Settling accounts

Keith Walker

  • ‘A heart for every fate’: Byron’s Letters and Journals, Vol. 10, 1822-1823 edited by Leslie Marchand
    Murray, 239 pp, £8.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 7195 3670 7

‘A heart for every fate’: the title Marchand has chosen, from the enchanting lyric Byron wrote to Thomas Moore in 1817, doesn’t seem quite appropriate. It would have been better to borrow Doris Langley Moore’s Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered, for in these months in Genoa (October 1822 – June 1823) Byron was settling his accounts with his creditors, with his public, with his publisher John Murray, with his mistress, and making arrangements to settle his accounts with life and fame. Late in this volume we see Byron discussing a collected edition of his poems with J.W. Lake. Elsewhere Byron says he wants to amass enough money to be able to leave something to his sister Augusta and her children, and to contribute to the Greek cause. He laughs at himself in assuming the role of miser: ‘I am economizing – have sold three horses and pay all bills in person – keeping a sharp look out – on the candle’s ends.’

Why call the miser miserable? As
   I said before, the frugal life is his,
Which in a saint or cynic ever was
   The theme of praise: a hermit would not miss
Canonisation for the self-same cause,
   And wherefore blame gaunt Wealth’s austerities?
Because, you’ll say, nought calls for such a trial;
Then there’s more merit in his self-denial.

He is your only poet ...

Perhaps. But during the period of these letters the other poet in Byron kept on ‘scribbling’ (it was his favourite description) away at Don Juan, and completed seven cantos (10-16), not to mention ‘The Age of Bronze’ and ‘The Island’. If the reader detects a certain loss of Byron’s accustomed brio in these letters, he should bear in mind that his main writing work was elsewhere.

The most trivial of Byron’s experiences gets caught up in Don Juan. ‘Send me a good Cocker,’ Byron writes to his banker Douglas Kinnaird, referring to the author of a 17th-century manual: ‘or the best Simplifier of Arithmetic – and you cannot imagine the difference.’ By the same principle of good husbandry, he puts Cocker to use in Don Juan:

  Though all Exchequer Chancellors endeavour
Of late years to dispense with Cocker’s rigours,
And grow quite figurative with their figures.

The Earl and Countess of Blessington arrive in Genoa ‘travelling with a very handsome companion, in the shape of a “French Count”... who has all the air of a Cupidon déchainé, and is one of the few specimens I have seen of our ideal of a Frenchman before the Revolution’. The Count d’Orsay delighted Byron with his description of English society. Did he also sit for this portrait of Juan in Canto 14?

No marvel then he was a favourite;
   A full-grown Cupid, very much admired;
A little spoilt, but by no means so quite;
   At least he kept his vanity retired.
Such was his tact, he could alike delight
   The chaste, and those who are not so much inspired.
The Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, who loved tracasserie,
Began to treat him with some small agacerie.

Genoa was the last of Byron’s many residences in Italy. He had left Pisa, where he had heard that his daughter Allegra had died, where Shelley had died, and where the English chaplain had ‘done him the honour’ of preaching against him. He set up house in the Casa Saluzzo ‘at Albaro on a hill overlooking Genoa, cold – frosty but airy, – only one chimney in the whole house, which is spacious enough for twenty’. His mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, with her father and brother, occupied separate apartments in the same house. About a mile down the hill Mary Shelley occupied herself by making fair copies of Don Juan. (Byron’s convenience is our loss, because he made many further revisions and improvements in the early cantos, in copying them himself.) With Mary Shelley was staying Leigh Hunt, obsequious, resentful of Byron’s patronage, and, Skimpole-like, borrowing and squandering his money. Hunt was a terrible legacy from Shelley. His nagging wife hated Byron, would not speak Italian, and their children were ‘dirtier and more mischievous than Yahoos; what they can’t destroy with their filth they will with their fingers’. Hunt could not be sent back to England, for his creditors awaited him there. Byron tried, during this period, to extricate himself from the connection, and to break his ties with Hunt’s unfortunate Liberal: these were to lead to Byron’s estrangement from his publisher John Murray (‘a sad Shuffler’) and, he felt, from his public in England.

The whole set-up was fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and it has been, indeed, misrepresented – most notably by Leigh Hunt in Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828). ‘It has been my lot through life to be never pardoned and almost always misunderstood,’ Byron wrote to his sister, not reckoning with the labours of Professor Marchand on his behalf. On the whole, the letters show Byron to have been typically honest and forthright. His most noteworthy evasion is his inability to tell Teresa of his plans to go to Greece.

The alienation from England Byron usually saw in a comic light: when a writer whom Murray had published appealed to Byron for assistance he reported to Murray in a passage in which pity and wry self-regard are finely matched by his eye for the comically absurd: ‘ “the book died away” and what is worse – the pour Soul’s husband has died too – and She writes with the man a corpse before her but instead of addressing the Bishop or Mr Wilberforce – she hath recourse to that proscribed – Atheistical – syllogistical – phlogistical person – mysen – as they say in Notts.’ At other times Byron pugnaciously elevates his alienation into a heroic role, remarking: ‘I should never have thought myself good for any thing – if I had not been detested by the English.’

