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Byron and the Asperne Family

For seven years, from 1815 to 1822, Anna Jane Vardill was a prolific contributor to the European Magazine and London Review (EM), submitting two, and sometimes three, items of poetry and prose to each number. (See the Index of Works on this website.) These contributions ended abruptly with the sixth and final installment of “My Godmother’s Legacy” published in Vol. 81, June 1822, pp. 506-509.

The EM gives no reason for the departure of one of its most popular authors,[1] but the break follows closely upon Vardill’s marriage to James Niven and her subsequent move to Kirkcudbright in Scotland. These circumstances would furnish ample reason for her retirement from publication, though she continued to write poetry and prose in private. However, William E. A. Axon, in a paper read to the Royal Society of Literature on February 9, 1908 offers another reason:

The discontinuance of V.’s aid may, perhaps, be connected with the fact that under the new proprietors there had been a somewhat ungenerous reference to the Asperne family, to whom the magazine had previously belonged.[2]

Several pages later Axon tempers his conjecture and introduces an alternative:

She ceased to write for [the European Magazine] soon after it changed hands. It must be observed, however, that the Aspernes relinquished the proprietorship at a period when another and absorbing interest was entering into her life. After her marriage to Mr. James Niven, of Glenarm, on May 17th, 1822, at the New Church, Marylebone, she ceased, if not to write, at all events to publish.[3]

The present note attempts to trace the controversy surrounding the transfer of proprietorship by collating relevant quotations in chronological order, leaving the reader to judge whether the death of publisher James Asperne in 1820, and his family’s subsequent disposal of the magazine, in any way influenced Vardill’s decision to stop writing for the EM.


Antagonism to Byron

The “ungenerous reference to the Asperne family” should be considered against the backdrop of the EM’s reviews of Byron’s works and its editorial stance towards the poet. In the years leading up to the controversy over the change of ownership, the reviews were uniformally restrained and favorable, as the following quotation illustrates:

The first number of a work, under the title of “Hebrew Melodies” has just been published, the music selected and arranged from the ancient and favourite airs still sung in the religious ceremonies of the Jews, by Messrs. Braham and Nathan; the accompanying words are from the tasteful pen of Lord Byron, and are admirably adapted to the airs to which they are affixed. Of this our readers cannot judge without hearing them together, but on the beauty and gracefulness of the poetry they will be able to decide from the following specimens… [4]

By January 1822 the tone of the reviews had become markedly negative and bitter:

We opened this new volume of poetry, bearing the noble name of Byron as it’s[sic] passport to celebrity, with those mixed feelings of dread and anticipation, which we believe are shared in common by all his Lordship’s readers, except indeed the degraded disciples of his obnoxious creeds, or the blinded worshippers of his poetic infallibility. Admiration of his powers, and regret for their abasement, have been so often expressed in our pages, that it is almost needless for us now to repeat, that our sentiments are still the same; although the present work excites a far deeper portion of the latter feeling, without even a proportionate share of that talent, and of those beauties, which we had hoped might, in some degree, compensate and atone for it.[5]

* * *

...after ridiculing all the feelings of our humanity, and sneering at all the hopes of our pious faith, and striving to degrade man in all that distinguishes him from “the brutes that perish,” [Byron] should now appear unblushingly before the world the avowed author of a work, in which Almighty wisdom is blasphemed, and Almighty goodness sneered at. This is indeed a consummation which we could not have anticipated, even to the career of a Byron; and requires a castigation and a controul far more powerful than, we much fear, any criticism can supply.[6]

Most of this vituperation was directed at Byron’s Cain: a Mystery:

Lord Byron has indeed given to Cain the sentiments and words of hell, but from whom do they come?—from a writer, who to impart verisimilitude and energy to his lines, puts himself in the place of a Lucifer, and is for a season that which he imagines. It must certainly be confessed that the poet has succeeded beyond conception in assuming these shapes, for neither Satan, nor the First of Murderers in their own form, could have delivered more shocking profanations and more diabolical blasphemies.[7]

Byron’s Response

Byron’s response to this criticism came in a letter he wrote to his publisher John Murray. The EM published part of this letter, along with its own comments, in an article provocatively entitled “Lord Byron versus Public Opinion”. This unsavory article is quoted in its entirety.

LORD BYRON versus PUBLIC OPINION.

Although a large majority of our readers may conceive that we have already sacrificed too many pages in animadverting upon Lord Byron’s last and most disgraceful Poem of Cain, and though we are ourselves half inclined to coincide in that opinion, we are yet bound in the discharge of our impartial duty to give insertion to it’s[sic] defence; the more especially as it is the first that we have seen, and comes from the pen of, perhaps, the only individual hardy enough to defend it, the noble author himself. The epistle containing it, is from Lord Byron to Mr. Murray, and, like most other of his Lordship’s letters, is a very remarkable production,—but we defer all observations to the finale.

