Lord Byron’s Memoirs

Lord Byron's Memoirs

Contributor: Francesca Benatti

Location: no longer extant

Description: On the 11th of October, 1819, Thomas Moore left Venice, headed for Ferrara. He was carrying one of the most infamous lost objects of European Romanticism: Byron’s manuscript memoirs. Moore agreed not to publish the Memoirs during Byron’s lifetime, but he was left free, in Byron’s words “to do whatever you please” with it after his death. Byron later supplemented the Memoirs with further additions, which he sent to Moore by post. The two did not know it at the time, but they were never to meet again face to face.

Moore realised immediately that, as well as a great demonstration of trust, the gift of the Memoirs represented a significant financial opportunity, which he was keen to exploit. Unlike many British authors, Moore laboured under the triple handicap of being Irish, Catholic and from a non-privileged background, conditions which excluded him from numerous forms of patronage and support. Through his pen alone, he had to support not only his wife and children, but also his aging parents and his sisters. The controversial events that follow show that, while being a caring son and husband and a loyal friend, Moore was also an extremely poor money manager. Out of the numerous conflicting accounts that exist, this post follows the interpretation proposed by Ronan Kelly in his 2008 biography Bard of Erin: The Life of Thomas Moore.

Back in London after his Italian tour in 1821, Moore sold the manuscript Memoirs to John Murray, Byron’s publisher, for the significant sum of 2,000 guineas, which he employed to clear debts accrued through previous financial mismanagement. The agreement between them stipulated that, if Moore repaid the 2,000 guineas during the life of Byron, he would regain possession of the manuscript. If this was not the case, Murray would be at liberty to print the Memoirs within three months of Byron’s death.

The Memoirs were a hot literary commodity and Moore’s publisher, Longmans, expressed their willingness to redeem the manuscript from Murray for eventual publication, with Moore as editor. Moore, however, lost time in contacting Murray, with the result that at Byron’s death in April 1824, the Memoirs were still in Murray’s possession. When the news of Byron’s death arrived in London in May 1824, Moore raced to Murray’s in the hope of redeeming the manuscript. Besides his usual disorganisation (he had failed to keep a copy of the agreement), Moore encountered unexpected hostility in the person of John Cam Hobhouse, Byron’s executor.

Hobhouse had been incensed at Byron’s decision to entrust the Memoirs to Moore, and had remonstrated with Byron, who however defended his choice of biographer. Hobhouse later persuaded Murray that the Memoirs were too dangerous to publish, as they would (presumably) reveal compromising details of Byron’s life, likely to hurt sales of the hugely profitable back catalogue of his works. Moore argued for publishing only selected safe extracts, or for postponing the publication of the Memoirs until a later date, but in vain. Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, concurred with Hobhouse’s assessment. After many fraught negotiations, Moore redeemed the manuscript with Longmans’ money (uselessly, as the manuscript was already legally Murray’s) and placed it at her disposal. Leigh then ordered the manuscript destroyed through her legal representative, and despite Moore’s strenuous opposition, the Memoirs were consigned to the flames in Murray’s Albemarle Street premises. In his diary, Moore likened the pyre to a strange funerary rite, in which Byron’s paper body was burned.

Undoubtedly, the destruction of the Memoirs was a grievous loss to posterity. But in mythologizing the Memoirs, do scholars risk succumbing to the authorial fallacy and ascribing too much authority to Byron’s own words? A certain amount of curiosity and regret is inevitable. Did the Memoirs contain mentions of Byron’s incestuous relationship with Augusta Leigh? Or of his relationships with men? Did they candidly express his opinions of other authors? We do not know. All we have left is an empty page, a cover with no content as shown in the image, taken in a London second-hand bookshop.

Moore did his best to fill that empty cover when he wrote his Life of Byron in 1830. He reconstructed his own image of his friend, based at least in part on the Memoirs, of which he had been one of the few readers. He supplemented his recollections of the Memoirs with other parts of Byron’s paper body, his works and letters. Crucially, the thread that held this Frankenstein’s creature together was Moore’s own interpretation of his friend, as he joined, cut and ultimately, read.

Interestingly, Byron is not the only author connected with Ravenna to have undergone a similar partial death. No autographs of Dante’s Commedia survive, indeed, no autographs of his at all. All that remains of one of the greatest works in the Western literary tradition is its reception, the copies made over the centuries by thousands of readers. Has this killed Dante as an author? On the contrary, it has allowed readers to inscribe themselves into his work.

Even if the paper body of the Memoirs has died, every time readers encounter Byron, they fill that empty space with their projections of what should have been there. Because Byron’s Memoirs are a lost object, they have become the perfect “open work”. The voice of the author may be dead, but the imagination and interpretation of the readers, ourselves, endures and prospers.

Date: 11th October 1819

Creator: George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Subject: George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824); Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

Media rights: photograph by Francesca Benatti

Object type: (lost) manuscript


Eco, Umberto The Open Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Kelly, R. (2008) Bard of Erin: The Life of Thomas Moore. Dublin: Penguin Ireland.

Moore, T. (1853) Memoirs, journal, and correspondence of Thomas Moore vol.3. Edited by J. R. Russell. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.