I don’t know very much about the 19th century poet Lord Byron, so this will not have much of a historical perspective, and is mostly about the 2003 movie Byron. But it was rumored, during this lifetime, and continues to be a theory today, that he had an incestuous affair with his half-sister Augusta. (She was the daughter of his father’s first wife, and was five years older than him. They did not grow up together – Augusta was raised by her grandmother and other friends and relatives after her mother died. But they knew each other.) It is even rumored that one of Augusta’s children, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, was actually fathered by Byron and not by her husband. I don’t know very much about where these rumors or the evidence for these theories comes from, but apparently Byron went to visit Augusta and the newly-born Medora and wrote in a latter to a friend, “Oh, but it is not an ape, and it is worth while”, which, if he really did write that, seems pretty conclusive to me. I gather Medora is the name of a character from a poem written by Byron during a period of weeks when he and Augusta were trapped together at his home by snow.
It would seem they grew to be very close, whether it was an incestuous relationship or not. They wrote a lot of letters to each other, and Bryon’s only legitimate daughter (with his wife Annabella) was named Ada Augusta. Also, Bryon wrote “Stanzas to Augusta” and “Epistle to Augusta”. They are not considered to be major works by him, but it’s possible the rumors of incest are one of the reasons why they are not particularly popular compared to some of his other products. I won’t set about interpreting them, except to say they make it obvious that he loves her very much.
Oh, blest be thine unbroken light!
That watched me as a seraph’s eye,
And stood between me and the night,
For ever shining sweetly nigh. (from “Stanzas”)
My sister! my sweet sister! if a name
Dearer and purer were, it should be thine;
Mountains and seas divide us, but I claim
No tears, but tenderness to answer mine:
Go where I will, to me thou art the same –
A loved regret which I would not resign.
There yet are two things in my destiny, –
A world to roam through, and a home with thee. (from “Epistles”)
I don’t know for myself, but according to this anon, most movies about Byron either exclude Augusta, or exclude the incest. The exception seems to be Byron (2003), a British made-for-tv two-part miniseries starring Jonny Lee Miller as Byron and Natasha Little as Augusta. I recently watched it and can confirm that Byron/Augusta was canon as canon can be (in fact, a very fine example of it), and that the miniseries itself was good.
It’s actually rather curious – it’s like Byron wants to be all about Byron’s relationship with Augusta, but makes a half-hearted attempt to cram everything else in there. I kid you not when I say that Byron’s relationship with August was a larger part of the movie than anything else, pretty ironic given the fact that it’s not included in any significant way in any of the other biopics.
We glimpse Augusta reading Byron’s poetry earlier in the film, but the first real exploration of their relationship doesn’t come until about 30 minutes in. Late, yes, but the middle is so very much about his feelings for her that it hardly matters.
(However, their is an earlier scene in which Bryon receives a latter and I fancy it’s from her. It makes him very happy and he even postpones his lady caller in order to read it. We never find out what it was, unless I missed it.)
So Byron receives a note, which presumably says that Augusta is on her way to come visit him. He gets this huge smile on his face when he reads the note and then he begins straightening all his clothes and asks for his coat so he can look spiffy for her.
We jump to a little while later when he’s coming downstairs to greet her. They both smile so big and he kisses her hand. THEY ARE SO CUTE, I CAN’T EVEN.
Augusta greets him as “Georgie” and later on he calls her “Gus”. So I really don’t buy it when Augusta excuses their affair by saying that they “hardly know each other”. According to history they had regularly exchanged letters long before that point and the nicknames really belie her line.
Byron invites her to come up, and she says something about it being scandalous to go up to a gentleman’s apartment alone (it’s not clear whether she’s joking or not), and then he says that it’s all right because she’s his sister. I feel like this whole scene was set up so that we wouldn’t know who she was and would think they were former flames.
We jump to them having a meal together. Augusta tells him that she’s pregnant again, and he’s crestfallen about that. It’s not totally clear, because she’s telling him all about how her family is having financial problems and her husband is being a deadbeat, so he’s got a lot to not smile about, but it really does seem like the news about the pregnancy upsets him.
Augusta and Byron being in love with each other is really quite hilarious because of the type of people they are. Augusta is kind of silly – she laughs a lot and talks a lot and she’s just kind of girlish and goofy. And then we have Byron, the brooding poet, the intellectual and the philosopher, with anger issues and probably depression issues. And, with the exception of the incestuous affair, Augusta is really quite proper and sort of submissive, and Byron isn’t like that at all. Byron just sort of hates everybody except for his friends and disapproves of society. They are such a strange match. It really does make it seem as if he loves her first and foremost as a sister because that love isn’t based at all on respect, or having things in common, or physical appearance, or all of the things that might draw him towards a lover. But I do love the way in which they are opposites, because she’s such a light for him. I definitely think her good humor and levity has a great appeal for him. It makes him feel very affectionate towards her.
