LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Byron and his Publisher: Thomas Medwin versus John Murray, 1824
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Byron’s remarks on John Murray occupy six continuous pages of Thomas Medwin’s Conversations. At the time they were recorded in 1821-22 Byron and Murray were at odds over the publication of Don Juan and each was contending with the furor aroused by Cain. As related by Medwin, Byron’s remarks are unflattering and insensitive to the hostility Murray was facing on poet’s behalf. They misrepresent several financial transactions between the poet and the publisher though as usual the extent to which this was Byron’s fault or Medwin’s is difficult to determine.

While Murray might have overlooked Byron’s malice, he could hardly overlook the accusations against his integrity as a businessman, notably the climatic charge that he had violated a contract Medwin had signed as a witness when “it was discovered that * * * *” p. 170. The asterisks suggested a violation of trust too libelous to mention. The asterisks were themselves a libel, or so Murray must have thought when he consulted Sharon Turner for legal advice. On 30 October Turner wrote to Murray expressing his opinion that his options were not promising, suggesting in a postscript that “I think a neat vindication of yourself from Lord Byron’s correspondence would be a fair and an admirable and an acceptable thing” Smiles, Memoir of John Murray (1891) 1:450.

Murray distributed to the newspapers a small pamphlet, dated October 30, entitled Notes on Captain Medwin’s Conversations of Lord Byron. It consisted of double-columns pairing passages from Medwin’s Conversations with passages from Byron’s correspondence with Murray indicating that the relationship and the financial transactions were other than what the Conversations had represented them to be. Murray demanded and received from Medwin’s publisher Henry Colburn the text concealed by the asterisks, which he then printed in an appendix dated 2 November: “it was discovered that it contained a clause which had been introduced without my knowledge, a clause by which I bound myself to offer Mr. Murray all my future compositions.” Murray could then avow that Medwin had signed no such document.

Murray’s document, printed in prominent London newspapers and several literary journals, had the desired effect of persuading readers that Medwin’s book (already in its third printing) was not to be relied upon. It was the more effective in that the refutation was made almost entirely in Byron’s own words. While the public was satisfied and Murray’s reputation was vindicated, the matter did not quite rest there. There were at least three attempts to answer Murray.

The first, appearing in the Examiner for 14 November, was by John and Leigh Hunt. It acknowledges Medwin’s unreliability but proceeds to settle scores with Murray for the treatment accorded John Hunt when he succeeded Murray as Byron’s publisher. Tarring Murray with his own brush, the Examiner article reprints an angry letter Byron had sent to Murray, in care of John Hunt, complaining about the treatment of the MS of the “Vision of Judgment.”

The second response, from “The Editor of the Conversations”—probably Thomas Colley Grattan (1792-1864)—appeared in the Morning Chronicle for 15 November. It mimics Murray’s double-columns, printing Medwin’s on the left and his editor’s defense on the right. If this was not very persuasive, it would have to do until the author (then in Switzerland) could “substantiate, by original letters or other documents in his possession, the general authenticity of his work.” The more damning portions of the Hunts’ essay are appended.

The third response, apparently hitherto unnoticed, appeared in The Sun for 30 November. It is again signed “The Editor of the Conversations” and contains an “Extract from a Letter from Captain Medwin to a Friend” dated “Vevey, 18 November.” Medwin complains of having to respond to Murray without having seen Murray’s charges in print (apparently no clipping had been enclosed) and grants permission to expose the change concealed behind the asterisks, which had already been done by November 2.

Apparently Grattan had asked for evidence to substantiate the charge, which Medwin supplies in the form of two passages transcribed from his MS journal. The first is dated 28 November [1821]: “Witnessed to-day a deed which I understood to be for the copyright of CainTwo Foscari, Sardanapalus. Lord Byron observed, that all the four witnesses to it had written books. I remarked that the wonder was to find a person who had not been guilty of so doing.” The second, dated 6 January, contains what purports to be the original of the contentious passage: “it was discovered (I think he said by Douglas Kinnaird) that it contained a clause, by which I had engaged myself to offer to Mr. Murray all my future compositions.” The first of the two passages does not appear in the Conversations, the second passage, as it appears in Murray’s pamphlet, does not contain the parenthetical remark about Kinnaird.

The 28 November passage turns up again in the intended revisions to the Conversations first published by Ernest J. Lovell in Captain Medwin (1962) 188. Medwin had written and deleted “I certainly did witness on the 28th Novr. a Deed” before continuing:

“I perceive by reference to my notes that on the 28th Novr. 1821 about the time Cain, Two Foscari, and Sardanapalus were in the press [all three published December 19, 1821] I witnessed a Deed which I understood to be the Copyright of these Dramas. Lord Byron observed that all the witnesses to it had written books. I remember replying that the wonder nowadays was to meet with a person who had not . . . I must therefore have confused some other copyright about which Lord Byron was speaking with this—but there is one fact about which I am not mistaken, and which perhaps is the only one of importance in this question: Lord Byron speaking of some Copyright certainly did make use of words to this import.”

But Medwin seems not to have emended the second passage in revision; there the supposed original, like the version printed in the Conversations, has Byron declaring that the deed Medwin witnessed was in fact a deed in which Byron agreed “to offer to Mr. Murray all my future compositions.” If the “original” version is indeed the original, it suggests something of the process by which the journal was refashioned into the Conversations: “I did not examine it before I signed it” becomes the vaguer “it contained a clause which had been introduced without my knowledge.”

Since Murray denied that Medwin’s name appeared on the contract for the dramas, Medwin’s later explanation that Byron must have been speaking of a different contract does not establish his veracity. Yet Murray too was relying on memory since Lovell reports that the publisher wrote to John Wilson Croker that “I told you at the same time I could make oath that I never observed the man’s name to the deed—which deed is no longer in existence” (1962) 189. If it seems unlikely that Byron would not have read a contract, or that Murray would have added such a clause at such a time, there remains no printed evidence to settle the matter one way or the other.

David Hill Radcliffe

Thomas Medwin, Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron (1824)
John Murray, “Lord Byron and Mr. Murray,” in The Courier (5 November 1824)
John and Leigh Hunt, “Lord Byron and Mr. Murray,” in The Examiner (14 November 1824) 722-24
Editor of the Conversations, “Lord Byron and Mr. Murray,” in Morning Chronicle (15 November 1824)
Thomas Medwin, “Lord Byron and Mr. Murray,” in The Sun (30 November 1824) 763-64