Byron burning

Byron knew, more than any author before him, the power of an ellipsis. Foreshadowing twentieth-century theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, who posited that it is primarily the reader who creates a poem’s meaning by navigating gaps in the text, Byron filled his work with tantalizing omissions to fire the imagination. One of his bestselling poems, The Giaour, a classically Byronic tale of a brooding hero avenging his murdered beloved, was subtitled “A Fragment” to create an illusion that the full story lay elsewhere. The poem is riddled with as­terisks that mark supposedly lost sections. “An outline is the best,” Byron wrote in his final epic Don Juan, “– a lively reader’s fancy does the rest”.

The poet invited conjecture not only about his work but also about his personal life. Readers were quick to see a link between Byron’s melancholic aristocratic heroes and the poet himself. In his preface to the work that made him famous in 1814, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron insisted that his character was not based on a “real personage”, but purely “the child of imagination”. Yet he continually gave his heroes the same dark hair and pale brow that readers were seeing in reproduced portraits of the poet that hung in countless print shop windows, and he often dropped in teasing autobiographical references to ancestral homes and heroic acts abroad. Readers looked for coded messages that they felt revealed the real Byron amid the gossip, and the Byronic hero was just ambiguous enough for them to see in him whatever suited them.

It is a wonderful dramatic irony, then, that Byron’s memoirs – which might have finally provided the “truth” about his life – were destroyed soon after his death. The story goes that three of his closest friends (his publisher, John Murray; his fellow celebrity poet, Thomas Moore; and his companion since his Cambridge days, John Cam Hobhouse), together with lawyers representing Byron’s half-sister and his widow, decided that the manuscript was so scandalous, so unsuitable for public consumption, that it would ruin Byron’s reputation forever. Gathered in Murray’s drawing room in Albemarle Street, they ripped up the pages and tossed them into the fire. The incident is often described as the greatest crime in literary ­history. It has certainly served to fuel curiosity and conjecture about Byron’s personal life for another couple of centuries. What was the damning secret his friends needed to protect? Domestic abuse? Sodomy? Incest? Probably all three, we imagine.

In the title essay of his collection The Burning of Byron’s Memoirs: New and unpublished essays and papers, Peter Cochran provides the full correspondence between the principal figures in the lead-up to the memoirs’ destruction. It is astonishing that not one of these letters expressed the view that denying the world a work by one of its most revered writers would be an act of barbarism. Instead, at a time when autobiography was considered slightly unseemly, Byron’s friends were zealously committed to “protecting” his family and “preserving” his fame. Cochran argues, however, that there were other reasons behind the decision, mostly involving self-interest and petty jealousy. Hobhouse, as a newly elected MP, was worried about the shadow his friend’s libertine adventures might cast on his own respectable image; he was also offended that Byron had entrusted the manuscript to Moore rather than to him. Murray presumably could have made a fortune from the memoirs, but Cochran supplies evidence that Moore was in fact shopping the manuscript to Longman, Murray’s rival; Byron had himself offended Murray by switching publishers before his death. Hobhouse’s and Murray’s wish to control Byron’s legacy, Cochran argues, reflected an acute sense of betrayal and a subconscious desire for revenge. Moore, meanwhile, emerges as the (relative) hero of the piece. He was the only one there to have actually read the memoirs in full and was aware of their value. After putting up a decent fight, however, he was overwhelmed by what he called the “hoity toity proceeding” – complicated issues of copyright and payment, and Hobhouse’s self-righteous bullying.

With its lengthy quotations, interjections in various typefaces, repetitions, diversions and jokes, Cochran’s introductory essay is a fitting opener for a collection that Byron might call a “strange mélange”. When he died last year, Cochran left over twenty full-length monographs on Byron, as well as countless articles and online study aids. To call the ­thirty-six essays and papers in this volume “new and unpublished” is a stretch, given that many have appeared in different guises before, but they provide a representative taste of the staggering breadth of Cochran’s knowledge. There are essays on everything from Byron’s dirty jokes to his use of Shakespeare, his little-known charitable works, and the books he kept in his personal library. The glee that Cochran takes in stirring up his readers and fellow scholars (his papers have titles like “Why the English Hate Byron”) and his pervasive humour, which at times verges on the puerile (he italicizes the first three letters of “Assyrian Tales” in a piece on Byron’s homosexuality), mirrors similar traits in Byron himself.