Byron has been having an affair with this crazy chick, and when he tries to break things off with her, she makes it very embarrassing for him, so he flees London to go stay with Augusta. He has a friend, Lady Melbourne (played by Vanessa Redgrave, and the same friend he wrote the “ape” letter to), and when he tells her that he’s leaving, she asks him if he has fallen in love. And he stares at her for a long time and then says, “I am quite done with falling in love.” Ironic, of course, but I have to wonder whether he already knew he was a little bit in love with Augusta, even then.
So he hangs out with Augusta a lot. It’s not clear how long he’s there, or whether they’re actually growing closer or whether they were already that close. Then he and Augusta go out horse back riding, and then they stop and relax by the river.
The tension doesn’t get turned up slowly, it’s there right from the start of this scene, hella intense. Augusta starts asking him about his lovers in London and then they start staring at each other, and then…the scene ends.
???? Byron then apparently decides he must leave right away.
Fletcher, Bryon’s servant, goes upstairs to tell his master that the carriage is all ready to go and packed, and he sees Byron and Augusta saying goodbye to each other. They are sitting across from each other on the sofa, staring at each other.
They hold hands, and Fletcher gets very uncomfortable and leaves. More staring. Then apparently Byron decides he must stay, and we cut to them about to have sex.
Ironically, Byron is the one talking about how sinful it is, and Augusta is the one arguing that it does no harm to anyone. (This is the part where she says, “We hardly know each other.” Right, Augusta. Whatever you say.)
Byron is majorly bummed when he has to leave.
When he gets back to London, he can’t wait to tell Lady Melbourne that he has a new lover but he won’t tell her who it is. He has told her that there is “great danger”, and Lady Melbourne has told him that he must “give it up”. He replies that he cannot, and when she says then that the woman must give him up, he says “She cannot.”
Byron believes he is a bad man and that he is far more to blame for his affair with Augusta.
He seems restless and unhappy in London. Then we cut to his estate during the winter, and Augusta is staying with him. There is heavy snowfall, and she is happily forced to stay for several weeks.
Byron refers to Augusta’s “crinkum-crankum”, which is not a phrase I’m familiar with, and apparently means “something full of twists and turns : a thing fancifully or excessively intricate and elaborate” . I am not sure at all what he’s talking about, because when he says it to her, it seems to mean her goofiness, but anyway, he says, “I can’t do without it”, which makes me cry.
Then more sex.
Then, during a meal, Augusta tells him that he should marry, because he needs a wife.
He replies, “You’re a wife. I’ll have you.”
She tells him that if he marries a wealthy woman, he might be able to save the family estate and get them both out of debt. But more importantly, she knows that she’s pregnant.
Presumably that same night, in bed, he quotes from Genesis to her, what Cain says to God after God banishes him: “Behold, thou hast driven me this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth”.
The two of them then actively try and find a wife for him, and settle on Annabella. Byron courts her through letters, and she agrees to the marriage.
Lady Melbourne figures out that Byron’s secret lover is his sister (“half-sister”, he corrects her). Lady Melbourne finds this “abhorrent”, and doesn’t care much about Byron’s defense that it was “standard practice in Ancient Greece” (source?). (Byron is a huge nerd about Greece.) Lady Melbourne asks Byron was his present feelings towards Augusta are, and he answers, “Half good, half diabolical.” Byron explains that he wants to run off with Augusta and go abroad, but she “will not abscond”.
Byron makes plans to come stay with Annabella’s family for Christmas, but then makes a detour and visits Augusta over Christmas. (Devastating Annabella.) Unfortunately for Byron, his brother-in-law is home for the holidays.
When Augusta and Byron are able to be alone, Byron shows how miserable he is, and says that his marriage should not happen. Augusta tells him that he should go to Annabella, and that she wants him to be happy. He says, “Only you make me happy.” AWWWWWWWW.
Then they make out. Woohoo!
The wedding goes through as planned, but Byron frequently frightens Annabella by saying such things as “We never should have married, I have done evil” and “I am in hell”. Poor girl. Byron attempting, very poorly, to make the marriage work takes up a considerable part of the middle of the movie but the way I see it, the way it comes off to me, is that it’s mostly about how miserable he is when he can’t be with Augusta.
Annabella wants to know how she might please him and make him happy, and he says, “I only want a woman to laugh. I don’t care what she is besides. I could make Augusta laugh at anything. “ He says something similar at another point about how he needs a woman who talks a lot (like Augusta), and he doesn’t like Annabella’s silence.
Byron starts to feel sorry for her, and tells her he’ll do anything for her that she wants. So what Annabella wants is to go and stay with Augusta. Ha! I get the impression that Byron has been talking about Augusta so much that Annabella thinks she might be able to get closer to him and get to know him better if she can make friends with Augusta. Byron doesn’t really want to do this, but he agrees. He’s restless when they get there (he wants a drink), and Fletcher, the servant, is nervous about what might happen, knowing what he does.
