‘If I have deviated into the gloomy vanity of “drawing from self,”’ Lord George Byron wrote in the dedication to The Corsair, ‘the pictures are probably like, since they are unfavourable’.
The Corsair, published in 1814, tells the story of Conrad, a wild and ruthless Aegean pirate whose only virtue is the love he feels for the gentle Medora. There is nothing remarkable about his appearance, Byron tells us, but beneath the quiet exterior there is passion, pride and a defiant, calculated callousness, characteristics that set him apart from other men. Brutalised by childhood ill-treatment, detested and feared, Conrad is a lonely tragic hero who is destined never to enjoy peace or happiness. The Corsair was an immediate success, confirming Byron’s importance as the most popular and influential poet of his generation.
How does this work relate to the Brontës?
The young Brontës were familiar with the life and work of Byron from literary magazines and the collected or cheap editions in their father’s library. Despite its reputation for immorality, they were avid readers of Byron’s poetry, and in 1834 Charlotte recommended her friend Ellen Nussey to omit Don Juan and perhaps Cain but to ‘read the rest fearlessly’. Their enthusiasm for Byron’s work is most obvious in the Brontës’ juvenilia, the stories they wrote together as children, especially in the Angrian tales of Charlotte and Branwell and the Gondal saga of Emily and Anne, but Rochester and Heathcliff bear many characteristics of the Byronic hero. Both are outsiders, doomed by character or circumstance to despair and isolation. Rochester is reprieved at the end of the novel, but Heathcliff remains ‘like the Corsair,‘ as one contemporary critic wrote in The Examiner, ‘linked to one virtue and a thousand crimes’.