British Romantic poet renowned for his prodigious sexual and intellectual appetites
Labeled as "mad, bad and dangerous to know" by embittered ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron was also a man preoccupied by his weight. Though the author of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the Don Juan cantos is often portrayed as slender and consumptive, the flesh-and-blood Byron experienced extreme fluctuations in weight throughout his life. In a biography published in 1844, John Cordy Jeafferson warned his public that "readers should be duly mindful of [Byron's] morbid propensity to fatten" (Jeafferson 1883: 69), inadvertently demonstrating that the romantic male ideal of the 1800s was a man possessed of a lean physique. He was, as one writer subsequently noted, "inclined to obesity" (Abeshouse 1965: 13). Jeafferson goes on to speculate that Byron's struggle with his weight was compounded by his "lameness" (he was born with a club foot), which, as another biographer Martin Garrett notes, has also been seen as the root cause of his sexual excess.
By all accounts, Byron worked hard to stay thin. In his early thirties, while traveling and writing poetry in Italy, Byron announced to friends that he was on a claret-and-soda-water diet to help him manage his weight. Indeed, his favorite diet meal consisted of biscuits and soda (Abeshouse 1965: 13). At one point, Byron refused a huge meal set before him and "dined on potatoes sprinkled with vinegar," following one of the fad diets of the time (Abeshouse 1965: 13). He "starved to keep himself thin; then famishing, devoured a heavy meal; then he suffered for it and took overdose of magnesia" for indigestion (Abeshouse 1965: 13). Jeafferson notes that while in Missolonghi in western Greece, Byron "measured himself around wrist and waist and . . . whenever he found these parts, as he thought, enlarged, took a strong dose of medicine" (Garrett 2000: 486). Anecdotes such as these have led biographers like Martin Garrett to claim that Byron had an eating disorder, thus betraying a modern scientific sensibility that subjects changes in body weight to the "gaze" of psychopathology. Yet Byron himself questioned the efficacy of "over-dieting," which he claimed was the "cause of more than half our maladies," through "putting too much oil into the lamp" until "it blazes and burns out" instead of burning "brightly and steadily" (Blessington 1969: 367).
See also Brillat-Savarin
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