In this series, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Today, on the 19th of February 2020, we celebrate the bicentenary of Byron completing and Cantos III and IV of Don Juan and dispatching them to England. This is the first of a two-part OTD blog by Dr Emily Paterson-Morgan, Director of The Byron Society.
On February 19th, two hundred years ago today, Byron sent his publisher John Murray ‘four packets containing Cantos third and fourth of D J‘ .
At this point, Don Juan was already infamous, widely denounced by reviewers and readers alike for its sexual and religious infidelity, its political effrontery, and general tone of satirical bravado. The British Critic dismisses Don Juan as a ‘narrative of degrading debauchery […] not only begotten but spawned in filth and darkness’. The Edinburgh Review condemns the ‘poisoned strains’ of a poet who ‘dethroned virtue and piety’ in his struggles to ‘exalt and endear scenes of conjugal infidelity’. The Quarterly Review, meanwhile, expressed fears for those ‘on whom its poison would operate without mitigation’ and kindle ‘ungovernable passion’, presumably resulting in a wave of orgiastic degeneracy spreading across England . Murray himself seems to have viewed it as an incredibly high-risk form of cultural terrorism; ‘the die is cast as in a gambling game’ he wrote to Byron the day after ‘having fired the Bomb’ of Don Juan into the unsuspecting public .
Unsurprisingly given this sort of fervid histrionics, commentaries, adaptations and continuations abounded. One of the first (radical publisher William Hone being typically quick off the mark to seize an opportunity to hurl abuse at his staunchly Tory competitor) was Don John: or Don Juan Unmasked, written and released by Hone just a week after Byron’s ‘Bomb’ first hit the shelves in June 1819. This was followed by Don Juan Canto The Third, again poking fun at Murray’s shamefaced embarrassment about his pet poet’s stylistically and thematically provocative epic satire, which led him to conceal both of their identities when the first two Cantos were published. ‘[D]on’t think you can bamboozle folks’ Hone writes tauntingly in the Preface. He then assumes Byron’s voice in the opening stanza:
Miss Haidee and Don Juan pleaded well;
At least my publisher of late so tells me,
Although the world he does not chuse to tell,
Yet, every body knows ‘tis he who sells me:
To sing what furthermore the pair befel,
(As he declines my book and thus compels me,
Because my “guinea trash” he will not own,)
I send this Canto in to Mr. Hone. 
With unanticipated foresight, pre-empting both the popularity of cheap editions of Don Juan with the lower classes and the rift between poet and publisher, these lines suggest that Byron has despaired of his priggish publisher’s mealy-mouthed morality and decided to offer his ‘guinea trash’ to the more open-minded and popularist Hone.
Meanwhile, Murray’s furtive behaviour (‘the world he does not chuse to tell’) paved the way for an inevitable series of piracies. Perhaps the best known, thanks to Isaac Robert Cruikshank’s gorgeous illustrations – which possess all the colourful vibrancy, attention to detail, and staginess of the best satirical prints produced by his famous father – is George Smeeton’s Don Juan Cantos I – V. I was lucky enough to snap up a copy last year (Fig 1) at a bargain price as, sadly, it is missing one of the illustrations.
This pirated edition was only possible because Murray also published Cantos III-V anonymously, despite favourable responses from many of his coterie. ‘What sublimity! what levity! what boldness! what tenderness! what majesty! what trifling! what variety! what tediousness!’, exclaimed John Wilson Crocker flamboyantly on returning Cantos III and IV. He then vehemently castigates Murray for the ‘great injustice’ he did Don Juan by his frightened refusal to affix his and Byron’s names to the publication, ‘smuggl[ing] it into the world and, as it were, pronounc[ing], it illegitimate in its birth’ .
But it is not the piracies or the parodies which I want to consider today, but rather the adaptations.
There is one particularly ham-fisted production which, for sheer awfulness, takes the proverbial biscuit. Yet for years it has exerted a peculiar fascination, luring me back again and again. This is the ‘three-penny Acting drama’ titled Don Juan: A Musical Drama in Three Acts, attributed to Charles Milner (fig 3) . It is a truly bizarre mishmash of stock Byronic tropes, actual lines lifted from the original Don Juan, slapstick comedy, and unnecessarily numerous fight scenes, all enmeshed in the narrative framework of the first five cantos of Byron’s amatory epic. Attempting to reproduce the light-hearted bawdiness of early eighteenth-century cuckolding comedies – which Byron so successfully adapts in the burlesque tone of ‘Donny Johnny’ – Milner only achieves the sort of heavy-handed heartiness found in Victorian music halls and the Christmas Panto .
Milner’s Don Juan is a much more typical effusion of this traditional character that Byron’s, despite his fresh-faced youth, an aristocratic libertine comprised of flash and flattery. Not content with having conquered the lovely Julia’s heart, in the opening scene he also successfully seduces her maid Antonia. Launching into one of the periodic bouts of badly-written song which punctuate this theatrical pantomime he tries to kiss her:
Come hither, fair one, let me sip
The balmy dew from off thy lip,
Nor turn that charming face away,
In which the beams of beauty play.
