Skin in the Game

Lob­by Loungers (Drury Lane The­atre — Cruik­shank): Byron and oth­er men of fash­ion ogle pret­ty actress­es or cour­te­sans, who stand in a group, as if on show. Byron (left), head in pro­file to the right, wears a dou­ble-breast­ed blue coat (with a star) but­toned to the waist and with tails, a high col­lar and stock, and loose trousers. His loose­ly curl­ing hair part­ed at the side is in con­trast with the ugly shock-head­ed appear­ance of the oth­er men. In his pock­et is a paper: ‘Cor­sair [1814] Farewell &c by Lord Byron’. He gazes fixed­ly at Mrs. Mar­dyn, a hand­some woman, hold­ing a large muff.

Byron found his most inno­v­a­tive and bril­liant form in the dis­cur­sive, com­ic, first-per­son “per­for­mance” of Don Juan. Here and there it roamed the out­er lim­its of satire and of taste, as he knew; his verse turned the knife as it ripped into “cant”. He thought he could rely on his read­ers’ accep­tance of his ener­getic vul­gar­i­ties and skep­ti­cal jokes because they were true-to-life. When Mur­ray, in March 1819, said that his ‘court’ of advi­sors “ [deplored] that a Man of your genius will not occu­py some Six or Eight years in the com­po­si­tion of a Work & Sub­ject wor­thy of you – “ Byron shot back:

– is Childe Harold noth­ing? you have so many “divine” poems, is it noth­ing to have writ­ten a Human one? with­out any of your worn out machinery.

If read­ers did not accept his poet­ry, he haugh­ti­ly insist­ed he did not care:

– – As to the Esti­ma­tion of the Eng­lish which you talk of, <have> let them cal­cu­late what it is worth before they insult me with their inso­lent con­de­scen­sion. – – I have not writ­ten for their plea­sure; – if they are pleased – it is that they chose to be so, – I have nev­er flat­tered their opin­ions – nor their pride – nor will I. – Nei­ther will I make “Ladies books” “al dilet­tar le fem­ine e la plebe” – I have writ­ten from the full­ness of my mind, from pas­sion – from impulse – from many motives – but not for their “sweet voic­es.” – I know the pre­cise worth of pop­u­lar applause – for few Scrib­blers have had more of it – and if I chose to swerve into their paths – I could retain it or resume it – or increase it – but I nei­ther love ye – nor fear ye – and though I buy with ye – and sell with ye – and talk with ye – I will nei­ther eat with ye – drink with ye – nor pray with ye.  – – – [Byron to Mur­ray, 6 April 1819; the last sen­tence echo­ing Shy­lock in Shakespeare’s Mer­chant of Venice]

He did care, of course, deeply; Don Juan is filled with rumi­na­tions on fame, lit­er­ary and oth­er­wise. Exile was escape from the mark of sin: Fame would be his jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Still, unluck­i­ly for Byron, his poem reached the pub­lic just at the moment when pop­u­lar taste was about to become much less tol­er­ant of pre­cise­ly the sort of Regency “loose­ness” that Don Juan and Byron’s own rep­u­ta­tion represented. 

Murray’s pleas to Byron to drop the most “offen­sive” pas­sages in Can­tos I & II are often attrib­uted to his squea­mish­ness and to the par­son-pow­ered⁠ 1 ‘syn­od’ (Byron’s term) who advised him, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Edi­tor of the Quar­ter­ly Review and oth­er Mur­ray pub­li­ca­tions, William Gifford.

But Murray’s rec­om­men­da­tions deserve more respect as evi­dence of the pub­lish­ing envi­ron­ment and not just of his own dis­po­si­tion. After all, he had “skin in the game”. Byron was his most promi­nent “prop­er­ty”: his own rep­tu­a­tion and prof­it had been direct­ly linked to Byron’s lit­er­ary pop­u­lar­i­ty and poet­ic renown for a decade. What­ev­er we think — look­ing back from two cen­turies lat­er — of the timer­ous­ness of his sug­gest­ed changes to Don Juan, we still should take seri­ous­ly his claims about Byron’s like­ly recep­tion in 1819. 

A publisher’s rela­tions with a bril­lant but brit­tle-tem­pered celebri­ty author (one of the first and great­est of this genre), self-exiled to the oth­er end of a two-or-three-week cor­re­spon­dence delay were nev­er like­ly to be easy. Byron’s cor­re­spon­dence is rapid, un-restrained — often thought­less or, at best, care­less about oth­ers’ inter­ests — and impa­tient. Murry’s replies are late, incom­plete and patient to the point of grov­el­ling to His Lordship’s pecu­liar­i­ties. But he had his lim­its. Pub­lish­ers must be ready, some­times, to lead pub­lic taste; but not by too far if they want to stay in busi­ness. John Mur­ray had the added chal­lenge of launch­ing this new, con­fronting work from Byron into a unique­ly dif­fi­cult environment. 

Although Byron’s attacks on the poli­cies and the per­son­al­i­ties of the Liv­er­pool gov­ern­ment might have con­sort­ed with some rad­i­cal, Whig and even pop­u­lar opin­ion, the “moral­i­ty” of the poem was more dif­fi­cult to sell. Lit­er­ary read­ers such as Cro­ker and Crabbe were not much dis­turbed by the events such as the bed­room farce or can­ni­bal­ism or sex-on-the-sand in the nar­ra­tive of the first two Can­tos of Don Juan. But Mur­ray rea­son­ably feared that his wider mar­ket would be less for­giv­ing of Byron’s dis­dain for Church (if not for reli­gion) and his jokes about sex­u­al mis­be­hav­ior and ref­er­ences to his own rep­u­ta­tion, after 1815, for mar­i­tal infi­deli­ty (and worse). 

The upheaval in British pol­i­tics and soci­ety over the years of 1819–1820 saw mid­dle-class val­ues and expec­ta­tions con­front­ed by the repres­sive behav­ior of a Gov­ern­ment los­ing legit­i­ma­cy and a lazy, prof­li­gate, adul­ter­ous King. Reac­tion to the first helped build a plat­form for reform of the par­lia­men­tary ‘con­sti­tu­tion’ in the fol­low­ing decade. The sec­ond tend­ed to con­sol­i­date sup­port for, at first, “feminst” val­ues of respect for mar­riage and the still sub­or­di­nate rights of women. A new mid­dle class ‘respectibilty’ installed itself some­time around the 1820s and set­tled, even­tu­al­ly, into the con­ser­v­a­tive, prud­ish, stuffy domes­tic­i­ty that we call ‘Vic­to­ri­an’ taste and that Matthew Arnold would describe, forty years lat­er, as “philis­tin­ism”.

The dis­com­fort Mur­ray and his cir­cle expressed with Don Juan from the out­set — and his refusal to pub­lish any more after 1822 — reveal more than just “pris­sy” indi­vid­ual val­ues. Events in Eng­land had made it dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate Byron’s satire, “blas­phemies” and attacks on the gov­ern­ment and the (for­mer) King from a polit­i­cal plat­form nei­ther he nor Mur­ray endorsed. More­over, the bour­geois lit­er­ary mar­ket that Mur­ray increasin­ly served had lit­tle tol­er­ance for the kinds of per­son­al license in maters of reli­gion, fam­i­ly or (sex­u­al) behav­ior that Byron, and mem­bers of his class, had indulged a decade earlier. 

  1. Can­to IX Stan­za 34

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