This essay examines Leigh Hunt’s three major autobiographical texts: Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828), The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt (1850), and the second edition of the Autobiography (1860). From the earliest to the latest of these texts, Hunt transforms himself from the controversial author of The Story of Rimini and famous theatre critic to an editor of essay collections with a fading literary reputation. In both versions of the Autobiography, Hunt reuses and revises previously published passages, and these alterations highlight his changing self-image, especially his movement away from the literary spotlight.
Corps de l’article
In his book on the different versions of Coleridge’s major poems, Jack Stillinger asserts that in examining a literary text, “the method is fundamentally the same: the critic sifts through the author’s art in order to identify and discuss the author’s ideas” (105). In large part, this description can be applied to critics of autobiography; diverse scholars often interpret autobiographies to discern the “truth” of an author’s life. In contrast, Paul de Man, in his well-known essay “Autobiography as De-Facement” asserts that such a project is futile because beyond linguistic interplay, no meaning is at all possible (70-71). While de Man’s deconstructionist approach aids in removing the emphasis on authorial intent or truth, his further assertion that autobiography cannot be located in history lacks substantiation. As Jerome J. McGann and others have shown, texts are socio-historical events; they were written and published in a specific cultural context. Writing about poetry, McGann states, “Poems themselves, because they are ‘social texts’ and events, are also objects-as-subjects, but the poems acquire this character because the ‘have reference to’ the larger (human) world of social interactions. Literary works represent, and are representative of, that larger world” (125). If applied to autobiography, this theory of textual interpretation suggests that although autobiography cannot reveal the truth of an author’s being, it can at least serve as a representation of an author and his or her thoughts at a specific time and in a particular social context. Just as Coleridge created multiple versions of his poems, Leigh Hunt created multiple versions of himself; he published three major autobiographies, each of which constructs a distinct presentation of self. 
Hunt’s Autobiography first appeared in 1850, and a second, revised edition of the Autobiography, including an additional chapter, appeared in 1860, just after Hunt died. Twenty-two years before the first edition, however, Hunt had published a work exhibiting strong autobiographical elements, Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author. In this work, after relating descriptions and anecdotes regarding Byron and Hunt’s other literary friends, Hunt provides the story of his life up to his return to England from Italy in 1825. In the 1850 and 1860 editions of his Autobiography, Hunt reuses much of the material from Lord Byron; long sections regarding his parentage, his literary friends, and his travels appear in the later works with little or no revision. As Stephen F. Fogle notes, “Lost though they may have been on the reader of 1828, the best sections were lifted over, many of them verbatim, for the Autobiography of 1850 and preserved into the final version of 1860” (ix). Despite this recycling, however, in several cases, Hunt alters both the form and the content of the original text in an editorial manner; he often reorders material, and he also either adds or removes details of his recollections. Timothy Webb argues that Hunt’s revisions result from a conscious change in philosophical perspective through which Hunt begins to look at fellow humans more charitably. Webb writes, for example, that Hunt’s “gradual process of revisionary evolution . . . strongly suggests that for Hunt the process of revision was not only a matter of stylistics or even of truth to history and to self but to an activity whose deepest resonances were moral and religious” (299). While Hunt’s attitudes toward the events of his past surely changed between 1828 and 1860 and while he became more charitable towards others as he aged, the revisions themselves also form an important part of Hunt’s autobiographical portrait; they indicate the ways in which Hunt modified his presentation of self over time. In 1850 and 1860, Hunt reshapes his literary life so as to minimize his role as the eminent author he had hoped to become in 1828 and instead portrays himself as man of fading literary reputation.
Hunt’s most frequent revisions in 1850 and 1860 occur with regard to his own literary work. He often takes a self-deprecatory approach to his literary efforts, a stance not always evident in (and sometimes opposed to) appraisals of his work in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. Through these instances of self-censure and revision, Hunt suggests in his later work that he does not wish to be considered an author of great literary merit; he admits that he is not. The changes Hunt makes—both in passages regarding his own work and in descriptions of relationships with other people—highlight his editorial skill. Hunt’s three major autobiographical texts show first the different ways in which Hunt edits and revises his life over 32 years and second, how those revisions form a pattern consistent with a retreat from authorship. Through the reuse and manipulation of previously published material from Lord Byron and other sources, Hunt moves away from the burdensome title of “Author” that he bestowed upon himself in the subtitle of the 1828 work and instead presents himself as an author of no importance. Taken together, the texts of the three autobiographies thus become—rather than a narration of Hunt’s life—an enactment of it; the editorial revisions record Hunt’s changing self-representation from an important author into self-deprecating editor.
Hunt’s process of life editing appears most clearly in the materials that make up the text of the 1850 Autobiography. In an appendix to his 1948 edition of the Autobiography, J. E. Morpurgo cross-references passages from his edition (based on the 1860 text) with some of Hunt’s previously published work. Beyond Hunt’s reproduction of many sections from Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, Hunt also reuses essays originally published in the Liberal and the Examiner (Morpurgo 496-98). For example, in the Autobiography, Hunt integrates two travel essays originally published in the Liberal—one on the character of Italy in general and another on Genoa in particular—into the narration of his return trip to England. Although not present in Lord Byron, these set pieces reappear in the Autobiography (3:68-161). In addition, Webb notes that Hunt reuses several passages from the “Wishing Cap” papers of the Examiner in his Autobiography (270). Beyond simple reproduction, however, it is important to note that Hunt regularly reorders and revises parts of his Autobiography. In terms of reorganization of material, the most obvious change occurs between 1828 and 1850. Hunt places passages relating to Byron that appear at the start of Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries much later in the Autobiography. As is well documented—and as Hunt himself states—his publisher for Lord Byron, Henry Colburn, insisted that, in the hope of better sales, Hunt place material on Byron first. In the Preface to the 1828 work, Hunt petulantly records that “The account of Lord Byron was not intended to stand first in the book. I should have kept it for a climax. . . . But my publisher thought it best” (vii-viii). In writing his Autobiography, however, Hunt reverts to the order he originally favored. While this change creates a more intuitive, chronological arrangement of material, as the above passage shows, Hunt also perceives the dramatic possibilities of his life’s narrative, for he recognizes how his friendship with Byron could have served as the highpoint of his first autobiographical text. In 1828, Hunt expressed a willingness to tell his life story and, as noted above, took issue with his publisher’s demand for its rearrangement because Colburn did not allow for a proper climax to Hunt’s life story—at least as far as it had progressed in 1828. I suggest that Hunt desires a chronological order of events because the material concerning his relationships with Shelley, Byron, and other writers would have served as an appropriate climax in to his life 1828; those recollections fit Hunt’s presentation of himself, at that time, as an important, if not great, author. Arranged chronologically, as Hunt wished, Lord Byron would detail the beginning of Hunt’s career and his growing skill and prominence in literary circles, showcase his prison suffering on behalf of justice and literary freedom of speech, and culminate in his relationship with the most notorious and famous writer of the day, Lord Byron—all of which work to establish Hunt as a central literary figure. Hunt was, from the beginning, aware of the dramatic potential of his life, and his original plan conveys the drama of being an important author to his 1828 readers.
