Norman Beim’s fourth novel, After Byron (The Permanent Press), is an accessible and entertaining Gothic tale set in the Regency and Victorian eras.
The book seems to be primarily intended as an appreciation of the life and times of the English Romantic poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron, to whom there are numerous references and allusions. The “after” in the title After Byron is used in the sense of a work that adheres to the tone, structure and style of a mentor. If, as they say (actually, this was said by the eccentric English cleric and writer Charles Caleb Colton), that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” then Beim, a successful playwright, novelist, memoirist and actor, can be said to be paying homage to Byron, as well as recreating literary genres of Byron’s day. Beim incorporates diary entries, journal excerpts, letters and manuscript notes into his narrative—in the manner of 18th century Gothic novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In After Byron, Beim often nests his genres, putting notes inside the memoir, for instance, and recreating dramatic conversations in the letters—these devices allow him to show his characters from multiple points of view, sustains interest in the mystery at the heart of the tale. That mystery boils down to this: how did a certain nobleman’s wife die?
One of his contemporaries said of Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” For those familiar with Byron, After Byron will be a hoot. For others, there’s ample amusement, especially when Beim playfully slips modern expressions into this 19th century context—such as when the handsome aristocratic rake, Lord Ingersoll, Byron’s bosom companion, tells a woman he’s about to bed (named Clarissa!) that it’s time for “beddy-bye,” or when the same ladylove shows up unexpectedly at Lord Ingersoll’s home, explaining that “since Muhammad won’t come to the mountain…” Readers, especially those of a certain age—or of diminishing sexual stamina—can easily relate to the story’s theme, which is expressed in words that constitute the book’s epigraph and closing lines. They are from an 1817 Byron poem. “So we’ll go no more a-roving /So late into the night, /Though the heart be still as loving, /And the moon be still as bright./For the sword outwears its sheath, /And the soul outwears the breast, /And the heart must pause to breathe, /And love itself have rest.”
This poem, which Byron enclosed in a letter to his friend, the poet Thomas Moore, included an explanation: “At present, I am on the invalid regimen myself. The Carnival—that is, the latter part of it, and sitting up late o’ nights—had knocked me up a little. But it is over—and it is now Lent, with all its abstinence and sacred music…Though I did not dissipate much upon the whole, yet I find ‘the sword wearing out the scabbard,’ though I have but just turned the corner of twenty nine.” As Byronists well know, Lord B. indulged himself liberally with members of both sexes early and often, and also fancied alcohol and drugs. Fortunately for the world, his pen was not worn out—his later satires and letters from Greece are among the finest of their kind. Sated and cynical, Byron died at the age of 36, but with wit and wisdom the 92-year-old Norman Beim captures Byron’s way of living and loving by way of direct references to the poet’s life, and also in the character of the often cruel and cold, and always disreputable and scandalous, Lord Ingersoll, who lives in dark and murky Chillon (named after a poem by you-know-who, though this Chillon is in Southwark).
Beim has also created an intriguing cast of characters who play off Lord Ingersoll. There’s good guy, straight arrow Gerald Marston, apprenticing as a barrister as the story opens, who is hired to trail Lord I. to find out what happened to his wife. Calling himself George (don’t ask), he falls in love with Lord Ingersoll’s illegitimate daughter Diana—who returns his love. There’s also Lord I.’s current, but former, but maybe current-again lover, Inez Cortina, who lives with him after Lady Ingersoll has died on board a yacht under mysterious circumstances. And there’s young Crankshaw, Lord I.’s (ahem) “catamite” valet (look it up).
And, of course, add to this lots of gloom and doom, and Byroniana. Good fun.