* * *

Pisa, February 8, 1822.

DEAR SIR,

Attacks upon me were to be expected; but I perceive one upon you in the papers, which I confess that I did not expect. How, or in what manner, you can be considered responsible for what I publish, I am at a loss to conceive. If “Cain” be blasphemous, “Paradise Lost” is blasphemous; and the very words of the Oxford Gentleman, “Evil, be thou my good,” are from that very poem, from the mouth of Satan;—and is there any thing more in that of Lucifer in the Mystery? Cain is nothing more than a drama, not a piece of argument. If Lucifer and Cain speak as the first murderer and the first rebel may be supposed to speak, surely all the rest of the personages talk also according to their characters; and the stronger passions have ever been permitted to the drama. I have even avoided introducing the Deity, as in Scripture, though Milton does, and not very wisely either, but have adopted his angel, as sent to Cain, instead, on purpose to avoid shocking any feelings on the subject, by falling short of, what all uninspired men must fall short in, viz. giving an adequate notion of the effect of the presence of Jehovah. The old Mysteries introduced him liberally enough, and all this is avoided in the new ones.

The attempt to bully you, because they think it will not succeed with me, seems to me as atrocious an attempt as ever disgraced the times. What! when Gibbon’s, Hume’s, Priestley’s, and Drummond’s, publishers have been allowed to rest in peace for seventy years, are you to be singled out for a work of fiction, not of history or argument? There must be something at the bottom of this, some private enemy of your own, it is otherwise incredible.

“I can only say, “Me, me adsum qui feci,” that any proceedings directed against you, I beg may be transferred to me, who am willing, and ought to endure them all; that if you have lost money by the publication, I will refund any, or all of the copyright; that I desire you will say, that both you and Mr. Gifford remonstrated against the publication, as also Mr. Hobhouse; that I alone occasioned it, and I alone am the person who either legally, or otherwise should bear the burthen. If they prosecute, I will come to England, —that is, if by meeting it in my own person I can save yours. Let me know, you sha’n’t suffer for me if I can help it. Make any use of this letter which you please.”

Your’s, ever,

BYRON.

* * *

From this extraordinary composition then it is palpably evident, that his Lordship felt a priori that his Mystery was reprehensible, and calculated to provoke animadversion;—it is also equally plain, that not only his Lordship’s publisher, Mr. Murray, and that Mr. Gifford objected to it’s appearance; but that even the noble poet’s fidus Achates, Mr. Hobhouse, protested against Cain being made public. John Cam Hobhouse, Esq. protested! this last admission speaks volumes; for, considering the natural partiality of Mr. H. for his Right Honourable friend, his abilities as a critical judge, and the known disposition of his mind towards the freest side of things, his opinion ought to have had some weight, and happily might have spared Lord Byron from the mortification of publishing a work which has been almost universally held to be execrable, and which, by being forbidden in every family, has consequently greatly injured the circulation of his less objectionable writings. His Lordship’s offer to refund all, or part of the price of the copyright which, under such circumstances, the laws cannot protect from piracy, is an effort of generosity as astonishing as any part of this very astonishing letter. The weak sophistry of his Lordship’s defence of the Mystery’s impious blasphemy, on the ground of his characters merely speaking in character, has been already successfully combated, and is certainly as untenable in argument as it is paltry in subterfuge. With respect to the noble Peer’s independent remarks upon what he so elegantly terms the attempt “to bully” Mr. Murray,—as we have heard of no such attempt, it would be loss of time to reply to it at any length. Mr. Murray would indeed be the most dangerous party of the two to try to bully; for he is here to defend himself, while his Lordship is a “banished man” at Pisa, abusing others. Nothing has been done to the publisher of Cain that has not been done to the publishers of all other infidel and infamous works, except indeed the Attorney General has hitherto not interfered.—Those who felt the injury the Mystery was doing to mankind, have endeavoured to expose it’s errors, and to counteract it’s purposes, and in that endeavour is to be found all the bullying of Mr. Murray. And here, for the present at least, we close this very unpleasant subject. There are two or three other parts of the letter, which we might remark upon, but we leave them. Lord Byron had previously elevated himself above Shakspeare, and in this precious epistle his Lordship exalts himself over Milton That the noble poet is a great genius is most unquestionable, but that he lacks it’s most valuable accompaniment, is also as unquestionable, for his Lordship is anything but modest.[8]

Change of Ownership

In the March 1822 number of the EM, editor Arthur Beauchamp uses the “Editor’s Converzazioné” to announce a change of ownership:

