There is a greater accretion of literary anecdote attached to the old John Murray premises at No. 50 Albemarle Street than perhaps to any other building. At times, when working there in the 1970s and ’80s, I felt the place might finally disappear beneath these parasitic lianas and leaves, with me buried inside, but among them there was always one orchid which I treasured, dating from April 1815, when Scott and Byron met there for the first time. A very young John Murray III was a witness and recalled much later how ‘It was a curious sight to see the two greatest poets of the age – both lame – stumping downstairs side by side.’
I am not sure whether, when I first went up and down the same staircase, I had actually read a Scott novel, but it was about then that I began, tipped off to go for those set in Scotland, within about a hundred years of Scott’s birth in 1771 – which was good advice. So I read Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, Rob Roy and the rest which fell within those boundaries. In spite of the verbosity, the Scots dialect, the antiquarianism, the stilted speech of his English characters, the insipidity of too many of his women, I admired how wonderfully well they combined attachment to the old ways and the old days and a recognition that change is the essence of history. Nationalism, terrorism, state violence, religious fanaticism are all made vivid, as are the Clansmen, the Covenanters, the Jacobites.
The object here is not to make their case, however, but instead to praise the journal which Scott started to keep at the end of 1825 until more or less the time of his death in 1832. Thomas Moore came to stay with Scott that October and brought with him the extraordinary diary which Byron had kept in Ravenna in January and February 1821. It was this that gave Sir Walter the necessary momentum, and that momentum must have been reinforced when he was asked very shortly after to review Pepys’s diary,
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in