Don Juan is the first long work by Lord Byron that I've read and I read it because I was intrigued by Flora Thompson's Laura of Lark Rise to Candleford smuggling it into her room to read it after being warned off it by Miss Lane who observed that is was,
... a terrible book, she was told, and most unfit for her reading. 'I don't know why I haven't destroyed it long ago,' said Miss Lane. 'Next time there's a bonfire in the garden, I must see about it.'
But Laura read it:
She could not help it. How fascinating the book was! She felt she simply had to know what came next, and the blue skies and seas of those foreign shores and the seaside caves and golden sands and the wit of the author and the felicity of his language and the dexterity of his rhymes enchanted her. She was shocked by some of the hero's adventures, but more often thrilled. Laura learned quite a lot by reading Don Juan.
And so I read it too. It is a poem divided into seventeen cantos, the first two were published in 1819 and the poem, unfinished, was published as a whole in 1824. The character Don Juan was not invented by Lord Byron but had been in literature for some two hundred years; the first appearance of Don Juan is believed to be in Tirso de Molina's play El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest), first performed in around 1616. He would appear again in Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre (Dom Juan or The Feast with the Statue) by by Molière in 1665, and in other works. He was a womaniser, a libertine, but Lord Byron portrays him in his Don Juan as a more naïve and easily seduced.
In the beginning Byron tells of how Don Juan's father Don José died and Don Juan was left a great inheritance. His mother Donna Inez, who wished to divorce Don José for his adultery, educates Don Juan whilst protecting him from the evils of the world. Despite this his curiosity and natural urges lead him to have an affair with a woman seven years his senior, Donna Julia, and her husband Don Alfonso discovers them and threatens to kill Don Juan. Donna Julia is sent to a nunnery and Don Juan flees the country and embarks on his journey of discovery. He leaves for Italy, surviving a shipwreck (in which the crew resort to cannibalism), and falls in love with Haidée but her father, a pirate, sells Don Juan into slavery in Constantinople (Istanbul) where he meets another slave, an Englishman called Johnson, and the two are bought by a eunuch, Baba, for the wife of the sultan who intends to sleep with him, however he refuses, still in love with Haidée (who has died of a broken heart). He isn't able to escape until Russia attacks Turkey, at which point he joins the Russian army whereupon he meets Catherine the Great who falls madly in love with him. He returns to England as an ambassador with an orphan he adopted - Leila - who he places in the care of Lady Pinchbeck. From here we see Don Juan's adventures in England where he meets Lady Adeline Amundeville and Lady Fitz Fulke and sees the ghost of the Black Friar. The poem ends where he appears to be on the point of being seduced by Lady Fitz Fulke.
Don Juan is great fun, a sort of sexual odyssey, a coming-of-age story, and a satire of English society, and it contains various digs at other poets of the time - William Wordsworth (who he once referred to as "Turdsworth"), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Poet Laureate of the time Robert Southey:
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy:
With Crabbe it may be difficult to cope,
And Campbell's Hippocrene is somewhat drouthy:
Thou shalt not steal from Samuel Rogers, nor
Commit—flirtation with the muse of Moore.
Byron himself said of it that it was "a playful satire, with as little poetry as could be helped". It is an easy read - I was surprised, when I picked it up I thought I was in for a great trial and wondered if it was appropriate to read at the time I was beginning The Faerie Queene, but in fact it proved to be some light relief, enormous fun indeed. I've had a good introduction to Byron with this, I think.