Byron, Russia, and Don Juan
Russia posed a problem for Byron when writing Don Juan, for although he’d never been to Russia, the geographical, historical, and sexual themes of his comic epic dictated that his hero should go there. As a result of his study of Scott’s Waverley Novels, he was determined that no episode should pass without a firm backing either in his own experience, or in authentic prose sources.
There were a number of reasons why Juan should visit Russia. Firstly, he was enslaved in Constantinople, and had to escape – Russia was the nearest stopping-off point on his anti-clockwise trip around Europe. Secondly, Byron knew that no epic in the tradition in which he wrote – that of Pulci, Ariosto and Tasso – was complete without a Christian army besieging a Moslem city, and Suvorov’s siege of Ismail fitted into his poem’s time-scheme.
But the third and most important reason was that the main theme of Don Juan is not – as in the Molina/Moliere/Mozart tradition – the male sexual appetite, but the female sexual appetite. Juan is throughout the passive victim of predatory women. And the most famous example in recent history of a woman with a large sexual appetite, and the power to satisfy it, was Catherine the Great. The hero of Byron’s favourite novel (Scott apart), that is, Thomas Hope’s Anastasius, had thought of going to Russia to try and become one Catherine’s toyboys: Byron was determined that his hero should succeed – and take the consequences.
This paper will chart Byron’s use of what sources he had to hand in making Juan’s Russian visit look authentic.
Paper given at the Fifth Fitzwilliam Colloquium in Russian Studies "British Perception and Reception of Russian Culture, 18th-20th Centuries", Cambridge, 2012. Full text published in A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture, ed. By Anthony Cross. Open Book Publisher, 2012.