Academic journal article The Byron Journal

John Thomas Claridge: 'My Dearest Friend'

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

John Thomas Claridge: 'My Dearest Friend'

Article excerpt


We often limit our interest in members of Byron's circle to how they develop our understanding of the great man. Even when their careers subsequent to Byron's death were long and illustrious, like Hobhouse's, they seem outweighed by the handful of years spent as his friend. But what if there is little else to say of a life except that it briefly crossed Byron's? I argue here that almost forgotten, minor companions deserve at least a long footnote and illuminate an aspect of the poet's personality. As Byron only mentioned him fleetingly in letters, his school friend John Thomas Claridge has never received more than passing mention in biographies. However, a dozen or so unpublished letters survive from him to the poet which reveal an intense, if brief and one-sided emotional engagement.

Claridge is gone after a lethargic visit of three perennial weeks. - How dull he is! I wish the dog had any bad qualities that one might not be ashamed of disliking him.1

It was the middle of October 1811 and Byron was feeling tense, or as he put it, 'fineladically nervous ,2 The volley of deaths that had hit him on his return from abroad in the summer - Wingfield and Hargreaves Hanson, then Mrs Byron and Matthews - had overwhelmed him. He needed company, but Hobhouse was away on military service and no one else seemed interested in staying with him; so old Harrovian John Claridge had come up to Newstead in mid-September. Byron's initial response to tragedy had been to escape, as if quitting England would reverse the catastrophes. Cash needed raising, and ideas ranged from going to Rochdale to sell off his interests there to finding a rich Lancashire bride, 'some wealthy dowdy to ennoble the dirty puddle of her mercantile Blood' so that, immediately deserting her, 'I shall leave England & all it's (sic) clouds for the East again'.3 Amidst the grief, the law's delay (Hanson was dilatory as ever) and boredom, Byron was working relentlessly on reviewing and amending Childe Harold, but a further blow was to come. In early October, as he returned from his trip to Rochdale, he heard that Edleston, the boy he had cared for at Cambridge, had also died while he was out of the country. Amidst all this, he had only the 'dull' Claridge to talk to.

Byron was used to spending time alone. As an only child without immediate family except his mother, what had been enforced solitude became significant in his personal myth-making and was amplified, as Moore put it, by 'a mind disposed [...] to regard everything connected with himself as out of the ordinary course of events.'4 When Byron did seek out company, he was surprisingly able to tolerate - or possibly needed - duller, weaker personalities on whom he could project himself, to dazzle or even seduce. It is hard to grasp otherwise how he selected, put up with and even prized the ultra-conservative Harness, the prosy Hodgson, the tedious Dallas, the well-meaning but puzzled Augusta, and, ultimately, the pedantic and humourless Annabella.

When the companions were boys or young men, he demanded exclusivity and cast his glamour over them, alchemising a kind of second self. How often does the phrase 'my only friend' and 'my dearest friend' recur in his letters and journals? He allowed, insisted upon, intimacy; that they call him 'my dearest Byron'; that they receive tokens - a ring, a gold chain, a lock of hair, money, manuscripts. However, what was often genuine kindness to the lowly and oppressed had its dark side, for as soon as they bored him, the 'dearest' were often cast aside and forgotten. In late 1811, his mourning for Edleston seemed passionate and sincere, but he had not seen the boy since the summer of 1807 and they only corresponded briefly two years later, just before he left for Europe. Edleston's surviving letter of that exchange is excruciating to read. It is sterile, stilted, tortuous, with no hint of what was supposed to have been a close or loving friendship, but rather a fear that Byron was accusing him of importuning or even blackmail. …

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