The winter of 1822-3 was unusally severe in Genoa, and these letters contain many complaints, typically good-humoured, of ill health:

I have been confined to my bed with a violent rheumatic and bilious attack – constipation – and the devil knows what ... my ‘chilblains’ are I assure you no joke – I can scarcely move for them ... I have been very unwell these last three days – with a swelled face – painful as it a were more perilous ... I am not very well – from a concoction of humours – for which an English Physician prescribes a ‘decoction of Woods’ (and Forests too I should think from it’s varieties of taste) ... I mentioned that I had a couple of Warts on the face – for which I would thank you to prescribe an unguent – or Caustic – as they trouble the economy of my beard in shaving ...

I imagine Byron’s poring over medical books, and the memory of the painful ‘Glyster [sic]’ (the ‘[sic]’ is Marchand’s endearing mite, but the variant form is quite common) administered by a young physician early on in his stay in Genoa, were responsible for that astonishing stanza in Don Juan (10.41), too typographically complex to display here.

Byron felt his stay in Genoa was transient. ‘If you go to Switzerland this Spring,’ he wrote in January 1823, ‘I would make an effort to meet you there.’ Two weeks later: ‘I wish to have these things [the sale of his English estates] settled as I think of going to Greece perhaps to America.’ Six weeks later: ‘If my health gets better and there is a war – it is not off the cards that I may go to Spain.’ Two weeks later: ‘I sometimes dream of returning to England for a short time.’ The next month: ‘It is more than probable that I shall go up into Greece.’ Although Byron didn’t know it when he wrote the last sentence, he had already been elected a member of the London Greek Committee, and, in a sense, his fate had been determined for him. Thoughts about aging and dying occur frequently in this volume. Byron said to his doctor in Genoa: ‘a man ought to do something more for mankind than write verses.’ Could Byron have had an inkling when he wrote all the vigorous letters making practical arrangements for his Greek expedition (they dominate the last half of this volume), that the most practical gesture he could make for the cause of Greek independence was to die there?

Marchand does not say whether a given letter has been published before, and the information is not easy to come by. However, I estimate that of the 240 letters in this volume 94 can be found – in whole or in part, and often misdated or garbled – in the two main previous collections of Byron’s letters, R.E. Prothero’s Letters and Journals (1898-1901) and John Murray’s Lord Byron’s Correspondence (1922). A further fifty-odd are scattered in books, periodicals, and book-auction catalogues. That leaves nearly a hundred letters which Marchand has newly edited from Byron’s holograph or from manuscript copies. (Marchand has, of course, freshly transcribed those letters previously published where the manuscripts survive.) The gain in our knowledge would seem to be considerable, but the great bulk of the new letters are letters to Byron’s banker Douglas Kinnaird which John Murray decided not to publish in 1922 (the proof sheets of the suppressed edition are in the British Library). Even after the help towards their elucidation given by Doris Langley Moore’s Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered (1974), Byron’s business affairs remain a somewhat less than enthralling subject. What can we glean from the uncollected and new letters? Speaking of the effects of his enema, Byron alludes to the Bishop of Clogher, deposed because of what Marchand coyly refers to as a ‘scandalous crime’ involving a soldier: ‘I have been wondering why the legislature should punish Bishop Jocelyn and his Soldado? – since if the episcopal instrument at all resembled the damned squirt of the Ligurian apothecary – the crime will have carried it’s own chastisement along with it.’ If we can take Byron’s naivety at its face value here, it would seem that his own homosexual affairs did not involve Hunnish practices of this sort. (Byron alluded to the Clogher affair in Don Juan but cancelled the stanza.) There is much about selling and buying boats and selling horses, some banter of Kinnaird, who contrived to fall off his horse, further evidence of Byron’s concern with and for Don Juan, and an engaging glimpse of ‘Cheeks Chester’ (who was he?) who used to describe sex as ‘fuff-fuff-fuff’. A ‘new’ description of what Byron was about in Don Juan will send Byron scholars back to their Florios: ‘You must not mind occasional rambling I mean it for a poetic Tristram Shandy – or Montaigne’s Essays with a story for a hinge.’ A letter to Mary Shelley, not, I think, previously collected, has an apt aside which gives one of the reasons for the delight the reader has in these marvellous letters: ‘I am not a cautious letter-writer and generally say what comes uppermost at the moment.’

Everyone must regret the cruel exigencies of modern publishing as they operate here. The letters are shorn of their addresses, and letters to Byron are mostly ignored, without so much as a reference to where they can be found. ‘I enclose Sir Timothy Shelley’s reply,’ Byron writes to Mary Shelley, but what its purport was, Marchand does not tell us. His transcriptions are generally accurate, but many of Byron’s quotations go unidentified. One wouldn’t expect the brilliance of Christopher Ricks’s emendation, ‘the career of my humour’ for ‘the farce of my humour’ in the letter to Procter of 5 March 1823 (cf. Much Ado 2.3.240; the letter only exists in Procter’s copying), but simple plodding would have reminded the reader that Byron was playing Hotspur when he wrote that Sir James Wedderburn Webster ‘talked a deal of skimble skamble stuff’, and playing Launcelot Gobbo when he wrote that knowledge of the existence of seven unpublished cantos of Don Juan ‘will raise the waters’. Byron’s assumption of roles from Shakespeare is frequent and important to note. ‘I am glad that “us youth” have made our due noise in the world,’ the 31-year-old Byron had written to the 33-year-old Hobhouse in 1819 (it’s in an earlier volume, but the quote goes unrecognised there). Part of the joke – and part of the meaning – is that it is Falstaff’s joke, too.