This delight in the profane is coupled, in the case of both men, with profound seriousness about poetry. The volume includes a set of biting comedic sketches that poke fun at academics earnestly spouting German theory and impenetrable jargon to mask what Cochran perceived as a lack of appreciation for Byron’s craft. Cochran shuns all “isms”, rooting his analysis in primary evidence from the poet and his contemporaries. Many of the essays assume a high level of familiarity with Byron’s life and work (Cochran takes as given that his readers have all thirteen volumes of the poet’s collected letters to hand), but his accessible, chatty voice means that there is plenty here for the uninitiated. In particular, there is a revised version of the essay that first sparked my own interest in Byron as a young student: a pedantic, messy, hilarious piece on the portrayal of the poet on film. Cochran shows how representations of Byron borrow from one another to feed the clichéd image of an “evil bisexual rake” who glowers as he manipulates and seduces the weak-minded. Most films, he notes, barely mention that he was a poet. Once again, any attempt to convey anything close to the “real” Byron is overwhelmed by fantasy.

Of all the mysteries that the burning of the memoirs left open, the one that was most fuelled by hearsay was Byron’s brief marriage to the pious heiress Anne Isabella “Annabella” Milbanke. Rumours had begun to circulate that the poet was in a relationship with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and Byron – urged by his confidante, Lady Melbourne, who was also Annabella’s aunt – recognized that it was time to make an attempt at res­pectability. Annabella’s keen intelligence and handsome looks, not to mention her prospective fortune, made her a not unattractive pros­pect for the indebted poet. The two also shared a genuine friendship, swapping letters for over a year before their engagement. At first, Byron seemed smitten. Yet popular legend has it that, from the moment they exchanged their vows, the groom realized marriage was not for him. Samuel Rogers, who read at least part of the memoirs before they were burned, recalled a passage in which a nearby candle illuminated the crimson curtains surrounding the marital bed: “Good God, I am surely in Hell!” Byron is said to have exclaimed loudly enough to wake his bride. Throughout the marriage, Byron fell into rages and depressions that left friends worrying about his health, and Annabella seeking to have him certified. A year after they were wed, Lady Byron fled their London apartment with their newborn daughter. Soon after, Byron left England for ever.

For her entire life – and she lived well into her sixties – Lady Byron never published a word on why she left the marriage. Her silence created a void similar to that left by the destruction of Byron’s memoirs, fuelling speculation about her character and the nature of the separation. Byron was quick to adopt the role of unfairly abandoned husband: he described Annabella in one poem as his “moral Clytemnestra”, and in a letter as “the bitch my wife”. Although the press showed some sympathy for Lady Byron at the time, she has been described subsequently as cold, sanctimonious and unable to comprehend, let alone cater to, the complexities of her husband’s desires. The image works perfectly: the Romantic genius and great seducer trapped by a punctilious puritan.

Several biographies have attempted to resurrect Lady Byron’s image, showing her as the victim of an abusive relationship at a time when wives – even those of Annabella’s wealth and standing – had almost no legal recourse against their husbands. The first and most notorious, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Lady Byron Vindicated, appeared in 1860, less than a decade after her death. The American author had grown close to Lady Byron in her later life and was appalled to see her friend portrayed as “a moral monstrosity . . . of female hideousness” in a biography of Byron written by his mistress Teresa Guiccioli. She decided to end Lady Byron’s silence on her behalf. Stowe claimed that, before her friend died, she had confided to her that the poet had without question had an incestuous affair with Augusta Leigh and, moreover, had fathered her daughter, Medora. Stowe depicted Byron’s maltreatment of his wife – and the more general abuse of women by their husbands – as a kind of sexual slavery.

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