This is the eleventh instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834. Here we turn to plate eight which introduces a second ‘Byron Beauty’. This young woman proves to be dramatically inspirational.
Byron left Lisbon on 20 July 1809 and the next day begin a ride on horseback of four hundred miles to Cadiz. He took five days in blazing heat to reach Seville, where he rested for three days before completing the journey in two days via Jerez.
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They were travelling through a territory affected by war. Despite the French army being expelled from Lisbon in September 1808, they had made continued inroads in Spain. The fighting was often brutal. Particularly so in the north-easterly city of Zaragoza. It was besieged and assaulted over six weeks in July and August 1808, until the French withdrew. They returned in December and battle continued until near the end of February when the Spanish were forced to capitulate with 54,000 dead and the city largely in ruins.
In 1809 it began to appear as if the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula would become a last redoubt, and symbols of hope and resistance were urgently required. The first siege was largely the tooth-and-nail struggle of desperate civilians against an organised military, but one incident stood out for celebration.
As the French had forced their way into the city a young woman, Agustina d’Aragon, took supplies to the men on the ramparts. Too late; they were all lying dead or wounded. Almost in the teeth of the French bayonets she threw herself on a cannon and fired the charge. Point-blank the rank of French troops was destroyed. The survivors rallied and the attack was repulsed.
The episode rapidly became legend, and a rallying-point during the Spanish resistance which followed. In 1809 Charles Richard Vaughan published a thirty-three page Narrative of the Siege of Zaragoza in which he vividly described the Maid’s actions (pp.15-16)
Images began to circulate. Most inspirational was an engraving by Fernando Brambila after a painting by Juan Galvez in a series called ‘Ruinas de Zaragoza’. The British Museum has a copy:
She reappeared with greater artistic depth in an etching made by Goya for his major series ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-12). The British Museum also has a copy of this:
Vaughan’s account might well have inspired Byron to include the Maid of Zaragoza’s story in his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Following his account of Portugal Byron devotes several stanzas to the journey through southern Spain, musing upon themes of former glories, contrasting with the waste and destruction of the present war and the seemingly inevitable threat of being engulfed by the French. Whereupon he turns to the story of the Maid:
The core theme of both Vaughan and Byron’s accounts is the contrast between the Maid’s youth and beauty and her adamantine resolve and martial ruthlessness. More generally she represents new possibilities for women to have startling societal agency. She is cited even today as a feminist icon, for example in a 2008 essay by Susan Valladares.
Byron was impressed by the ladies that he met in Spain. In Seville his party stayed at the house of two unmarried women. On the morning of their departure one of them gave him a long tress of her hair, told him how much he pleased her, and enquired why he hadn’t accepted her invitation to visit her room in the middle of the previous night. In the next instalment we will hear of a second encounter with a young lady of unusually frank self-agency in Cadiz. Peter Cochran says that at this point Byron’s only previous sexual experience was with servants or prostitutes. That is, across a power gradient. These Spaniards proved unnervingly independent.
He rather betrays himself in the next two stanzas of Childe Harold, which might best be described as something of an effusion:
In a note to the published poem Byron claimed that he had actually seen the Maid of Zaragoza whilst he was in Seville, when she was taking walks in the Prado – a park not far from the cathedral. Indeed, he congratulates himself on seeing her in the pomp of her youth and beauty. For now we can perhaps let this rest with the observation that his account of her and of Spanish womanhood in general appears conflicted between noble admiration and lecherous eroticism.
So what might all this have represented to the expanding European consciousness of a contemporary reader? We have already discussed how such images might have provided a point of identification for female followers of the Illustrations. Even without knowing anything about the context, the image offers an archetype of exotic south European beauty. Even a reader with the haziest familiarity with Byron, would have been aware of his sexual mystique. Notwithstanding the risk of alienating his British ‘paler dames’ with their ‘poor forms’, his description of their condition as ‘languid, wan and weak’, points to what would have been a widely-held perception of the enervating dreariness of bourgeois drawing room confinement.
Charlotte Bronte was one such that created an imaginative space in the drawing-room of the Haworth Parsonage. The collection there preserves a watercolour copy by her of the ‘Maid of Saragosa’. There is an image of the watercolour and the original engraving on the excellent website of Brontebabeblog,
The site explores Charlotte Bronte’s early work and dramatis personae. The image appears to have inspired the creation of the character Mina Laury. I will let the reader explore that world at leisure, but for our present purposes her watercolour represents a wonderful instance of one dreamwork speaking to another across a remarkable variety of historical and geographical relations.
Barricades and cannon apart, the Maid represents a world more intense. A European stage on which we might break from our confines and realise so much more of ourselves than when confined at home. Recent generations have enjoyed the peace and opportunity to do just that; even if many have been less improved by it than they ought to have been. Sadly, in 2016 about a quarter of the U.K. population voted to ‘take back control’. Presumably they liked to imagine that we will be safer hunkered down on our nice safe little island. Everything will be better of course once we don’t have to deal any more with all those rampantly feisty Europeans.
Next: The delights of Cadiz