Byron’s Bulldog

The Letters of John Cam Hobhouse to Lord Byron

Edited by Peter W. Graham


LITERARY CRITICISM / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
364 pp. 6x9

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John Cam Hobhouse (1786–1869), later Baron Broughton de Byfford, was a man of many talents who distinguished himself as a writer, Radical reformer, and Whig statesman. In his youth, however, Hobhouse’s energies and emotions centered on his friendship with Lord Byron, the fascinating poet Lady Caroline Lamb so dramatically characterized as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Byron and Hobhouse endured and enjoyed Cambridge together, traveled as companions through Greece, Albania, and Turkey, and together made their way in the rackety London world of publishers, pugilists, politicians, dandies, duchesses, and debutantes. Hobhouse served as best man at Byron’s ill-fated marriage, stood staunchly as Byron’s partisan when that alliance dissolved, and, as the poet’s man in London, tirelessly expedited literary, financial, and personal affairs for his self-exiled friend.

Byron once termed the tenaciously loyal Hobhouse “my best and dearest friend,” and their candid, witty, not always cordial letters to one another constitute the longest sustained and one of the liveliest of Byron’s correspondences. Professor Graham’s edition of Hobhouse’s more than one hundred letters to his friend—many of which have not previously appeared and most of which have never before been published in full—gives a voice to the hitherto silent half of one of Byron’s most colorful and engaging epistolary conversations.

One of the commonplaces of Byron scholarship has been to reduce the friendship of Byron and Hobhouse to a conjunction of opposites: libertine and moralist, poet and pedant, Hamlet and Polonius, or damned archangel and ordinary mortal. As Graham points out, however, the outsider who endeavors to see Byron and Hobhouse as they were is struck more by resemblances than by polarities. For all their disagreements, Byron and Hobhouse were drawn together and held together by affinities. Even the major differences between them seem to be matters of degree rather than of kind.

In essence, Hobhouse’s letters resemble Byron’s, much as many of his tastes and attitudes did. Like Byron, who has been acknowledged as one of the masters of English letter-writing, Hobhouse wrote vastly entertaining and eminently sensible letters packed with concrete information and wry commentary, society gossip, literary intelligence, political analysis, and philosophizing on the absurdities of the biped called man. Though amusing, the Hobhouse letters are far from being mere bagatelles. On more than one occassion Hobhouse delineates history in the making for the absent Byron: his firsthand observations bring alive Napoleonic Paris during the Hundred Days and electioneering Westminster in the era of Reform agitation. Hobhouse’s commentary on Don Juan is the first literary criticism that materpiece received and provided a remarkably accurate prophecy of the public sensation the poem provoked. His letters relaying intelligence from the London Greek Committee to Byron, who, as the Committee’s representative in Greece, sacrifice his energies, fortune, and ultimately his life to the revoluationary cause, are deeply moving.

But whether their concerns are momentous or trivial, Hobhouse’s letters will engage posterity as they must have Byron himself, for they frankly and faithfully mirror their author’s character and preoccupations. In turn charming, boorish, bawdy, didactic, tiresome, indignant, generous, acute, outrageous, and affectionate, they show us what Byron cherished, and what he endured, in his friend.

Peter W. Graham is associate professor of English at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at Blacksburg.