An Introduction to Lost Literature

Hi everybody. I am trying out a new format here. While I work on my next big project, (which aims to be by far my biggest yet), I will be interspersing it with some smaller posts in between. So let’s get started with one of my favorite topics, lost literature

A funny thing happened one time…

There was once a cartographer by the name John Warburton who lived from 1682 to 1759. His life wasn’t all together too significant. Primarily if you look up his name today, you’ll find a C list early British actor and an orthopedic surgeon.

However, John Warburton did have something peculiar about him. When he wasn’t drawing maps, he loved to collect old books. Particularly play manuscripts. However despite his avid collection he was frustratingly poor at maintaining it. On one time, he got drunk and proceeded to get swindled by a dealer which he attempted to swindle. This other time though, was quite different.

He looks like a guy who draws maps, honestly.

I do not feel like discussing the intricacies of the British paper trade, so all you need to know is that it was extremely expensive and valuable. Paper wasn’t exactly something you could just pick up in a grocery store easily to put it that way.

So Mr. Warburton comes home one day and looks forward to checking out his immaculate collection. He looks around and around though and he cannot find any of them. Just then, his cook Betsy Baker comes around with a freshly made pie. Of course you can’t have a pie without something to line the dishes right? And Betsy just so happened to find a wonderful paper collection all stacked in the kitchen….

After I had been many years collecting these MSS. Playes, through my own carlesness and the ignorance of my ser… in whose hands I had lodged them, they was unluckely burnd or put under pye bottoms.”

John Warburton

Needless to say, he was pretty torn up about this. I mean, I would too because he lost over 50 manuscripts! Only 3 remained from his precious collection of manuscripts, many of which were unreleased or unpublished.

This is only one of the fascinating, interesting and bizarre stories in the world of lost literature. In this post I am going to be separating lost literature into three distinct categories in order to give you a good starting point into exploring a world which never existed.

Works lost from External Circumstance

Yes, I understand this is an absolutely massive category. But I will still defend it as being a valid one albeit with quite a few subcategories. Here are a few.

Subcategory 1: Lost by Time

From a personal standpoint, this is absolutely the category which is the least interesting to explore. The fact of the matter is that the majority of literature which is written is erased to the sands of time. Particularly in the pre-paper era, it required extraordinary circumstances for works to be preserved to the modern day.

The legendary Greek poet Sappho

Let’s take for instance, the legendary Greek woman poet Sappho. An absolutely adored poet of her era, she was called the “Tenth Muse” and “The Poetess”. Yet essentially we have two complete poems from her* and some very scrappy fragments.

*Ode to Aphrodite and the Tithonus poem.

That is essentially the problem you run into the farther back in time you get. There are countless great authors who we will never be able to know about because we do not have a time machine that we can take to read their works. I will finish off this category with a brief discussion of a work we do have from antiquity.

The Epic of Gilgamesh- Flood Tablet

Though this is veering off topic, it is incredible that a 4000 year old tablet can still convey truths and ideas about the human condition which still resonate with us today. It is unbelievable that we have the privilege to read and appreciate such works like this today. Anyway, moving on.

Subcategory 2: Lost by Accident

You already know about the story mentioned above. But this is absolutely the category which can lead to some of the most comical incidents in literary history ever happening. A particular one which I enjoy is the tale of how Ernst Hemingway lost basically everything.

There he is, legendary Kansas City Star reporter Ernest Hemingway

In 1922, Hemingway was working for the Toronto Star writing about such interesting topics as “Trout Fishing All Across Europe: Spain Has the Best, Then Germany.” Needless to say, he needed a distraction. He was covering a peace conference in Geneva at the time and sent for his wife, who was living in Paris. As per his instructions the sick feeling Hadley Richardson packed up all of his work into a suitcase and got on the train. However, realizing that she was pretty thirsty and it was an eight hour ride she went off the train to buy a bottle of water. Leaving the suitcase on the train of course. And when she got back it was gone.

but hey, at least she had Earth’s Finest Water to console her!

