On This Day in 1821 – Shelley, Byron, and Leigh Hunt’s The Liberal

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The BARS ‘On This Day’ Blog series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.

The 26th of August 2021 marks the 200th anniversary of the letter from Percy Shelley to Leigh Hunt which launched the collaboration between himself, Hunt, and Byron on the periodical The Liberal. Veteran ‘On This Day’ writer and Percy Shelley scholar Ana Stevenson takes this occasion to discuss the relationship between the three men, and the personal and professional frictions which their collaboration provoked.

On This Day in 1821 – Shelley, Byron, and Leigh Hunt’s The Liberal

by Ana Stevenson

He [Byron] proposes that you should come out and go shares with him and me in a periodical work, to be conducted here; in which each of the contracting parties shall publish all their original compositions, and share the profits.

Percy Bysshe Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 26th of August 1821

On this day 200 years ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to Leigh Hunt to suggest they work on a new periodical in collaboration with Lord Byron: The Liberal. There are uncertainties regarding whose idea it was – some say that Byron vaguely suggested the project while Shelley visited him in Ravenna, and Shelley decided to bring Hunt on board. Others suggest that it was Shelley’s idea – perhaps motivated by a longing to unite the group through the radical beliefs that had brought them together in the first place.[1]

Hunt had recently attempted to launch a new journal, The Indicator, which concluded with the seventeenth volume. He had no money, a large family, and a sick wife. Shelley had provided him with some financial help for a while, but his own resources were limited. Byron was unlikely to give Leigh Hunt any sum of money, as Hunt’s habit of asking for money and never paying back was one of the reasons why Lord Byron had distanced himself from his former friend.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran (1819), National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps a reconciliation linked with financial benefits is what Shelley had in mind when he suggested that he would be exempt from any profit coming from The Liberal:

There can be no doubt that the profits of any scheme in which you and Lord Byron engage, must, from various yet co-operating reasons, be very great. As to myself, I am, for the present, only a sort of link between you and him, until you can know each other and effectuate the arrangement; since[…] nothing would induce me to share in the profits, and still less in the borrowed splendour, of such a partnership.

Percy Bysshe Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 26th of August 1821.

Byron and Hunt knew each other well, having been introduced by fellow poet Thomas Moore in 1813 while Hunt was imprisoned for libel at Surrey Gaol (a result of Hunt expressing his feelings regarding the Prince Regent in The Examiner). Byron sympathised with the writer and his views, and paid Hunt another visit soon after they were first acquainted.[1]However, although the burgeoning friendship had potential, it weakened over the years and by the time Byron had moved to Italy, they were no longer in direct contact and only received news of each other via third parties.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (1813), National Portrait Gallery

Shelley seems to have been aware that borrowing money was a delicate subject when those involved were Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. Being a pragmatic man, he knew that Hunt could not possibly afford to relocate to Italy with his family, and asking Byron for help – who may have already been unsure about being “in business” with Hunt – was not an option. Shelley writes to Hunt informing him that:

I did not ask Lord Byron to assist me in sending a remittance for your journey; because there are men, however excellent, from whom we would never receive an obligation, in the worldly sense of the word; and I am as jealous for my friend as for myself. I, as you know, have it not: but I suppose that at last I shall make up an impudent face, and ask Horace Smith to add to the many obligations he has conferred on me. I know I need only ask.

Percy Bysshe Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 26th of August 1821

Shelley was eventually able to secure a large loan on Hunt’s behalf from Byron, but only by using his own inheritance as security.[2]

In the past, both Shelley and Hunt had held low opinions of Byron’s behaviour towards women. Shelley was an admirer of free love, believing that Love is an unlimited source not to be controlled by others than the individual, but he also thought that the relationship between the persons in question should go beyond vulgar lust.[2] He condemned Byron’s lifestyle in Venice, but with the poet’s relocation away from this Italian den of iniquity, Shelley assured Hunt that Lord Byron had abandoned his disreputable ways and a connection with him was no longer a potential harm to one’s reputation. He concludes his letter with the observation that:

Lord Byron is reformed, as far as gallantry goes, and lives with a beautiful and sentimental Italian lady, who is as much attached to him as may be. I trust greatly to his intercourse with you, for his creed to become as pure as he thinks his conduct is. He has many generous and exalted qualities, but the canker of aristocracy wants to be cut out.

Percy Bysshe Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 26th of August 1821

Hunt’s journey to Italy was an arduous one. It cost more money than predicted due to delays caused by the weather and his wife’s ill health. It was not until the 1st of July of the following year that Shelley and Hunt were finally reunited in Livorno. Shelley was said to be in the highest spirits, joking and laughing until tears were streaming down his eyes.[3]

Leigh Hunt by Thomas Charles Wageman (1815), National Portrait Gallery

They set off to Pisa with Lord Byron, but it was clear that this reunion did not go as smoothly as Shelley had hoped. Hunt was already in debt and Byron appeared annoyed by the presence of Hunt’s large family, but Shelley made great efforts to mediate the situation. He was optimistic about the first edition of The Liberal, which was to come in the autumn, featuring Byron’s Vision of Judgement amongst other poems. However, his friend and travelling companion, Edward Williams, was anxious to return to his wife Jane in Lerici. Shelley was pressed by Hunt and Byron to stay, but also had his own partner Mary and infant son waiting for him at home. He decided to return to Villa Magni with Williams on the 8th of July, with promises to be with his friends very soon. That was the last time Hunt would see Shelley alive; the stormy waters claimed Shelley’s life that same night.

The Liberal went ahead but did not last. It is possible that Byron may have only proceeded with the plans for The Liberal, a project he was already bored with, to honour his late friend. The first number came out in October of that year, featuring Shelley’s translations from ‘Faust’ along with the poem promised by Byron. The periodical was published in London, but it was not received well, and its radical content shocked the public. The Liberal ceased after four volumes. Shortly after, Byron left for Greece, where he died in 1824, and Leigh Hunt returned to England where he would continue to write, eventually publishing a memoir in 1828 called Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries: With Recollections of the Author’s Life, and of His Visit to Italy. Leigh Hunt passed away on the 28th of August 1859, almost 38 years to the date of Shelley’s letter proposing their reunion.

Ana Stevenson (@AnaBStevenson) is a writer and independent scholar based in London. Ana specialises in English Romanticism with a focus on the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, currently exploring personal accounts recorded by his contemporaries in order to gain an insight into the development of his philosophy and assisting on the #Shelley200 project and conference as a Postgraduate Helper. Read her previous contribution to this series here…


[1]Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974) p. 728.

[2]Topic elaborated by Nathaniel Brown on Sexuality and Feminism in Shelley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) p. 49. Brown uses a canceled passage from A Defence where Shelley discusses the bucolic or erotic poets of Egypt and Sicily.

[3]Holmes, p. 728.