The present number of this Work being the first published under the new Proprietorship, it is incumbent upon us to state, that every connexion between the family of the late Mr. Asperne and the European Magazine is now finally and entirely closed. It is more peculiarly our duty to mention this, because many of our friends’ communications continuing to be addressed to the name of Asperne, a considerable portion of them have never come into our hands at all; and we have thus been equally deprived of the honour of acknowledging our Correspondents’ polite attentions, and of availing ourselves of their kind assistance.... we have now to request that all future favours may be addressed personally to us, Alfred Beauchamp, at our new Office, No. 13, Cornhill... [9]

Comment from Arthur Merton Templeton

The same March number of EM that announced the change of proprietorship contains a rambling, gossipy letter sent by Arthur Merton Templeton to Beauchamp and published under the title “Epistolary Trifles”.[10] It ends with the following postcript:

P.S. Your letters of the 6th and 8th instant are this moment arrived, by which I perceive that you have finally cut all connection between the name of Asperne and your European;—my opinions, as well as the public feelings upon that subject you are well acquainted with, and it were quite useless to repeat them. The accession of literary strength which you allude to is indeed most respectable, and you will doubtless now “command success” as well as “deserve it.” Your Magazine will possess that distinction which it has every right to claim, and even Ellen’s amour propre will be something more than a female predilection. While I can wield a pen in the good cause, you well know how confidently you can rely upon my unwearied exertions, whenever, and wherever I can be serviceable. Expect a longer epistle very speedily; and for the present, once more adieu!

A.M.T.

Angry Readers

One month later Beauchamp appears to have forgotten his March announcement and again uses the “Editor’s Converzazioné” forum to offer a pro forma apology for the offence some readers had taken at a passage in the previous number:

This being the first number of the European Magazine published by the new Proprietors, they are extremely sorry to be obliged to state, that they find, great offence has been taken at a passage reflecting on private character in the last number. They beg to assure their readers, that no such circumstance will again occur, as the Editorial department is now conducted by one of the New Proprietors, whose highest ambition will be, to render the European Magazine not only instructive and amusing, but free from every allusion that can in the remotest degree injure the morals, the heart, or the mind of any individual. Part of a letter, from a Gentleman, signing himself R.S.P. is inserted page 337, which will prove to him, that we do not fear to publish his letter, being convinced that all our readers will acquit the present Proprietors and present Editor from any blame on this occasion, when they are assured, that the present number is the first, in which they have written a single word, and over which they have exercised the slightest controul.[11]

This tepid apology places the blame for the offensive passage on the previous proprietors of the magazine (the Asperne family) and takes for granted that the readers will sympathise with the new owners.

Three Letters to the Editor

The critical letter from “R.S.P.” that Beauchamp, the editor of the EM, declares he will fearlessly publish on page 337 [a mistake—it appears on page 374] speaks in defense of the Asperne family. It is here quoted in full:[12]

Mr. Editor,

I read your prospectus of last month with very particular attention, and whatever pleasure I found in the improvements which you announce, nothing gave me such unmixed satisfaction as to find, that the sanctuary of private opinion was henceforth to remain inviolate in your Magazine. No advantage can be gained by attempting to enchain the mental faculties, because no one will submit to such fetters but he who is a slave already; and what need is there of forging chains for those dastard spirits who enchain themselves. These ideas naturally suggested themselves to my mind when I read your prospectus, but how greatly did I find myself disappointed when I perused, in the very number in which you hold forth this promise to the public, two despicable attacks upon private character. The first, and I must say, the most discreditable to the work which you conduct, is upon the late proprietors of the Magazine. Your correspondent, A. M. T. informs you, that it is unnecessary for him to describe how agreeable it is to his feelings, and to the feelings of the public, that all connection between the late proprietors and the European has ceased, as you are already acquainted with them. It is unmanly to attack a defenceless enemy. You and your correspondent concealed your animosity against the family of the late proprietors while you and they stood upon equal ground, and while they had an opportunity of disproving any unfounded charges which might be brought forward against them; but the moment they are deprived of this advantage, and that they give you possession of their offensive and defensive weapons, you attack them with your two-edged sword. The late proprietors, you acknowledge, had no connection with the number on which I am now commenting; therefore it must he solely your own fault that the same despicable attack upon the first writer of the age is continued in its pages. That Lord Byron possesses a portion of your own nature I am willing to admit; he is not more than mortal, and must therefore necessarily be subject to that fallibility, above which human nature and the faculties with which it is endowed can never raise its aspiring flight. He never maintained that you, or any of your readers, were obliged to adopt his opinions as canons of infallible and immutable truth. You were at liberty to disprove them if you could; but, instead of doing so, what have you done? I regret I should have to say, that you have totally misrepresented them; and, what is infinitely worse, you allow that you have gone beyond what your strict duty required of you in attempting to substantiate your misrepresentations. After quoting his letter at full length, you say, “it is palpably evident that his lordship felt, a priori, that his mystery was reprehensible.” This is what I call a downright misrepresentation, for his lordship endeavours to defend the propriety of his conduct from beginning to end. He says that “Cain is nothing more than a drama, not a piece of argument.” Is it not obvious that his lordship, in publishing his “Cain,” has not advanced his own opinions, or arguments, but such opinions and arguments as he imagined would have been resorted to by his Dramatis Personæ? You tell us, that his lordship is “a banished man at Pisa abusing others.” Indeed, sir, I apprehend that if there be any evil in abuse, you are not the person who should expose its turpitude; for your attack upon Lord Byron is a continued strain of abuse, and it is marked with such acrimony that perhaps no two pieces of composition can differ more from each other in their style and manner, than your prospectus does from your strictures upon his lordship. I am aware, sir, that this communication will not find a place in the European. Stubborn truths are seldom relished by those whose conduct they affect. I care not, however, whether you publish it or not, provided you are governed by the advice which it conveys.