Anyway, Hadley spent the next 8 hours in tears because of what happened. When she arrived and saw Ernst at the train station she again burst into tears. Ernst noted carefully though that he had carbon copies back in Paris as well as handwritten notes for a novel so it should all be okay. Right. Right?

Needless to say, Ernst was pretty upset when he had learned that Hadley had packed absolutely every bit of his literary work into the suitcase, including the carbon copies.

In actuality, the work in that suitcase was probably not very good. Hemingway at this point was nonexistent as an author after being rejected by several publishers. Still though, Hemingway kept his chin up and changed his writing style to be shorter, snappier and quicker. Perhaps his goal was to finish a work before he ever had to take a train again. Seems like that went pretty well

Works destroyed by their creators

Another interesting segment. Let’s begin with the tale of Robert Louis Stevenson.

A roasted manuscript

One night, Stevenson’s wife Fanny Stevenson was awoken by a loud cry. She rushed over to Robert’s room, waking him up. Naturally the response she got was

“Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.”

What happened next was one of the most audacious, stupendous and dangerous literary feats which has ever happened. Robert Louis Stevenson, so inspired by his dream proceeded to write the entire book in three days

Keep in mind that this is a person who essentially could not get out of bed and suffering from a horrible fever.

This guy was on something (and by something, I mean lots and lots of cocaine)

Alright, well it was the 1800s so every person did too.

Anyway, you would expect after such a frenetic writing spree Stevenson would have emerged with something spectacular right? Well, Fanny Stevenson was always the first person that Robert turned to for literary criticism. Let’s see what she thought

“A quire full of utter nonsense”.

Fanny Lewis Stevenson

Needless to say, she was absolutely not pleased. In fact she even threatened to destroy it herself because it was so bad. In her comments on the draft she essentially tore the entire thing apart as being an allegory arbitrarily written as a story. As the legend goes, Robert Louis Stevenson was so upset that he burned the entire manuscript.

Then, he started over. It took him quite a bit longer to finish this time. By that I mean, SIX DAYS

‘That an invalid in my husband’s condition of health should have been able to perform the manual labour alone of putting 60,000 words on paper in six days. He was suffering from continual hemorrhages and hardly allowed to speak, his conversation carried on by means of a slate and pencil.”

Fanny Lewis Stevenson

It’s truly absurd that Robert Louis Stevenson burned his manuscript and then proceeded to do it all over again. Thankfully instead of destroying it after he was done, he spent four to six weeks weeks editing it and releasing it to a smash success.

Works destroyed by others

Now this is the category which I have always found the most interesting. It’s one thing to destroy your own works, it’s another thing for them to be lost because of external circumstances. But if somebody else burns them? It must be really special.

The problem is, not many people want to admit to being the person to destroy a legendary literary work.

Except for in the case of Lord Byron’s Memoirs.

“When you read my Memoirs you will learn the evils, moral and physical, of true dissipation. I can assure you my life is very entertaining and very instructive.”

Lord Byron is a fascinating figure that I could go into for days. However, if you don’t know who he was I’ll give you a brief summary. He was a brilliant poet of such works as Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, friends with Peter and Mary Shelley, a politician in the House of Lords, a complex and scandalous lover, and finally a Greek war hero killed in combat.

Phew. I think I got mostly everything.

Wouldn’t you love to hear about this guy from his own words? Well, clearly he thought so too. Between 1818 and 1821, Lord Byron wrote an astounding 120,000 words about his life, thoughts, loves and world. He gave it all to his friend Thomas Moore (Irish poet not the Utopia guy) under warning to never publish them while Byron was alive. However, Moore was free to distribute it to friends as he liked. He sold them to Byron’s publisher John Murray for a nice lump of cash in 1821 and let it escape his mind.

Then, Lord Byron died just 3 years later.

What happens next is more than a little confusing and the vast web of conflicting stories, letters and attacks makes it tough to tangle out. I am going to try to summarize it as best I can so bear with me.

This is John Hobhouse

professional memoir destroyer

If Thomas Moore was Byron’s friend 1a, then Hobhouse was friend 1b. Unlike Moore however, Hobhouse wanted no shred of any Byron memoirs on the planet. In fact, when Byron started writing a memoir in 1808 Hobhouse convinced him to destroy it despite Byron’s objections.

