- Byron's Letters and Journals: A New Selection ed. by Richard Lansdown
Richard Lansdown, the author of the excellent Cambridge Introduction to Byron, has produced a much-needed new collection of Byron's incomparable letters and journals, aimed mainly at general readers. The texts have not been re-edited from the manuscripts but are reproduced from Leslie Marchand's thirteen-volume complete edition of 1973–94. Marchand's complete edition, containing around 3,000 letters, is, of course, the one necessary for scholars, but Lansdown has put together a larger and more satisfying selected edition than Marchand's own Selected Letters and Journals, published by the Belknap Press in 1982. Lansdown's New Selection contains 300 letters, about twice the number as Marchand's selected edition.
Lansdown is, thank goodness, a generous and sensitive appreciator of Byron's literary genius, as opposed to the occasional moral scolds and intolerant "people of one idea" (Hazlitt's phrase) whose only interest in Byron seems to consist in the desire to pass judgment upon his personal behavior. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the best Byron scholars wish to be just, and the worst wish to be judges. Lansdown's eloquent, sensible introduction, afterword, and contextualizing headnotes put him firmly in the former category.
As this is an edition primarily for general readers, Lansdown's footnotes are informative and appropriately concise. However, the book would have benefited greatly from a section containing brief capsule biographies of Byron's correspondents, as well as individuals who are mentioned multiple times in the letters. As it stands, if one does not read the letters straight through from the beginning, one will often have to hunt back through the footnotes to earlier letters in order to identify various persons mentioned. For instance, in Lansdown's text of Byron's ebullient verse letter of June 30, 1809, to Francis Hodgson (pp. 50–52), Byron writes, "Fletcher, Murray, Bob, where are you?", but there is no footnote identifying these three as William Fletcher, Joe Murray, and Robert Rushton; a non-scholar would have to deduce their identities by poring through footnotes to earlier letters. One can easily imagine a non-specialist mixing up Byron's future publisher John Murray with Byron's servant Joe, and suffering an equal confusion about who "Bob" is. On the same page, Byron mentions "the Captain/Gallant Kidd"; Kidd is unidentified and does not appear in the index, despite Byron mentioning him in more than one letter. In addition to capsule biographies of significant people, Lansdown's edition would have benefited from a chronology of Byron's life and works. It is hard to see the logic of not including such a chronology, as such an aid to understanding would make things far easier on all readers but on the general reader especially.
An odd choice of Lansdown's is printing the entirety of the letters' postscripts in italics. This is one of his few modifications of Marchand's texts. This doesn't seem to add anything to the reader's experience of the letters, and in fact it is [End Page 173] distracting and may lead some readers to mistakenly assume that the emphases that the italics seem to signal are Byron's. Marchand changed Byron's frequent underlinings into italicizations; because Lansdown's texts leave those originally underlined words and phrases italicized, the erroneous impression is given that Byron underlined all of his postscripts.
The 300 letters in this edition are judiciously chosen from amongst March-and's 3,000, and the volume as a whole presents an appropriately engrossing, moving, hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking sampler of the coruscating brilliance of one of the greatest letter writers in the English language. Having to decide what to leave out must have been a painful task. Many of Byron's wittiest and most revealing letters were to his friend and biographer Thomas Moore, but out of 140 of Byron's letters to Moore, Lansdown includes a mere sixteen. Lansdown asserts that Byron's letters and journals, "taken as...