By 1850, however, faced with twenty-two years of being eclipsed by Byron and many others, Hunt could no longer present himself as a great writer. He therefore revises his life to reduce his participation in the literary milieu and, in some cases, to erase his contributions to it. In short, Hunt casts himself in a new role in the 1850 Autobiography. Instead of the young, confident, and sometimes brash liberal author of 1828, Hunt instead performs as a sentimental gentleman who occasionally publishes works of minor note. Hunt offers self-conscious hints towards his newly created role as he writes the preface to the 1850 work. In it, he states, “I will liken myself to an actor, who though commencing his part on stage with a gout or a headache, or, perhaps, even with a bit of heartache, finds his audience so willing to be pleased, that he forgets his infirmity as he goes, and ends with being glad he appeared” (1:vii). The sense of the dramatic—keenly expressed in his wishes for the 1828 volume—resurfaces here as Hunt sets the stage for his autobiography. Yet even in this image reside the traces of Hunt’s retreat from authorship, for instead of the youth who burst into theatrical circles with pride and a declaration of independence from theatre managers, a heartsick old man appears—and only reluctantly. Hunt’s further textual revisions from 1828 to the later 1850 and 1860 editions of his autobiographical works illuminate the ways in which Hunt moved from his first role to the second.
Hunt reinforces this movement from portraying himself as an imminent author to a marginal literary presence by repeatedly dimming the spotlight placed on his literary works. After detailing his stay in prison after being convicted, along with his brother John, of libel against the Prince Regent, Hunt’s post-prison focus in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries highlights literary endeavors. He writes, “On leaving prison, I published the Story of Rimini, and became a worse newspaper man than before. . . . I was impelled by necessity to publish a small weekly paper [the Indicator]” (Lord Byron 432). In this description, Hunt presents himself as undaunted by the imprisonment his previous writing had caused; he continues to publish—immediately, it seems—after leaving prison. Additionally, Hunt’s attitude toward his periodical work suggests that he did not highly value it. He not only criticizes his journalistic efforts, he states that he undertakes them only “of necessity;” in other words, periodical publication is not, in 1828, Hunt’s preferred literary genre. Noting Hunt’s ambitions after his release from prison, Ann Blainey writes, “Certainly, prison had given Hunt leisure to study poetry, but it had also given him leisure to study politics—and he had chosen poetry, thus reverting to those early ambitions that had been dampened in the course of his political career. . . . At 32 he was emerging as his own man, and his own man was a poet” (88). In 1828, when Hunt still harbored the hope of being viewed as an important author, he chooses to foreground the publication of Rimini; poetry takes precedence over periodicals. By the time of the 1850 Autobiography, however, Hunt’s poetic aspirations had diminished, and he edits his life story to reflect this change. He writes, “On leaving prison I went to live in the Edgeware Road, because my brother’s home was in the neighborhood. When we met, we rushed into each other’s arms, and tears of manhood bedewed our cheeks” (Autobiography 2:160). Rimini is not mentioned for several pages, and even there, Hunt gives it only slight attention (2:168-76, passim). Webb has argued that the revisions Hunt makes in his autobiographical work suggest that Hunt’s modifications were “constantly revisionary and reflected not only his dissatisfaction with Lord Bryon and Some of His Contemporaries but several major changes of perspective” (272). In offering this interpretation, Webb examines the revisions and argues that Hunt makes the changes in order to disclose new truths about himself, to convey new emotions or a new philosophy of thought. While Hunt did undergo changes of perspective, I contend that these changes also create a consistent retreat from authorship. In the above passages, Hunt re-invents himself through a change in the descriptions of his release from prison; he uses the identical event in his life for different purposes, shifting his attention away from his literary career.
