Byron memorial book

Byron treasure found in bring-and-buy sale

An old 'shabby' book, bought for just a few dollars at a church bring-and-buy sale in the southern United States, has been identified by the National Library of Scotland as a long-lost tribute to the life of Lord Byron.

Detective work carried out on the manuscript has revealed it is the original memorial book from the family vault in Nottinghamshire where Byron was buried after his death in Greece in 1824. It records the personal tributes and several poetic laments left by more than 800 people, many of them famous figures of the day, who travelled to the poet's final resting place to pay their respects.

Now the book is being returned to the UK and donated to the National Library of Scotland by Marilyn Solana, the American retired speech pathologist who bought it at her local church sale in Savannah, Georgia. The Library already holds the most extensive and important collection of Byron's work in the world through the John Murray Archive. The new find will further enhance the Byron collection.

David McClay, the Curator who solved the puzzle, said: 'This is a remarkable find which offers a fascinating insight into Byron's posthumous reputation. I'm sure there will be international interest in what has come to light.'

Byron was one of the most famous literary figures of his time, rivalled only by Sir Walter Scott. The visitors' book was placed in the vault at St Mary's Magdalene Church in Hucknall Torkard, outside Nottingham, in 1825. By 1834, it was full. What happened next is unclear. One report from 1849 says the parish clerk gave it to a friend. Another from 1890 suggests the book was in the United States, having come into the possession of a family who moved there.

When it finally turned up at the annual church bazaar at St John's Episcopal Church in Savannah in 2008, the book had lost its cover, was a bit dirty and its first few pages were loose. It generated very little interest among the bargain hunters and was unsold at the end of the day. It is not known who donated it. Mrs Solana, who had been helping out at the sale, had seen the book earlier in the day and decided to buy it for $35.

'I'm thrilled to be able to bring this wonderful little book to the National Library of Scotland where it can be treasured and studied and cared for professionally,' she said.

Mrs Solana knew immediately on opening the book that it was some sort of tribute to Lord Byron and started to do some research on the internet. She contacted universities in the United States trying to find out more. It was then that she heard of the expertise of the National Library of Scotland and sent an email asking for help.

Working from transcripts and without ever having seen the original text, David McClay recognised the names of important figures who had left tributes and began to realise what it might be. That was confirmed when he attended a conference in the USA and was able to inspect the original book.

Martyn Wade, National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland, said: 'We are all extremely grateful to Marilyn Solana for generously donating the book to the National Library. It is has obviously been well handled over the years but is generally in a sound condition. We will need to do conservation work on it but, once that is done, people will be able to see it for another couple of hundred years.'

There are also plans to digitise images from the book and make them available online where they can be viewed from anywhere round the world. A digital copy will also be given to Mrs Solana and St Mary’s Magdalene Church.

The notable visitors to Byron's grave who are recorded in the book include the American writer Washington Irving; Count Pietro Gamba, a close companion of Byron; Martin Van Buren who was to become the eighth President of the USA; the Napoleonic general Lallemand; the Duke of Sussex; John Murray III; and the Irish poet Tom Moore. Byron enthusiasts were an early and important example of the growing cultural phenomenon of historical and literary tourism.

7 July 2011

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