Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Persuasions On-Line ›   |   Volume 44 No 1 ›   |   “I Have Read the Corsair, Mended My Petticoat, & Have Nothing Else to Do”: Jane Austen and Lord Byron, a New Appraisal

“I Have Read the Corsair, Mended My Petticoat, & Have Nothing Else to Do”: Jane Austen and Lord Byron, a New Appraisal

Byron and Austen may seem like an unlikely pairing, but they are now the two writers whom most people will name if asked to think of an author from the Regency period.  Indeed, their fame is such that they both have had significant afterlives, and both are globally recognized literary brands.  Jerome McGann has stated of Byron, “No English writer except Shakespeare acquired greater fame or exercised more world influence,” but, arguably, Austen today has more readers than Byron and reaches a wider modern audience, partly due to the many film adaptations and ever increasing number of translations.  Austen, like everyone else, was certainly aware of Byron, but Byron is mentioned just once in Austen’s letters, and the references to him in Persuasion are not entirely adulatory.1  Similarly, a review of the standard biography of Byron by Leslie Marchand reveals no references to Austen in the index,2 and there are no references to Austen anywhere in Byron’s letters.  Nonetheless, when we examine the literature on both authors, we find several connections between them.

On December 16, 1815, Austen left her brother Henry’s London home in Hans Place to return to Chawton.  Although she couldn’t have known it, she would not return to London again and had just over a year and a half left to live.  Austen had been heavily occupied with preparing Emma for publication during her visit.  The first advertisement traced dates from December 2, but others continued to appear until the end of the year.  The book itself had 1816 on the title page, although it was most likely published before then.  Seeing Emma through the press had been a trying business for Austen, who had to deal with delays from the printer, John Murray’s prevarication, and her brother Henry’s falling seriously ill.  Worse still, Austen had gone through considerable trouble and inconvenience regarding the dedication that she had been forced to make to the Prince Regent through his officious librarian, James Stanier Clarke, whom she had met on November 13, just over a month before her departure.  The stress of the past few months probably meant Austen was quite glad to leave London that December.  Austen’s tribulations, however, were nothing compared to what was happening just over a mile away down the road at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, home of Lord and Lady Byron.3

Lord Byron was approaching his first wedding anniversary, having married Annabella Milbanke on January 2, 1815.  Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for both husband and wife to realize that they had both made a serious error of judgment.  By the end of the year, Lady Byron was expecting their first child, but their relationship was in serious trouble.  Much of Byron’s time was being taken up by the theatre, as he had become a member of the Drury Lane Theatre committee that year.  Perhaps inevitably, he began a liaison with an actress, Susan Boyce, and boasted of his conquests in front of his wife and half-sister, Augusta Leigh.  Byron’s massive debts did not help either, nor the fact that a bailiff occupied their home from November.  Although Byron apparently made friends with him, his wife regarded the bailiff as a “sad brute” (Marchand, Portrait 206).  Byron was also drinking quite heavily at this time, and, understandably alarmed by his erratic and unpredictable behavior, both Lady Byron and Augusta thought he was insane.  In desperation, they called in Mrs. Clermont, Lady Byron’s former governess, and George Byron, Byron’s cousin and subsequent successor as 7th Lord, to live in the house to help control him.  Lady Byron subsequently claimed that three hours before her labor began Byron told her that “he hoped she would die and that the child too would perish, and that if it lived he would curse it” (Marchand, Portrait 209)—although he later denied this.  It was amidst this chaotic and tempestuous setting that Byron’s only legitimate daughter, Ada, was born on December 10, six days before Austen left London, on December 16, her fortieth birthday.  The following year Byron would compose and publish the third canto of Childe Harold, which begins and ends with reference to Ada, the final stanza memorably beginning, “The child of love,—though born in bitterness / And nurtured in convulsion” (Major Works 104, 139). 

Early in the new year, Lady Byron sought medical advice regarding her fears of Byron’s insanity.  The doctor she approached was Matthew Baillie (1761–1823), who was one of the Prince Regent’s physicians and who may have been the man indirectly responsible for forcing Austen to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent.  While he was attending on Henry Austen, Baillie may have acted as a conduit for passing on the Regent’s admiration.  He had treated Byron as a child, examining Byron’s foot when he succeeded to his title.4  Baillie’s verdict in 1816 was inconclusive, but on January 15, Lady Byron left the house with her daughter.  Byron would never see either of them again (Marchand, Portrait 206–12). 

