Robert Byron, Dangerous Lunatic

The latest edition of the Australian Financial Review contains a story by Nick Hordern about Robert Byron, an outstanding British travel writer of the 1930s. The focus of the article is Byron’s book The Road to Oxiana which several critics have acclaimed the best travel book of the period. It recounts the 1933-34 travels of Byron and Christopher Sykes, later Waugh’s biographer, to various architectural monuments in Iran. Waugh knew Byron from Oxford, and they had several friends in common, such as Nancy Mitford, who appears in a photo with Byron that accompanies the article. But although Byron’s talent was recognized, he had a personality even more difficult than Waugh’s. In particular, he suffered anger management problems as were recounted by Harold Acton in an incident described in the article:

On the one hand he was recognised as a passionate advocate of unusual causes, such as the Byzantine influence on European art. On the other he was a contrarian, appallingly abrasive and opinionated to the point of violence. In his autobiography, Oxford contemporary Harold Acton recalled a 1936 incident where Byron ran amok at a dinner party in the British legation in Beijing, and had to be forcefully restrained by an embassy guard.

It was this very incident in Peking to which Waugh was referring in the quote which concludes the article, describing Byron as a “dangerous lunatic, better off dead.” This comes from a letter Waugh wrote to Acton in 1948, passing on his comments relating to Acton’s memoirs in which Byron’s bad behavior is described. The complete quote is somewhat less harsh than what appears in the article:

It is not yet the time to say so but I greatly disliked Robert in his last years & think he was a dangerous lunatic better dead. (Letters, p. 277)

Byron was safely dead when Waugh expressed this opinion, having been killed in 1941 when his ship was torpedoed.

This entry was posted in Letters and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.