IV. TRIAL BY MARRIAGE: BYRON, 1815–16

After the ceremony they rode on a gloomy winter day to a honeymoon at Halnaby Hall, in a suburb of Durham. He was now nearing twenty-seven, she was twenty-three. He had had eight or more years of irresponsible and almost promiscuous sex, and had seldom associated coitus with love. According to Moore’s report of a passage he had seen in Byron’s memoirs (burned in 1824), the husband did not wait for the night to shroud their consummation; he “had Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner on the day of their marriage.”27 After dinner, if we may trust his recollection, he asked her whether she intended to sleep in the same bed with him, and added, “I hate sleeping with any woman, but you may if you choose.”28 He accommodated her, but he later told Hobhouse that on that first night “he had been seized with a sudden fit of melancholy, and had left his bed.” The next day (the wife claimed) “he met me repellently, and uttered words of blighting irony: ‘It is too late now; it is done, and cannot be undone.’ “29 A letter was handed to him from Augusta Leigh; he read to Annabella its superscription: “Dearest, first and best of human beings.”30 According to the wife’s memory, he complained “that if I had married him two years before, I should have spared him that for which he could never forgive himself. He said he could tell me but it was another person’s secret.… I asked … if——[Augusta] knew it. He appeared terrified.”31 However, Annabella seems to have had no suspicion of Augusta at this time.

After three weeks at Halnaby Hall the newly weds returned to Seaham for a stay with the Milbanke family. Byron adjusted himself and became popular with everybody, including his wife. After six weeks of this he began to long for the excitement of London and the voices of his friends. Annabella agreed. In London they settled in luxurious rooms at 13 Piccadilly Terrace. On the day after their arrival Hobhouse came and Byron recovered his good humor. “For ten days,” his wife related, “he was kinder than I had ever seen him.”32 Perhaps in gratitude, or fearing loneliness, she invited Augusta to spend some time with them. Augusta came in April, 1815, and stayed till June. On June 20 George Ticknor, the American historian of Spanish literature, visited the new ménage, and gave a quite favorable report of Byron’s behavior. On that occasion an uncle of Annabella entered joyfully with the news that Napoleon had just been defeated at Waterloo. “I’m damned sorry for it,” said Byron.

He resumed the writing of poetry. In April, 1815, he joined two Jewish composers in issuing Hebrew Melodies, of which they had written the music and he the words. The collaboration, despite the guinea price, soon sold ten thousand copies. Murray brought out an edition of the poems alone, and this too found a wide sale. In October Byron finished The Siege of Corinth; Lady Byron made the fair copy for the printer. “Annabella,” Byron told Lady Blessington, “had a degree of self–control that I never saw equaled…. This produced an opposite effect on me.”33

He had some excuse for irritability. Assuming that he had sold Newstead Abbey, he had taken expensive lodgings for himself and his wife, and had spent lavishly in furnishing them; but the sale fell through, and Byron found himself literally besieged. In November, 1815, a bailiff entered the apartment, placed attachments on some furniture, and threatened to spend the night there until Byron paid his bills. Annabella’s rich parents, Byron felt, should have contributed more generously to the expenses of the new ménage.

His worries tinged even his spells of tenderness with bitterness or gloom. “If any woman could have rendered marriage endurable to me,” he told his wife, “you would.” But then, “I believe you will go on loving me until I beat you.” When she expressed the hope and faith that he would learn to love her, he repeated, “It is too late now. If you had taken me two years ago … But it is my destiny to ruin all I come near.”34 Having accepted a place on the governing board of the Drury Lane Theatre, he joined Sheridan and others in much drinking, and took one of the actresses to bed.35 Annabella appealed to Augusta to come again and help her manage him; Augusta came (November 15, 1815), reproved her brother, and found herself joined with Annabella as victim of his rage. “Augusta was filled with pity for her sister-in-law.”36

Through most of those difficult months Lady Byron had been carrying his child. On December 10, 1815, she gave birth to a daughter, who was named Augusta Ada—later just Ada. Byron rejoiced, and became fond of the infant, and, passingly, of the mother. “My wife,” he told Hobhouse in that month, “is perfection itself—the best creature breathing. But mind what I say—don’t marry.”37 Soon after Ada’s birth his furies returned. In one tantrum he threw into the fireplace a precious watch which he had carried since boyhood, and then shattered it with a poker.38 On January 3, 1816, according to Annabella’s account to her father, Byron came to her room and talked with “considerable violence” of his affairs with women of the theater. On January 8 she consulted Dr. Matthew Baillie as to Byron’s sanity; he came, watched the caged poet, but declined to give an opinion.

