While undeniably an essential memoir of Byron, Leigh Hunt's work is equally undeniably a most misbegotten piece of book-making. The circumstances that gave rise to it are related in his preface: having contracted with Henry Colburn for an edition of his writings he began an autobiographical introduction. When that edition was not forthcoming, the project was re-conceived as an autobiographical work. Hunt found writing about himself disagreeable but, in debt to his publisher, he delivered his materials to Colburn who suggested, or more likely dictated, that the autobiography be reshaped and retitled as Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries.
The reasons for this change are obvious enough: a personal memoir of Byron's time in Italy would be a more valuable property than an autobiography of Leigh Hunt, particularly one so desultory. Hunt's narrative being a thing of rags and patches, it must have seemed reasonable to extract the material on Byron and place it first in the volume, and by doing the same with some of the other pen-portraits to create a work not unlike William Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age (1825).
Whether from pique or laziness, Hunt performed only half the task assigned: while the memoirs of Shelley and Keats work as stand-alone essays, others seem little more than pages torn from an autobiography that could but seem the more disjointed from the rents created in its fabric. While in his preface Hunt complains that his life ought to have been placed first in the volume, one can see why Colburn might have thought otherwise. The resulting farago satisfied no one and Hunt later salvaged what he could for The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt (2 vols, 1850).
Henry Colburn spared no pains in promoting the Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, which was puffed in the New Monthly Magazine for 1 January 1827 and controverted in the newspapers prior to publication, leading Hunt to join the fray. The work appeared in quarto in late January and was successful or notorious enough that an octavo edition was issued a few weeks later with an appendix in which Hunt tries to defend himself from the gathering assaults on his character. He decamped for France in March, where Galignani shortly afterwards printed a third edition.
Amid the wrack and chaos of Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries one encounters occasional memorable scenes and invaluable if often fleeting glimpses of writers famous and obscure. Hunt's account of his schooldays at Christ's Hospital is deservedly famous; while one may deplore his attempt to blacken Byron's character one can only admire his attempts to retrieve those of Shelley and Keats at a time when both were in need of a public defense.
But it is the account of Byron that from the first has attracted the most attention. Hunt concedes that it was colored by "spleen and indignation"; malice might be the better word. The story of the friendship gone awry has been often told: having been invited to Italy by Shelley to superintend a quarterly periodical called The Liberal, Hunt found himself, after his patron's unexpected death, living with, and financially dependent upon, a man who humiliated him.
In revenge, Hunt crafted a memoir calculated to cut Byron down to size. Not content with treating the obvious things that people disliked about Byron, his skepticism, libertinism, and politics, he attacked him in his very strengths, presenting the champion of democracy as a snob, the generous benefactor of humanity as a miser, the liberator of Greece as a coward, and the proud poet as a spent versifier at the mercy of his critics.
While such charges were unlikely to be very persuasive, even at a time when Byron was in bad odor with much of the public, the evidence Hunt brought to bear was nonetheless damaging. By dwelling on petty matters he succeeds in making Byron seem petty, to say nothing of himself. For this he was soundly punished by his contemporaries. Later readers may be wryly grateful for dismal details that help to round out Byron's complex character and may even wish that Hunt had supplied a like specificity in the other, less finished characters he left to posterity.