Robert Byron Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Robert Byron 1905-1941

English travel writer, art critic, and historian.

A journalist for London's Daily Express, Byron is largely remembered for his travel narratives, including The Road to Oxiana (1937), which many critics consider to be his masterpiece. This work represents the culmination of Byron's somewhat fictionalized travel diaries that record expeditions through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia in the 1920s and 1930s. In The Ròad to Oxiana and similar works, Byron—primarily a Byzantinist—exercised his proclivity to examine and comment on the beauty of local architecture and art. His findings on ancient structures and the modern incarnations of the cultures that produced them are among his most enduring contributions. Somewhat eccentric and idiosyncratic in his presentation of these themes, Byron is nevertheless recognized by critics for his carefully perceived and good-humored recollections of Europe and the East between the First and Second World Wars.

Biographical Information

Byron was born in Wiltshire, at the town of Wembley, on February 26, 1905. Though his family was distantly related to Lord Byron, his parents were solidly middle class. He grew up, with two sisters, near Salisbury in Savenake Forest and, despite his family's modest financial means, attended Eton and later Merton College, Oxford. In 1925, while still an undergraduate, Byron and two companions undertook an automobile tour of Europe and eventually made their way to Greece. He recorded that excursion in his first travel book, Europe in the Looking-Glass, published in 1926. The same year he left Oxford with a third class degree in history. Byron returned to Greece twice soon after, once in 1926 and again in 1927, visiting Mt. Athos and examining the many frescoes contained in Greece's centuries-old churches and monasteries. These voyages resulted in his second travelogue, The Station. Athos: Treasures and Men (1928), The Byzantine Achievement (1929), and The Birth of Western Painting (1930), a collaborative work undertaken with the help of David Talbot Rice, one of his traveling companions. In 1929 Byron began his career in journalism, traveling to India as a correspondent for the Daily Express. The result, An Essay on India, was published two years later. Byron recorded his travels during the years 1931-32 in his next travel book, First Russia, then Tibet (1933). A tour in Persia with his close friend Christopher Sykes during the years 1933-34, followed by almost three years of writing and traveling in China and the Far East, culminated in the publication of his most widely acclaimed work, The Road to Oxiana. By 1936, however, he had returned to London and was experiencing the mounting tensions surrounding the Nazi domination of Europe. By the time war was declared by Great Britain in 1939, Byron was engaged as a special correspondent for the British Broadcasting Company Overseas News Department. While en route to Cairo for the news service in February of 1941, he was drowned when his ship was sunk by a torpedo.

Major Works

Of Byron's nine works written without collaboration, nearly all were drafted in the form of travel diaries which examine the peculiarities of culture and architecture in Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Critics have observed that these writings describe a steady development in terms of Byron's overall style. His earliest travel books, Europe in the Looking-Glass and The Station, are thought to be of less consequence than his more mature writings, though both illustrate Byron's wit, erudition, and hint at the studied awareness of setting that characterize his later works. Marred by what Paul Fussell called Byron's occasional "massiveness of expression" and "polemical disposition, " these books nevertheless demonstrate the author's essentially good-natured and comic tone, a quality he maintained throughout his writings. In his third book, The Byzantine Achievement, Byron added a new dimension, providing a detailed history of the art and culture of the Byzantine east along with his personal travel narrative. In An Essay on India, Byron explores political factors more fully than in his earlier writings, evaluating the successes and failures of British colonialism in the region. Byron voices his disdain for the inelegant ideology of the Soviet Union, while delighting in the beauty of its architecture in First Russia, then Tibet; he goes on to detail his exploits in the largely untouched and alien culture of Tibet. The title of The Road to Oxiana, Byron's penultimate travelogue, refers to the Amus Darya river, called the Oxus, which runs through north-eastern Afghanistan. The story is both a quest for a glimpse of the river and a search for the sources of Moslem architecture and civilization. Critics of the work have almost universally praised its artful evocations of scene and manner, as well as Byron's masterful recreation of what appears to be a completely spontaneous travel diary—despite the fact that it was carefully constructed over the course of three years of thought and revision. In his brief How We Celebrate the Coronation: A Word to London's Visitors (1937), one of his last works published before the outbreak of war, Byron demonstrates his sardonic sense of humor, decrying the materialism and profit-mongering of real-estate developers in England.