If any one work remains at the center of Hunt’s canon in contemporary times, it is his then scandalous poem of 1816, The Story of Rimini. Although it is often remembered today more for its influence on Keats than for its own merit, The Story of Rimini remains Hunt’s best known (if little read) poetic work. Hunt’s reserve in regard to this poem after his release from prison as related in 1850 indicates a retreat from the presentation of self-as-author evident in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. As the previous example shows, by the 1850 Autobiography, Hunt directs attention away from Rimini, choosing instead to emphasize his tearful yet manly reunion with his brother, John. Another important set of editorial revisions regarding Rimini—these occurring between the 1850 and 1860 editions of the Autobiography—marks a further revision of Hunt’s attitudes towards both this work and his presentation of himself as an author. At the end of the second volume of the 1850 Autobiography, Hunt reproduces several letters Byron had written to him, many of which focus on Rimini. In three separate letters, for example, Byron expresses the hope that he will soon receive the next sections of Rimini, which he evidently admired (2:317, 2:322, and 2:328). After receiving and reading the third canto of the poem, Byron responds to Hunt by writing, “My dear Hunt—You have excelled yourself—if not all your cotemporaries [sic] in the canto which I have just finished” (2:324). In another of the letters, Byron suggests that, given the recent scandals associated with him and Lady Byron, the dedicatory letter may have a negative effect on the sales of the poem, but he tells Hunt that “in the end the work must be judged by its own merits, and in that respect you are well armed” (2:331). Through the inclusion of these letters in the 1850 Autobiography, Hunt displays a clear investment in Byron’s appraisal of Rimini and its author. By 1860, however, this emphasis has vanished. Hunt neither reproduces the letters nor does he quote from any of them. Further, after recalling the publication of Rimini, Hunt does not even mention that Byron expressed a favorable opinion of the work; Hunt states only that, at the time of composition, Byron was a “friendly critic” (Autobiography  252). From 1828 to 1860, then, The Story of Rimini moves from being a work of such central importance that it takes precedence over every other action upon Hunt’s release from prison, to a poem appreciated and admired by Byron, to a poem which even Hunt admits he wrote in “not the worst manner conceivable, though far from the best” ( 250).
Not only does Hunt revise his discussion of Rimini, but the three autobiographical works trace a history of revisions to the poem itself. In 1850, Hunt records a friend’s report that changes to the initial version of Rimini caused “one of the most distinguished living authoresses” to weep because Hunt had “recast the conclusion of the poem, and taken away so much of the first matter” (2:172). Immediately following this account, Hunt exhibits his willingness to revise based on the desires of his audience. He states that “In a new edition of the poem, which is meditated, I propose to retain the improvement in its versification, while I restore the narrative to its first course” (2:173). In 1860, Hunt notes that these alterations have been made, and he continues, “I have thus reconciled as well as I could the friends of the first form of the poem and those of the new” ( 253). This pattern, where Hunt makes revisions based on the judgment of others, shows that Hunt responded to external forces in revising his texts, including the Autobiography, as will be discussed shortly.
Hunt’s inclusion of Byron’s laudatory letters shows that, in the 1850 Autobiography, Hunt still maintains some desire to be viewed as an important author. Hunt still displays the desire to be perceived as a notable poet, and he even actively campaigned for such recognition. Indeed, in 1850 Hunt positions himself to return to literary prominence by giving a short solicitation to become England’s new poet laureate. William Wordsworth’s death in 1850 left that post vacant, and Hunt uses his 1850 Autobiography as a means of canvassing for the open position and attempting to reintegrate himself into mainstream literary society. Hunt begins his campaign by assuming, if only temporarily, the position. He writes, “I have mentioned the train of ideas which circumstances had led me to associate with my thoughts of the Queen; and it was . . . those effusions of gratitude which constitute me for a time a ‘volunteer laureate’” (3:274-75). After suggesting that he is “a royalist of the only right English sort” (3:277), Hunt provides examples of his fitness for the post by reproducing 48 lines of his own verse, including selections from “Lines on the Birth of the Prince of Wales,” “Lines on the Birth of the Princess Royal” and—the longest passage—“Lines on Her Majesty’s Birthday” (3:278-80). Hunt ends his pitch for the laureateship with the concluding remark that, if chosen, he should “rejoice to be thought worthy” of the position (3:282). Hunt’s authorial aspirations appear not only in his desire to be laureate, but also in his assertion that he would perform his duties admirably. For although Hunt protests, in opposition to the opinion of others, that he has no claim on the laureateship, he adds, “I venture even to think . . . that I should make a better court poet than some who are superior . . . And sure I am, that in one respect I should make a very rare poet-laureate, as far as the world has hitherto seen; for I should write from the heart” (2:275). Although some reviews of the time judged Hunt’s advertisement of his services as in bad taste, one periodical offered a mild approval. In its review of the Autobiography, the North British Review states, “There could be no unfitness in his appointment to the office” and even implies that few good choices besides Hunt exist (167). This type of public approbation shows that in 1850, Hunt yet maintains a chance at acceptance as an important, mainstream writer, and Hunt’s own discussion of the laureateship show him still willing to play an authorial role should Queen Victoria ask it of him.
She did not, of course, and thus Hunt’s 1860 Autobiography required revisions and deletions. The second most obvious modification (besides the simple deletion of all references to becoming laureate) occurs where Hunt reduces the lines of his poetry on the royal family; he cuts the selection in half to 24 lines, all of which come from “Lines on Her Majesty’s Birthday” ( 438). In addition to this modification, Hunt further abbreviates discussion of his abilities and feelings in this section. Whereas in 1850 Hunt uses several pages to mention the Queen, discourse on his abilities, and then declare himself a royalist, in 1860, Hunt states only, “I have mentioned the train of ideas which circumstances had led me to associate with my thoughts of the Queen. I consider myself always a royalist of the only right English sort” ( 437). Striking here, however, is that Hunt does not re-insert his earlier self-appraisal—that, for example, he excelled others in emotional honesty—into another section of the 1860 Autobiography; it simply disappears. Deprived of government approval through the laureateship, Hunt cannot make a claim to literary eminence. He accepts the position of non-author, fading ineffectually into the background as Lord Tennyson, a poet he once championed and encouraged in the late 1820s, assumed the laureateship. And as before, the revisions Hunt makes to the passages between 1850 to 1860 emphasize the edited nature of the text; the excision of nearly ten pages of prose while preserving the text around those pages emerges as a clear display of editorial skill. Although these deletions display editorial proficiency, they also reveal Hunt’s changing presentation of himself and his lack of significance as an important writer of the age.