Amid this dramatic backdrop, Byron received a letter from his publisher, John Murray, who had recently become Austen’s publisher.5  Murray and Byron had begun corresponding in 1811, and their relationship lasted until winter 1822 when Byron severed it due to Murray’s timidity in publishing Don Juan.  Murray’s letter is thought to date to around December 28–29, 1815.  He mentions a poem by Leigh Hunt and the negotiations over publication and slips in a knowing reference to the green room, no doubt with Drury Lane in mind.  Yet the last line concludes with the throwaway sentence, “Tell me if Mrs Leigh & your Lordship admire Emma?” (Murray 149).  Murray had sent a copy of Emma to Augusta Leigh, who, as noted above, was staying with Byron at the time.  We know that Austen compiled a list of twelve recipients of presentation copies (in addition to that given to the Prince Regent), as she notes in a letter (11 December 1815).  The names are listed in Murray’s ledgers with the date 19 December (Gilson, Bibliography 68), but we do not find Augusta’s name there.  There is no evidence that Austen knew of this gift to Byron’s half-sister, so it could have just been canny marketing on Murray’s part.6  Sadly, Byron did not answer Murray’s question, so we don’t know if Byron himself read the novel; all things considered, reading Emma was probably the last thing on Byron’s mind over the Christmas period of 1815.

1 Lady Byron crop

2 Lord Byron crop

Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron, after Charles Hayter (1812), and Lord Byron, by Henry Meyer after George Henry Harlow (1816).
© National Portrait Gallery, London.

We can, however, say more about both Lady Byron and Augusta Leigh.  In the spring of 1813, Annabella Milbanke, as she then was, had been doing some characteristically heavy reading, going through Cicero’s letters and Southey’s Roderick.  But she also noted reading a novel, Pride and Prejudice, which, she noted, “is at present the fashionable novel. . . . It is written by a sister of Charlotte Smith’s and contains more strength of character than most productions of this kind.”  She took a copy with her when she went to stay with her cousin Lady Tamworth, at Staunton Harold, late in April, writing to her mother on May 1: 

I have finished the Novel called Pride & Prejudice, which I think a very superior work.  It depends not on any of the common resources of Novel writers, no drownings, nor conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lapdogs & parrots, nor chambermaids & milliners, nor rencontres and disguises.  I really think it the most probable fiction I have ever read.  It is not a crying book, but the interest is very strong, especially for Mr Darcy.  The characters which are not amiable are diverting, and all of them are consistently supported.  I wish much to know who is the author or ess as I am told.  (Elwin 159) 

Pride and Prejudice was not the only Austen novel that Lady Byron read.  Early in 1818 she was reading the recently published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion on Augusta’s recommendation (Gilson, Bibliography 86).  So perhaps both ladies did seek solace in reading Emma during the difficult Christmas of 1815.

This was not the only occasion on which Murray mentioned Austen to Byron.  On September 9, 1817, not long after Austen’s death, Murray wrote to Byron stating his wish that the announcement of the publication of Canto IV of Childe Harold be at the head of a list that included “[t]wo new Novels left by Miss Austen—the ingenious Author of Pride & Prejudice—who I am sorry to say died about 6 weeks ago” (Murray 246).  Unfortunately, once again Byron seems to have made no comment, or none that has survived, so we cannot know whether Murray was referring to an author he knew Byron had read or whether it was just a casual reference.  Caroline Franklin has stated that it is “likely” that Byron read Persuasion.  This guess, however, is made on the basis that Murray sent Byron a parcel of new books and reviews in February 1818 and the possible echo of Anne Elliot’s speech on the constancy of woman in Canto I, stanza 194 of Don Juan, published in 1819 (Franklin 100).7 

Although we can’t be sure that Byron read Austen, we do know that he owned at least two of her novels.  Byron’s library was meant to be auctioned on July 8–9, 1813, on his departure for the continent.  In the event, the sale was cancelled, but a potentially unique copy of the sale catalogue has survived in the Murray archive.  The catalogue shows that Byron owned an 1811 edition of Sense and Sensibility as well as an 1813 edition of Pride and Prejudice (Murray 150, 512).  As noted above, Byron eventually left England three years later, and this time his books were indeed auctioned on April 5–6, 1816.  Although some of the books listed in the 1813 sale catalogue are still present, others aren’t, including Austen’s novels.  Perhaps Lady Byron had taken them with her.  Following Byron’s death there was yet another auction, in 1827, for the books he acquired post 1816.  Once again, the catalogue has survived, but there is sadly no sign of any Austen (Byron, Complete Miscellaneous Prose 231–254, 566).  The sale catalogues do contain works by Austen’s contemporaries, such as Maria Edgeworth, Helen Maria Williams, Elizabeth Hamilton, Lady Morgan, Hannah More, Mary Brunton, and Frances Burney. 

