After Lord Byron’s death in 1824, John Murray had a decision to make; either publish Byron’s memoirs or get rid of the evidence of their existence. Deemed to be too controversial for publication, (which was Byron’s wish) Murray made the choice to burn the memoirs. The memoirs, which “began was a proposed preface to a planned collected edition of [Byron’s] works… outgrew the original plan.” (Carpenter 111) and were to become their own publication after Byron’s death. Instead, all traces of the memoirs did not exist. This raises a singular question; why? Why burn the memoirs of one of the most popular literary figures in the 19th century?
Part 1: The Professional Focus
One concern of Murray’s is reputation. The decision is made that “suppression [of the memoirs] was the safest course to protect what remained of Byron’s good name” from “presumed impropriety.” (Carpenter 132) Not only is he looking out for Byron posthumously, but more importantly Murray is concerned about his own reputation. Due to his conservative values, Murray is hesitant to publish the memoirs due to their damaging content. He does not want to offend his audience, which would have been bad for his business. As a businessman, Murray does not want to run the risk of losing his customers or profits. Once he becomes the owner of the memoirs, he burns them with Thomas Moore in order to protect his reputation as a successful, and not controversial, publisher.
It is noted that “the correspondence [between Murray and Byron] soon descends into a miserable exhibition of false accusations and rancor from which it was never to rise again”, (Nicholson xx) which shows how Murray might be less inclined to grant Byron’s wishes. He is affected by the death, and grows concerned for Byron’s reputation as he continued to be “more protective of Byron’s own interest than Byron was himself.” (xix) It is possible that Murray thought it would be better to protect their reputation over the financial gain selling the memoirs. Through burning them, Murray erases any last possible controversies as there is no existing record of the contents within.
Part 2: The Personal Focus
What does Byron say about his memoirs?
In a letter in October 1819, Byron mentions that” he has given a section of his memoirs to his friend Thomas Moore, with the statement that they are not for publication until after Byron’s death” – “Byron offers them for reading to Murray and anyone else, and he is careful to specify that they are not libelous”(British Library).
The mystery that that comes with Byron’s memoirs is still unknown nonetheless Murray was seriously effected by Byron’s death. Moore was supposed to sell the memoirs to Murray but had second thoughts and “converted the sale to a loan of 2000 guineas with the manuscripts as security” – “Moore had already spent the money but with Byron’s death, he wanted to reclaim the ownership of the memoirs and publish them to his own profit” (O’Connell 131).
Prior to Byron’s death, Moore approached Longman (Murray’s rival) on the basis to publish the memoirs but because the loan agreement with Murray was not finalized; Moore did not have much agency about it although burning them was an option along with publishing it or not. Douglass Kinnaird read the memoirs and liked them, furthermore states that Byron’s family Lady Byron and his half-sister would want the memoirs to be “suppressed and would pay for that”(O’Connell 132); Similarly Kinnaird on the part of Lord Byron’s family is willing to advance 2000 guineas in order to have the influence of whether to publish them or not.
The memoirs seemed to be as O’Connell calls it in a complicated “legal limbo” (O’Connell 131) with the initial copyright given to Thomas Moore. There certainly were conflicts between booksellers, friends and family of whether to publish the memoirs or not – The general strategy and approach to the memoirs were whether it is money oriented or keeping Byron’s (& Murray’s) reputation. Ultimately, Murray and Moore’s decisions on burning the memoirs in Albemarle Street was a choice not likened by everyone, but the accountability of keeping the reputation and not furthermore exploit the deceased author is the greater good option concurs.
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Carpenter, Humphrey. The Seven Lives of John Murray: The Story of a Publishing Dynasty, 1768-2002. London: John Murray, 2008. Print.
O’Connell, Mary. Byron and John Murray: A Poet and His Publisher. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2014. Print