Hunt’s efforts to minimize his literary importance also appear through his revised descriptions of events earlier in life. For example, following his arrival in Italy in 1821, Hunt recalls his first contact with Percy Bysshe Shelley after months of separation. While both Lord Byron and the Autobiography minimize the emotion of this reunion, the differences in each indicate Hunt’s movement from author to editor. In Lord Byron, after Hunt greets Shelley, the former writes,
I will not dwell upon the moment. We talked of a thousand things, past, present, and to come. He was the same as ever, with the exception of less hope. He could not be otherwise. But he prepared me to find others not exactly what I had taken them for. I little thought at the time, how much reason I should have to remember his words.13-14
In contrast, Hunt in the 1850 Autobiography declares only, “I will not dwell upon the moment” (3:11). Hunt does not linger upon the reunion as he does in the earlier work, and by deleting the conversation which followed their meeting, Hunt deflects attention from events “to come”—specifically, plans to publish the Liberal. In addition, the absence of Shelley’s precautionary comments about “others” also erases the foreshadowing of the difficulties Hunt and Byron would encounter while working on that periodical. This revision may be seen as a part of what Webb calls Hunt’s “efforts both as a man and as a writer to eliminate anger and to cultivate charity and forgiveness” (286) because the erasure reduces the negative attention given to Byron. While Hunt paints a more positive picture of Byron in this and other passages of the 1850 Autobiography, these changes also depict Hunt’s concerted departure from the presentation of himself as author, for Hunt also diverts attention away from the literary activity that brought him to Italy. The deletion of the brief, paraphrased conversation, then, functions as an example of Hunt’s editorial action while the content of that erasure also suggests an attempt to minimize both his role as author and his literary activity.
The above passage and its revision hint at a much larger and more well-known set of alterations from Lord Byron to the Autobiography—Hunt’s comments regarding Byron. Hunt’s revisions relating to Byron provide another example of Hunt’s ability to edit the experiences of his life. Near the beginning of the 1828 work, Hunt engages in a long complaint regarding Lord Byron in which he asserts that Byron married for convenience, never felt great love for his wife, did not regret leaving her, and his sentimental good-bye to her and to England “only resulted from his poetical power of assuming an imaginary position” (Lord Byron 5-8). In the Autobiography, Hunt partially retracts these comments. He admits that his earlier words were written in “grief and anger” and that he is now more sensible to human frailty (3:3). Webb suggests that Hunt’s reversal of attitude comes from his desire to cultivate a more benevolent attitude toward others, writing, “Hunt’s religion of the heart, with its emphasis on generosity and acceptance rather than on exclusiveness and judgment, is in keeping with his efforts both as a man and as a writer to eliminate anger and to cultivate charity and forgiveness” (286). Webb has convincingly shown that many of Hunt’s philosophical perspectives changed from the writing of Lord Byron to the compilation of his Autobiography, but I argue that in addition to internal changes, external social conditions, including the negative reviews of Lord Byron, also play a part in Hunt’s revised opinions.
Reviews of Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries were largely negative.  Calling it “the miserable book of a miserable man” (403), the Quarterly Review writes that Lord Byron contains “smug petulancies” (422), “filthy gossip” (425), and carries “the tone of bitter spleen . . . [of] the surviving Grub-street authorling” (418). The review concludes with the hope that Lord Byron will be Hunt’s last work, defining the book as the “last wriggle of an expiring imbecility” (425). Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine similarly calls the work “offensive” (368) and adds that the text reveals “How insidiously the serpent slides through the folds of these passages, leaving his slime behind him as he wriggles out of sight!” (393). Some of the name-calling and ad hominem aspersions derives both from differences in political affiliation between Hunt and these two periodicals and, as both Eleanor M. Gates and Michael Eberle-Sinatra suggest, disparity in social status. Gates cites Hunt’s perpetual financial worries as the primary reason for the poor reviews. She contends that “had Hunt’s finances not been such a shambles, the Lord Byron book, in spite of its unfriendliness, would easily have won recognition at an early date as the best account of its subject written in the nineteenth century, certainly by a contemporary acquainted with the Noble Poet” (150-51). Eberle-Sinatra has also concluded that the periodicals based their criticism of Hunt on politics by exploring the socio-political beliefs expressed in the reviews of Lord Byron (117). Even though these social differences pre-disposed some reviewers to take a negative approach to Hunt’s 1828 volume, part of the criticism also stems from Hunt’s own actions and perceptions of his ungratefulness towards Byron. The Quarterly Review notes, for example, that “Mr. Leigh Hunt went to eat, drink, and sleep at Lord Byron’s cost, and under Lord Byron’s roof” (422), while Blackwood’s provides a more stinging critique. The review states, “Mr. Hunt, then, went over to Italy, having his passage paid by Lord Byron, was ‘put up’ in the ground-floor of his Lordship’s house . . . [and] there seems an inclination in Mr. Hunt even to turn Lord Byron’s kindness on this matter of money against him, and to insinuate that his Lordship was not a plain-dealer” (375). Given these critiques of Hunt’s statements about Byron and his personality, Hunt uses a more oblique approach in the Autobiography, and his revised comments regarding Byron appease hostile reviewers and display of Hunt’s editorial abilities. As in the previously quoted passage describing Hunt’s reunion with Shelley indicates, Hunt portrays Byron more positively simply by deleting negative statements about him. For example, when Hunt recalls his arrival in Italy and the subsequent stabbing episode between the Guicciolis and their servant in Lord Byron, he describes at great length Byron’s colorful and extravagant dress and notes his “voluptuous indolence” regarding the entire situation (10-11). Although Hunt retains some description of Byron’s appearance in the Autobiography, he reduces these passages greatly, and he eliminates mention of Byron’s indolence. While such changes indicate a change of perspective, as Webb argues, they also respond to the social world in which Hunt’s work circulated. Just as Hunt revised The Story of Rimini in order to reconcile “the friends of the first form of the poem and those of the new,” Hunt here alters the earlier 1828 text in an attempt to appease those who criticized his earlier treatment of Byron.
