The burning of Lord Byron’s diaries
November 9, 2011
From 1768 until it was finally sold in 2002, Britain’s most famous publisher was run by a man by the name of John Murray.
John Murray wasn’t a single man – but seven men from the same family all of whom bore the same name (they are differentiated by a number, I to VII.) All but the first John Murray operated from a building at 50 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly, the outside of which still bears their name a decade after the company was bought and absorbed into Hodder Headline.
Renowned as an uncanny spotter of literary talent, John Murray II (1778-1843) moved the firm his father had started from Edinburgh to Albemarle Street in 1812, a year after he began publishing the works of Lord Byron (1788-1824).
Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage had been an instant sensation, selling out in just five days and turning the 24-year-old into a superstar of the age. In Byron’s own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” For the whole of his life and for many centuries afterwards, he was simply regarded as the greatest poet the world had ever known.
The publisher and the poet met for the first time in the upstairs drawing room of the offices – a room which would later play host to one of the most infamous incidents in the history of lost English literature.
As the 1820s advanced, so too did the fortunes of Murray’s firm. He published Jane Austen – Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – along with Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott. His regular afternoon teas at the house – known as “Four O’Clock Friends” – ensured the house became a meeting point for the biggest and brightest names in literary London.
For Byron, however, the passing years had not been so profitable. His name had become associated with whispered allegations throughout society of sexual promiscuity, affairs with married women, siring illegitimate children, homosexuality, sodomy and even incest – and the whispers were getting louder. In 1816, Byron left England for good, spending the last eight years of his short life in exile abroad.
Byron died in Greece in 1824, struck down with a fever while leading a troop of soldiers against the Ottoman Empire in the War of Greek Independence. In death, the formerly scandalised Byron became a hero, celebrated for his passion, untamed nature, arrogance, wilfulness, tortured soul, tangled love-life and untimely death. Not just the template for the Romantic hero, Byron’s very name became a by-word for the noble virtues and tragic flaws he encapsulated.
Once his body was shipped back to England (with rumours rife that his heart had been removed and buried in Greece), he was refused burial at Westminster Abbey, who cited his “questionable morality.” One of the greatest of all English poets, Byron wasn’t even awarded a memorial in the Abbey until 1969.
With the doors of the Abbey closed to him, a long funeral procession was organised to take his body from London to Hucknall in Nottinghamshire (close to his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.) As Byron’s body passed through Highgate, the cortege was witnessed by his elderly contemporary Coleridge, who was standing alongside the young pharmacist’s assistant from whom he made his regular, surreptitious purchases of opium.
On 17th May 1824, a month after Byron’s death, John Murray would participate in one of the most notorious acts in the annals of literature in the upstairs drawing room of 50 Albemarle Street.
During his exile in 1822, Byron named the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852) as his literary executor and handed him a manuscript of his personal memoirs which he wanted to be published at a later date.
But with Byron dead, and the public clamouring for anything bearing his name, Murray made a decision. Having been presented with the two volumes of Byron’s memoirs by Moore, he decided he had to act.
Byron’s memoirs had to be destroyed.
With the agreement of five of Byron’s friends and executors of his will (and with the only opposition coming from Moore), the men set about pulling apart the pages and burning the pages in the fireplace of the drawing room.
Whatever Byron had written, Murray believed the memoirs were so scandalous they would forever damage Byron’s reputation, and possibly his own should he ever publish them. Even Moore, who in 1832 wrote a biography of Byron and was heavily criticised for allowing the memoirs to be destroyed, never divulged their contents.
Of what Byron wrote, which shocked Murray so deeply, we know only one thing; it left the house at Albemarle Street via the chimney.
In destruction, Byron’s memoirs gained infamy; they became the most celebrated work of literature that no-one would ever read.
For centuries afterwards, a massive portrait of Byron has been hanging above the very fireplace which rendered his final words into silent spots of ash and soot.