Monday, March 13, 2023

Byron and Steerforth

Today I received in the mail the latest issue of Dickens Quarterly, which includes an article I wrote on how Charles Dickens modeled the character if James Steerforth in David Copperfield after the Romantic poet and dramatist George Gordon Byron.

The article is called "'In a Dark Wig': Reinventing Byron as Steerforth in David Copperfield." I took the title from another Dickens novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, in which Mrs. Jarley dresses up a waxworks of Mary Queen of Scotts "in a dark wig, white shirt-collar, and male attire" to look like Lord Byron.

I received a lot of help on the article from Geoffrey Bond and Christine Kenyon Jones, whose book Dangerous to Show: Lord Byron and His Portraits is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of how Byron's image was shaped, both by himself and by the numerous artists who depicted him. Mr. Bond was kind enough to share some images from his personal collection, including a print of a George Sanders portrait that appeared in Thomas Moore's biography of Byron and a print Dickens's illustrator Robert Seymour did for William Parry's book The Last Days of Lord Byron.

The firm of Byron's publisher, John Murray, lives on today, and I was grateful that the John Murray Collection could share with me an image of a pencil and ink sketch of Byron done by another Dickens illustrator, George Cattermole. That image is now used as the logo of the Byron Society.

Readers of this blog will know that Byron owned a patchwork screen decorated on one side with images of some of his favorite actors. (An image from that screen is reproduced in my book, Romantic Actors, Romantic Dramas.) What people might not know is that Dickens and the actor William Macready decorated a screen of their own with prints of Byron as well as other celebrities. That screen is currently at Sherborne House, and the Friends of Sherborne House kindly allowed me to reproduce an image of it.

Yes, this article is rather image heavy, even without reproducing two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne, the illustrator who worked with Dickens throughout most of his career. Though Dickens was primarily a novelist rather than a playwright, he was influenced by Byron's poems and plays, as well as the previous writer's life.

If you're interested in Dickens and his work, please check out the Friends of Dickens New York. We meet once a month, and are currently discussing Oliver Twist. You'll also soon be able to hear me ramble on about Pickwick Papers on the YouTube channel for the Rosenbach Library. For more information on Pickwick Monthly (online) click here.