I am, Sir, &c.

R. S. P.

On the same page, and under the title “Correspondence, Alluded to in the Converzazioné” the EM published another irate letter from a regular contributor to the magazine, and a magnanimous letter from the widow of the former EM proprietor:

Extract from a constant Correspondent to the Editor.

You have it in your power, if you think proper, to continue your anatomising strictures, to cut me up in any shape or manner you think proper. I cannot defend myself, having no press to protect me. There’s a golden rule, ‘Do unto others,’ &s;c. I wish you to act upon it, as it regards me.”

Enort.

The following is an extract from a letter written by Mrs. A——, one of the family of the late worthy proprietor; in answer to a letter addressed to her by the present proprietors, wherein they disclaimed all participation or knowledge of the gross attacks, that unfortunately appeared in the last number.

“I feel obliged by your polite explanation, and much satisfied at your exoneration from being the dictator of the ungentlemanly remark in the late Magazine; being quite sensible that the interest felt, and the exertion made, to further your wishes merited a different return to the family.”

A. E. A.——.

The present proprietors and present editor feel truly sorry that the peace of this lady’s family should have been thus invaded; her accomplishments, her unassuming talents, her unimpeachable conduct, are as conspicuous to her friends; as her prudence and her domestic virtues are useful to her family.

With that polite but evasive apology, the controversy over the attacks on Byron and the Asperne family was laid to rest. The “Editor’s Converzazioné” was replaced by a simple list of correspondence received and errata noted.

Beauchamp’s frequent references to the “present proprietors” and the “present editor” may have been intended to distance the new management and staff from the old, but Beauchamp was the editor of the EM before, during, and after the Asperne incident.

In the letter to Beauchamp quoted above, Templeton mentions an “accession of literary strength”, presumably the acquisition of talented new contributors. The efforts of those new contributors, most of them anonymous and therefore untraceable, were not enough to prevent frequent changes in ownership and the closure of the EM in 1826.[13]

Notes

  1. Editor Alfred Beauchamp places Vardill first in his list of notable EM contributors (“Editor’s Compliments of the Season”. EM. Vol. 80, December 1821, pp. 533-534.) The sixth stanza of this poem is often quoted in support of the identification of Vardill with “V.” The complete poem is available on this site. 
  2. Axon, William E. A., and Ernest Hartley Coleridge. “Anna Jane Vardill Niven, the Authoress of ‘Christobell,’ the Sequel to Coleridge’s ‘Christabel.’ With a Bibliography”. Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature. 2nd series 28 (1908): p. 58. 
  3. Ibid. p. 71. 
  4. EM. Vol. 68, July 1815, p. 37. 
  5. EM. Vol. 81, January 1822, p. 58. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid. p. 65. 
  8. EM. Vol. 81, March 1822, pp. 255-256  
  9. Ibid. p. 194  
  10. Ibid. pp. 199-202. Quotation from p. 202. Templeton records a friend’s reaction to the last episode of one of Vardill’s contributions to the EM: “Why, our friend E. absolutely voted himself goutified to escape from coursing, and get a day to himself, to sob over the catastrophe of the ‘Walpurgis Night’”. 
  11. EM. Vol. 81, April 1822, pp. 290. 
  12. Ibid. p. 374. 
  13. Beginning with Lupton Relfe in 1822, the EM underwent four changes of ownership in its last four years of publication. (Emily Lorraine de Montluzin. Attributions of Authorship in the European Magazine, 1782-1826. Online resource available here.)