This is Byron’s first introduction to his daughter Medora.
Annabella remarks, “Definitely a Byron, isn’t she?” HA.
Byron is resentful towards Augusta during this visit.
While he, Augusta, and Annabella are sitting around talking, he references their winter together and calls Augusta the “chief architect of my fate”. Augusta is clearly unsettled by what he says.
He tries to remind him of his fortuitous marriage, but he says, “I should not have married at all.”
Annabella goes up to bed, and asks Byron if he’s coming with her, but he stays down with Augusta, laughing and drinking. Byron tries to kiss her, but Augusta says no, because his wife is under her roof.
Annabella and Augusta are talking later, and Annabella mentions that Byron has been much unhappier and less pleasant since they came to stay with her.
Augusta and Byron have another moment alone together. He is telling her how much he needs her, and she is saying that he is married now and their incestuous relationship must remain in the past. She tells him, “If you love me as you say , then you will try [to be a good husband].” And he answers, “I do love you.”
He doesn’t really try though. He continues to be unhappy and unpleasant. I blame his feelings for Augusta for 90% of it, but he also just can’t seem to connect to Annabella.
Lady Melbourne, who is Annabella’s aunt, warns her that Augusta is “very clever and very wicked”. Poppycock!
Augusta comes to visit Byron and Annabella when she is about to give birth to their daughter (aforementioned Ada Augusta). Byron’s former crazy lover is Lady Melbourne’s daughter (and Annabella’s cousin), and she puts it together about Byron and Augusta, and is troubled, as is Lady Melbourne, by Augusta’s visit. Lady Melbourne says, “She [Augusta] is his catastrophe.”
After the baby is born, Augusta tells Byron: “I hope you will be happy.” He says, “I will never be happy, nor will you.” Byron thinks that the Byrons are all doomed, he believes they are all predestined to misfortune.
Annabella leaves Byron and initiates divorce proceedings. The incest rumors pop up. Annabella’s cousin plays a large role in that. Byron is being shunned and there’s also some danger of prosecution for the incest, so his friends advise him to go abroad. (Historically they theorize the incest might have been part of the reason why he left England.) I really can’t think why, but before he goes, he takes Augusta to a party with him.
After things go so badly at the party (everyone turns their backs on them), Augusta also advises Byron to run away. They are in the carriage going home and he wipes her tears away with his handkerchief.
He asks her to come with him. She says, “I can’t, Georgie.” She has to think of her children, which, I assume, has been the main reason all along she has held back from their relationship. He begs, and she reiterates, “It isn’t possible, I can’t.” She never says she doesn’t want to.
He asks her again to come, and says he’ll write to her and tell her where to come. She makes him promise that he will write to her. He says, “Do you know how much I love you?”
Then they make out. Woohoo!
We jump ahead three years. The rest of the movie involves Byron’s adventures abroad. He’s in Venice, and then Greece eventually. He has several affairs and things but his letters to Augusta make it clear he still loves her. He seems pretty miserable still while he’s abroad. Like he’s living some kind of crazy drugged-out half-life, but that’s just my interpretation. He writes some good stuff and has some happy moments but he just seemed to be living very erratically. His friends seemed to think so too.
Meanwhile, in England, Annabella has it out for Augusta. She tells Augusta that she ruined her life. The amount of blame Annabella places on Augusta seems like a good indicator that Byron’s feelings for Augusta and their affair are responsible for a lot of what happened, including Byron going away.
Annabella is infuriated that Augusta isn’t more contrite. Augusta tells her that she never meant to hurt her and that their affair was over before Byron married her but she never shows actual regret. Annabella interferes with all of Byron and Augusta’s correspondence, reading the letters Byron sends to Augusta and telling Augusta that she can’t reply. I don’t know why Augusta lets her.
In one letter, Byron writes: “My sweet sister, we may have been very wrong, but I repent of nothing, except that cursed marriage. It is heartbreaking to think of our long separation, and, I am sure, more than punishment enough for our sins.”
Augusta wants to reply, but Annabella won’t allow it.
In another letter he writes, “Dearest Gus, when you write to me, tell me you love me. I miss you terribly.”
Augusta is very upset by these sad letters and cries while she reads them.
Eventually Byron falls sick in Greece and dies.
So, a sad ending, but lots of good stuff before that. Before I watched this, I was expecting the Augusta bit to be pretty small, just an affair in the middle of everything, and instead practically the whole movie was about it, and they were so deeply in love, the entire time.
The only place I could find this movie was on youtube. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. There’s something off about the aspect ratio, so I downloaded the videos and watched them in VLC player at 4:3, which I recommend.