Collection of Byron Letters Auctioned at Sotheby’s

After extended bidding, both in the room and on the phone, the collection of letters featuring in the sale at Sotheby’s London of Books and Manuscripts from the prestigious English library of former British Prime Minister Archibald, 5th Earl of Rosebery, was won by an anonymous phone bidder.

ByronEventually reaching a high of £277,250 (pre-sale estimate: £150,000-180,000), the significant collection of pages of autograph Byron includes many unpublished letters that have not been explored in over 100 years and contains material detailing infamous relationships as well as his thoughts and pursuits immediately prior to his rise to fame upon the publication of Childe Harold.

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist, Books and Manuscripts Department, comments: “We are absolutely delighted with the above-estimate price achieved for such an important collection of letters by Byron. The pre-sale interest in the collection has been international in its scope and extremely enthusiastic, demonstrating just how prominent Lord Byron remains in the literary canon and in people’s affection. There has been particular interest in what this unique collection reveals about Byron as a poet as well as the more sensitive and thoughtful side to a man most frequently recognised as one of history’s most notorious lotharios. The letters talk of love and poetry, of religion, travel and revolution, and their sale has offered a wonderful opportunity to reveal aspects of Lord Byron’s character that were either unknown or long-forgotten. The winning bidder now has the privilege of exploring the previously unpublished content in the selection of letters.”

Roger Griffiths, Senior Director of Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department and auctioneer for the sale, comments: “Today’s sale achieved a total of £1,522,303 ($2,500,839), above the pre-sale high estimate of £782,700 ($1,285,820) and was 98% sold by value and 94% sold by lot, demonstrating the continuing appeal to the market of an exceptional bibliophilic collection – a wonderful combination of prestigious provenance and the very rare opportunity for those who appreciate the very best of rare publications to acquire.”

The Roseberry Collection of Lord Bron Letters
Originally purchased from the descendents of the recipient at Sotheby’s by the Earl of Rosebery in 1885, this collection of Byron’s letters to his close friend and ‘brother minstrel’ Francis Hodgson represents the most important Byron material to be offered at auction since the sale of the manuscript of Beppo in 1976 for £50,000, and comprises a total of 71 pages in Byron’s hand. There are fifteen complete letters together with other substantial fragments, which have been largely unknown to scholarship ever since their composition. The collection offers fascinating snapshots of Byron’s private life from 1808, well before his fame as a poet was established, to 1821, during his self-imposed exile from England and just three years before his death aged thirty-six. The letters – unguarded, colourful, and frequently controversial – are wide ranging in topic, including poetry (“. . . who is the hero of Paradise Lost? Why Satan . . .”), love (“. . . “I almost rejoice when one I love dies young, for I could never bear to see them old or altered. . . .”) religion (“. . . we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating on another. . .”), and revolution (“. . . the Neapolitan treachery & desertion have spoilt all our hopes here. . .”). Byron’s friendship with Hodgson stemmed from their shared literary interests from their time together at Cambridge in 1807 (Hodgson was a fellow at King’s while Bryon was up at Trinity). While many of Hodgson’s letters from Byron were published during the 19th century, the letters in this collection have not been consulted since the 1880s and a significant percentage of the content – including many of the more controversial passages – remains unpublished.

By the time of Hodgson and Byron’s earliest correspondence (1808) their relationship was firmly established, with his letters covering a range of topics from literary subjects and mutual friends to the death of his favourite dog (“. . . Boatswain is to be buried in a vault waiting for myself, I have also written an epitaph . . .”). The series continues through Byron’s grand tour (1809-1810), where he writes happily from Portugal that “. . . the inhabitants have few vices except Lice and sodomy,” and that he has been conversing with monks in bad Latin and refining his knowledge of Portuguese obscenities. From Constantinople he describes Ali Pasha, who fired his imagination and impressed him with his “two hundred women and as many boys, many of the last I saw and very pretty creatures they were”.

Interestingly, a number of the letters relate to Hodgson’s recent determination to take Holy Orders and his concern for Byron’s soul. His earnest campaign to convert Byron to religious orthodoxy ensues, eliciting detailed replies from Byron which introduced a new seriousness to his letters, with trenchant criticism of Christianity: “. . . the Basis of your religion is injustice, the Son of God the pure, the immaculate, the innocent is sacrificed for the Guilty, this proves his heroism, but no more does away Man’s guilt, than a schoolboy’s volunteering to be flogged for another would exculpate the dunce from negligence, or preserve him from the Rod. . .”

Revealing the more callous side of Byron’s nature are a series of letters from Byron’s time at Newstead Abbey in the autumn of 1811 that refer to his time gathering his “little sensual comforts” which included taking Susan Vaughan as his lover – an affair which did not last long and following which the girl was summarily dismissed. While she may have lost her livelihood and reputation, Byron cast himself as the victim of the affair, sighing to Hodgson that “I can’t blame the girl, but m y own vanity in believing that ‘such a thing as I am’ could be loved.”

1811-1812 was a highly productive time for Byron’s poetry, and his letters from this time include requests for help with Greek, and then, on 16th February 1812, Byron sent his friend a proof copy of Childe Harold. The final letters in the series date from several years after Byron quit England , painting a lively picture of life in Ravenna and the lives of mutual friends. Knowing that his correspondence will be opened by the Austrian authorities, he is somewhat evasive about his involvement in revolutionary politics and signs with a deliberately illegible squiggle.