BIOGRAPHIES OF BYRON RENDERED OBSOLETE
Jonathan Bate reviews The Letters of John Murray to Lord Byron ed by
A writer’s most important relationship is with his publisher – or
at least it used to be, until publishing houses became impersonal
conglomerates and the tradition of a long-term dialogue between
author and editor went into decline. Literary history knows nothing
more glorious than a close collaboration between poet of genius and
publisher of commitment. The greatest of all such collaborations was
that between Lord Byron and John Murray.
Byron’s early works gained some notice, but did not make a particular
splash. Murray was not an especially distinguished figure in the
publishing world until he took on Byron. They came together for
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron awoke and found himself famous, in
large measure because of Murray’s skilful editorship, publishing and
marketing of a poem that seemed to encapsulate and came to shape the
febrile spirit of the age. Never before had a poetry launch created
such instant celebrity.
advertisementThe partnership lasted for exactly 11 years. Its every
twist was recorded in writing. As neighbours in St James’s, poet
and publisher exchanged notes and letters by hand or by messenger,
sometimes two or three times a day. When Byron fled the country after
the scandalous collapse of his marriage, Murray was his lifeline back
to England, providing literary and society gossip from London, books,
sales figures and suggestions for poetic revisions. Byron in turn
sent news from Europe, contacts, suggested reading and sexual banter.
Byron’s dazzling letters have been in print for years, but the other
side of the correspondence has languished in the John Murray archive,
consulted only by a handful of scholars. Andrew Nicholson begins his
editorial introduction with a simple statement that is little short
of astonishing: ‘This edition collects together for the first time
all John Murray’s letters to Byron.
Apart from one or two, printed not always very accurately by Smiles
in his Memoir of John Murray, none of these letters has been published
Here they are, then, 171 letters with scarcely a dull
paragraph. Byron’s brio rubs off on Murray, but he is not averse to
offering fatherly advice: ‘It is not well to let the world know –
as a quoteable [sic] thing – your having had both those Ladies. Pray
absorb all your faculties in the tragedy & you will do the greatest
thing you have effected yet and again confound the world.’
An appendix describes in detail the key moment when Murray became
Byron’s publisher in 1811. ‘For the circumstances as to how Murray came
to be the publisher of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,’ Nicholson reports,
‘biographers and editors from Tom Moore to the present day have been
obliged to rely upon R. C. Dallas’s account.’ But the self-serving
Dallas greatly exaggerated his role as broker of the literary marriage.
On the basis of Murray’s letters, Nicholson shows that there is hardly
a word of truth in the Dallas version. This endlessly rewarding volume
is peppered with such discoveries, large and small, whether revealing
that certain letters in the standard edition of Byron are forgeries
or untangling the complex web of allegiances in the cut-and-thrust
world of Regency publishing.
The book is beautifully produced, with handsome colour pictures not
only of the main players but also of original manuscripts and even
souvenirs that Byron sent to Murray – spoils from the battlefield of
Waterloo, a watercolour of his infamous drinking cup fashioned from
a human skull.
The scrupulous transcriptions of the letters themselves are replete
with underlinings and crossings out that make you feel as if you are
looking over Murray’s shoulder as he sits by the fire in Albemarle
Street and sends dispatches to Byron in his Italian exile. Each
letter is cross-referenced to Byron’s replies and annotated with
detail concerning every subject from Napoleon to tooth-powder to
The notes also include a host of ancillary materials. So, for
example, when Byron writes: ‘Croker’s letter to you is a very great
compliment – I shall return it to you in my next,’ we discover that
his Lordship was as good as his word: he duly returned the letter from
J. W. Croker, which compared the art of Byron’s tragedy Manfred to
that of Shakespeare. It is safe in the Murray archive and published
here for the first time.
At a stroke, Nicholson’s towering act of scholarship has rendered
all existing biographies of Byron obsolete.