Byron and Desmond Parsons in China sometime prior to 1937
|Born||26 February 1905|
|Died||24 February 1941 (aged 35)|
off Cape Wrath, Scotland
|Occupation||Author, historian, art critic|
|Genre||History, travel, non-fiction,|
|Subject||India, Middle East, Tibet, Persia, Afghanistan|
He was the son of Eric Byron, a civil engineer, and his wife Margaret Robinson, born in Wembley, London, on 26 February 1905, the only son among three children of civil engineer, and his wife, Margaret Robinson. He was educated at Eton College and Merton College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1925 in modern history. At Oxford he took part in the Hypocrites' Club.
Byron travelled in 1925 across Europe in a car to Greece, with Alfred Duggan and Gavin Henderson. It led to his first book, and a second was commissioned for Duckworth by Thomas Balston, to be on Mount Athos. He later visited India, the Soviet Union, and Tibet.
It was in Persia and Afghanistan that Byron found the subject to match his style of travel writing. He completed his account of The Road to Oxiana in Beijing, his temporary home. He innovated, compared with his major travel book rival Peter Fleming and others, by disregarding the conventional continuous narrative.
An appreciation of architecture is a strong element in Byron's writings. He was a forceful advocate for the preservation of historic buildings and a founder member of the Georgian Group. A philhellene, he also pioneered, in the English speaking world, a renewal of interest Byzantine History. Byron has been described as 'one of the first and most brilliant of twentieth-century philhellenes'.
He attended the last Nuremberg Rally, in 1938, with Nazi sympathiser Unity Mitford. Byron knew her through his friendship with her sister Nancy Mitford, but he was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Nancy Mitford hoped at one stage that Byron would propose marriage to her, and was later astonished as well as shocked to discover his homosexual tastes, complaining: "This wretched pederasty falsifies all feelings and yet one is supposed to revere it." According to Paul Fussell in his introduction to the Oxford paperback edition of "The Road to Oxiana" (1982) Byron was a fervent and vocal critic of Hitler, "object[ing] in the most violent terms to the Nazification of Europe and abusing those in England who imagined that some sort of compromise with this new wickedness was possible".
Byron's great, though unreciprocated, passion was for Desmond Parsons, younger brother of the 6th Earl of Rosse, who was regarded as one of the most magnetic men of his generation. They lived together in Peking, in 1935, where Desmond developed Hodgkin's Disease, of which he died in Zurich, in 1937, when only 26 years old. Byron was left utterly devastated.
Byron died aged 35 in 1941, during the World War II, when the ship on which he was travelling was torpedoed en route to Egypt. The SS Jonathan Holt, was attacked by U-97, a Type VIIC submarine, in the North Atlantic off Cape Wrath. His body was never found.
An acquaintance from early days, Evelyn Waugh noted Byron's gumption. In 1929 he wrote to Henry Yorke "I hear Robert has beaten us all by going to India in an aeroplane which is the sort of success which I call tangible." But writing in 1948, Waugh said of Byron in a letter to Harold Acton: "It is not yet the time to say so but I greatly disliked Robert in his last years & think he was a dangerous lunatic better off dead." The passionately anti-communist Waugh believed that during the 1930s Byron had become pro-Soviet, though Byron's - and Waugh's - biographer Christopher Sykes firmly denied any such sympathy on Byron's part.
In February 2012, his book Europe in the Looking Glass was serialised by BBC's Radio 4 Book of the Week. The program included detailed passages of Germany and an eyewitness report of the 1922 Greek refugee exodus and massacres following the Great Fire of Smyrna.[clarification needed]