Desist, thou trifler, come not near,
Beware the rising anger here;
Did pertness ever equal this,
I dare you sir to steal a kiss. (I.i)
Methinks Antonia doth protest too much and it is somewhat unclear exactly who is being seduced in these lines. Cue an amorous embrace, romantically lit by flickering torches. An added eroticism was produced by the fact that the female manager of the theatre, Laura Honey, played the role of Don Juan, producing a succession of titillatingly quasi-sapphic encounters as the young Spaniard dallies first with Antonia (played by a Mrs Young) and Julia (played by a Miss Robinson), then Haidee (Miss Holmes), and finally Gulbayez (Miss Grossteste).
After Juan and Antonia leave the stage in search of Julia, the audience meets the mistress herself, alone in her boudoir as she compares her husband (‘old barebones’) and her dashing young lover. At this point we are treated to the first of a series of extremely heavy-handed attempts to re-forge Byron’s brilliantly fluid conversational verses into prose. And what plodding, pedestrian prose it is. Instead of the subtle nuances of Julia’s delusive psychological sophistries which Byron creates, Milner offers the following passage, so clunky that one might almost be tempted to read it as a deft parody of the stock theatrical character of the adulterous wife – if the laboriousness with which it was constructed wasn’t so painfully obvious:
I am married, and therefore, ought to give up all idea of love, that’s certain, and yet, Juan is so handsome – so amiable – so vivacious – so – I can’t tell what he is – all that a young lady could wish in a lover – thus to abandon him, will be a terrible struggle, and very unpleasant – I will take advantage of Don Alfonso’s absence to see him once again, in the hope that my example may inspire him with fortitude, to persevere in the path of honour and virtue. (I.ii)
Following Juan’s entrance, Milner has the lovers sing some slightly nauseating duets, interspersed with stilted conversation that, again, draws on Byron’s original.
Indeed, Milner is as shameless in his plagiaristic appropriations as Byron – ‘the mocking bird of our Parnassian ornithology’ . These range from the list of abstract ideals which force Julia to remain chaste (‘prudence, honour, virtue’), to Alfonso’s entrance ‘with half the city at his back’. At the same time, in the colloquialised adaptations, such as Antonia’s claim to prefer ‘a good stout cavalier’ over a scrawny little ‘cock-sparrow’ like Juan, we see Milner catering to the appetites of his audience, using recognisable English idioms to familiarise the foreign setting.
Following the farcical bedroom episode when Alfonso and his hordes search for the now-concealed Juan, the blustering cuckold pleads for forgiveness and blames his intrusion on an informer’s lies (‘a scoundrel whose ears I will cut off in the morning’). His grovelling ceases when he discovers a man’s hat (Milner seemingly deeming a hat funnier than shoes) and a slapstick fight scene follows during which Juan eventually escapes and stumbles home.
Subsequently, in the first notable divergence from Byron’s text, the audience is treated to a heatedly amorous scene between Alfonso and his lover Donna Inez. Inexplicably transformed from Juan’s mother into his aunt, Inez retains the same priggish pretence of public virtue – a virtue which in no way prevents her from conducting a torrid affair with her married neighbour (offering opportunity for further ribaldry and innuendo, doubtless much to the delight of the audience).
When Juan bursts in, Alfonso dashes behind a curtain, crouching unsteadily on a table in a split stage scene which allows the audience to both watch Juan and Inez’s conversation and chortle at Alfonso’s outraged asides as he learns that it is his young neighbour who has cuckolded him:
Juan: You don’t know what a pleasure it was to treat such a jealous, addlepated, old, ugly curmudgeon.
Alfonso: Old and ugly am I? […] Miserable Don Alfonso! (I.v)
Suddenly the table breaks, triggering a scene of comedic chaos as Alfonso rolls around on the floor, Inez screams, and Juan strides off chuckling to himself. Much hilarity, no doubt, ensues. Thus concludes Act I.
Click here for the second part of this OTD blog, complete with raucous sailors, drunken servants, a somewhat dubious ‘ballet’, and dramatic scenes of fearsome conflict and oriental romance.
- Letter of the 21st of February referring to the previous Saturday’s post. L. Marchand, Byron Letters and Journals (BLJ), VII.42.
- All these reviews come from Donald H. Reiman’s The Romantics Reviewed: Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers.
- J. Murray to Byron July 16th 1819, in Andrew Nicholson The Letters of John Murray to Lord Byron.
- For more on these texts, see Peter Cochran’s transcript and editorial commentary here, and the transcript and commentary from the editor of the Hone Archive here.
- John Wilson Croker to John Murray, 26 March 1820.
- Don Juan: A Musical Drama in Three Acts (London: W. Strange, 1837). The only extant copies are published in 1837, but David West Brown has convincingly suggested it was originally sent to the Lord Chamberlain in 1828 and performed at the City of London Theatre shortly thereafter in English and Empire: Literary History, Dialect, and the Digital Archive.
- BLJ 5.208
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, quoted in Andrew Rutherford’s Byron: Critical Heritage.