Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray about incidents at Villa Diodati, 15 May 1819

Description

This letter shows Lord Byron’s concern about the reception of his work, and also tells us about his relationship with other writers of the period. 

At the beginning of the letter Byron writes that he has received and returned to the publisher the first printed copy of Don Juan. This would have been used for checking and making last minute alterations; a later copy would show these corrections, but Byron foresees difficulties because of his travels, and authorises his publisher John Murray to publish the final version from the first set of proofs. He complains about critics finding his work shocking: 

Mr Hobhouse is at it again about indelicacy – there is no indelicacy – if he wants that, let him read Swift – his great Idol – but his Imagination must be a dunghill with a Viper’s nest in the middle – to engender such a supposition about this poem. – For my part I think you are all crazed. – What does he mean about “G-d damn” – there is “damn” to be sure – but no “G-d” whatever. – And as to what he calls a “p–ss bucket” – it is nothing but simple water – as I am a Sinner …

What does the letter tell us about Byron’s relationships with other writers?

The central part of the letter deals with two incidents from his connections with other writers of the time. Firstly he describes a near-fatal rowing excursion with Percy Bysshe Shelley on Lake Geneva, in which Shelley refuses to panic despite being unable to swim. He contrasts this with an incident at the Villa Diodati when Shelley, during a reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, had a fit of horror at the image of a woman with eyes on her breasts. 

The second story describes the ‘ghost-story challenge’ at the Villa Diodati in 1816, when Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein. Byron pointedly states that there was no loose sexual activity during this period, denying scurrilous reports by Robert Southey. 

Enclosed with the letter was Byron’s fragment of a vampire story, taken up and written by John Polidori as The Vampyre. Byron states that he wrote the fragment in an account book of his former wife, from whom by then he was legally separated. He notes that the word ‘Household’ written twice in the account book was the only example of her handwriting that he retained, other than ‘her name to the deed of separation’.

Full title:
Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray
Created:
15 May 1819, Venice, Italy
Format:
Manuscript / Letter / Ephemera
Creator:
Lord Byron
Copyright:
© GG Byron
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
Ashley MS 4740

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Lord Byron, 19th-century bad boy

Article by:
Clara Drummond
Theme:
Romanticism

Clara Drummond explains how Lord Byron’s politics, relationships and views on other poets led to his reputation of 19th-century bad boy.

The Romantics and Classical Greece

Article by:
Stephen Hebron
Theme:
Romanticism

The Romantic period was one of growing interest in ancient Greece. Stephen Hebron explores how this shaped the subject matter and forms of the era’s poets.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and the Villa Diodati

Article by:
Greg Buzwell
Themes:
The novel 1780–1832, Romanticism, The Gothic

Greg Buzwell describes the bizarre circumstances that gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the other works that emerged from the ‘ghost story challenge’ at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Created by: Lord Byron

A poem in Spenserian stanzas by Lord Byron (1788-1824), Cantos I and II appeared in 1812, Canto III in 1816 and ...

Don Juan

Created by: Lord Byron

Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) entertaining mock-epic version of the famous Don Juan legend (1819-24) proved highly ...