He kept a bear as a pet while attending Trinity College in Cambridge; he authored a satirical poem “Don Juan,” which many gossiped was based on his personal exploits; his mood would notoriously swing from charming to brooding; and he was rumored to have had an affair with his half sister, not to mention engaged in many other amorous exploits that were whispered about among the fair folk of England.
In short, Lord Byron was no saint and everybody knew it.
But the known antics of the bad boy of Georgian England must have paled in comparison to those he tried to disclose in his memoirs, revelations that were so scandalous that his closest friends decided to burn the manuscript rather than risk the damage to his—and his loved ones—reputations.
In an act that is often described as “the greatest literary crime in history,” they gathered together at his publisher’s office on May 17, 1824, and burned the memoirs of Lord Byron page by page.
Byron’s rise to fame was sudden and swift. At the age of 24, his first epic poem was published to instant acclaim, and it sold out in five days. “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” a friend recalls him saying after the first two cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” were published.
That fame would soon veer toward infamy as the increased attention on the popular new poet also shone a spotlight on his sinful behavior. And he didn’t really try to hide it. Byron loved to court shock and outrage among the buttoned-up English set, and he wasn’t afraid to do that with his pen as well.
In a letter written in October 1819 to his literary agent, Douglas Kinnaird, Byron wrote: “As to Don Juan—confess—confess—you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy—but is it not good English? It may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?—Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?—and tooled in a post-chase?—in a hackney coach?—in a gondola?—against a wall?—in a court carriage?—in a vis a vis?—on a table?—and under it?”
One of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, described the poet as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” And it wasn’t all good-natured debauchery. In one instance of particularly despicable behavior, Byron lost interest in another one of his lovers, Claire Clairmont, the step-sister of Mary Shelley, and decided to dump her and remove their illegitimate daughter from her care.
Clairmont sent him letter after letter begging him to let her see Allegra, but she was denied and the young girl died at the age of five while living in the care of a convent.
In 1816, the antics of the enfant terrible finally became too much for polite society to tolerate, and Byron was forced to leave England. He roamed around Europe for several years leaving a string of scandalous behavior in his wake before he finally landed in Greece where he fought in the Greek War of Independence. On April 19, 1924, at the age of 36, Lord Byron died of malaria.
Despite his young age, Byron had the foresight to begin a new project while estranged from his home country. In 1818, two years after he left England, the poet wrote to his publisher, John Murray II, that he was beginning work on “some memoirs of my life… without any intention of making disclosures or remarks upon living people, which would be unpleasant to them.”
Those staid scribblings must not have been entertaining enough as just a few months later, his tune had changed. In April, he reported that the project was now “full of many passions and prejudices.”
A few people did read the final draft of the memoirs, but no accounts remain as to what was actually in them. It is believed that the first half of his recollections dealt primarily—and not at all gently—with his volatile relationship with his ex-wife Annabella Milbanke.
At the end of 1820, he sent a letter asking her to proofread that section, and he made no effort to hide the truth of the contents. “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,” he wrote.
The second half is thought to have been dedicated to his other wide and varied exploits, including a suspicion that he told all regarding his high profile love affairs and that he may have confirmed the rumors of his affair with his half sister.
He sent the finished manuscript to his close friend and fellow poet Thomas Moore, who had instructions to keep it safe until his death and to keep his hands off the first half of the draft, but edit the second half as he saw fit. The Irishman was happy to help his friend out. After all, Byron was still young, and it would be years until the shocking contents would see the light of day.
Then Byron contracted malaria and everything changed.
With the tragedy of his early death, the man who formerly went into self-imposed exile because of his shocking behavior became the darling rascal poet Byron, a figure who’s memory was beloved—even exalted—by (almost) all.
Westminster Abbey may have denied him a final resting place on their sacred grounds, but who needs that when you can be entombed in the Oxford English Dictionary instead? Today, Byronic is an adjective that can be used to describe anybody who is “alluringly dark, mysterious, and moody.”
And with this turn of fate, Byron’s closest friends set about preserving the memory and legacy of one of the greatest poet’s in history. Moore sold the memoirs to Murray for 2,000 guineas, a move he would soon come to regret.
Once in the hands of the publisher, the poet’s closest friends started worrying about what would happen if the memoirs were released. Surely it would be a coup for Byronic scholarship. But the damage to his reputation that could ensue, not to mention that of his family and other close—er—associates, troubled them.
William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review and literary advisor to Murray helped sway the group when he, as one of the few who had actually read Byron’s last work, proclaimed that the book was “fit only for a brothel and would doom Lord B to everlasting infamy if published.”
Murray, who allegedly never read the work despite being Byron’s publisher, agreed with the advice. The book must be destroyed.
Another dear friend, John Cam Hobhouse, wholeheartedly concurred, while the representatives of Byron’s ex-wife and half sister remained silent. The only dissenting voice was that of Moore who disagreed greatly with the decision to destroy the work.
Apart from Hobhouse, most parties involved in deciding the fate of the memoirs had at least a small personal stakes in the outcome. Murray claimed that he voted against his own self-interest, as he would have made a tidy profit on the work.
But by preserving Byron’s reputation, he was also ensuring the future popularity of his previously published poems. Moore was in the middle of writing a biography of his dear friend, and wanted to be able to use some of the material from the memoir in his work. And the two women involved, of course, had their own reputations to safeguard.
But despite Moore’s pleas that the deed not be done—and despite his last ditch suggestion that the memoirs instead be sealed up under lock and key to be published at a future date—the decision had been made. Before a roaring fire in the second floor drawing room where Byron had first met his publisher, his last words went up in smoke page by page.
The outcry was almost instantaneous and the act condemned as a literary crime whose impact would reverberate through the ages. We will never know the truths that Byron revealed on those pages, the whispered gossip that he confirmed, or the new revelations that were sure to shock his society and give a new depth and dimension to his legacy for hundreds of years of scholarship to come.
But at least one party of people still holds out hope. John Murray II’s descendants would continue to run the family publishing house for generations, and they continued to hope that a copy of Lord Byron’s memoirs had been tucked away somewhere, just waiting to be found.
As John Murray VII told The Spectator in 2008, “Every time we had workmen in doing alterations [my father] would be peering behind panels and under floorboards, still hoping it would turn up.”