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Stranger Than Fiction

Lisa Jardine speaks at the Longman/ History Today awards on Erasmus.

In Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia the fictional academic Bernard Nightingale puts together a collection of documents – a copy of The Couch of Eros by E. Chater which once belonged to Lord Byron, and three contemporary letters found in the book – to argue a convincing historical case for Byron's having killed 'B. Chater' in a duel occasioned by Byron's seducing Chater's wife and slighting his poetry. The argument is impeccable, but, because the action of the play shifts between 1809 and the present, the audience knows that Bernard Nightingale is wrong. It is not the celebrity poet, Byron, but a historically insignificant household tutor called Septimus Hodge who undertook the duel, just as it is he who has underlined key passages in Chater's book, and he who penned the insulting review of it in the Piccadilly Recreation.

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