Yet even if we can’t be sure that Byron read Austen, we know that a significant number of those in his social circle had.  In a letter postmarked November 24, 1811, Harriet, Countess of Bessborough (1761–1821), wrote to Lord Granville Leveson Gower, “Have you read ‘Sense and Sensibility’?  It is a clever novel.  They were full of it at Althorp, and tho’ it ends stupidly I was much amus’d by it” (Gilson, Bibliography 9).  Lady Bessborough was the younger sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806), their father being the first earl Spencer, which explains the reference to Althorp (see Appendix B for a simplified Spencer family tree).  Lady Bessborough was also the mother of Lady Caroline Lamb (1785–1828), who famously had an affair with Byron.  Caroline was Lady Byron’s cousin.  (See Appendix C for a simplified Milbanke family tree.)  Lady Caroline subsequently wrote Glenarvon (1816), a bestselling roman-à-clef that, much to his annoyance, featured Byron.  In 1821 Lady Caroline would write to Thomas Malthus, “as I found a novel difficult I have tried two—and since the Fashion is to call every thing in the manner of Pride & prejudice, sense & sensibility, I have named mine Principle & passion” (177).8

The recipient of Lady Bessborough’s letter, Lord Granville Leveson Gower (1773–1846), was her lover, later marrying her niece, Georgiana’s daughter, Lady Harriet Cavendish (1785–1862).  A knowledge of Austen’s work clearly passed down to this generation as Countess Granville, as she become, wrote to her eldest sister, Lady Carlisle (1783–1858), from Paris on November 30, 1838:  “I write like Miss Bates” (Gilson, “Lister” 144).  Admiration for Austen extended yet further to the third generation as Lady Carlisle’s son was the Viscount Morpeth (1802–1864), who published a poem praising Austen in 1835 (Howard 28).  By chance, Morpeth himself was Byron’s second cousin once removed as his great grandmother was Isabella Byron (1721–1795), sister of Byron’s grandfather Admiral John Byron (1723–1786).  Morpeth’s grandfather, the 5th earl of Carlisle and the cousin of Byron’s father, had been made Byron’s guardian on Byron’s succeeding to his title in 1798.  (See Appendix A for a simplified Howard and Byron family tree.) 

In Byron’s immediate circle, his fellow poet, friend, and subsequent biographer Thomas Moore (1779–1852) wrote to poet Samuel Rogers (1763–1855) on June 30, 1816, “Let me entreat you to read ‘Emma’—it is the very perfection of novel-writing—and I cannot praise it more highly than by saying it is often extremely like your own method of describing things—so much effect, with so little effort!” (Gilson, Bibliography 71).9  On December 29, 1817, just a few months after Murray wrote to Byron on the same topic, Moore wrote to Murray, “I heard a little of the new novel (Persuasion &c) read at Bowood the other night, which has given me a great desire for the rest—Will you send it to Power’s for us?—or, indeed, send it off at once here” (Gilson, Bibliography 85–86).  A public yoking of Austen and Byron appeared as early as 1821 when John Gibson Lockhart (1794–1854), Walter Scott’s son-in-law, anonymously published John Bull’s Letter to Lord Byron, which contains references to Mrs. Goddard, Miss Price, Harriet Smith, Mrs. Elton, and “Mr. E.”  Byron himself read it, writing to Murray “it is diabolically well written, and full of fun and ferocity.  I must forgive the dog, whoever he is” (Rutherford 182).  We see from these examples that there is at least circumstantial evidence that Byron may well have known Austen’s work, or at the very least knew of her.

The reverse question—whether she knew of him—is fortunately much easier to answer.  Austen specifically states in a letter to Cassandra, “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do” (5–8 March 1814).  According to John Murray, The Corsair sold ten thousand copies on the day of publication, February 1, 1814, and in little more than a month thereafter Murray printed seven editions and sold twenty-five thousand copies (Marchand 162).  Austen’s casual reference to mending her petticoat alongside reading the poem and having "nothing else to do" suggests a somewhat dismissive attitude towards at least one of Byron’s works.  The juxtaposition of the homely petticoat with the swashbuckling tale of the poem provides a good example of Austen’s humor.  This reference to Byron is the only one in Austen’s surviving letters, but the same poem may well feature in Persuasion when Anne and Captain Benwick “walked together some time, talking as before of Mr. Scott and Lord Byron, and still as unable, as before, and as unable as any other two readers, to think exactly alike of the merits of either” (116).  The narrator subsequently comments, “Lord Byron’s ‘dark blue seas’ could not fail of being brought forward by their present view, and she gladly gave him all her attention as long as attention was possible” (117, 367 n.10).  When Anne and Benwick discuss the merits of Scott and Byron, Austen also mentions two other poems by name, The Giaour (1813) and The Bride of Abydos (1813) (108).  These poems are among those often collectively described as Byron’s Turkish tales and evoke the Byronic hero so strongly identified with the poet and his work.  From Austen’s depiction of Benwick, we can intuit that she favored a more balanced and practical approach to life and its challenges, a view certainly in keeping with her work in general.

