Byron’s unfinished mock-epic flips its hero’s character. In other famous representations Don Juan is aggressive and arrogant yet here we find a softer, more naïve manifestation. We are privy to his childhood and upbringing and the adventures he falls into – shipwreck, slavery, and war among them. With so much drama within it may come as a surprise that it is the digressions of the narrator that leave more of a lasting impression.
The narrator and Byron are hard to separate, expressing many of the same views. The dedication, which was suppressed at the time of publication, is a biting critique of many of his contemporaries – Southey who he suspected of spreading rumours about him, and Wordsworth and Coleridge who many of the younger Romantics believed had sold out, all come under his scrutiny. Each canto digresses into the narrator’s views on political and religious figures including women pushing for more independence. These tangents are so frequent that it becomes difficult to follow the thread of the tale of Don Juan.
It received a difficult reception on publication. Being published serially as was the norm at the time it fell to two separate publishers to continue to bring it to the public as the irreverent language and content put some off. Unsurprisingly, Wordsworth was not an advocate, but Byron’s friend Percy Bysshe Shelley believed it to be quite remarkable. Today, it is a book that students struggle through and not many choose as their entry into Byron’s work, as I did. Lengthy and rambling, you feel at times as though you’re sat next to a gossipy aristocrat at a dinner party. Interesting for its insights into Byron’s own life and opinions, it is at times enjoyable and at others a bit of a slog.