- A Missing Letter from Leigh Hunt to Byron
The Murray Archive in the National Library of Scotland at Edinburgh contains eight letters which Leigh Hunt wrote to Byron during his imprisonment between 3 February 1813 and 2 February 1815. These letters were published with annotations in The Byron Journal, 36.2 (2008), pp. 131–42 as ‘Leigh Hunt to Lord Byron: Eight Letters from Horsemonger Lane Gaol’, while some of their implications were addressed in the following number (37.1 , pp. 21–32). An envelope has been discovered in the Edinburgh collection which adds suggestively to that record though, unfortunately, it no longer contains a letter. This envelope is addressed to ‘The Lord Byron/NN/Bennet Street/London’ and carries a wax seal and the postmark: ‘FREE/29 JY/1813’. In this case, ‘JY’ almost certainly signals July. While, in his correspondence, Byron sometimes uses the letters ‘JY’ as a shortened version of January, the Post Office made use of this abbreviation to signal July (which was to be distinguished from January (JA) and June (JU). Byron’s Bennet Street address would have been appropriate throughout the time of Hunt’s imprisonment.
This envelope is tangible evidence that Hunt wrote to Byron much sooner than the extant record of his letters might seem to suggest; the first surviving example dates from 1 December 1813 and is, among other things, a thank-you letter elicited by an unspecified gift from Byron. It has always seemed strange, if explicable, that so much time elapsed after Byron’s first visit to the prison on 20 May before Hunt approached him on paper. This small but significant piece of evidence shows that, in fact, Hunt did not observe so long a silence and makes one wonder not only what was in the missing letter but whether there were others which have eluded our notice or have simply disappeared. Since Hunt’s letters to Byron were often (though not exclusively) replies to Byron or occasioned by his acts of generosity or friendship, there is also the possibility that the missing letter may have been a reply to a letter from Byron which is no longer extant.
Though at best all speculation can never be more than conjectural, one further fact is worth considering. As Byron’s letter of 28 July 1813 to Thomas Moore makes clear,1 at the time of Hunt’s letter Byron was in the final stages of preparation for leaving the country. These preparations had been in progress throughout July but with changes of plan and much uncertainty. On 11 July Byron had told Dr William Clark that he [End Page 69] planned to sail on the 30th, though he would need to be ‘quite ready’ to leave London as early as the 25th.2 Two days later, he had informed Moore: ‘I want to get away, but find difficulty in compassing a passage in a ship of war’;3 he had also made Moore responsible, comically, perhaps, but with a residue of seriousness, for editing his posthumous works, since ‘one can die any where’. On the same day, he had applied to John Wilson Croker for passage in the ship which was to convey Prince Kozlovsky to the Mediterranean.4
Given these preparations, declarations and signs of intention, Moore can hardly have been surprised when, on 28 July (the day before Hunt’s missing letter was postmarked), Byron informed him that ‘This is nearly my ultimate or penultimate letter; for I am quite equipped, and only wait a passage’.5 Such plans would not have been a secret from Hunt either since, by Hunt’s own account, Byron was a frequent visitor to the gaol at this period. For example, according to Hunt’s confident prediction to his wife Marianne, Byron was expected for dinner on 11 June.6 We do not know if Hunt’s letter was a response to Byron’s news of his plans for travel or perhaps a good-will message for his imminent voyage, though this might have been flavoured by some ambiguities because one effect of Byron’s absence from England would have been to disrupt a growing friendship. In the...