On Friday May 14th 1824, the day that he learns that Byron has died Hobhouse begins his plan of action.

After thefirst access of grief was over I then determined to lose no time in doing my duty by preserving all that was left to me of my dear friend – his fame: my thoughts were turned to the Memoirs of his Life, given to Thomas Moore, and deposited by him in Mr Murray’s hands for certain considerations.

John Hobhouse, 1824

Hobhouse goes over to see Murray and finds that Murray also wants them destroyed. Good. Now what does Thomas Moore think?

We (Moore and friend Henry Lutrell) told what we had proposed and he (Lord Lansdowne, friend of Moore) considered it highly fair—only conceding, in his opinion, rather too much, as it ought to rest with me what parts were to be rejected and what preserved

Thomas Moore, 1824

We can see that Thomas Moore thinks that the Memoirs can be salvaged somewhat by excising all the inappropriate bits and pieces.

“Yeah, cut out all the bits about him being bisexual and we’ll probably be fine”

Things are about to come to a head. The clash between Moore and Hobhouse would commence when they met on May 17, 1824

Dear Hobhouse

There has been since I saw you yesterday a sort of modification of

the agreement then agreed between us which was suggested by my own

friends Luttrell, Rogers, and Lord Lansdowne, and concurred in by Mr

Wilmot Horton and Doyle, whom I saw on the subject – I trust that this

arrangement will be equally satisfactory to you – as the first step

towards it I mean to redeem the Mss – this morning from Murray at

eleven o’clock (in Albemarle Street) and it would be perhaps as well

that you should be there –

Very truly yours

Thomas Moore

Prior the meeting, Moore, Lutrell, Murray and Hobhouse all held a meeting at Hobhouse’s residence. It’s at this meeting where we see how heated the situation becomes. Moore starts by offering Murray a straight lump of cash for the manuscript. No check, just the money right up front which Moore had already collected. Murray flat refused and this absolutely incensed Moore to the point of threatening to challenge him to an actual duel

Hard words, Mr. Murray—but, if you chuse to take

the privileges of a gentleman, I am ready to accord them to you

Thomas Moore

It’s at this point where everybody decides to chill out a bit and head over to Murray’s place. There, they meet Wilmot Horton, who is acting for Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh, and Colonel Francis Doyle, acting for Lady Byron.

Thomas Moore makes the very reasonable argument that destroying the Memoirs would be going against Byron’s wishes and would be completely unjust.

However, Hobhouse has a trump card up his sleeve. Moore agrees that whatever that whatever Wilmot Horton (representing Augusta Leigh) decides on he will go with no matter what. Unfortunately for him, Hobhouse had been bullying Leigh all weekend and didn’t really have much choice in the matter either.

Thus ultimately the memoirs of Lord Byron were thrown into the fires at 50 Albemarle Street London in what is now known as the greatest literary crime in history. Of course, when the public heard about it Hobhouse proceeded to throw Moore into the fire and bash him wherever he could. It’s only in the last century or so that we see Moore recognized as one of the few forces standing against Hobhouse’s camp.

I leave you with this poem Moore wrote of his thoughts about Byron’s memoirs as you continue to contemplate this.

Let me, a moment, think what thousands live

O’er the wide earth this instant, who would give

Gladly, whole sleepless nights to bend the brow,

Over these precious leaves, as I do now.

Wrap up

Thank you for reading. I hope that you’ve found the information which I’ve presented you to be interesting and worth your time. Lost literature and lost media in general is one of my pet topics so I was really excited to be able to talk about it. In the future, I may dedicate a LitCast episode or another blog post to a specific lost work such as Byron’s Memoirs. Also, I would like to give a shoutout to Cambridge Scholar’s The Burning of Byron’s Memoirs: New and Unpublished Essays and Papers for being a wonderful guide in the last section. You can find it here. I’ll see you next time for something grandiose. Here’s a little sneak peek of what’s coming.

Take care.

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