Throughout his short life and in the years that have followed Byron has always been considered to be a wonderful mass of contradictions and with peculiar regularity he can still arouse fury, passion, loyalty and debate – however, Byron would only think of himself as le diable boiteux – the lame devil.
He was born on this day in 1788 with a malformation of his right leg and foot which he believed to be the worst catastrophe of his entire life and as a figure of intrigue, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that the nature of his deformed limb should also provoke controversy!
Researchers have tended to support the opinion that Byron’s deformity was a club foot citing the evidence of a letter written by his father ‘Mad Jack’ to his sister Fanny Leigh in February 1791:
For my son, I am happy to hear he is well; but for his walking ’tis impossible, for he is club-footed.
Within days of Byron’s birth, Catherine had consulted the eminent Scottish surgeon John Hunter for his opinion on the baby’s deformity and also to inoculate ‘young Master Byron’ against the contagious disease Smallpox.
For at that time the fear of Smallpox was very real and Catherine would surely have remembered the recent epidemic resulting in the death of many young children in her home town of Banff in Scotland.
Interestingly, another mother the Hon. Judith Milbanke, Byron’s despised mother-AT-law was also an enthusiastic advocate of the Smallpox inoculation and her determination was known AND feared as she encouraged her tenants in the seaside town of Seaham to inoculate their young.
Although Hunter’s surviving case books refer only to Byron’s inoculation with no mention of his deformity; the author Fiona MacCarthy in Byron Life and Legend and having studied a pair of the poet’s boots in the John Murray archive believes Byron’s deformity was NOT a club-foot as previously argued but the result of dysplasia; a condition in which the leg and foot having failed to develop properly before birth had left him with a ‘grotesquely thin calf’ and a tiny foot which turned inward.
Even Byron’s contemporaries would bicker with each other as to which was Byron’s lame leg for we have the surgeon and sister believing that it was the right foot and the pugilist, author and cobbler arguing that it was the left!
Byron’s first biographer and friend Thomas Moore remained unsure and Edward John Trelawny who reinvented himself as a ‘Cornish Corsair’ in honour of Byron’s famous poem argued that the poet had in fact ‘two-clubbed feet, and his legs withered to the knee.’
However, I am happy to leave the final word to the poet’s mother who had written that:
George’s foot turns inward, and it is the right foot; he walks quite on the side of his foot.
During a visit to Byron’s ancestral abode in Nottingham, I photographed a pair of his shoe lasts on display at Newstead Abbey along with a letter from his shoemaker William Swift who states that the reason for Byron’s lameness was a damaged ankle and if I have read it correctly – Swift believes that it was the left leg!
All we can know for sure is that Byron saw his deformity as a ‘mark’ for he was put under the care of a quack doctor who having tried and failed to repair the deformity with force had left him with physical pain throughout the rest of his life and one can only imagine the torment he had suffered from the other boys while at school and later as he became an very public object of pity to others:
The M(orning) Post in particular has found out that I am a sort of R(ichar)d 3d – deformed in mind & body – the last piece of information is not very new to a man who passed five years at a public school.
Byron would blame the ‘false delicacy’ of his mother with her insistence upon the wearing of a tight corset and of her modesty during the obstetrical examinations which had crippled and cursed him and as she was known to call him a ‘lame brat’ during their frequent and volatile arguments, his belief that she alone was the cause of his deformity would have a powerful effect upon his relationship with her throughout his life.
However Byron considered his lameness, it would be of little consequence to the swarms of women who had sought a introduction to him during the Season of 1812 and it is possible that his sliding gait only enhanced his attractiveness rather like the little bird with the broken wing.
His self deprecation about his ‘little foot’ never left him even in the final months of his life in Missolonghi in 1824 surrounded as he was by confusion, squabbling, mud and rain:
I do not know how it will end……but one thing is certain, there is no fear of my running…
AND as today is Lord B’s 230th birthday I’m off in search of a large plate and ONE dessert fork in which to enjoy a large slice or three of this delicious cake in his honour!
The Trouble of an Index Byron’s Letters and Journals Volume 12 Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (Harvard University Press 1982)
Byron Life and Legend Fiona MacCarthy (London: John Murray 2002)
My Amiable Mamma A Biography of Mrs. Catherine Gordon Byron Megan Boyes (Derby: M. Tatler & Sons Ltd 1991)