Friday, December 07, 2007

Consigned to the Flames III: Lord Byron

{Lord Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips, 1813}

You had to know I'd get to this one sooner or later. Here's how Fiona MacCarthy describes it in her Byron: Life and Legend (2002):
On 17 May 1824, after three days of agonized discussions, Byron's memoirs were burnt in the grate of [Byron's publisher] John Murray's Albermarle Street drawing room, in the most famous sacrificial scene of literary history. Of the six men assembled in the room--[Byron's friend Thomas] Moore and his supporter the sociable Irish poet Henry Luttrell, [Byron's friend John Cam] Hobhouse, John Murray, [Byron's half-sister] Augusta Leigh's ally Wilmot Horton, and Lady Byron's representative Colonel Doyle--only Moore and Luttrell had actually read the memoirs, if Murray had indeed resisted the temptation to do so in the years the manuscript lay in his possession. Moore was there under protest. He and Henry Luttrell had pressed the case for "the injustice we thought it would be to Byron's memory to condemn the work wholly, and without even opening it, as if it were a pest bag." Moore pleaded that at least the manuscript should be carefully perused and if necessary censored but that "what was innoxious and creditable to Lord Byron" should be preserved.

Those of us who love such unexpectedly revealing personal narratives as Boswell's journals can't help but imagine that we might have had something as entertaining from Byron. Compared to Byron, after all, Boswell was a prude, and Byron’s letters and journals themselves are such extravagant fun that it’s not hard to conjure up a book that would be a delectable, ridiculous mix of Casanova and Rousseau.

The available evidence, however, suggests that such a view may be overly romantic. If Byron's letter to John Murray initially proposing the memoirs--to be published after Byron's death, "for a man always looks dead after his own life has appeared"--is to be believed, the manuscript contained probably at least as much hinting and beating around the bush as it did explicit detail:
The Life is Memoranda not Confessions. I have left out all my loves (except in a general way) and many other of the most important things (because I must not compromise other people) so that it is like the play of Hamlet--"the part of Hamlet omitted by particular desire." But you will find many opinions, and some fun, with a detailed account of my marriage and its consequences, as true as a party concerned can make such accounts, for I suppose we are all prejudiced.
Byron gave the memoirs to his friend Moore in late 1819 (He joked in a letter to George Kinnaird that he “put my life (in M.S.) into his hands.”), telling Moore that he was free to share them with appropriate friends. Fiona MacCarthy estimates that Moore circulated them to about twenty people before--again with Byron's permission--selling them to John Murray for £2,000 (which Murray paid back following the burning). As for the contents:
A minority of readers found themselves outraged. William Gifford, who had read the memoirs at Murray’s request, reported that “the whole Memoirs were fit only for a brothel and would damn Lord B to certain infamy if published.” Lord John Russell found three or four pages “too gross and indelicate for publication.” But the consensus of opinion was that Byron’s memoirs were a bit of a damp squib. Two weeks after the destruction Mary Shelley wrote to Trelawny: “There was not much in them I know, for I read them some years ago at Venice, but the world fancied that it was to have a confession of the hidden feelings of one, concerning whom they are always passionately anxious.”
Is it possible that the memoirs consisted less of a catalogue of amorous adventures and more of an attempt to justify Byron’s indefensible behavior in his marriage, which Karen Joy Fowler has described well as “improbably gothic in its awfulness”? Byron did mention the marriage in his letter to Murray. MacCarthy also quotes a letter from Lord to Lady Byron in 1819, three years after she’d left him, in which Lord Byron expresses a wish that his ex-wife would read the memoirs for accuracy, noting however that
You will find nothing to flatter you—nothing to lead you to the most remote supposition that we could ever have been—or be happy together.
Could it all have been an unconvincing attempt to clear his name, if not completely, then at least a tiny bit?

In any case, it’s understandable that Lady Byron’s friends wouldn’t want to take the chance of an account of the marriage from Byron’s perspective coming to light; add in the concern of relatively respectable friends such as Hobhouse--who might have been worried in part about the possibility of Byron recounting homosexual adventures--and the fate of the memoirs begins to seem inevitable. As Vic Gatrell puts it in City of Laughter,
Byron and his ilk were laid low by somethign deeper than a passing spasm of moralizing. A cultural revolution was more like it, and Byron's lament for the shift from cunt to cant was no bad way of describing what had happened.
The prudes won out, and the match was struck.

I’ll let Byron himself have the last word, reminding us that whatever we may lose to the flames, we lose far more every day to the inevitable wear of time. In his “Detached Thoughts,” he wrote,
It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us.—a year impairs, a luster obliteratres.—There is little distinct left without an effort of memory,--then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment—but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?

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