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Two hundred years since Lord Byron’s death, is our first true celebrity still the ultimate Bridgerton beau?

Two hundred years since Lord Byron’s death, is our first true celebrity still the ultimate Bridgerton beau?

Bridgerton is back, in another masterful exploration of human frailty. Regency romance has always been just as much about messy, relatable mistakes as it is about desire, or the search for fulfilment within rigid social confines. Our first true celebrity, Byron is the epitome of the aristocratic Regency hero: dark-haired, brooding, passionate and conflicted. Famously mad, bad and dangerous to know, Byron spawned generations of romantic heroes. My bet is that Byron would have been quick with an annihilating put-down about the genre but secretly delighted by his influence. Regency romance has grown and evolved over the years, now populated by heroes of many kinds: Colin Bridgerton is kind, sensitive and understanding in a way that strikes a chord with modern audiences. Is Colin really Byronic, too, or have we moved on?

Historical romance spans centuries, from the Viking era to the Victorian and beyond. Thanks to Jane Austen, the high stakes of securing a girl’s marriage and reputation in the Regency are familiar, but Austen’s world was not the ton. In Bridgerton and the majority of Regency romance, we’re in the same aristocratic universe as Lord Byron. Across centuries, Byron projects a uniquely glamorous and dramatic public image, cruelty and self-absorption initially eclipsed by sheer charisma. Is it thanks to the iconic poet that there’s something equally alluring and aristocratic about the way we even perceive the Regency to begin with? There was a bleak side to the period: cruelty and selfishness built in to a society where the counterpoint to ballrooms was a six-year-old child hanged for stealing bread. It helps that like all Regency heroes, the leading men in Bridgerton are attractive in a way we can relate to, just as Byron was himself. There’s no need to see past a powdered wig or a ruff. What’s not to love about fashionably dishevelled hair and a really well-cut jacket?

Colin Bridgerton is kinder and more honourable than Byron, but he’s still driven by a recognisably Byronic urge to seek meaning for his life by travelling overseas. There are more echoes of the celebrity poet in Shondaland’s Bridgerton universe. Anthony demonstrates the kind of high-handed toxicity Byron was more than capable of, especially in relation to his daughter Allegra: placed in a convent against the wishes of her mother. What would Byron have made of Bridgerton’s queer storylines? Byron’s own sexual identity was complex to say the least, with aspects that had to be concealed at all cost.

In the end, just like Cressida Cowper, Byron plummeted from his position at the pinnacle of high society. Byron died in exile, and the nature of his fall highlights the sheer unfairness driving so much of the drama in all Regency romance, Bridgerton included. Byron’s crowning sin was a rumoured affair with his sister; as a relatively powerless girl, Penelope Featherington risks social ruin just by writing a gossip column from her wallflower’s position on the edge of high society. Penelope’s writing causes real harm and yet she writes not just to be truly herself but to maximise the miniscule share of power allowed to her by family and society alike. Byron casts his shadow here, too: his former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, fell from grace after satirising Byron and the rest of the ton in her novel, Glenarvon.

One of the reasons we love Shondaland’s Bridgerton so much is that there is no such thing as a two-dimensional character in this Mayfair universe. We’re shown what drives everyone’s worst instincts, from Anthony’s alpha male desire for control to Cressida Cowper’s desperate bid for freedom. Even the magnificently awful Lady Featherington finds redemption. Incandescent talent aside, Byron’s moments of heroism are all the more piercing because of his capacity for self-destruction. A true radical, Byron spoke up in the House of Lords, mounting a scathing attack on the government’s introduction of the death penalty for Luddites or ‘frame-breakers’, skilled weavers who opposed mechanised weaving and the loss of their livelihood: Eloise would have approved of that.

Byron was denied the happy conclusion that must finish every Regency romance: really, he denied it to himself. Unlike Penelope, he never achieved complete redemption. Unlike Colin, he never came to realise that what he needed all along was waiting for him at home. There was little romance in Byron’s own love life, which was characterised by pleasing himself and disregard for the impact of his actions. Even in Shondaland’s Regency, a fairer place than our own, it seems likely that Lord Byron would have been too selfish to follow the hero’s path towards self-discovery, hand-in-hand with his beloved.

My Lady’s Secrets, by Katy Moran, published by Aria (Head of Zeus) on 4th July (UK), in hardback, eBook and audio, online and in all good bookshops.

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