Lord Byron's dig at William 'Turdsworth'

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The rather conservative Victorian clergyman who received the letters must have been a little shocked: there are details of a squalid affair with a serving girl, fruity remarks about foreigners and literary vitriol.

Then again, maybe not. The sender was, after all, Lord Byron. The superstar Romantic poet's reputation for witty excess is affirmed by the sexual revelations, jibes about the Portuguese ("few vices except lice and sodomy") and barbed comments about his rival Wordsworth ("Turdsworth").

Sotheby's is to auction the most important series of Byron letters to come to the market in more than 30 years, some of them unpublished. They were purchased by a former prime minister, the Earl of Rosebery, in 1885 and have remained with the family ever since.

The letters shed fascinating light on one of literature's most charismatic figures, a man accurately described by his lover Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad, bad and dangerous to know". The Rosebery letters – all sent to his close friend Francis Hodgson – do not disappoint.

Sotheby's specialist Gabriel Heaton said: "Byron clearly enjoyed writing slightly outrageous things to a clergyman, but you do also get a very strong sense of the depth of friendship they had. There's a real intimacy."

About 15% of the letters' content is unpublished and unstudied. It includes references to Byron's affair with a serving girl, Susan Vaughan, that he ends when he hears she has been seeing someone else...

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