Lesbia Brandon, Algernon C. Swinburne
  • Lesbia Brandon, Algernon C. Swinburne

Lesbia Brandon, Algernon C. Swinburne

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10€ 310 pages pocketbook


What Was Electra Like, Do You Think?
By Zachary Tanner

“The absurd prose style of his later period
requires no comment beyond Edward
Thomas’s observation that if De Quincey and
Dr. Johnson had “collaborated in imitating
Lyly they must have produced Swinburne’s

-C. Y. Lang1
When The Falcon Press posthumously
published Lesbia Brandon in 1952, the novel was
sandwiched between an irate foreword and
hundreds of pages of commentary from
Randolph Hughes2 that vacillate between

elegant analysis of Swinburne’s two English-
language novels, imprecise attempts to critically

situate Swinburne in the canon of Major
Novelists while rejecting the traditional
categorization of the novel (“I venture to claim
that I have at least shown that the most generally
accepted canon of the novel, that formulated by
Stevenson, Hardy and Arnold Bennett, for
instance, and by the most influential French
critics, and regarded by them as the one and only
ideal, a supreme form after which all good

novelistic work must aspire, has not universal
validity, and is not the only nor necessarily the
highest norm for the evaluation of success.”)3,
exhaustively-researched finger-pointing at the
shady figures and dealers who have clung to,
hindered, and obfuscated the Work of
Swinburne, most singularly Algernon’s “friend”
and solicitor, Theodore Watts-Dunton (of whom
Hughes writes: “There are at least two crimes
from which Watts-Dunton can never be
absolved: the sale of his dead friend’s
manuscripts to the unlettered pedlar and the
forger Wise, and the frustration of a work that
had in it the makings of a masterpiece.”), and
finally a section of scholarly justification on the
Text as constituted and compiled from the
typeset drafts and manuscripts forty-three years
after the death of the author. “The general reader
will no doubt not bother about this last section; but
scholars will expect it in the case of a new book of
this sort of which the sources of the text present a
large number of problems; and it is essential in
order to justify my own arrangement of the text,
which differs considerably from that of Wise, and
also from that of the galley-proofs.”4

Though riddled with the errors, inconsis-
tencies, and misprints pointed out in C. Y.

Lang’s letter to the Times Literary Supplement,5 the
Hughes edition was the same chapter
arrangement and text to appear in a slightly
corrected form in The Novels of A. C. Swinburne
(1962). The corona\samizdat edition has been
based off of the Hughes, altered only by basic
copy editing for grammar and sense to correct
obvious misprints in the original.
Hughes’s telling of the missing chapters of
Lesbia Brandon is where I found the sad, pleading
letter from Swinburne that has been reproduced
on the back of this book, and this section of the
Commentary makes wonderful reading for those
with the bitter taste for Victorian-era gossip.
Though Hughes’s bombastic rhetoric at times is
not but outright mud-slinging, there is much of
import to be found, and the whole amounts to
one of the most anally ambitious novel studies
I’ve had the pleasure of reading, though as Lang
has shown, for all his diligence it may not be
Hughes’s foreword, though, is a great essay
on Swinburne (one wonders that it couldn’t have
been enough to settle his hard feelings), and the
entire edition represents a monumental event in
the history of publishing, Hughes’s decade of
work to restore the unpublished prose and

naughty poems of Swinburne. Therein we will
learn from Hughes that Lesbia Brandon, however
fantastic, is a false title that “has acquired a
standing through its present in Wise’s
Catalogues, and has been used of the work
whenever the latter was mentioned in all
publications relating to Swinburne printed in the
last forty years or so, it has seemed best not to
seek to alter it.”6 If I could recommend only two
essays for the general reader on the fiction of
Swinburne, I’d recommend the Hughes
foreword and Edmund Wilson’s introduction to
The Novels of A. C. Swinburne, aka “Swinburne of
Capheaton and Eton”7, 67 pages of buried
criticism readily accessible in virtually any
English-language university library offering
clarity to the story of this story, and its (lack of)
reception for a century and a half and then some.
Scholarship of this sort becomes very
important in understanding a poet-novelist like
Swinburne, for I know no one by face and name
alive today who would be able to read ILLA
AMPHITRITEN and immediately peg the
reference to Catullus, personal poet such as
Swinburne, perhaps best known for a series of
poems about a lover named Lesbia—eureka!—

