Before I was sucked into the London rat race, the internet, mobile phones and Skype were things in their infancy – toys for the super rich and geeks. I wrote letters. Before Google there was Teletext and the Penpals page was full of desperate souls looking for escape from their home towns and the soul crushing regime of school life.
I had 14 penpals right up as far as Stirling (I lived in Kent). And the one who lasted was my best friend Tracy who then lived in Derbyshire. She is now in Nottingham by the roundabout route of London and after 27 years we are still firm friends. Which says something.
I have gone back to source material for my script (and had so for the book that preceded it) and letters are the best way to get to grips with someone’s true nature. But not edited ones. Lord Byron’s letters are prolific to say the least. But have been snipped and culled so much that they have lost their lustre and often their meaning in the wider context of his life at whatever given moment.
Peter Cochran has been a godsend for reproducing them in the raw. Indeed it comes with its own introduction which you should read before commencing as it is necessary background. And the letters are a body of work all of their own.
Cochran wholly understood the importance of what it was to leave in every mistake, every dropped capital, every obliterated profanity, every amusing swear, every expanse of unused paper (more telling than you might imagine) and with the original haphazard cost saving layout. Every stroke of the pen meant something. This is the essence of Byron’s work.
Cochran’s opening gambit reads:
This edition gives you a raw version of Byron’s correspondence. As far as can be done in linear print, it conveys what he wrote and how he wrote it, before any editor got to it to neutralise him. FEEL FREE TO MAKE IT MORE ACCOMMODATING BY EDITING IT YOURSELF. Once you’ve shaded and copied it, you can: run through his page -breaks; expand his contractions and ampersands; delete his deletions; regularise his interlineations … would you? dare you? modernise his spelling? (I hope not!); regularise his capitalisation, so that students feel less bewildered than usual? (I hope not!) – P.C.’
The letters are without doubt some of the best reads I’ve come across in my life. Cochran also adds little details top and bottom, such as how letters got from and to destinations and who paid the frank. Because London to Venice was not a first class stamp away. Peter’s observations are often as witty as the subject matter he is discussing.
Likewise his footnotes which are liberally scattered throughout these documents not only put Byron’s scribblings into context as in where letters and such like are missing but also point out character traits and faults that make the poet more likeable, more real, more faulted as we already knew he was. It is not a praise of him, but a fair criticism of how he deals with the various events he writes about and everyone around him.
A spy, writing from Venice before Byron had quit the city permanently for Ravenna in 1820 made some interesting observations of the poets complicated character:
‘He eats and drinks little. But he does not much like conversation nor seeing what is worth seeing. He lets others talk and says little. He makes himself agreeable, but his expression clearly reflects the mood of his changeable humour.’
If you want to get to know Byron and to understand his ‘poeshie’, read the correspondence in their original form. Of course that can also be said of those who wrote to him in return. Hoppner and Hobhouse are two particular favourites of mine. The wit, the banter, the detail, has me laughing and rolling my eyes on a regular basis. But that’s my humour which is often satirical and blunt. And the letters suit this.
The correspondence has been ideal for filling out the obvious gaps in the chronology of my new project. I have pulled chunks of text out and turned them into conversation and ‘voice overs’ because I cannot express better than from his own lips the events which were unfolding. And why would you want to when you can hear Byron say it himself? It brings to life a people you might think otherwise as stiff collared and far too Jane Austen. I tire of simpering women and hat doffing. They are not all Mr Darcy and are very much more besides. They are practically ‘lads’ doing what they do and, thanks to being abroad, largely doing it without English propriety.
In many ways that makes them modern. And relatable. And that really is a part of what I am trying to do here.
I am openly smug that such a body of work exists. And that of all the people in the world it should be someone as interesting and colourful as Lord Byron is spoiling us. Not only for leaving us his polished body of published work, but for what he really thought. And what made him tick. And what made him write. And how he wrote.
And to imagine what he could have been and we could now be reading had he not died at 36. Well it just doesn’t bear thinking about.
You can read my book ‘A Most Faithful Attendant – The Life of Giovanni Battista Falcieri‘ by purchasing it here.