Like Webb, Blainey suggests that Hunt’s variations result from a change in personality. She asserts that in 1850, “[Hunt] not only regretted the reforming violence of his youth and the bitterness of his middle age: he made amends with benevolence and blessed the suffering that had driven him” from petulance to beauty (181-82). While Webb and Blainey offer good explanations of these revisions—for surely Hunt did experience a change in temperament from 1828 to 1850—this change does not provide the whole story, especially since, in 1850, Hunt does not entirely rescind his earlier judgments of Byron. Hunt’s bitterness, though moderated, carries over to and finds expression in 1850. Although Hunt acknowledges his overburdened emotions in the Autobiography, he reasserts the accuracy of the remarks about Byron made in the 1828 volume. After several paragraphs of apologetic prose in the 1850 version, Hunt reiterates his position, writing, “I do not mean that I ever wrote any fictions about him. I wrote nothing which I did not feel to be true, or think so” (Autobiography 3:3). Thus, although Hunt provides a more moderate discussion of Byron’s faults, he also reiterates that those faults exist.
While maintaining his position, Hunt also edits himself so as to become more pleasing to readers and reviewers. Evidence of this revision appears through consideration of the concluding passages of Hunt’s introductory comments on Byron in both 1828 and 1850. Following his bitingly critical opening remarks in the earlier work, Hunt returns to the subject at hand, writing, “Of my voyage [to Italy] I will give an account hereafter. My business at present is to speak of Lord Byron, to whose Italian residence I therefore hasten. In the harbour of Leghorn I found Mr. Trelawny” (Lord Byron 8). In 1850, following his more gentle treatment of Byron and his supposed retraction, Hunt writes, “I said more in his excuse, and less to his disadvantage, than many of those who reproved me. But enough. . . . To return, then, to my arrival at Leghorn. In the harbour of Leghorn I found Mr. Trelawny” (Autobiography 3:6). Following the final sentence of each quoted passage, Hunt’s account remains largely the same for eight paragraphs. The identical transition to Leghorn and Trelawny, taken into account with the reassertion of Byron’s flaws, shows Hunt’s supposed recantation to be editorial sophistication. Hunt merely removes passages from the 1850 Autobiography that 1828 reviewers found offensive, substitutes more palatable ones, and then continues his narrative as before. This skillful revision pleased reviewers, for several either allude or explicitly refer to Hunt’s more gentle treatment of Byron. For example, the Palladium notes Hunt’s more benevolent treatment and reproduces passages of “the apologetic remarks” (138); Harper’s New Monthly Magazine similarly marks the difference between 1828 and 1850 by noting that the later work shows “the asperities of his nature gently worn away, and his mind brought under the influence of a kindly and genial humor” (572). The Methodist Quarterly highlights Hunt’s revisions the most of these three reviews, asserting that for Hunt, “The chief delight which he enjoyed in writing his own life seemed to result from the opportunity afforded of setting forth motives once misconstrued, and expressing manly regret for early indiscretions” (253). Hunt’s 1850 revisions met a public success his previous treatment of Byron had not.
Hunt revised his Autobiography, then, to fit the perceptions and expectations of his readers, just as he had done in revising The Story of Rimini. As a further comparison of his comments about his published works in Lord Byron and the Autobiography shows, Hunt actively engages in editing the quality and quantity of his literary career. Hunt’s self-effacement begins with the names of his autobiographical works, for he diminishes his authorial presence through revision of their titles. In 1828, Hunt offers Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author, and then in 1850 and 1860, he publishes the Autobiography. The 1828 title denotes Hunt as a man of literary importance, as an author, while the change in 1850 highlights Hunt’s retreat from that position. Additionally, Hunt’s reasons for writing of himself change significantly. In the earliest drafts of his autobiographical writings, Hunt explicitly depicts himself as a man of literary importance. “An author,” he writes in the first sentence of the manuscript, “has so many good reasons, now-a-days, for writing his life” (Earliest Sketches 3). In Lord Byron, Hunt curtails any apologia at all and instead makes immediate demand on the audience’s attention as he begins the “recollections of the author” with “My ancestors, on my father’s side, were Tories and Cavaliers” (305). Both of these early versions display Hunt’s eagerness for and confidence in telling his life story, and as the manuscript version shows, Hunt links that confidence to the perception of himself as an author. In 1850, however, Hunt-as-autobiographer produces an “involuntary work” which, Hunt states, claims “no importance for anything which I have done or undergone” (1:1). Hunt distances himself from authorship still further, writing at the outset of the Autobiography and in contrast to the beginning of the 1820s manuscript, that he hopes his Autobiography “will not be found destitute of the entertainment which any true account of experiences in the life of a human being must of necessity, perhaps, contain” (1:1). Here, Hunt defines himself primarily as a “human being” instead of as an author, and he suggests that the interest of his life stems from his human experiences rather than from literary reputation.
Beyond his comments about authorship, Hunt’s evaluations of his own literary work display changing attitudes toward himself as a writer. The earliest example of Hunt’s change of opinion regarding his own work occurs in Hunt’s evaluation of his first book of poems, Juvenilia. In Lord Byron, he writes, “My book was a heap of imitations, some of them clever enough for a youth of sixteen, but absolutely worthless in every other respect. However, the critics were very kind; and as it was unusual at that time to publish at so early a period of life, my age made me a kind of ‘Young Roscius’ in authorship” (380-81). By the time of the Autobiography, however, Hunt expresses a decidedly more negative opinion. He drops the suggestion of youthful cleverness yet repeats the assertion that the poems were “absolutely worthless” (Autobiography 1:186). However, he goes on to write, “But as absurd as it [the book] was, it did me a serious mischief, for it made me suppose I attained an end, instead of not having reached even a commencement” (1:186). In this reevaluation, Hunt steps back from presenting himself as an author, suggesting that his first published work does not represent even the beginning of a literary career. Hunt’s revised comments about Juvenilia also present another instance of Hunt-as-editor, for immediately after dismissing the work, the Autobiography diverges from the 1828 version to relate Hunt’s detailed impressions of universities in general and of Oxford in particular, after which account the initial 1828 passage resumes several pages later, as Hunt writes, “The critics were extremely kind, and, as it was unusual at that time to publish . . . ” (1:193-94). Like the passages describing Hunt’s arrival in Italy discussed above, these passages show Hunt integrating old material into new. In addition, he criticizes his work more severely and increases the level of critical kindness towards Juvenilia in the Autobiography.
