David Ellis on Lost Masterpieces

David Ellis looks at the literary ones that got away.

A friend once told me that, when he was preparing for an Oxford entrance exam, he made a list of the whole of ancient Greek literature and read every book on it. I used to think how impossible that would be if he had been dealing with literature in its English variety, but then I suppose we have to assume that very many of the Greek texts have been lost. A prime example, though one that may not quite count as `literary’, is the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics. A problem of dealing with lost texts is how you know they were ever there in the first place but there are apparently many references to this book although the classical scholars tend to be uncertain whether it contained a theory of laughter or of comedy as a dramatic form (two very different things). So well-known is this gap in Europe’s literary past that Umberto Eco could make it a centrepiece in his scholarly thriller The Name of the Rose.

Edith Piaff sings of having no regrets whereas Sinatra confesses to having had a few. I have to admit that, as far as the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics is concerned, I incline to Piaff’s side. This is because when I was at university I took a course on Tragedy which began with Poetics. I can still remember the struggle I had in trying to apply Aristotle’s principles, which were clearly deduced from the Greek drama he knew to Shakespeare’s tragedies, and in particular, attempting to work out which of Lear’s character flaws was the tragic one and how to make something of the key notion of catharsis. If courses on comedy were, to begin with, his lost second book on comedy then I’ve no doubt we would be similarly lumbered with principles which were largely irrelevant to plays such as Twelfth Night, The Rivals or The Importance of Being Ernest and inhibited in our attempts to work out why they are so successful.

History records not only texts which are definitely now lost but several near-misses. I have been working recently on Stendhal who started his publishing career late, well before his composition of such great nineteenth-century classics as The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. This was partly because, in his twenties, he had become an official in the administrative machinery of the Napoleonic Empire. A sign of his success in the job is that in 1812 he was important enough to be sent to join the `Grand Army’, then on its way into Russia, so that the Emperor could see and sign a number of documents, and keep in touch with business back home. This was regarded as a privilege, especially since it involved an interview with Napoleon himself; but it must have appeared an increasingly dubious one as Stendhal stayed with the army as it made its way into Moscow and was then involved in the catastrophic retreat. An indication that he had miscalculated the difficulties of invading Russia almost as seriously as his employer is that, when he left Paris, he took with him eleven ledgers in which was written down a heavily annotated translation of an Italian book on the history of painting in Italy which he intended to serve as the basis for his own work on that subject. On the way back from Moscow, these were taken from him by the Cossacks, along with almost all his other personal belongings. But once back in France, he set to work on reconstituting his painting book which eventually appeared in 1817. This is a significant and interesting early work for those already interested in Stendhal, but whether one would have ever needed to blame the Cossacks too harshly, or regret too bitterly its total loss, is doubtful.

I have the same doubts about another work from roughly this period which narrowly escaped extinction: Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution. The well-known story here is that Carlyle gave his only manuscript copy of the first hefty volume to John Stuart Mill whose maid mistook its nature and used it to light a fire; but the text must have been so much in Carlyle’s mind that the indefatigable Scot was able to write it all out again almost immediately. Without wanting to claim that this young woman should be included in the pantheon of distinguished literary critics, it does seem to me that the destruction of The French Revolution would not have been a major disaster for the literary world. The truth is that there are so many books for students of English literature to read, and so many others that they have forgotten completely and need to re-read, that some minor subtractions here and there would hardly seem to matter, and would lessen the burden of guilt.

Talking of works that perished in a fireplace, however, does recall one book the disappearance of which is a matter of sincere regret. This is the memoir, entrusted by Byron in 1819 to his friend Tom Moore, who at that time was living in Paris with his family in order to avoid his creditors. In a typically generous gesture, Byron agreed that this work could be sold to his publisher Murray, in order to alleviate Moore’s financial difficulties; but only on the understanding that it would never appear in its author’s lifetime. When in 1824 Byron’s life proved shorter than anyone had expected, a group of his former friends and acquaintances met with Moore in one of Murray’s rooms in Albermarle Street and put pressure on him to have the memoir destroyed. He had in fact come there to pay back the 2000 guineas he had received from Murray so that he could regain control of Byron’s manuscript. But though he did pay back the money, he also succumbed to the pressure and stood by while the memoir was burnt in the fireplace. One of those most insistent on its destruction was a representative of Lady Byron, who had not read it but knew that it included an account of her acrimonious separation from her husband. Another was John Cam Hobhouse, who had not read it either. He had been Byron’s close friend but, already on his path to respectability, seems to have felt that publication would damage the poet’s reputation (and perhaps his own). As for Murray, he had been advised that the memoir was fit only for a brothel and may in any case have preferred to see it destroyed than taken to a rival publisher. As the son of a Dublin grocer who mixed with the aristocracy in London and was always anxious to show he could be as `gentlemanly’ as they were, Moore was ill-equipped to stand up to all these people. Describing the excessive faith which he felt Napoleon had shown in the promises of the Russian Tsar and Austrian Emperor, Stendhal once claimed that the weakness of all parvenus was to have too much respect for the class in which they have managed to establish themselves. It may therefore be that it was because Moore was so determined to show that he could behave as well as any gentleman that he stood by while one of the great crimes in literary history was perpetrated, and a text the absence of which can be a matter for unalloyed regret disappeared forever.