Wednesday, March 02, 2005


There is a moment in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia where, Septimus Hodge, a math tutor in 1816 (the play takes place both then and in the present day), sets fire to an unopened letter he’s just received from Byron: Now there’s something, he says to his shocked hostess, a letter from Byron that no one will ever read. Septimus is one of my favorite characters: witty and sweet, and fascinatingly reckless, he carries on an affair with a married woman while flattering her husband to his face and panning his (horrible) writing in print. It’s a powerful moment in a play that has a lot of fun with letters: as in bedroom farces and Regency romances, letters in Stoppard's play misfire constantly: challenges to duel reach the wrong person as do assignations and declarations of love.

As amusing as I find these conventions, I had a special jolt of pleasure coming upon this in Byron’s letters, a description of his flirtation with the married Frances Webster in a letter to his confidante, Lady Melbourne (October 8, 1813):
It was a risk--& all had been lost by failure—but then recollect—how much more I had to gain by the reception—if not declined--& how much one always hazards to obtain anything worth having.—My billet prospered—it did more—it even (I am this moment interrupted by the Marito--& write this before him—he has brought me a political pamphlet in M.S. to decypher & applaud—I shall content myself with the last—Oh—he is gone again)
Strangely, for all the affectation here, I had this sudden vision of how realistic all these romances are. It is really thrilling to read the letter of someone in the midst of this kind of romantic and sexual high-wire act. And Marito is genius: the little husband, so cruel. And such pleasure he takes in being consulted for advice by a man whom, for so many reasons, he does not respect. And then, what a high-wire act Stoppard is running, for isn’t this whole situation a major bit of the plot of his play?

I know, I know, Byron was a very bad man. I know he slept with his sister, etc. Still, I find him, at this distance, really electric to read. How fun it must have been to be Lady Melbourne (much better than poor Frances Webster who keeps bursting into tears, is only twenty, has a husband who thinks she is without passion when clearly she, poor girl, has plenty but not for the proper man—when she crosses the page, I do feel very sorry), but how fun to get such a letter. The right-now-ness of it is sparkling even two centuries later.

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