Hunt engages in a similar movement of qualification and condemnation when discussing some of his earliest periodical work. In Lord Byron, when Hunt recalls his essays published in The Traveler, he states that he believed there was “some merit in them besides that of being a stop gap. They were lively and showed a tact for writing; but nothing more” (Lord Byron 391). In 1850, however, Hunt presents a less positive appraisal. Again, he writes that at the time, he believed the essays possessed some merit, but, “Luckily the essays were little read . . . and I thus escaped the perils of another premature laudation for my juvenility” (Autobiography 1:256). Not only does Hunt forego any positive appraisal of his early essays, he increases the degree of censure for them. In short, his early essays do not make the Leigh Hunt canon; he edits them out of his important work. Additionally, Hunt notes that the essays were not widely read by others, and so—as was the case with Rimini and his treatment of Byron—Hunt’s later opinion mirrors the public perception.
Just before offering this general view of the essays he published in the Traveler, Hunt gives more specific consideration of the theatrical reviews he wrote for the Examiner and the News. Hunt again substitutes heavier criticism for his earlier praise. In Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, he writes, “On looking over the articles the other day . . . I found them less absurd than I had imagined; and began to fear that, with all their mistakes, my improvement since had not been free from miscalculation. If so, God knows how I should have to criticize myself twenty years hence” (409). Twenty-two years thence, in the Autobiography, he writes, “A large portion of these criticisms . . . I have . . . now before me: and if I thought it had a chance of survival I should regret and qualify a good deal of uninformed judgment” (1:291). Although he also allows that there was “a good deal of truth . . . mixed up with these mistakes” (1:292), Hunt presents a more negative assessment of his essays; they are, in his opinion, not likely to survive and not even worth his revision. Hunt’s later appraisal of the essays seems unwarranted given their contemporary reception. As Blainey notes, “At a time when most reviews were short and adulatory, Hunt’s notices were revolutionary. The drama critic of the News had something to say. Indeed so well known did his criticisms become that they deserved a life outside the ephemeral pages of a newspaper” (31). In 1850, however, Hunt mentions only in passing that his essays were published as a book; he neither offers an appraisal about Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres nor mentions the positive reviews that volume received. Hunt again limits his canon, excluding work done early in his career and effacing his literary reputation.
Even Hunt’s best and most successful periodical endeavor, the Examiner, does not escape revisionary criticism in 1850. When recounting the general plan of the periodical in Lord Byron, Hunt writes:
At the beginning of the year 1808, my brother John and myself set up the weekly news paper of the Examiner in joint partnership. The spirit of theatrical criticism continued the same as in the News, for several years; by which time reflection, and the society of better critics, had made me wiser. In politics I soon got interested . . . I was very much in earnest in all I wrote . . . I think precisely as I did on all subjects when I last wrote in it.411
I quote this passage at length to show the disappearance of Hunt’s literary self-assuredness by the time of the 1850 Autobiography. In this later work, Hunt states:
At the beginning of the year 1808, my brother John and myself set up the weekly news paper of the Examiner in joint partnership. It was named after the Examiner of Swift and his brother Tories. . . . I thought only of their fine writing, which, in my youthful confidence, I proposed to emulate . . . I wrote, though anonymously, in the first person, as if, in addition to my theatrical pretensions, I had suddenly become an oracle in politics. . . . I blush to think what a simpleton I was. . . . The spirit of the criticism on the theatres continued as it had been in the News.2:1-3
In the second passage; Hunt relinquishes any claim for literary eminence or for the importance of his once well-respected opinions. In the Autobiography, he views the name of the periodical as an arrogant usurpation; he discounts the certainty of his political beliefs; and his widely respected theatrical opinions have become pretension. In light of both nineteenth-century and more recent appraisals of his theatrical and political essays, Hunt criticizes himself too heavily. For example, in evaluating the 1860 Autobiography, the Saturday Review recalls Hunt’s journalistic efforts and asserts that the News “was accepted as the best guide to the merits of playwrights and performers, and playgoers had certainly reason to be thankful for a writer who had . . . courage and sense” (115). Blainey further describes Hunt’s popularity and influence at the time of the Examiner essays, even going so far as to contradict Hunt’s 1850 comments. Blainey writes, “At 24 Leigh Hunt was a political oracle. Prospective employers approached him, prospective friends flocked to him, and literary circles embraced him” (43). That Hunt discounts his influence at this time—in fact, argues against it—shows the extent to which Hunt distances himself from the portrayal of himself as an author and as a member of literary communities.
When Hunt considers later journalistic endeavors, such as his periodical, the Indicator, he follows nearly the same pattern; this periodical becomes, in the 1850 Autobiography, an opportunity for self-deprecation. He writes that the Indicator “was published in a corner, owing to my want of funds for advertising it, and my ignorance of the best mode of circulating such things” (Autobiography 2:214). In 1828, however, the Indicator serves as a means of self-aggrandizement. After describing its publication, Hunt writes:
. . . the Indicator (I fear) is the best of my works . . . I have more than consoled myself by thinking that it is not impossible that it may be found someday or other in the train of a body of writers, among whom I am “proud to be less:” and it has enabled me perhaps to come to a true estimate of my status as an author, which I take to be somewhere between the prose of those town-writers and the enthusiasm of the old poets.Lord Byron 432-33
Although Hunt provides positive remarks about the Indicator, he also expresses fear that it—a prose work—will be remembered as his best and that he will be excluded from the ranks of first-class poets. Such self-evaluations disappear by the time of the Autobiography; Hunt offers neither positive appraisal of the Indicator in that later work nor any speculation on his “status as an author.” As with his comments on his early essays, Hunt instead edits himself and his literary production, noting only its existence and not commenting on its quality, unless to criticize it.