Another significant link between Byron and Austen is in a present she made to her nephew James Edward in January 1806, a book titled The British Navigator, or A Collection of Voyages Made in Different Parts of the World, printed in 1799 by the Minerva Press.10  This collection begins with an account of a voyage to the southern hemisphere carried out by Admiral John Byron, grandfather of the poet.  In this expedition of 1764, John Byron claimed the Falklands Islands and subsequently crossed the Pacific.  When he arrived back home in May 1766, he was able to claim the fastest circumnavigation up to that time.  Although Chris Viveash has suggested that Charles Austen gave this book to his sister (“Foul-Weather Jack” 167), there is another possibility.  The 1818 catalogue of Godmersham library has a copy of A Voyage round the World, in His Majesty’s Ship the Dolphin, Commanded by the Honourable Commodore Byron.11  It is described in the catalogue as “Byrons Voyage 2 5 London 1767” and is an account of the 1764–1766 voyage by a nameless officer on board the ship.  In addition, the catalogue also contains a copy of John Hawkesworth’s An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, And Successively Performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour (1773).  These three volumes contain information regarding Cook’s first voyage of 1768–1771 as well as those by a number of his precursors, including an account of Byron’s 1764–1766 circumnavigation taken from journals and papers.12  Austen’s letters clearly indicate that she was familiar with and had an interest in travel writing.13  If Austen had read or come across either or both of these titles, perhaps her gift to James Edward was of her own choosing rather than one of her brothers.

John Byron had published an account of an earlier voyage he undertook when a midshipman on the HMS Wager The Narrative of the Hon. John Byron containing an Account of the Great Distresses Suffered by Himself and his Companions on the Coast of Patagonia (1768) detailed an earlier ill-fated voyage from 1740 to 1746, which involved shipwreck on the southern coast of Chile.  This account was known to his grandson, who borrowed from it for the shipwreck scenes in Childe Harold and Don Juan, where he states, “his hardships were comparative / To those related in my grand-dad’s Narrative” (Major Works 467).  John Byron’s account was not in the Godmersham library, but the catalogue does contain at least three alternative accounts that Austen may have come across.  The first was written by two of John Byron’s crewmates, A Voyage to the South-Seas, in the Years 1740–1. By John Bulkeley and John Cummins, Late Gunner and Carpenter of the Wager (1743).  The second was an excerpt of Byron’s account, in volume ten of William Fordyce Mavor’s Historical Account of the Most Celebrated Voyages, Travels, and Discoveries, from the Time of Columbus to the Present Period (1796–1802).  The third was an account of the voyage by George Anson, Commander in Chief of the squadron line, A Voyage round the World, in the Years MDCCXL (1748).  The accounts show that it was nothing short of a miracle that Byron, unlike most of his shipmates, even survived.14  This was not to be the last of Byron’s ill-fated voyages, which eventually earned him the nickname “Foulweather Jack.”  Lord Byron was again well aware of this history and seems to have felt some affinity with his grandfather, as he wrote in his Epistle to Augusta:  “He had no rest at sea—nor I on shore” (Major Works 268). 

3 John Byron

John Byron (1723–1786), by Joshua Reynolds (1759).

A significant but sometimes overlooked connection between Byron and Austen occurs in a casual reference Austen made just a few days after she wrote the letter quoted above, in which she mentioned reading The Corsair.  On March 9, 1814, Austen wrote, “What cruel weather this is!  And here is Lord Portsmouth married too to Miss Hanson.”  John Charles Wallop (1767–1853), third earl of Portsmouth, was well known to the Austens.15  As a child Portsmouth was briefly in their care, as recorded in a letter from June 1773 by Mrs. Austen, who wrote:  “Jemmy & Neddy [James and Edward Austen] are very happy in a new Play-fellow, Lord Lymington [Portsmouth’s courtesy title], whom Mr Austen has lately taken the charge of—he is between five & Six years old, very backward of his Age, but good temper’d and orderly; he is the Eldest Son of Lord Portsmouth who lives about ten miles from hence” (Le Faye 26).  Portsmouth was subsequently taken away by his mother due to what appears to have been a stammer that he retained into adulthood.  It is not clear what he suffered from, but he did not develop normally, and as an adult he exhibited a number of disturbing traits, such as an obsession with funerals, mistreating his servants, and cruelly beating animals (Tomalin 90).16  Yet he could seem perfectly normal, even charming, as appears from a letter Austen wrote recounting a ball at Basingstoke.  She reported to Cassandra that “Lord Portsmouth surpassed the rest in his attentive recollection of you, enquired more into the length of your absence, & concluded by desiring to be “remembered to you when I wrote next” (1 November 1800).

