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1823 letter discovered in Trinity’s Wren Library describes Byron’s lost memoirs

Elizabeth Palgrave’s 1823 letter describes the hand-written memoirs of Lord Byron seven years after his tumultuous marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke had ended amid rumours of incest and homosexuality, which galvanised his departure from England in 1816 never to return.

Trinity Archivist Adam Green discovered the letter among the papers of Elizabeth’s father, Dawson Turner, whose archive is housed in the Wren Library.

Elizabeth’s letter of 29 October 1823 to her father, Dawson Turner, which recounts Byron’s memoirs. Photo: Trinity College Cambridge.

Byron gave his memoirs to a friend in 1819 with instructions to publish only after his death. The poet died aged 36, on 19 April 1824, while supporting the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Soon afterwards, Byron’s friends destroyed his memoirs, which had so horrified Elizabeth, in what has been called the greatest crime in literary history.

Cambridge scholar Dr Corin Throsby said the discovery was ‘truly exciting.’

For centuries people have wondered what Byron’s lost memoirs might have contained, so it is truly exciting to have another first-hand account from someone who read them. Byron was always out to shock, and he would have been unsurprised and possibly delighted by Elizabeth’s extreme reaction to his work.

Her letter shows the success of Byron’s ‘bad boy’ persona as she is not only disturbed but also clearly fascinated by him, repeatedly imagining how he was feeling while writing.

In this way, the letter offers a window into how Byron was read in his time and demonstrates the lost memoir’s apparent ability to simultaneously scandalise and captivate its readers’ imagination.

An engraving of Elizabeth Palgrave by her mother from a drawing by John Philip Davis. Photo: Trinity College Cambridge

Educated, beautiful and a talented amateur artist, Elizabeth grew up in Great Yarmouth, surrounded by pictures, books and manuscripts collected by her father, the banker Dawson Turner. She married Francis Palgrave and on 29 October 1823, the couple visited the publishing house of John Murray who, Elizabeth recounts in the letter to her father, ‘was so obliging as to put into my hands the MS. of Ld Byron’s memoirs of his own life …’

I opened the pages accidentally at that part of his Lordship’s life which mentions his marriage, & I read it with the utmost interest & avidity. Ld Byron prefaces this portion of his MS. [manuscript] by professing his design of hurrying over it, as it is of all the most painful to record. He then, in the most cold-blooded & heartless manner, declares his little attachment to his wife at any time …

It is grievous to read his declaration of indifference to his wife & of aversion to her mother, whom he never mentions but by the most opprobrious epithets. Nor does he ever call his wife by any name but that of “Miss Milbanke.”

During his short life Byron (1788-1824) fought for the oppressed, sympathised with the outcast, delighted in puncturing pomposity and exposing hypocrisy, and magnetized myriads with his beauty, brilliance, charisma and wit. He was also vain, could be unkind and cruel, and was prone to excess in all manner of things.

Elizabeth continues in her letter about the memoirs:

They contain the most severe remarks, not only on Sir Ralph Milbanke’s family, mode of life &c, – but all the families in the neighbourhood whom his Lordship met, are mentioned by name & classed in the wittiest but most cruel manner. Ld Byron evidently set his mind to evil – he takes delight in recording his own wickedness, & in the most perverted of all feelings – that of exposing & degrading his wife. A leading trait in his memoirs, is the extreme pleasure he takes in levelling, as far as he can, those who are eminent for virtue to his own standard.

Trinity Fellow, Emeritus Professor of English Literature Adrian Poole said: ‘For those women with whom he had relationships Byron could be charming, loving and kind. He could also be callous and cruel. Elizabeth’s letter is testimony to the latter traits. But for all her shock and horror she points towards a fascination with his sheer emotional extravagance.’

Archivist Adam Green said: ‘This fascinating detail is typical of Elizabeth Palgrave’s letters, which burst with intelligence and information. It’s typical too of the discoveries waiting to be made in the many relatively unexplored collections of letters – particularly those of women – in this Library and elsewhere.’

Byron was a student at Trinity College between 1805 and 1807. The Byron Festival at Trinity marks the bicentenary of the poet’s death with a conference, recital, poetry readings, and an exhibition to consider his poetry, life and legacy in their many different dimensions.

The last page of Elizabeth’s letter. Photo: Trinity College Cambridge.

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