- The Burning of Byron's Memoirs: New and Unpublished Essays and Papers by Peter Cochran
Peter Cochran's deep and intricate knowledge of Byron's world was always a breath of fresh air in the world of Byron studies, and his early death—related to a long-standing illness, which he bore without complaint—was both a shock and a great loss to the Byron world. Peter's meticulous editions of crucial source texts such as John Cam Hobhouse's diary and correspondence are, rightly, widely used. His critical writings, however, are another matter. They are usually full of original information, astute comment, and lively prose but they are not always as cogent as his textual studies. Reading them is rewarding but always a matter of discrimination.
Peter liked Byron very much. It is necessary to assert this because it does not always show in some of his pronouncements on Byron. He would present anti-Byron papers almost pugnaciously at conferences, as if he was spoiling for a fight, which he often was. One of my last conversations with him was in a hotel lobby in Spain as we waited for the rest of the conference participants to join us. Peter had delivered another of his energetic anti-Byron talks earlier in the day. I asked why he took against Byron so much: 'You are really determined to grind Byron into the ground, aren't you?' I said. 'Not at all,' he declared. 'I am not against Byron at all. I want to start a healthy debate about him. There is too much hagiographical admiration for him at these conferences.' The combination of his determinedly anti-Byron tone and his undoubted love for Byron form an organisational motif of the book.
Peter's biographical essays about Byron and his circle invariably have information and interpretations that alter the usual narratives about them. Among the best pieces in this book is his previously unpublished essay on Byron and Shakespeare. To show why Shakespeare holds our interest and Byron does not, Peter takes a few passages from Shakespeare which Byron altered. Byron's language is not rooted in daily life as Shakespeare's is, he says, nor does Byron use 'vulgar' words as Shakespeare does. Yet when Byron adapted Shakespeare for his satiric poems, he could be wittier and funnier than Shakespeare.
'The Burning of Byron's Memoirs' is another essay that is a good reason for buying this book. Until someone produces the original memoirs, there is little new that can be said about them. And yet Peter's account of their destruction is riveting. It is constructed like a film script in short sections that turn rapidly from one character to another, interspersed with dialogue and quotations from the correspondence of the actors involved in or responsible for the fate of this literary vandalism. These materials are stitched together into an exciting story which [End Page 79] pays close attention to what each individual actually said, and by so doing more or less damns them all. With the help of original documents, he shows that there was nothing dire about the memoirs but Hobhouse was hell-bent on destroying them. The saddest thing—and Peter's fury breaks through his usual ironic stance here—is that at no point did any among these supposedly close friends of Byron 'voice the thought that Byron was a great writer, with a world-wide reputation, and that to destroy any work by him was unforgivable'. Hobhouse wanted them destroyed out of 'fear of being tarred with the same brush as his libertine friend, now, when he was, as a radical Whig M.P., almost respectable'. Later, Murray's publication of Thomas Moore's Life of Byron, containing so many of his letters and journals, was an act of contrition. But as Peter angrily notes, 'Hobhouse didn't want that published either'. The orange flames on the dust cover of the book underscore Peter's consuming frustration about the burning...