This is the second article in an occasional series by Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library. You can read the first instalment here.
By 1814, two years after he awoke to find himself famous, everyone wanted a piece of Byron. Some got jewellery, several got hair and a fair few got a reputation. Among the most prized of trophies, however, was a sample of verse – not printed, mind, but written out with the warm intimacy of the poet’s hand.
In a letter of 23 December 1814, the novelist and society gossip Miss Emily Eden described to Lady Buckinghamshire the febrile hunts she had witnessed at Middleton House, seat of the Jerseys and occasional retreat for Byron. When visiting in 1812 the poet sharpened his nib (steel was only just catching on, watch this space) and wrote out copies of his verse in Lady Jersey’s commonplace books, changing words here and there to suit the occasion and flatter the recipient. The scribal legacy was a competitive swap shop among Jersey’s circle of hot-flushed lady visitors:
She brought down a great book full of verses and epigrams, that she is collecting all over the world and gathered chiefly at Middleton; she let few of them be read, and screamed and pulled away the book every three minutes in case we should see more than we ought … It seems to be the fashion collecting these things, for Captain Feilding says it was quite ridiculous to see Lady Jersey and Lady Cowper and Lady E Feilding and two or three others coming down of an evening at Middleton with their great books in satchells, like so many schoolboys, and showing each other their ‘little treasures, ’ and one saying,
‘May I copy this?’
‘No; not unless you will let me copy that.’
‘Very well, but you won’t turn over the page?’
‘Then you must not go further than that line.’
And then the books are all locked up again, for they each have keys and Lady Elizabeth says everybody wore the key of her manuscript book at her side, in case the others should get it by fair means or foul.
Byron is one of the authors whose verse appears most frequently in commonplace books of the first half of the nineteenth century (Walter Scott and Thomas Moore are up there too). Through the preceding century the sense of reverence associated with anything written in the author’s own hand - his or her ‘autograph’ - gained in intensity, reaching an apotheosis with the Romantics whose handwritten texts achieved the status of sacred relics (and still do to some collectors). Lady Jersey’s commonplace books are not, in fact, typical. It’s rare to find verse actually in the hand of the author, the vast majority of texts being copied from printed sources or, as with the Middleton cabal, from other commonplace books. Nevertheless, tracing the genealogy of particular poems through these secretive pages and considering the whole range of contextual information they offer is a worthy form of academic sport.
For this reason the Bodleian recently purchased a commonplace book not written in by Byron - we do have examples of his hand elsewhere - but full of Byronic associations. The book was kept by members of the Parkyns family of Nottinghamshire, early neighbours, friends and inevitably sweethearts, to Byron when resident at his ancestral seat, Newstead Abbey. The marbled folio volume, tied up with green velvet and watermarked 1800, is a compendium of many things, mostly but not exclusively concerned with the family’s association with the young lord. The main contributors are Frances Parkyns, her cousin Elizabeth and a third person (different hand), possibly an aunt. There are literary texts of various sorts, either written directly onto the blank pages or on loose sheets of paper sandwiched in between, but also sketches, recipes, newspaper cuttings, doodles and even an arithmetical table. It is tempting to think that the last, printed on local paper, was used by Byron when he was tutored with his friends. Most strikingly, there are evocative mementoes of the affectionate but ultimately doomed acquaintance – feathers from the grounds and leaves from the oak tree under which they played and upon which, as an annotation explains, Lord Byron wrote a poem (‘To an Oak at Newstead’). The leaves posed a challenge for the Bodleian’s conservator, being brittle and attached to the paper by tiny blobs of sealing wax. They are now beautifully supported by almost invisible loops of acid free paper.
Little is known about the Parkyns, although Frances has the honour of a mention in Byron’s first surviving letter. In 1798, aged ten, he informs his aunt that he has ‘Sent a young Rabbit which I beg Miss Frances will accept off and which I promised to send before’. It turns out that a few letters from the girls to Byron survive in the voluminous archive of John Murray, Byron’s publisher, at the National Library in Scotland. It is from studying their handwriting that we can identify the various contributions to the book and understand the pathetic emotional context in which its contents were set down. The letters date from 1812-16 during the dramatic escalation of Byron’s fame and paint a sorry picture of the increasing neglect of his juvenile friends. Despite repeated entreaties he does not bother to visit when he comes to Nottingham; he will not return a portrait (presumably of himself); he will not reconsider his decision to sell Newstead. Frances, clearly besotted, warns him about the weight problems which dogged him throughout his life – ‘by starving yourself indeed you will shorten your life and weaken your nerves’ – pleads with him to stay clear of the hysterical Lady Caroline Lamb, vents her distrust of his lawyer and constantly harks back to what she remembers to be their halcyon days. Elizabeth, much sharper, chides him severely and repeatedly for the affects of this neglect upon Frances which, we learn, culminates in a breakdown and a voyage to family in Bermuda to recuperate. Space does not permit, but I imagine further research into poor Frances would be worthwhile. A loose engraving for a frontispiece of George Vason’s Authentic Narrative of Four Years Residence at Tongataboo of 1810, for example, bears her name as the artist. Vason was a Nottinghamshire man and his narrative echoes in certain of Byron’s works. Did Frances proudly send him a copy of the work she had illustrated and act as a muse by proxy?
Turning to the cousins’ own contributions to the book we find the expected copies of Byron’s published verse from 1806 up to 1814 (particularly relating to Newstead). But there are also several compositions of their own, amplifying the themes of the letters. Two examples betray two very different characters. While a paragraph of unpunctuated empurpled prose in Frances’ hand pines away about the good old days,
… canst thou forget when seated together under the shade of your ivy mantled arch as the sighs wafted back the locks which shaded my glowing cheeks our fait was plighted and sealed with the pure kiss of innocence … few years had I seen but my Vows were fixed forever, but thine so ardent then perhaps have since been given to another more fortunate….
Elizabeth beats about the bush rather less in a poem of her own. ‘The following lines’, she scratches out in grammarless riposte, ‘were composed upon reading a Poem written by a friend on his leaving England saying he could love but one’. The reference is to Byron’s poem ‘Stanzas to [Mrs Musters] on Leaving England’, first published in 1809. No Middleton frisson for Elizabeth Parkyns: she subverts the concept of the commonplace book as sexually sublimated reliquary of ‘little treasures’ and lobs Byron, and us, a long-range literary grenade.
Oh! Trust not fair lady this fanciful strain
Tis only the effusions of Byron’s quick brain
A tale which to others he oft has repeated
And they who believe are most sure to be cheated
With grace he’ll bend oe’r you and vow to be true
Declaring he’ll never love any but you
Persuasion will hang in the tear of his eye
As the dew beams most bright when the sun gild the sky
While the soft smile of truth dimples gently each cheek
And the mild voice of love his warm lips softly speak
To the next one with riches the same he’ll rehearse
And breathe out his sighs in his smooth flowing verse
By two hundred or more his poor heart has been won
How can he then say that he loves only one
Thus when any will suit why it signifies nought
The conquest so cheap that its scarce worth a thought
For Scotch, English, Spanish and Turkish all share
The Grecians for him too have braided their hair
From the forehead of each a bright lock did he take
And departing with ease keeps them safe for their sake
Such attentions would flatter confined but to few
When so many can please tis no use to be true
A heart shared by such numbers must sure be quite gone
T’would be folly to think there was ought left for one
Should these mistress’s change with the fast flitting day
What can he expect when he shews them the way
You’ll wonder perhaps how so much I can tell
Only look through his books and you’ll soon know as well
Then think not sweet Lady thy charms can ere gain
This elegant poet this changeable swain