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COMMENT: Banned! The Byron controversy

14th November 2014

In an age where social media allows us all to be public authors, Leighton Wright, a Masters (MRes) English Literature student at Northumbria, discusses how the development of free-flowing information in the 18th century sparked controversy among literary audiences.

Most people’s understanding of Romantic-era literary culture is focused upon the works of a few canonical authors and poets such as Austen, Wordsworth or Keats. However, it is important to acknowledge that literature, as a form of entertainment, always has an alternative side to composition and authorial intent: an audience. In order to understand Romantic literary culture, we must not only engage with the works of the writers of the day, but with the audiences they intended to regale and who actively discussed, reacted to, and engaged with their works. Crucial components in how these texts were considered were the various libraries and reading associations established throughout the Romantic-era, of which Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s Literary and Philosophical Society is a notable example.

A Romantic poet whose notoriety caused ripples within Newcastle’s literary culture, Lord Byron, spent little time in the North East, and did not visit Newcastle’s Lit & Phil. It is widely acknowledged that of the ‘Big Six’ Romantic poets, Byron’s work was by far the most widely read and attracted the most controversy. It might be assumed that a major literary figure and a provincial institution have little common ground, however by exploring the institution’s archives we find that Byron’s works caused much scandal and intrigue within Newcastle’s reading culture.

During the Romantic period Newcastle, following the example of other emerging British cities, founded its own Lit and Phil in 1793 to aid in the spread of culture via ‘the free conversation of associated friends’. The Lit & Phil subsequently became the cornerstone of literary exchange and debate in Newcastle, establishing its own purpose-built library in 1825 to house its already impressive collection of over a thousand volumes. The institution aspired to produce the free circulation of ideas, and such a culture was part of the atmosphere in which the Romantics wrote. The society bought books by important poets, and the vice-President, James Losh, was a friend of Wordsworth’s, and an avid reader of Byron. The exchange was not always smooth. In 1820, the decision to purchase Byron’s Don Juan courted much local controversy. After a tempestuous series of public debates, protracted private meetings, fervent newspaper reporting, poems supporting and opposing Byron’s reputation, and two votes (one of which concluded with loud ‘huzzas’), the book was banned. Indeed the debates provoked such heat amongst members that two gentlemen challenged one another to duel before the tempest subsided.

Whilst literature is always a product of its context, so too is the reaction to that literature. The deliberation between censorship of Don Juan and freedom of choice at the Lit and Phil reflect a wider debate across Romantic-era Britain: the tension between the enlightening free flow of information and concerns about the effects this has. In today’s world of Twitter storms, state surveillance of the internet and concerns about the spread of information, it is clear these debates are still vital.

Literary study is often dominated by an intensive focus on the details of literary texts. In doing so, we often forget that books need readers. The Don Juan debates at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil offer examples of the way audiences engaged with literature and, as such, reflect both that literature and Romantic-era society. By analysing audience engagement with texts, we can better see the way in which literature, society, audience and author interact with one another. Analysis of audience engagement also opens up literary study to those outside of the scholarly community by reflecting a Romantic society, like ours, that is communicative and responsive. It makes literature come to life.

Byron and the Don Juan debates will be brought back to life as part of the Being Human  Festival – a series of free public lectures and events celebrating Northumbria’s 18th-century research. Leighton has supported Dr David Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Romanticism at Northumbria in the curation of an exhibition about Lord Byron. The exhibition will be on display at the Lit & Phil between the 10 – 22 November. For more information about all Being Human events visit www.nortumbria.ac.uk/beinghuman.  

Anyone wishing to follow in Leighton’s footsteps can find out more about studying humanities subjects at postgraduate level by visiting www.northumbria.ac.uk/pg. Details of taster sessions will also be available for interested students to book onto.

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