Just a few weeks after this mention, Portsmouth himself held a ball to celebrate the first anniversary of his marriage.  Austen attended, stating in a letter, “Our invitations for the 19th are arrived, & very curiously are they worded”—an odd comment, but possibly an allusion to one of the milder aspects of Portsmouth’s eccentricity (12–13 November 1800).  Portsmouth’s first wife, Grace Norton, was fifteen years older than him.  It seems the marriage was arranged by Portsmouth’s family, and Grace appears to have kept a check on the earl’s erratic behavior.  Austen saw her at the ball at Basingstoke, mentioning that “Lady Portsmouth had got a different dress on” (1 November 1800).  After her death on November 13, 1813, Portsmouth was subsequently married to Mary Ann Hanson, daughter of the family lawyer, John Hanson.  Byron was present at the wedding and, in fact, gave away the bride.  The marriage seems to have been deliberately engineered by John Hanson, who had long been intimately involved in the family’s legal and private affairs and was fully aware of Portsmouth’s condition.  Hanson’s motive appears to have been to advance his daughter and consolidate his own wealth and status.  The wedding took place on March 7, 1814, at St. George’s, Bloomsbury, with much secrecy.  Even Portsmouth himself was among the last to know.  His first wife had been dead for less than four months, and he was still in mourning dress (Foyster 183).  Austen’s letter is dated March 9, just two days later, so it is possible she learned of the marriage even before Portsmouth’s own family did.

Newspapers reported the marriage on March 8 and 9;17 significantly, Austen herself was in London at this time, staying at Henrietta Street.  The Hansons lived in Bloomsbury Square, and early on the morning of the wedding Byron and Portsmouth walked the short distance from the house to church.  St. George’s is only half a mile away from Henrietta Street and another near miss for Byron and Austen, who recounted in a letter that the snow on March 7 had disrupted her plans to go shopping that morning (5–8 March 1814).  When Portsmouth’s family found out about the marriage, they were aghast at Hanson’s betrayal.  Portsmouth’s brother Newton petitioned the Lord Chancellor in November 1814 to issue a Commission of Lunacy, which in April 1815 was refused, although a commission in 1823 did indeed find Portsmouth of unsound mind and therefore annulled his marriage to Mary Ann.18

Byron’s becoming embroiled in this situation is explained by the fact that John Hanson had also been active in Byron’s legal and business affairs ever since he inherited his title as a ten-year-old.  Hanson introduced Byron, as a child, to his legal guardian, the 5th earl of Carlisle and took him to see Matthew Baillie, as mentioned above.  Byron spent much time with the Hanson family growing up, and he had developed a personal as well as a professional relationship with Hanson, even calling him Pater.  Thus when Hanson asked Byron not only to attend the wedding but to give his daughter away, he could hardly refuse, as Byron himself later said.  Byron’s statement to Chancery in around December 1814 stating that he saw nothing “remarkable” or “particular” in the marriage was critical in establishing its validity and in getting the Commission for Lunacy rejected.  According to Byron, Portsmouth was of sound mind, or, as he stated to Lady Hardy, no “more insane than any other person going to be married” (Foyster 173–74).  Byron’s account of the wedding and his role in it seem to indicate that he was genuinely unaware of what he was witnessing (Tomalin 91).

Byron himself was impacted by Hanson’s actions.  In September 1814 Byron became engaged, and Hanson was needed to draw up the marriage settlement.  But he was too concerned defending his daughter, which led to frustration on the part of both Byron and his fiancée.  When they did eventually marry, on January 2, 1815, they intended to spend their honeymoon at Farleigh House, formerly the dower house of Portsmouth’s mother but now occupied by Hanson.  Given the legal wrangling between the Portsmouths, Byron, perhaps wisely, decided to go to his in-laws in Yorkshire instead, stating that he “would rather dwell among the reported sane” (Foyster 175–76).  In the later part of 1814, the legal tussle between Portsmouth’s brother Newton and John Hanson became increasingly, and embarrassingly, public.  The Hampshire Chronicle printed a notice on October 3, 1814, which made it clear to locals that John Hanson was merely one of Portsmouth’s four trustees, as was Newton, and no contracts could be entered into without the consent of all trustees.  Hanson responded by having Portsmouth issue a handbill stating that Newton was no longer one of his trustees.  Legally, this statement was not true.  The exchange was just one of many in the war between Newton and Hanson triggered by Portsmouth’s marriage that must have left Portsmouth’s tenants and many other locals completely confused (Foyster 191–92). 

4 Hampshire Chronicle

Notice in the Hampshire Chronicle, 3 October 1814, signed by Newton Fellowes, Portsmouth’s younger brother. © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

Worse was to come, as Portsmouth himself was questioned by the Lord Chancellor on January 24, 1815.  A search in the British Newspaper Archive for “Lord Portsmouth” between January and February 1815 reveals thirty-nine results, most in London but many further afield such as in Exeter, Derby, Norwich, Oxford, Canterbury, and Windsor.  Many refer to the “Matter of Lord Portsmouth” or, more simply, “The Lunacy of Lord Portsmouth.”  It was only on April 22, 1815, that Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor, decided not to call a Commission.  Hanson and his daughter were safe, at least for now.

