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


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
15 May 1819, Venice, Italy
Manuscript / Letter / Ephemera
Lord Byron
© GG Byron
Held by
British Library
Ashley MS 4740

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