Obituary: Leslie A. Marchand

LESLIE A. MARCHAND was a literary scholar of immense and lasting achievement. His Byron, A Biography, which drew on innumerable primary sources presented with scrupulous care, was published in three large volumes in 1957. His edition of the complete Byron's Letters and Journals, which appeared in 12 volumes between 1973 and 1982, with a supplementary volume in 1994, made available the results of three decades of tracking down original Byron letters in libraries and private collections in many countries.

Marchand enabled the world to appreciate for the first time the extraordinarily rich personality of the poet and the variety and integrity of his life. Along with another American, Newman Ivey White, who performed the same service for Shelley in 1947, Marchand rescued Byron from the semi-fictional romancing of Andre Maurois, and from the shoddy, sometimes sneering, amateurism which had dominated biographical writing on the English romantic poets in the pre-war period. By giving us Byron's own unedited words, in his business letters as well as in his intimate confidences to his friends, Marchand not only revealed one of the best letter writers of all time, but helped us to understand why Byron was so engaging as well as influential a figure.

Leslie Marchand was born in 1900 in Washington State, then still almost a frontier society. His parent were French-speaking immigrants to the United States, and Leslie always liked to hear the French echo by stressing the second syllable of his name. In 1923 he accepted a post at what was then one of the most remote places in the western world, Farthest North College in Alaska, an agricultural and mining school which had decided to bring in its first teacher in the humanities. In chapters of his unpublished autobiography shown to friends in recent years he describes the many days of trekking across the snow on dog-drawn sledges, and a climb up Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in the United States.

Marchand enjoyed the heroic pioneering, but it all had a purpose. With the money saved, the young man was able a few years later to finance a trip to Paris, to get himself started, despite the Depression, on an academic career at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and then shortly before the Second World War, he took his doctorate at Columbia University in New York.

His academic interests had hitherto been general. His 1940 dissertation, published as The Athenaeum: a mirror of Victorian culture (1941), was a study of the struggle to establish an independent journal offering independent reviews uninfluenced by publishers' puffery. But with the encouragement of his professors at Columbia he decided that, as soon as the war was over, he would turn his attention to Byron.

In July 1947 Marchand set off from New York on board the Queen Elizabeth. He was well equipped with the most modern technology, a camera that could take colour pictures. He also knew how to arrange microfilming in London, an innovation in literary research then scarcely known. His luggage included a trunkful of assorted groceries to ease his passage through a Britain still deep in post war austerity plus a supply of woollen underwear. Marchand had been advised that his Alaskan experience would prove invaluable in the unheated British Museum library.

It was at that time that he met the late Jock Murray, of the firm of John Murray that had been Byron's publisher, with whom he was to share his life long enthusiasm. Together they emptied the piles of boxes into which the less dedicated researchers of the past had only made occasional dips. In Wiltshire a member of the Hobhouse family used her precious petrol coupons to enable him to see the diaries of Byron's dearest friend, John Cam Hobhouse.

Fortune smiled. As part of his research project, Marchand wanted to build his own library of Byron books and visited the bookshops on the way. In a shop in Surrey he found and was able to buy half a dozen notebooks and commonplace books written by Byron's wife Annabella, which had been disposed of as of no value by the owners of the big house nearby.

From England Marchand followed the Byronic trail to Switzerland, to Italy, and then to Greece, where the bitter civil war had not yet ended. Travel in Greece, especially in the area near Missolonghi where Byron had met his death in 1824, was still dangerous as well as uncomfortable, but then so had it been for Byron on both his visits.

Everywhere Marchand went he was welcomed and everywhere throughout his life he found new material. The first draft of his book, in which he included his findings, was three times as long as the final version. If it had been printed in full it would have been 3,000 pages long.

Marchand's approach to biography was to transcribe, to understand and contextualise the original documents, to reconstruct the essential historical facts which they pointed to, and to allow Byron to speak for himself. Seldom has a biographer been more modest, keeping well in the background, avoiding making unnecessary or definitive judgements, and offering no overarching psycho-logical or theoretical explanations.

At first acquaintance, he himself seemed personally not in the least Byronic, with little of the romantic flamboyance of his subject. But Marchand knew his man. He could tell a forgery at a glance from the style as well as from the handwriting. Most important of all, he was sympathetic to, and he understood, that indefinable mixture of seriousness, irony, fun, and self-awareness that Byron brought to everything he wrote.

In later years, as a grand old man of scholarship, admired by generations still unborn when he did his main work, there were attempts to turn Marchand himself into a Byronic figure. But he would have none of it. At the Byron Bicentenary Conference in 1988 when Marchand was already 88 - in appearance he scarcely changed during much of his life - he delivered an excellent paper. When the applause died down, he remarked, "when you get to my age, you only have to sneeze to get a cheer."

He was in good health right to the end, and was looking forward to his hundredth birthday. As a little present I had intended to send him the text of a part of an unpublished letter from Byron, one of the very few that have come to light in recent years since he completed his researches. It is from Athens, dated 28 February 1811, and is addressed to his friend Hobhouse. It includes a reference to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the work which when published the following March caused Byron to say "I woke up and found myself famous".

Like his subject Marchand developed a special love for Greece, visiting frequently in the post-war years, including a year as Byron Professor in Athens. I remember a special day with him about 30 years ago, when together we explored the marble quarries of Pentelikon.

Marchand is survived by his wife Marion, with whom he spent many happy years.

Leslie Alexis Marchand, scholar of English literature and writer: born Bridgeport, Washington 13 February 1900; Professor, English and French, Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines 1923-27 and 1934-35; Lecturer, Columbia University 1936-37; Instructor, Rutgers University 1937-42, Assistant Professor 1942-46, Associate Professor 1946-53, Professor 1953-66 (Emeritus); Fulbright Professor, University of Athens 1958-59; married 1950 Marion Hendrix; died Englewood, Florida 11 July 1999.

`My mother sends me a pack of stale newspaper extracts, which one sees in every seaport town - Hanson [his lawyer] a damnable account of my affairs though I can't tell if he tells truth or not, his letter being quite facetious, a pretty time for joking when a man is in Greece and his property involved. Hodgson [another special friend] and you send me nothing at all, and unless indeed, you can say something more to the purpose than the others, I am very much obliged to you.

I have been ill and well, and sick and sorry, and glad, and coming, going and staying, like the rest of mankind, without gaining a step towards improvement except in languages, and even there my head is but a Babel of bad sounds. For want of better employment I began several plans of scribbling, but have been wise enough to destroy them all except the poem of which you recollect I had finished two cantos, to which I have added nothing -'

Extract from a letter Byron wrote from Athens to John Cam Hobhouse, dated 28 February 1811; it was never seen by Marchand and is published here for the first time since 1856

Comments