Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Letters of Lord Byron - selected by R G Howarth

Lord Byron is one of the most famous literary figures the world has ever known. Whether his fame is due to his romantically early death in the cause of Greek independence or because of his scandalous private life, Byron was famous amongst his contemporaries & remains famous today. His fame should rest on his wonderful poetry & his letters, which I've been reading over the last month, rather than speculation about whether he had an affair with his half-sister or what he could possibly have done to make his wife leave him only a year after their marriage. The letters are full of fun & wit. I laughed out loud often but Byron also writes of his misery over the death of friends; his despair at his famously unhappy marriage & the aftermath of his separation from Annabella. He tells a fantastically good story & often skewers an opponent (often his much-loathed mother-in-law, Lady Noel) with a witty phrase.

His correspondents include his half-sister, Augusta, his friends, Thomas Moore & John Cam Hobhouse, & his publisher, John Murray. The letters to Murray are my favourites. In between instructions for the publication of his latest work, he implores Murray to send him supplies of magnesia, corn plasters & tooth powder. Quotations from Shakespeare (particularly Macbeth), Scott & other favourite authors are just dropped in everywhere, in the middle of sentences, as if his thoughts were a mixture of  his reading & his own experience.

Most of the letters were written in his self-imposed exile in Italy, where he went to escape the gossip surrounding the end of his marriage. Byron was already famous for his poetry by this time, especially Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which drew on his experiences travelling in Greece & the Middle East. His style is so readable, racy & colloquial, like a novel in verse, giving the impression that it was just dashed off, written as quickly as it can be read. The public confused the man with his creations & the image of the Byronic hero was an amalgam of Byron himself & his characters. His relationships, most notoriously with Lady Caroline Lamb, who called him "mad, bad and dangerous to know" & wrote a novel, Glenarvon, about their affair, added to the mystique surrounding him.

As you can see, I kept putting sticky notes in my copy as I read & I'd much rather share some of my favourite passages so you can hear the man himself rather than me trying to describe him.

To Anne Isabella Milbanke, after their engagement,

I did not believe such a woman existed - at least for me,- and I sometimes fear I ought to wish that she had not. I must turn from the subject.
My love, do forgive me if I have written in a spirit that renders you uncomfortable. I cannot embody my feelings in words. I have nothing to desire - nothing I would see altered in you - but so much in myself. I can conceive no misery equal to mine, if I failed in making you happy,- and yet how can I hope to do justice to those merits from whose praise there is not a dissentient voice?
14 October 1814

To his sister, Augusta,

I heard the other day that she (Annabella) was very unwell. I was shocked enough - and sorry enough, God knows, but never mind; H (Hobhouse) tells me however that she is not ill; that she had been indisposed, but is better and well to do - This is a relief. As for me I am in good health, and fair, though very unequal spirits; but for all that - she - or rather the Separation - has broken my heart. I feel as if an Elephant had trodden on it. I am convinced that I shall never get over it - but I try.
8 September 1816

To Thomas Moore,

I rejoice to hear of your forthcoming in February - though I tremble for the 'magnificence' which you attribute to the new Childe Harold. I am glad you like it; it is a fine indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite. I was half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies. I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law; and, even then, if I could have been certain to haunt her - but I won't dwell upon these trifling family matters.
28 January 1817

To John Murray,

The story of Shelley's agitation (on the famous night when Byron, the Shelleys & Dr Polidori told each other ghost stories & Mary Shelley had the nightmare that resulted in her writing Frankenstein) is true. I can't tell what seized him for he don't want courage. He was once with me in a gale of Wind, in a small boat, right under the rocks between Meillerie and St Gingo. ... The sail was mismanaged, and the boat was filling fast. He can't swim. I stripped off my coat - made him strip off his and take hold of an oar, telling him that I thought (being an expert swimmer) I could save him, if he would not struggle when I took hold of him ... He answered me with the greatest coolness, that 'he had no notion of being saved, and that I would have enough to do to save myself, and begged not to trouble me.' Luckily, the boat righted, and, baling, we got round a point into St Gingo ... 
And yet the same Shelley, who was as cool as it was possible to be in such circumstances ... certainly had the fit of phantasy which Polidori describes, though not exactly as he describes it.
15 May 1819

To John Murray,

Dear Murray,
I have been thinking over our late correspondence, and wish to propose to you the following articles for our future:-
1stly That you shall write to me of yourself, of the health, wealth, and welfare of all friends; but of me (quoad me) little or nothing.
2dly That you shall send me Soda powders, tooth-powder, tooth-brushes, or any such anti-odontalgic or chemical articles, as heretofore, ad libitum, upon being re-imbursed for the same.
3dly that you shall not send me any modern, or (as they are called) new, publications in English whatsoever, save and excepting any writing, prose or verse, of (or reasonably presumed to be of) Walter Scott, Crabbe, Moore ... or any especial single work of fancy, which is thought to be of considerable merit. ...
5thly That you send me no opinions whatsoever, whether good, bad, or indifferent, of yourself, or your friends, or others, concerning any work, or works, of mine, past, present, or to come.
24 September 1821

This edition is a reprint of the 1933 selection of the Letters by R G Howarth. Byron's Letters were originally collected & published by Thomas Moore, who deleted some material considered too shocking or embarrassing for publication, replacing the offending words with asterisks. It wasn't until Leslie Marchand's 12 volume Collected Letters was published in the 1970s, that an unexpurgated edition was available.

Thank you to Mike Walmer for sending me a review copy.


  1. I'm fascinated by him and his circle...I keep meaning to read more about them!

    1. They're a very interesting group, so many talented people but living quite dysfunctional lives!

  2. Thanks Lyn for this coverage - and really glad it inspired you. I published it because I thought a good, reasonably deep one-volume edition was needed for all those who didn't want the enormous wade through Marchand, and there didn't seem to be one available...

    1. Yes, 12 vols is a bit more than I could cope with! I have a 1 vol selected letters by Marchand but I bought it secondhand years ago so it's probably out of print. It's always good to have a selected edition available.

  3. Your review makes me want to read more about Byron. I love reading collections of letters, and this collection looks really wonderful. I'll be on the lookout for this book!

    1. He was such a witty man, I've always enjoyed his poetry & the letters are wonderful. I hope you can get hold of a copy.

  4. I did the wade through three-quarters of Marchand a few years ago, and was absolutely bowled over by Byron's vivid, immediate, ahead-of-his-time personality. I felt as if he was in the room, in the moment, speaking to me, that I knew him. It was one of the greatest experiences of my entire reading life, and I feel his are the best letters in English I've ever read. Simply because they conveyed his personality, brought him to life, more than any others. Only Woolf's come close, and it's more fun to be with Byron!

    1. I have the one vol selected edited by Marchand. I'm not sure I'd have the stamina for the whole 12 vols! Byron is definitely one of the most vivid personalities I've ever read. I loved his habit of sprinkling quotations throughout. Wouldn't you love to know what all the asterisks represented? And to have read his Memoirs? I wish Murray & Moore had just put them away safely somewhere rather than burning them.