Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

Crowley, John. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land. William Morrow, 2005.

I’ve been awaiting new John Crowley novels for over a decade now, ever since I first read Little, Big (certainly his most well known novel) and Aegypt (1987) (arguably his masterwork in progress). The thing is, I’ve been waiting for more novels in his Aegypt series. At a projected 4 volumes (really one long novel broken into pieces) I’m still waiting. Daemonomania (2000), the third, was published with little fanfare 5 years ago. Since then Crowley has been exploring other worlds, first with his mostly realist The Translator (2002), a collection of short stories (Novelties and Souvenirs (2004)), and now Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, a title as descriptive as one could be. I’m still waiting for the conclusion to Aegypt (at the rate he’s been putting them out, the next one should appear in ’06 or ’07) but this was an interesting diversion in the meantime.

The novel exists on three or (arguably) four levels/time periods. The majority of the book is taken up by a heretofore unknown novel by the poet Lord Byron called “The Evening Land”. Obviously Crowley has invented the novel, but mention of such a work having been started is found in the documents of history. The epigraph to the novel hints at the history to the fiction:

I began a comedy, and burnt it because the scene ran into reality–a novel, for the same reason. In rhyme I can keep more away from the facts; but the thought always runs through, through… yes, yes, though. –Byron, Journal, November 17, 1813.

It is this running “into reality” that occupies the other levels of the story. Each chapter of the novel is annotated by a section of notes from Ada Byron, the poet’s enstranged daughter, known historically as a close friend of Charles Babbage and the inventor of what is considered the first computer program. Her notes address some of the historical/autobiographical aspects of the novel as well as her own relationship with her father (who she never saw past the age of four).

Outside the novel and its annotations is the old story of the found manuscript, the secret encoded manuscript of dubious authenticity. On this level we read the email exchanges between Alexandra, in England to research woman of science for a website and present for the unearthing of the novel, her lover Thea back in the States, and Alexandra’s long enstranged father Lee, a documentary filmmaker and former Byron scholar. The paralells are rather obvious, yes? It is from the parallels between the Byron/Ada and the Alexandra/Lee relationships where the contemporary sections of the story gain their resonance and interest. Lee’s story is oddly reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s.

Byron’s novel, being a pastiche of the nineteenth century novel, is fairly well-constructed if a little rough around the edges. With the conceit that Byron didn’t spend time rewriting the book, we can give Crowley the benefit of the doubt for leaving things a little loose and inconsistent. The book starts of as a gothic tale with the mysterious east (in this case Albania), then the Scottish moors and apparently supernatural occurrences. Telling the story of Ali, the protagonist, it is a bildungsroman which also becomes a society novel of marriage and deceit. In the end it also starts a kind of political revolutionary tale which is cut short (much like Byron’s life), in the end. My reading of eighteenth and nineteenth century novels is slim, so I can’t make detailed commentary on the success of Crowley’s pastiche. I found the narrative voice and style believable in that capacity.

The annotations of Ada and the comments of Alexandra and Lee highlight the autobiographical content of the Byron novel and its status as a roman a clef, which I would otherwise be unaware of (but for the smallest of details). In this type of novel, one is inevitably drawn to the activity of separating the real facts of the story from the fictional facts. I believed the autobiographical content of the novel with its accompanying annotation but disbelieved the story that is created for events after Byron’s death (based on the fact that such a novel and thus the providence of its hiding and discover does not exist). WIthout real knowledge of Byron’s life, though, even the supposed “real facts” could be made up. This is nicely evoked in the elements of Byron’s story itself, where it is said that his wife worked to exaggerate the infamy of Byron and his damages against her: facts that were generally believed as “true” even in their falsehood.

While, as noted, the style pastiched in this novel is not to my taste, I enjoyed it more and more as the book went on. Crowley skillfully intertwines the narrative levels. While not retaining the beauty of Little, Big it also does not lose steam towards the end as that novel does. The characters and their situations are less engaging than those in the Aegypt series (though both books share the inclusion of novels from the past as offering thematic connections to the narrative present). Still, it is a worthy read and a fine place for readers unwilling to tackle the larger works.