Fangirl(s): Lord Byron edition

I’ll seize any chance I can get to talk about Lord Byron’s fan letters – and with the somewhat flimsy excuse of the 224th anniversary of the publication of Cantos I &II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage just around the corner (March 20, to be exact), now seems like a perfect time. Lord Byron received fan letters? Of course he did!

replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)(1813 portrait of Byron in Albanian dress, by John Phillips)

I learned about this understudied archive from Corin Throsby’s “Flirting With Fame: Byron’s Anonymous Female Fans,” a 2004 article in The Byron Journal. She also writes about it in her chapter “Byron, Commonplacing and early fan culture” in Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750–1850, in which she argues that “Byron was one of the first writers ever to receive what would now be described as fan mail, that is, unsolicited letters from his readership, on a mass scale” (228).

According to Throsby: “Critics have neglected the fact that the type of fan activity that is understood as being unique to the online age has its genesis, as a major cultural phenomenon, in reading practices of the Romantic period. The exponential increase of printed texts in the Romantic period meant that readers not only had to negotiate a new relationship to the increasingly celebrated figure of the author, but to other readers also. And the largest and most active collective of readers were those of the first ‘celebrity’ author, Lord Byron” (227). Housed in the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland, they remain unpublished. (Murray published most of Byron’s greatest hits—at least until 1822, when they had a falling out of sorts, and Byron switched to publisher John Hunt, brother of Leigh.) When I was in Edinburgh a couple summers ago, I wanted to go check out these letters (nb: I highly recommend the NLS Special Collections Reading Room, which has a stunning view of Arthur’s Seat). As you’ll see, a common theme in the letters is concern over Byron’s immortal soul. Here are excerpts from a few of my favorites:

From a May 1812 letter in which the unidentified writer seems to have sent Byron a bible and urges him to embrace Christianity
“You are unhappy – a being feared and mistrusted, even by those whom the fashion of the hour leads to flatter you – you are ‘alone on earth’ – There needs no more to excite a deep interest for you – but, the interest I feel – the eager wish for power to contribute (tho’ but a mite) to your happiness – arises from sympathy adding strength to compassion – For I have known what it is to have my youth blighted by unkindness, to be feared, hated, neglected”

From one of several undated letters sent by “Echo”
“Should curiosity prompt you, and should you not be afraid of gratifying it, by trusting yourself alone in the Green Park at seven o’clock this evening you will see Echo. If this evening prove inconvenient, the same chance shall still await you tomorrow evening at the same hour. Be on that side of the Green Park that has the gate opening into Piccadilly, and leave the rest to
Echo
Should apathy or indifference prevent your coming, adieu for ever!”

From “Anna,” sent in 1812
“My Lord, I have been indebted to your muse, for soothing & interesting some of my saddest hours, I have wept over Child Harold’s griefs & sympathized in his wrongs. I would have rejoiced when he rejoiced but there seems no joy for him in this World. Often have I wanderd in these gardens with your poem for my Companion & ‘with thee, conversing have forgot all time.’ I have hung in rapt attention over every line of Child Harold, I am not a critic but an inexperienced young woman, but the language of genius & of nature must be felt & never makes its appeal in Vain to my heart.”

From “Eliza Horatia Somerset,” sent Oct. 21, 1814
“I am told my Lord Byron is an Infidel but no, it cannot be, I have fought your cause and said, He who can so feelingly describe the purest of sentiments, must acknowledge a God of love.”

From a writer who laments this is “a letter to which she cannot affix her name,” sent May 25, 1814
“I must be allowed to observe that your Lordship is not addressed by one of those frivolous Beings, who conclude that it is very sentimental and captivating to sigh away an hour over Lord Byron’s poetry, merely because it is what is deemed the fashionable reading of the day; but it is one, whose deeply wounded spirit was occasioned in early youth, for several years past to shun all society as an intolerable annoyance – who has no information of what is passing in the World except such as is gathered from books and newspapers – and who is alternately commiserated or condemned by the very few epistolary correspondents who are still retained, for wasting the fairest part of Life, in what they designate as an unnatural solitude – but pity and reproach are alike unmeaning sounds to those who support existence as a thankless boon, which must be endured although it is not desired”

An unsigned, undated letter
“Though young myself, I have already felt the importance of religion; and there is something so melancholy, and even dreadful in the idea that a fine and noble mind should wander through the darkness & misfortunes of this world without its guidance, and should suffer the pangs of misery without its consolation & support, that there is nothing I could not do to convince such a mind of its mistake”

From “Rosalie,” sent September 12, 1814
“A young lady of deservedly unsullied fame who to use
Ld Byron’s descriptive lines is
‘The wither’d frame, the ruined mind,
‘The wreck by’ misery (not passion or guilt) left behind
‘A shriveled small [?], a scatterd leaf,
‘Lean’d [?] by the autumn blast of grief.’
Has been led not from any motive but an irresistible inclination to address a man whose character as far as she has learnt from public report (and she knows Ld Byron from no other) she dares not admire, and whom she never saw, but she cannot read his works with the attention she has done, without believing his mind would sympathize her own, and feeling herself strongly interested for his sorrows and early disappointments.

From “Warmest Wellwisher,” undated
“I owe you so large a debt of gratitude for the most exquisite delight I ever remember to have derived from any work of Imagination – poetry or prose – that I cannot resist the inclination I feel to make my acknowledgements for it”