I thoroughly enjoyed John Crowley’s latest book, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, though I don’t have all that much to say about it. It’s an amazing work of literary impersonation. Crowley’s conceit is to give us a supposedly lost manuscript of Lord Byron — his only novel, a semi-autobiographical Gothic romance — together with the circumstances of its loss and rediscovery. Crowley’s text has several layers: Byron’s novel itself (written in what is, to my untrained ear at least, a convincing channelling of Byron’s voice, style, and sensibility); a series of annotations on the text, by Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace (his only “legitimate” child, whom he never saw post-infancy, and who grew up to become Charles Babbage’s collaborator upon the Difference Engine, and arguably the first person to conceive the possibilities of computer programming); and an exchange of emails, dated 2002, among the people who discover and decipher the manuscript (which Ada had encrypted to preserve it from her mother, Byron’s estranged wife, who would otherwise have destroyed it).
The novel’s puzzles and collections of fragments give pleasure; recurrent themes of estranged fathers and longing daughters, of exile and reconciliation, are worked out in the book’s various parallel layers; and Crowley offers something of an apologia for Byron, against feminist charges that he was a misogynist, together with a quite poignant reconstruction/celebration of the life of Ada Lovelace (one recent biography suggested that her fame was unmerited, but Crowley argues for a more generous look at her potential, squelched as it was both by restrictions on women in the 19th century, and by her early death). All in all, though the Byron novel is briskly entertaining, it’s the parts about Ada, together with the 21st-century plot involving a woman’s (partial) reconciliation with her own father (a filmmaker exiled from the United States for Polanski-esque reasons) that have the most emotional weight. Lord Byron’s Novel is finally a trifle in Crowley’s oeuvre, an elegant, seemingly effortless performance rather than a plumbing of the depths, but that’s OK. It gives us something to ponder while we wait for the final volume of Crowley’s Aegypt tetralogy.