How much of this reached Austen is unknown.  But as we have seen, the Austens had been closely connected to Lord Portsmouth, and Austen herself was certainly aware of the earl’s unusual second marriage.19  Austen knew the family well, as can be seen from the various references to the Wallops in the letters, such as a reference to Coulson, Portsmouth’s younger brother (3–5 January 1801), and another to “The Wallop Race” (8–11 April 1805).  Indeed, Portsmouth’s cousin Urania was the subject of Austen’s poem “Camilla, good humoured, & merry, & small,” and Austen seems to have known her and her mother in Southampton (Letters 418 n7, 581, 29–30 November 1812, Later Manuscripts 736).  Austen was familiar with Hurtsbourne Park, home of the Portsmouths, and Farleigh House was also just a short distance from Steventon.  It is hard to believe that the misfortunes of the Portsmouth family would not have been a staple of local gossip, even if they didn’t involve the most famous poet of the age and hadn’t been so publicly acrimonious. 

Later that year, Byron once again crossed paths with Austen.  On 30 July 1815, The Examiner, a radical weekly founded and edited by Leigh Hunt (1784–1859), published an anonymous and untitled poem, known today as “Napoleon’s Farewell.”  It was subsequently included in Byron’s Poems of 1816, but, at some point, Austen transcribed it, a rare occurrence.  Austen’s text suggests that she took her copy from The Examiner, yet she titled the poem “Lines of Lord Byron, in the Character of Buonaparte” (Southam, “Was Jane Austen” 315).  Whether Austen identified Byron as the author via its inclusion in his Poems of 1816 or had some other means of discovering this prior to then is unclear.  Given that The Examiner was known for its radical views, it does not seem an obvious newspaper for Austen to be reading.  Where she got her copy and why she was reading it in the first place are unknown.  Equally puzzling is why Austen copied the poem.  Byron had admired Napoleon since his schooldays at Harrow, but Austen’s views are more opaque.  Southam points out that there were certainly some in England who admired Napoleon who would not be readily identified as radicals or Jacobins (313).  Could Austen have been one of them?  Or did she just admire the poem on its stylistic and literary merit, regardless of its content, or indeed its author?  Perhaps she admired its insight into the mind of a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur, which she subsequently used to good effect when depicting Sir Edward Denham in Sanditon

5 Napleon Farewell

Byron’s anonymous and untitled poem as it appeared in The Examiner, 30 July 1815. © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

One last connection remains between Byron and Austen that deserves our attention.  As long ago as 1830, in the first full length biography of Byron, Thomas Moore pointed out that on the arrival of Byron’s body from Greece, Byron lay in state at the house of Sir Edward Knatchbull in Great George Street before his final burial at Hucknall Torkard church near Newstead (2: 777).  A simple chronology of Byron’s death and burial, taken from the diary of Byron’s executor, John Cam Hobhouse, is as follows:20 

Monday, April 19 Byron dies at Missolonghi, western Greece.
Friday, May 14 Hobhouse in England learns of Byron’s death.21
Monday, July 5 Byron’s body is brought to 20 Great George Street.
Friday–Sunday, July 9–11 Byron’s body lies in state.
Monday, July, 12 Byron’s cortège begins to make its way to Nottingham.
Friday, July, 16 Arrival at Hucknall. 

In 1986 Elizabeth Barry noted that J. David Grey had pointed out that 20 Great George Street was at the time the London house of Sir Edward Knatchbull, husband of Fanny Knight, Austen’s niece (41).  His house seems an odd choice, given that Sir Edward has been described as “a prominent figure among the ultra-tories” (Matthew).  In her biography of Fanny Knight, Margaret Wilson references the link, noting “the reason for this unlikely connection is a mystery” (80).  Byron’s subsequent biographers have either simply repeated Moore, referenced Great George Street without mentioning Sir Edward, or just not mentioned it at all.  To my knowledge, none of them has explained the reason for Sir Edward’s house being chosen.

Leslie Marchand refers to Hobhouse’s diary, mentioned above, and with reason, as Hobhouse was arguably Byron’s best friend.  They had met at Cambridge, and Hobhouse had accompanied Byron on his early travels.  He was best man at Byron’s wedding (although he had tried to dissuade the minister from performing the ceremony, something that Lady Byron did not forget).  He was also Byron’s executor.  Hobhouse’s diary for Friday, June 25, 1824, states, “I called on Mrs Leigh [Byron’s half-sister] lately and advised her to write to Lady Byron to ask if she had any wishes respecting Lord Byron’s funeral—this night I had her answer, saying if the deceased had left no directions she thought the matter might be left to Mr Hobhouse.”  From this, it seems Byron’s funeral arrangements fell to him.  A subsequent entry for July 5 states that on the arrival of Byron’s body Hobhouse “went away to the house hired for the purpose, 20 Great George Street, Westminster.”  So it seems that the venue was chosen by Hobhouse, but why?  Hobhouse was a radical, on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Sir Edward.  As an MP, however, he would have known that the term had ended on June 25.  Fanny Knight’s diary of 1824 does indeed confirm that the family was back in Kent by this time, meaning that the house was unoccupied.22 The same entry in Hobhouse’s diary states that Byron’s body arrived at Palace Yard stairs and was carried to the house.  An examination of a contemporary map shows that the house was a short walk from the landing area. 

