Canto XIV begins with some "editorializing" on Byron's part. Man has no certainties in life, a fact which is proved by the proliferation of philosophical systems, which contradict each other. But what is the purpose of these skeptical speculations, he hears the reader ask him. His only excuse is, he answers, it's his way. He writes poetry as a form of play. The narrative in this poem, he says, is actually just a catch-all device. There is pleasure in publishing for him; it's a form of gambling. There is pleasure in waiting to see if the work is going to succeed or not. In addition, Byron says, what he publishes is of value to society, for he deals in facts, not fiction. It is an exposure of the hypocrisy, dullness, and boredom of high society. Following these stanzas is a set on women, whose lot, at best, Byron asserts, is an unhappy one.
With Stanza 31 Byron proceeds with his narrative. Juan in his new environment is a very adaptable young man and gets along well with all sorts of people:
Born with that happy soul which seldom faints,
And mingling modestly in toils or sports." (St. 31)
In fox hunting he shows a natural skill and conducts himself in such a way as to win the admiration of all. In conversation he remains alert, is a lively talker and a good listener. He avoids argument and humors the group he is a part of:
Now grave, now gay, but never dull or pert;
And smiling but in secret — cunning rogue. (St. 37)
He is an excellent dancer. It is no marvel that he is a general favorite:
A full-grown Cupid, very much admired;
A little spoilt, but by no means so quite;
At least he kept his vanity retired. (St. 41)
The women among the company show special interest in him. One of them is the Duchess Fitz-Fulke,
. . . a fine and somewhat full-blown blonde,
Desirable, distinguished, celebrated
For several winters in the grand, grand Monde: (St. 42)
where she has been the heroine of a number of exploits which the narrator could tell but won't. Currently, she has an admirer in Lord Augustus Fitz-Plantagenet. Her husband is not in the present company; in fact, she and the duke get along by keeping out of each other's way:
Theirs was that best of unions, past all doubt,
Which never meets, and therefore can't fall out. (St. 45)
It disturbs her good friend Lady Adeline greatly to see the duchess showing so much interest in Don Juan, or as Byron puts it, "to see her friend's fragility." She is also disturbed for Juan's sake, Byron says ironically; his inexperience moves her to pity. She is forty days older than he is; they are both twenty-one. (Sts. 42 and 44)
Lady Adeline therefore resolves to take such measures as are necessary. She is not concerned about the duke's making trouble; she is afraid the duchess will succeed and that she will have a quarrel with Lord Fitz-Plantagenet, who is aware of what is going on. So Lady Adeline consults with her husband, but his comments are not very helpful: He never interferes in anyone's business but the king's; he never judges from appearances; Juan is no fool and good rarely comes from good advice. He advises his wife to leave the parties to themselves. Having said this, he goes into his office — he is a member of the Privy Council — and as he leaves he calmly kisses his wife, "Less like a young wife than an aged sister" (St. 69). Lord Henry is "a cold, good, honourable man" who, Byron says, lacks soul or an indefinable je ne sais quoi.
As for Adeline, belonging to high society she does not have enough to do. "Her heart was vacant, though a splendid mansion" (St. 85). She loves her Lord Henry, of course, but that love costs her an effort; at least she thinks she loves him. There is considerable disparity of temperament between them. Adeline is not easily impressionable, but once she identifies herself with some object, she will be carried away.
Byron hints that the object may be Don Juan. "She knows not her own heart" (St. 91), and she has never really been in love. But Byron does not want the reader to make rash assumptions and warns him not to take it for granted that there will be an affair between Juan and Adeline. It's doubtful that Byron planned his story line very carefully in composing Don Juan; he seems to have relied on the spur of the moment.
In Canto XIII, Stanza 12, he promised the reader that there would be an affair between Juan and Adeline. Later, he seems to have changed his mind, and in Canto XIV, Stanza 99, he warns the reader not to assume that there will be an affair between the two:
Above all, I beg all men to forbear
Anticipating aught about the matter:
They'll only make mistakes about the fair,
And Juan, too, especially the latter.
And I shall take a much more serious air
Than I have yet done, in this Epic Satire
.It is not clear that Adeline and Juan
Will fall; but if they do, 't will be their ruin.
Byron sketches a situation and amplifies characterization in Canto XIV. There is Lady Fitz-Fulke, the mischief maker, an intriguante, who is out to trap Juan. Opposed to her is Adeline, who is eager to save Juan from the duchess and who is, of course, as Byron makes clear enough by innuendo, in danger of falling in love with Juan. Adeline is a kind of English Donna Julia. She is not the wife of a man who is more than twice her age, but she is married to a husband who is cold by nature and who is more interested in business than he is in her. She has a child, but her child is not enough to occupy her time. She is idle, lacks an object in life. The elegant high society she lives in encourages idleness in its women. She is frustrated without quite realizing it.
Lady Adeline is a more complex figure than Donna Julia and less passionate, but like Donna Julia, she is presented as a woman who does not know herself and who is going to rationalize. She and Donna Julia are sisters under the skin, deprived of satisfaction in the life of the affections, and not really willing to discipline themselves. But first they must find reasons for doing what they are going to do anyway.
Donna Julia lived in quite different circumstances; she did not move in the same kind of society as Lady Adeline. Although she belonged to the aristocracy, it does not seem to have been a very active aristocracy. Lady Adeline lives in an active society which she understands very well and which she can cope with. She is, in a way, a political figure in that her husband is a political figure. In this society she has a rival, whereas Julia had none, and that rival is at the present time her guest. As a character, she is more interesting, because less simple, than Donna Julia.
In Canto XIV the reader gets the first indication he has had of Juan's age since he left home at sixteen or seventeen. He was sixteen when he and Donna Julia fell in love. We are not told how many months have passed since that time and the time he embarks on the Trinidada. Obviously, we are to think of him as having been away from home between four and five years, since he is now twenty-one (Sts. 52 and 54). His mother intended him to be away four years altogether. Chronology doesn't mean much to Byron in Don Juan. Juan is twenty-one in England and that is all we need to know. Byron wants him to be twenty-one; he doesn't want to show us how he got to be twenty-one. As he says in stanza 54, "My Muse despises reference . . ." We don't know how much time he spent on the island in the Cyclades or in Russia. Juan has not merely grown older; he has matured (Sts. 31-41).
In Canto XIV for the first time Byron uses his hero Don Juan as an agent of satire. When Byron tells us that Juan smiles "in secret — cunning rogue!" at something that has been said, as he does in stanza 38, Juan is outside of his society and superior to it. Up to this point Don Juan has been identified with his society and is satirized with that society. In Russia, for instance, he is not superior to Russian society nor does he seem to see the weakness of it. In Russia, he is corrupted by a corrupt environment