Although much of the self-deprecation in the Autobiography relates to Hunt’s early publications, he also criticizes work from later in his career, specifically his “Wishing Cap” essays. Hunt’s Lord Byron provides little evaluation of the essays; Hunt states only that “the articles appeared in the ‘Examiner’ under the title of the ‘Wishing Cap.’ It was a very genuine title” (499). By the time of the Autobiography, Hunt characteristically adds a negative comment regarding his work. He repeats that the essays appeared “. . . under the title of the Wishing Cap. Probably the reader knows nothing about them; but they contained some germs of a book he may not be unacquainted with, called The Town, as well as some articles since approved of in the volume entitled Men, Women, and Books. The title was very genuine” (Autobiography 3:199). Hunt again diminishes his status as author, here by referring to his small readership. At the same time, however, Hunt calls attention to the edited nature of the later text. Without revision to the final sentence, the “genuine title” syntactically refers to Men, Women, and Books. It is easy, of course, to understand that Hunt refers to “Wishing Cap,” especially with the 1828 passage for reference, but for readers unacquainted with the earlier version, the ambiguous title reference could cause initial confusion. Regardless of the specific clarity of reference, however, the sentence, “The title was very genuine,” denotes the 1850 (and 1860) Autobiography as an edited text. This textual marker (and others described in this paper) produces meaning in Hunt’s Autobiography. These terse transitions highlight the edited nature of the text; existing as literary asides to the reader, calling attention to the manner in which Hunt pieced the book together. The revisions between editions and the transitional glitches demonstrate the editor’s life they describe.
Late in the 1850 Autobiography, Hunt repeats that he has no interest in writing his Autobiography and suggests that his publisher has more reason for producing the work than the author does. Hunt writes, “I take no more interest in the subject of my own history, nor the twentieth part so much, as I do in that of any other autobiography that comes before me . . . [but] the publisher [would not] let me change it for another” (3:273). In this passage, Hunt shifts attention to his publisher and away from himself. This situation echoes the 1828 publication history of Lord Byron in that Hunt again finds himself in debt to his publisher and in need of fulfilling financial obligations. According to Fogle, this indebtedness directly influences the content of the 1850 Autobiography, notably Hunt’s focus on his early life. Describing Hunt’s situation at the time of the Autobiography’s composition, Fogle states, “The circumstances of the composition of the book, that is, the need to make good on his contract . . . go far to explain this emphasis [on his early life]. Much of the material lay ready to his hand, suitable for reprinting once the rights were cleared” (vii-viii). By making reference to his interactions with publishers and the demands they placed upon him, Hunt—in a deft rhetorical turn—shifts responsibility for his Autobiography—his literary life—to Smith, Elder, and Company. By Hunt’s description, his publishers are responsible for the production of his Autobiography; Hunt merely assists in compiling and editing the events of his own life.
The process of depiction and enactment becomes most clear in the final chapter of the 1860 Autobiography, a coda Hunt added for the second edition. In this final chapter, Hunt details the tribulations of the decade following the publication of the Autobiography in 1850, including the deaths of his son, Vincent, and his wife, Marianne. At the end of the chapter—and so, too, the Autobiography—Hunt calls attention to two literary triumphs, the first of which is the publication of his poems in America. The second, in which he takes more pride, involves the production of his play, Lovers’ Amazements. Describing the event, Hunt recalls, “On the first night of its performance, the audience called for me with the same fervour as on the appearance of the Legend of Florence, and I felt myself again, as it were, in the warm arms of my fellow-creatures” ( 462-63). In this concluding episode, Hunt provides an image that the appended final chapter itself enacts; Hunt’s last literary recollection describes the curtain call that the final chapter of his life’s second edition functions as rhetorically. It seems a fitting ending for an autobiographer who ten years earlier imagined himself in the 1850 Preface as an anxious and reluctant actor about to perform; now, at the conclusion of the 1860 edition, that same actor is called on stage at the end of the production, revealed and figuratively in the arms of an approving audience. For Hunt, near the end of his physical and literary life, and a man who lived as the unseen playwright behind the play and the editor behind several periodicals and even his own Autobiography, it must have seemed a well-deserved bow.
Ken A. Bugajski is an Associate Professor at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he teaches a wide variety of classes in British literature.
See, for example, McGann’s Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work, and Hoagwood’s Politics, Philosophy, and the Production of Romantic Texts.
Technically, Hunt published four autobiographical works; three were book length. The final text, the 1860 second edition of his Autobiography, was published shortly after his death in 1859. Hunt had made numerous revisions and corrections to the text before he died, as is noted by his son, Thornton, in his preface to the 1860 edition (v). As such, throughout this article, when discussing revisions to this final edition, I refer to changes Hunt made in 1860 in order to maintain consistency in reference to publication dates. Hunt’s first autobiographical effort was an essay published in the April 1810 issue of the Monthly Mirror. The brief essay, which is not considered here, deals primarily with Hunt’s parentage.
Timothy Webb also notes some of the materials Hunt reused in his 1850 Autobiography (269).
Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Hunt’s Autobiography are taken the first edition of 1850, published in three volumes by Smith, Elder.
Although they were not so specific as recent scholars, reviews at the time of publication also mention Hunt’s reuse of material. For example, the Palladium notes that much of the material had previously “found its way to the public” (130) and the North British Review twice mentions Hunt’s recycling of previously published material ( 147-48 and 156).
For a summary of Hunt’s interactions with Colburn, see Eberle-Sinatra 116-9.
