had formed a League of Incest and practiced our precepts with &c."--he lied like a rascal, for they were not Sisters--one being Godwin's daughter by Mary Wollstonecraft--and the other the daughter of the present Mrs. G[odwin] by a former husband.--The Attack contains no allusion to the cause--but--some good verses--and all political & poetical.--He lied in another sense--for there was no promiscuous intercourse--my commerce being limited to the carnal knowledge of the Miss C[lairmont]--I had nothing to do with the offspring of Mary Wollstonecraft--which Mary was a former Love of Southey's--which might have taught him to respect the fame of her daughter.
Though it's hard to imagine a more un-Byronic figure than Anthony Powell {unless perhaps--and should I be sad about this?-- me}, I find I often link the two, primarily because of Powell's {remarkably non-prurient} fascination with the nearly infinitely variable ways in which sex takes--and even controls--people. I'm reminded of a line from his A Writer's Notebook (2001):
People always talk of a love affair as if lovers spent all their time in bed.
Then there's this, also from Powell's notebook, which--if you can get over the implied note of doubt about the feminine intellect--does seem to jibe with experience:
The really extraordinary thing about professional seducers is the drivel they talk, there is not a single cliche they leave unsaid. That is why they have such a success with women.
Even more, I'm put in mind of a line that Powell gives to the best friend of his narrator Nick Jenkins, composer Hugh Moreland, in Temporary Kings (1973), the penultimate volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. Moreland, who has been through his share of tempestuous affairs, offers this bit of wisdom from what will soon become his deathbed:
All other people's sexual relations are hard to imagine. The more staid the people, the more inconceivable their sexual relations. For some, the orgy is the most natural.
Which brings me to a line that one of Iris Murdoch's characters offers in one of her best novels, The Nice and the Good: (1968),
Sex comes to most of us with a twist.
Like the character who hears that statement in the novel, I don't quite buy it every day--but when I read Byron's letters for long enough I do begin to wonder . . .

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