Lord Byron, the Romantic poet and infamous libertine, wrote a book of memoirs that may have set 19th century England aflame with scandal – if they hadn’t been deliberately destroyed within a month of his death.
I try and keep these blog posts brief – a couple of hundred words to read while you drink your morning coffee. So I have absolutely no room to detail the wide range of activities that Byron was known or rumoured to have undertaken. Suffice it to say that, as a famous poet, an English peer, an arch seducer, and a military adventurer he had perhaps the most colourful life of the late 18th and early 19th century.
Between 1818 and 1821 he put his exploits down on paper, in the form of memoirs of his life to date. These memoirs were divided into two parts, and entrusted to Byron’s friend and fellow poet Thomas Moore. We don’t know precisely what was in them, although the first half was supposedly quite circumspect and the second half quite a bit more… blue? This is how they were described:
There are few parts that may not, and none that will not, be read by women… When you read my Memoirs you will learn the evils, moral and physical, of true dissipation. I can assure you my life is very entertaining and very instructive.
Moore was allowed to distribute them to interested friends, but was under instructions not to publish them while Byron remained alive.
In 1821, with permission from Byron, Moore sold the manuscript to John Murray – Byron’s publisher. The poets regretted this, apparently, and negotiated the right to buy back the manuscript… but then the Greek War of Independence got in the way. Byron, ever the adventurer, joined in the independence struggle, and in 1824 died of an infection. Overnight, his memoirs became the hottest and most controversial property in town.
Murray owned the manuscript. Moore had the moral responsibility to uphold his dead friend’s wishes. Another friend, John Cam Hobhouse, had earlier persuaded Byron to destroy a draft of his memoirs. Byron’s relatives, his half-sister (and rumoured lover) Augusta Leigh and estranged wife Lady Byron, were involved as well. On May 17, 1824, they all met (Leigh and Lady Byron represented by men, because sexism) and debated what to do with the memoirs.
It almost came to blows. Moore wanted the manuscript kept; Hobhouse wanted it destroyed. Lady Byron and Augusta Leigh probably wanted it gone. In the end, they agreed that the memoirs must be destroyed, and the only copies were torn up and thrown into the fireplace. Despite Byron’s notoriety, this act of destruction is widely seen as one of the greatest literary crimes in the world.