which brought me to the computer, where I
found a faithful reproduction of the image by
Weguelin of Lesbia from Catullus, used in this
edition as a frontispiece, which seemed
appropriate because it was another telling of
Catullus painted in the year after Swinburne had
portions of this novel typeset, and I also think it
goes pretty well with the portrait of Ophelia on the
cover by Burthe, which is appropriate in its own
right because Swinburne mentions honest Iago
in both of his novels. To the post-modern reader
whose cyborg scholarship of text and image in
the library and on the internet often offers such
vertiginously labyrinthian synchronicities,
Swinburne’s polylingual novels and letters are
more accessible than ever, for what reason, these
days, has one to fear for Hungarian in Gaddis
when we can understand the Latin in Sterne
with a wi-fi connection? The corona\samizdat
reprint represents the first time this novel will
appear simply bound in an accessible pocket
paperback form, to stand on its own, without the
dressings and euphemisms of biased scholarship
holding its hand, to let readers decide for
themselves whether the allusions are worth the
scholarship to understand them after all this

On the other hand, I, for one, have no
trouble reading this book simply for my pleasure.
We have in hand an unfinished “masterpiece”
such as The Pale King or Jean Santeuil. Let us not
confuse these sketches, nor Lesbia Brandon, with
such Unfinished Masterpieces as À la recherche du
temps perdu or Bouvard et Pécuchet. However, “There
is always something attractive in failure after a
time, as strong as there is for the minute in
success.” (p.126)
Every time I resurface from a dip in this
novel, I feel like Herbert at the waves: “His face
trembled and changed, his eyelids tingled, his
limbs yearned all over: the colours and savours
of the sea seemed to pass in at his eyes and
mouth; all his nerves desired the divine touch of
it, all his soul saluted it through the senses.” (p.10)
For good fiction gives me the satisfaction our
debutante Herbert seeks in the world: “To retain
his own eyes and see also with another man’s—
to retain his own sense and acquire another
man’s…” (p.36)
Swinburne began writing Lesbia Brandon in the
1860s, and in 1877, the same year his other novel
Love’s Cross-Currents originally appeared in The
Tatler as A Year’s Letters by “Mrs. Horace
Manners,” had several chapters set into type. A

quick glance at my ALSO BY ALGERNON
CHARLES SWINBURNE printed on the back of
the book’s front flyleaf is a wonderful place to
appreciate at a glance how many incredible,
whole pieces of art Swinburne created during his
long tenure as novelist manqué, but for the fan it
is worthwhile to visit three readily available
Chronologies: Erhsam’s in Bibliographies of Twelve
Victorian Authors, Welby’s in A Study of Swinburne,
and Nicolson’s in Swinburne.
Though Lesbia Brandon was never finished,
what remains between covers certainly contains
a spark of what Swinburne so admired in the
Brontë sisters:
“a quality as hard to define as impossible
to mistake; even the static and dynamic
terms of definition so freely and
scientifically misused in the latest school of
feminine romance would scarcely help us
much towards an adequate apprehension
or expression of it. But its absence or its
presence is or should be anywhere and
always recognizable at a glance, whether
dynamic or merely static, of a skilful or
unskilful eye to discern the style from the
diastole of human companionship—or

even inhuman jargon. The crudest as the
most refined pedantry of semi-science,
tricked out at second hand in the freshest
or the stalest phrases of archaic schoolmen
or neologic lecturers that may be swept up
from the dustiest boards or picked up
under the daintiest platforms irradiated or
obfuscated by new lamps or old, will avail
nothing to guide any possible seeker on
the path towards an exploration by
physical analysis or metaphysical synthesis
of the source of the process, the fountain
or the channel or the issue, of this subtle
and infallible force of nature—the
progress from the root into the fruit of this
direct creative instinct.”8
Contemporary readers educated in North
American writing workshops may find
themselves cringing at double adjectives, rhymed
prose, and, heaven forbid, several descriptions of
eyes and faces, but in the most beautiful way I
see Lesbia Brandon like Lady Midhurst sees
Nature: “I do think, if she had her own way,
would grow nothing but turnips; only the force
that fights her, for which we have no name, now

and then revolts; and the dull soil here and there
rebels into a rose.” (p.200)
Let scholars seek out scholarly editions. For
the rest of us, we sensualists, the readers who
read to live the lives of others and develop a
complex taste for diversity, let’s drop a needle on