6 Great George Street

Map of Westminster showing 20 Great George Street (marked with circle) and Palace Yard Stairs (marked with rectangle). Westminster Abbey, labelled St. Peter, is at the bottom. Reproduced with the kind permission of Dr. Matthew Sangster (www.romanticlondon.org).

Hobhouse’s diary states, “A black cloth was strapped around [the corpse], and it was put upon six men’s shoulders, who, without the least remark from anyone, or any crowd being collected, bore it across Palace Yard, to the house in George Street.”  If Hobhouse’s plan was to deposit the body with the minimum of fuss or attention, it seems to have worked.  As an MP, Hobhouse would have known the area well; in fact, he was MP for Westminster itself.  Could Sir Edward’s house have been chosen simply because it was unoccupied and convenient?  There’s also the question as to why Sir Edward gave his permission in the first place.  Hobhouse did note in his diary on May 16 that “Party feeling is suspended in the contemplation of the genius of our fellow-countryman, and of sympathy with him for the great cause, to promote which he may fairly be said to have died.”  But there may have been a simpler explanation.  Marchand quotes a contemporary magazine that states that the news of Byron’s death “came upon London like an earthquake” (467).  Perhaps Sir Edward disliked Byron’s politics, and, in fact, the man himself, but given the outpouring of grief following Byron’s death, it may well have been easier for him to have granted Hobhouse’s request, especially since the house would be unoccupied.  One wonders if Sir Edward ever learned that his connection with Byron was preserved for posterity by Thomas Moore’s 1830 biography.  It seems unlikely he would have been pleased.

Westminster Abbey provides our final link between Byron and Austen.  Hobhouse notes on July 5 that permission to bury Byron there had been refused by the Dean of Westminster.  Hobhouse considered challenging this decision with Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, but decided not to.  As we can see, the Abbey was a short walk from Sir Edward’s house, thus reinforcing the idea that 20 Great George Street was a convenient location.  In 1968 Eric Abbott, Dean of Westminster, at last endorsed a petition from the Poetry Society for a memorial for Byron, for which a ceremony of dedication was held on May 8, 1969 (McGann).  Less than a year and a half earlier, the Abbey had also acceded to a request, prompted by Phyllis Mary Keith Sweeting of the Jane Austen Society, and the unveiling ceremony of a memorial to the similarly long-neglected Austen was conducted by the same Dr. Abbot on December 17, 1967.23

Byron and Austen may seem an unlikely couple, but, as we have seen, they were connected by individuals, in literature, and even by physical proximity when in London.  Indeed, they were even distant cousins.24  Austen was certainly aware of Byron and his work, and, although we cannot be certain he knew of her, we know that many in his circle of acquaintance certainly did.  These connections remind us how small Austen’s world could be, both physically, when we consider the relatively small size of Austen’s London, and socially when we remember that as well as attending on Byron, Matthew Baillie’s patients included George III, Sir Walter Scott, and Edward Gibbon.  The poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762–1851) was his sister, and the celebrated anatomists John Hunter (1728–1793) and William Hunter (1718–1783) were his uncles.  These connections are worth identifying, not just for their own sakes but for what they can tell us about Austen and her age.  Austen’s gift of The British Navigator to James Edward, her knowledge of travel literature, and its availability to her in the library at Godmersham suggest that she and other women of the period may have known more about the age of Cook than we might expect.  A parallel example can be found in Frances Burney, whose brother James Burney (1750–1821) accompanied Cook on his second voyage and who subsequently wrote a valuable survey of Cook’s precursors A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean in five volumes (1803–17).  Indeed, the fifth volume contains an account of John Byron’s journey on the HMS Wager.  Pursuing these links also allows us to correct our perspective on the age and reengage with figures such as Matthew Baillie and John Byron, whose fame has been eclipsed.  We need have no fear that such a fate will overtake Byron or Austen, whose reputations are consolidated with each passing year.  The fact that their fame is such today that they are mentioned in the same breath would no doubt have surprised Austen but would probably have appealed to her wry sense of humor.  What his lordship would have thought is harder to imagine.