For quotations from all of Hunt’s texts and nineteenth-century reviews, I have maintained the spelling, emphasis, and punctuation of the source.
Such a narrative was not a fantasy in 1828. For example, many of the reviews of Lord Byron note Hunt’s prominence as an author, and the Athenaeum states outright that Hunt “is also celebrated, and very deservedly so, as a poet” (55).
This preface does not appear in the second edition of 1860. It was removed—without explanation—by Hunt’s son, Thornton, who edited the latter volume.
Hunt was, apparently, well known for this particular characteristic. A review of Hunt’s 1860 Autobiography in Methodist Quarterly states that Hunt’s aim to please “is apparent in all he wrote. He greatly dreaded the displeasure of the public. His sensitiveness to the opinions of others was an amiable weakness of his character” (258).
Edmund Blunden records Thornton Hunt’s recollections of the reunion, and they provide a striking contrast to Hunt’s own. Thornton writes that he was moved “by the shrill sound of his [Shelley’s] voice, as he rushed into my father’s arms, which he did with an impetuousness and a fervour scarcely to be imagined by any who did not know the intensity of his feelings and the deep nature of his affection for that friend. I remember his crying out that he was ‘so inexpressibly delighted!—you cannot think how inexpressibly happy it makes me!’” (qtd. in Blunden 171).
The only positive review I have found appears in the New Monthly Magazine. It praises the book and even defends Hunt’s portrayals of Byron, calling the former a “devoted martyr of truth” (85). Such positive comments, however, are the exception to the rule and, in this case, not unexpected. As Eberle-Sinatra points out, Henry Colburn, Hunt’s publisher in 1828, also published the New Monthly Magazine (117).
In an article on Leigh Hunt’s son-in-law, Charles Smith Cheltnam, with whom Hunt lived near the end of his life, Molly Tatchell examines a manuscript Cheltnam wrote describing his father-in-law. In that manuscript, Tatchell observes that Cheltnam states that Hunt “subsequently regretted what he had written about [Byron] in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries,” and then quotes Cheltnam directly: “‘yet he never retracted or softened the incriminatory effects of a single fact recorded in that very true narrative’” (73-74).
These manuscript pages of Hunt’s Autobiography are located in the Brewer Collection at the University of Iowa and have been transcribed and published by Steven F. Fogle as Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography: The Earliest Sketches. According to Fogle, these manuscript sheets are passages of Hunt’s life story that were cut from Lord Byron (ix). As such, the opinions Hunt expresses in these passages are consistent with his 1828 presentations of himself as author.
For example, the Monthly Mirror summarizes Hunt’s volume with the statement, “In general we perfectly agree with him, and we esteem the agreement as complimentary to our sense and judgment” (109). Similarly, the Monthly Review began its evaluation of Critical Essays with the following statement: “The criticisms mentioned in this title page . . . manifested a degree of judgment, liberality, and discernment which we very seldom discover in the remarks of newspaper-writers on the passing events of the stage; and perhaps even the Spectator’s famous trunk-maker did not more excite the apprehensions and attention of he performers” (423-24).
In its review of the 1860 Autobiography, the North British Review gives a similar appraisal, writing of Hunt’s early reviews that “We have no doubt they possessed considerable merit, though their author, in later life, does not seem to have thought so” ( 359).
- Blainey, Ann. Immortal Boy: A Portrait of Leigh Hunt. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.
- Blunden, Edmund. Leigh Hunt: A Biography. New York: Archon, 1970.
- De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.
- Eberle-Sinatra, Michael. Leigh Hunt and the London Literary Scene : A Reception History of his Major Works, 1805-1828. London: Routledge, 2005
- Fogle, Stephen F., ed. and introd. Introduction. Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography: The Earliest Sketches. University of Florida Monographs. Humanities 2. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1959. v-xviii.
- Gates, Elanor M. "Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley: The Long Goodbye." Keats-Shelley Journal 35 (1986): 149-67.
- Hunt, Leigh. The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt; with Reminiscences of Friends and Contemporaries. 3 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1850.
- Hunt, Leigh. The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. New ed. London: Smith, Elder, 1860.
- Hunt, Leigh. Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography: The Earliest Sketches. Ed. Stephen F. Fogle. University of Florida Monographs. Humanities 2. Gainesville: U. of Florida P, 1959.
- Hunt, Leigh. Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author. London: Colburn, 1828.
- Hunt, Leigh. “Memoir of Mr. James Henry Leigh Hunt.” Monthly Mirror 7 ns (1810): 245-48.
- McGann, Jerome J. Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1988.
- Morpurgo, J. E., ed. The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. London: Cresset, 1948.
- Rev. of The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 1 (1850): 572.
- Rev. of The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. Methodist Quarterly 42 (1860): 245-60.
- Rev. of The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. North British Review 14 (1850): 143-68.
- Rev. of The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. North British Review 33 (1860): 356-80.
- Rev. of The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. Palladium 1 (1850): 130-39.
- Rev. of The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. Saturday Review 9 (28 January 1860): 115-16.
- Rev. of Critical Essays on the Performers of London Theatres. Monthly Mirror 3 ns (1808): 105-09.
- Rev. of Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres. Monthly Review 2nd ser. 57 (1808): 423-29.
- Rev. of Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. Athenaeum 4 (23 January 1828) 55; 5 (29 January 1828): 70-71.
- Rev. of Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 23 (1828): 362-408.
- Rev. of Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. New Monthly Magazine 22 ns (1828): 84-96.
- Rev. of Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. Quarterly Review 37 (1828): 402-26.
- Stillinger, Jack. Coleridge and Textual Instability: The Multiple Versions of the Major Poems. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
- Tatchell, Molly. “Leigh Hunt Recollected by His Son-in-Law.” Keats-Shelley Review 35 (1984): 71-74.
- Webb, Timothy. “Correcting the Irritability of His Temper: The Evolution of Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography.” Romantic Revisions. Ed. Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 268-90.