Schoolboys in Disgrace and take this Lesbia-Brandon-
without-training-wheels in hand as we roam the

Earth in search of the vastness of the sea to be
found in another’s eyes by the power of the heart.
Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus.
1Page xvii of Lang’s Introduction to Volume 1 of The
Swinburne Letters, which covers 1854-1869. “About two
thousand letters will be printed in these volumes. The
manuscripts have been assembled from nearly three dozen
libraries and about fifty private collections, and in addition
I have reprinted letters, of which the holographs have not
been found, from several dozen books and periodicals.”
2Algernon Charles Swinburne, Lesbia Brandon (The Falcon
Press, 1952), from which I have pulled for the sake of these
notes several portions of the manuscript that were deleted,
to retain some sense of the manuscript as Swinburne
envisioned it as it may have been handed down had it been
published in the 1870s (around the author had the majority
of the manuscript set into type) by the London
pornographer Hotten under a pseudonym abreast such
classics as Flagellation and the Flagellants, a History of the Rod in

all Countries, Lady Bumtickler’s Revel, or A Treatise of the Use of
Flogging in Venereal Affairs. Here are a few of my favorites:
i)”When after some months he took hold of his courage with both
hands, heaved his heart into his mouth and begged [with moist eyes
and fiery cheeks that he might not be] [hoisted or held down by a
servant, promising: : hoist across the whipping-block by a servant,
promising] to be no longer hoisted, promising to keep quiet and take
his due allowance of cuts without wincing, Denham acceded with
a sharp laugh, and thus [thenceforth] chair or sofa [became
substituted for the wooden horse] served the purpose of a school
block, and every flogging.”
ii)”The sting was doubled or trebled; and he was not release still
blood had been drawn from his wet skin, soaked as it was in salt
at every pore: and came home at once red and white, drenched and
dry. Nothing in his life had ever hurt him so much as these.”
iii)”Feverish hands, he knew, would deal but inadequate strokes:
and he was on all accounts inclined to give Herbert something to
remember for life.”
iv)”A few words or warning menace and sharp reproach were
intermixed between the stripes; and after each pause of the kind a
long switching cut was laid on which left deeper marks on the boy’s
smooth skin [which made the room echo, answering upon].”
v)”Noticed the print of his knees on the couch, the tumbled cushion,
and among other significant minor indications sundry broken twigs
of birch lying about, bruised buds and frayed fragments of a very
sufficient stout rod. That well-worn implement, no longer fresh
and supple, with tough knots and expanding sprays, but ragged,
unsightly, deformed and used up, lay across a chair close at hand,
not without [specks] marks of blood [about] on it.”
vi)”This sentence was sportively enforced by a sharp stroke with a
flat hand which made the boy cry out and catch his breath: the
secret pinch that followed brought the tears full into his eyes, and

his teeth pressed his underlip hard: these caresses had literally
enough touched a tender part.”
vii)”He had found out by means of a fresh blow with the hand,
which brought such exquisite pain into Herbert’s face as could not
be mistaken or controlled: the cheeks were contracted and the whole
body quivered.” 3Ibid, p. xxvii. 4Ibid, p. iii. 5See essay by Edmund Wilson mentioned shortly. 6Falcon Press edition, p. xxviii.
7This introduction originally appeared in The New Yorker
in somewhat different form in 1962.
8Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Complete Works of Algernon
Charles Swinburne (New York: Russel & Russel, 1968), “A
Note on Charlotte Bronte,” p. 4-5. This edition is a reissue
of the 1925 Bonchurch Edition of The Complete Works of
Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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