Appendix A: Byron and Howard

Appendix B: Spencer and Ponsonby

Appendix C: Milbanke



I would like to thank John Avery Jones for kindly reading and commenting on an early draft of this article.  I am also grateful to the following for their assistance:  Jo Strong, Mick Bright, Geoffrey Bond, Ron Dunning, Jesse Erickson, Jerome McGann, Kristen Welzenbach, Margaret Wilson, Susan Allen Ford, and the anonymous reader for Persuasions



1Janet Todd and Linda Bree observe in Later Manuscripts regarding Sanditon, “The lack of reference to Lord Byron on Sir Edward’s part is surprising” (662 n21). 

2There are no references to Austen in either the three-volume edition of 1957 or the revised single volume of 1970. 

3Today this address is No. 139 Piccadilly. 

4Marchand refers to James Baillie in the 1970 edition of his biography (20), but the 1957 version correctly refers to Matthew Baillie (1: 55). 

5Byron met Walter Scott at Murray’s offices at 50 Albemarle Street on April 7, 1815; Byron’s infamous memoirs were destroyed there on May 17, 1824 (oddly enough, Lady Byron’s birthday).  For further details on Murray, Austen, and Byron, see Christine Kenyon Jones. 

6The copy surfaced in 1941 when it turned up in Scribner’s sale catalogue.  The title page was inscribed “Augusta Leigh—1815, the 1st copy, given by Mr Murray” (Gilson, Bibliography 69, 86).  Christine Penney notes that the copy appeared for sale again in 1995 with an asking price of £16,000 and that each title page bears Augusta’s signature (406–07). 

7Peter Knox-Shaw makes the same point but does not refer to Murray’s parcel of new books (51). 

8Chris Viveash notes that Lamb’s copy of Pride and Prejudice is at Chawton Cottage (32), now known as Jane Austen’s House. 

9Curiously, this is exactly the opposite of what Austen herself wrote in the now well-worn reference to “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” (16 December 1816). 

10Gilson notes that the book was the property of Joan Mason Hurley (Joan Austen-Leigh [1920–2001], James Edward’s great granddaughter) and was exhibited in what was then called the Pierpont Morgan Library, in the autumn of 1975 (Bibliography 433–34).  Despite having made various enquiries, I have been unable to trace its current location.  I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any knowledge of the current whereabouts of the book. 

11A scan of the original catalogue is available from the Reading With Austen website as well as a transcription of the catalogue in Excel format available here: https://www.readingwithausten.com/about.html#about_data-description 

12Cook would name Byron Bay in Australia after his famous predecessor (Brand 116). 

13See for example references to Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) (376 n10, 25 November 1798), Joseph Baretti and Samuel Sharp’s books on Italy (399 n12, 20–22 February 1807), Sir John Carr’s book on Spain, ( 418 n1, 24 January 1813), and the string of travel books mentioned on 24 January 1813 (419 n12), including John Barrow’s account of Lord Macartney’s embassy to China (1807). 

14See also chapter three of The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand. 

15For a useful short summary of Portsmouth, see Tomalin (89–92).  His sad story is told at length in Elizabeth Foyster’s The Trials of the King of Hampshire

16Le Faye says of Portsmouth in Austen’s Letters that Portsmouth was a “necrophiliac lunatic” (563), but this does not seem warranted by Foyster’s research. 

17The Sun and Saint James’s Chronicle on March 8, and The Star on March 9. 

18Le Faye states in Austen’s Letters that Mary Ann Hanson disappeared into obscurity (563), but Foyster tracks her down to Chatham-Kent, Ontario in Canada, where she ended her days (293–95). 

19It is tempting to make inferences as to why Austen inserted a “too” in her letter of 1814 on the marriage.  Note that Tomalin quotes it without the “too” (92). 

20A significant number of Hobhouse’s diaries are at the British Library (Add MS 56527–56568), but Peter Cochran has made a transcript from 1809 to 1824, including annotations and ancillary material, that is online here:  https://petercochran.wordpress.com/hobhouses-diary/.  I am very much indebted to Cochran’s transcripts; I have also examined the originals in the British Library. 

21The following Monday, May 17, Byron’s memoirs were destroyed at John Murray’s offices. 

22I am very grateful to Margaret Wilson for providing this information. 

23Devoney Looser corrects Southam’s identification of “Miss P. K. M. Sweeting” (96) to Phyllis Mary Keith Sweeting (132). 

24Jane and Byron were definitely cousins though, through at least one other line [aside from the Leighs]:  8th cousins, both descended from Sir Richard Berkeley of Stoke Giffard, and Elizabeth (nee Coningsby). They had plenty of common ancestors from even further back,” according to Ron Dunning (email, 17 September 2022).  Paula Byrne suggests that Byron and Austen may have been distantly related through the Leigh family; she also highlights interesting connections between Byron and Chandos Leigh, first Baron Leigh (1791–1850), Austen’s second cousin, once removed (92, 337–338).

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