Published in late October 1824, Medwin’s Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron was the first of the book-length memoirs to appear following Byron’s death in April. As such it became a lightning-rod for criticism from reviewers, later memoirists, and those who objected to personal memoirs on principle. Despite this Medwin’s book went through three authorized and many unauthorized editions and was translated into French, German, and Italian. If Medwin is not always reliable about names, dates, and places, his characterization of Byron is now regarded as among the best left by those who knew the poet.
Thomas Medwin (1788-1869) was the second cousin and early friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley; after attending Oxford and studying law in 1813 he enlisted in the 24th light dragoons, serving in India as a lieutenant. In 1819 he joined Shelley in Geneva and began his long career as a man of letters by composing two volumes of poems. In 1820 he joined Shelley in Pisa and in 1821 he became a regular member of the Byron-Shelley circle, recording the conversations that would make him famous—and infamous.
The journal in which they were recorded is no longer extant. Medwin reports that he had given little thought to it until the news reached him in Geneva that Byron’s own memoirs had been destroyed at the behest of his executors. Knowing something of Byron’s intentions for this work he took it upon himself to supply part of the loss by reporting what Byron had said of himself and his life as preserved in his journal. The work was rushed to press; Medwin says that the work was done in three weeks, and the manuscript was sold to Henry Colburn by July.
Also in July Mary Shelley, not wishing her family affairs to be made public, declined to read the manuscript. Medwin, still in Geneva, dated his preface 1 August, and the book went to press. It appeared with substantial additions by a “London editor” whom Medwin’s biographer Ernest J. Lovell suspects was the publisher, though perhaps a more likely candidate is Thomas Colley Grattan (1791–1864) who wrote for Colburn and negotiated the contract with Medwin. The additions consist chiefly of reprinted material concerned with Byron’s experience in Greece.
The book was published 23 October 1824; it was thoroughly excerpted in the London newspapers so that within a week its contents were familiar to the reading public. A second printing followed almost immediately and a third a few weeks later. Within a week John Murray fired back with a pamphlet (unpublished but widely reprinted in the newspapers) calling Medwin’s veracity into question, to which the “London Editor” attempted to reply in a letter to the Morning Chronicle for 15 November.
The initial response to the Conversations was conducted through the newspapers rather than the reviews; the Edinburgh, the Quarterly, and the other major reviews ignored the book, as also Dallas’s Recollections, perhaps thinking that the subject of Byron had been exhausted. The first substantive review appeared in the New Times 25-27 October, seizing the occasion to brand Byron as an infidel and libertine. This review was later reprinted, with much of the venom extracted, in the Gentleman’s Magazine for November.
But Medwin rather than Byron quickly became the target of opprobrium. For weeks after the daily and weekly papers printed letters and essays challenging the veracity of various points in the Conversations, often provoking replies in return. Medwin himself contributed a hitherto unnoticed riposte to Murray printed in The Sun for 30 November. The controversy, which by then was beginning to seem like old news, flared up again when Robert Southey belatedly published his reply to Medwin in The Courier for 13 December. Southey, directing his venom at Byron rather than Medwin, was promptly attacked in the liberal press.
The Conversations aroused such a strong response because Medwin, more than the other memoirists, was willing to violate the social codes of the day. While he does not mention Lady Caroline Lamb by name she was easily recognizable, resulting in a final separation from her husband. John Murray, who is mentioned by name, successfully demanded that Henry Colburn make explicit a charge coyly concealed behind asterisks. John Cam Hobhouse inflicted lasting damage to Medwin’s reputation in an article published in the Westminster Review for January 1825; Byron’s acquaintances John Galt and William Harness also responded in Blackwood’s Magazine. His honor impugned, Medwin sent challenges to Hobhouse and to Alexander R. C. Dallas, editor of his father’s Recollections.
Recorded conversations are invariably subject to suspicion, though the contemporary charge that Medwin was simply making things up was baseless. John Wilson Croker argued as much in a suppressed article written for the Quarterly Review. Byron may have been less than sober when he was talking, and Medwin less than accurate in recording his precise words, but the topics of the conversations correspond closely enough to Byron’s as-yet unpublished correspondence that there is little doubt about their general authenticity. Byron’s voice and attitudes are more readily recognizable to later readers than to Medwin’s original readers, who had good reason to be skeptical.
Writing half a century afterwards, Edward John Trelawny reported a conversation he had with Byron: “You should know Medwin is taking notes of your talk. Byron: He dare not publish them. Trelawny: If he outlives you he will. Byron: So many lies are told about me that Medwin won’t be believed.” Told of this exchanged, Mary Shelley supposedly remarked, “That won’t restrain, it will stimulate Byron; he will blab the more” Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1878) 1:34-35.
While it has a history going back to ancient times, the contemporary model for the conversation genre was Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which had provoked a similar outcry in 1791. It appears that Medwin operated along much the same lines, taking down jottings at the time, then putting them into a more polished form several years later. Medwin’s title is a little misleading: a “journal” of conversations implies a daily, or near daily record, yet little of the journal format survives; only three dates are given: “20th November,” “January,” and “18th August, 1822.” Some of the fifty conversations seem to record what transpired on a particular occasion, while others, sometimes explicitly, collect scattered remarks about a particular topic.
The mixed result is a work partly organized by chronology and partly by topic; there are no chapter divisions, and breaks that seem to indicate the start of a conversation are indicated only by horizontal lines in the text. Some conversations are as short as three paragraphs while others extend to over thirty. The logic of the section divisions is not obvious, nor do we know whether they were introduced by Medwin or his editor. Ernest J. Lovell’s critical edition of the text (1966) adopts a different and more consistent system, though he does not say whether the divisions are his own or whether he found them in the copy marked by Medwin that he uses for his text. The original divisions as indicated by horizontal lines are retained here. The text is divided yet a third way in the original table of contents.