Apparently Byron consented that Annabella should go, with her child, for a stay with her mother, Lady Milbanke, nee Noel, at the Noel property in Kirkby, Leicestershire. Early on January 15 she left with Ada while Byron was still asleep. At Woburn she stopped to send him a strange hortatory but inviting note:

DEAREST B: The child is quite well and the best of travellers. I hope you are good, and remember my prayers and injunctions. Don’t give yourself up to the abominable trade of versifying—nor to brandy—nor to anything or anybody that is not lawful and right. Though I disobey in writing to you, let me hear of your obedience at Kirkby. Ada’s love to you, and mine.

PIP39

From Kirkby she wrote again, humorously and affectionately, telling him that her parents were looking forward to seeing him. On the same day she wrote to Augusta (who was still with Byron) with Lady Milbanke’s recommendation that she should dilute Byron’s laudanum (opium) with threequarters water.

Gradually, then fully, Annabella told her parents how, in her view, Byron had treated her. Shocked, they insisted on her complete separation from her husband. Lady Milbanke rushed down to London to consult a medical examiner who had watched Byron’s behavior; if she could establish Byron’s insanity the marriage might be annulled without Byron’s consent. The examiner reported that he had seen no signs of insanity in the poet, but had heard of some neurotic outbreaks, as when Byron was seized by a convulsive fit in his enthusiasm over the acting of Edmund Kean. Annabella sent a caution to her mother not to involve Augusta Leigh in the matter, for Augusta had been “the truest of friends to me…. I very much fear that she may be supposed the cause of separation by many, and it would be a cruel injustice.”40

On February 2, 1816, Annabella’s father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, dispatched to Byron a proposal for peaceful separation. The poet replied courteously that he saw no reason why the wife who had so recently sent him messages of affection should have so completely changed her mind. He wrote to Annabella, asking if she had freely agreed to her father’s action. She was moved to “distress and agony” by his letter, but her parents refused to let her reply. Augusta added her own appeal for reconsideration; to which Annabella replied: “I will only recall to Lord Byron’s mind his avowed insurmountable aversion to the married life, and the desire and determination he has expressed, ever since its commencement, to free himself from that bondage, as finding it quite insupportable.”41

On February 12 Hobhouse went to see Byron. On the way he heard some of the gossip circulating in London’s social and literary circles, and implying that Byron had been brutal and unfaithful to his wife. Some items from Hobhouse’s diary for that day:

Saw Mrs. L[eigh] and George B[yron, the poet’s cousin], and from them learnt what I fear is the real truth that B has been guilty of very great tyranny—menaces—furies—neglects, and even real injuries such as telling his wife he was living with another woman—… locking doors—showing pistols … everything she [Lady Byron] seems to believe him to have been guilty—but they acquit him—how? by saying that he is mad…. Whilst I heard these things Mrs. L went out and brought word that her brother was crying bitterly in his bedroom—poor, poor fellow….

I now thought it my duty to tell Byron I had changed my opinion…. When I told him what I had heard in the streets that day he was astounded—he had heard he was to be accused of cruelty, drunkenness, and infidelity—I got him to own much of what I had been told in the morning—he was dreadfully agitated —said he was ruined and would blow out his brains…. Sometimes says, “and yet she loved me once,” and at other times that he is glad to be rid of such a woman—he said if I would go abroad he would separate at once.42

About this time Byron received a bill for two thousand pounds for the coach he had bought for himself and his wife. He could not meet the debt, and had only one hundred fifty available; yet, with his characteristically reckless generosity, about February 16, 1816, he sent a hundred pounds to Coleridge.

On February 22 Annabella came to London and gave to Dr. Stephen Lushington an account that in his judgment made separation necessary. In that week public gossip mentioned Mrs. Leigh, and accused Byron of sodomy. He perceived that any further refusal of a quiet separation would bring a court action in which Augusta would be irrevocably ruined. On March 9 he gave his consent, and offered to resign all rights to his wife’s fortune, which had been bringing the couple a thousand pounds a year; she agreed that half of this sum should be paid to him annually. She promised to publicly renew her friendship with Augusta, and she kept that promise. She did not seek a divorce.

Soon after the separation he composed a poem—“Fare thee well, and if for ever, / Still fare thee well”—and sent it to her. A group of his friends—Hobhouse, Scrope Davies, Leigh Hunt, Samuel Rogers, Lord Holland, Benjamin Constant—came to his rooms to make him forget the collapse of his marriage. Alone and uninvited, Godwin’s stepdaughter “Claire” Clairmont brought him word of admiration from a rival poet, Percy Shelley, and offered her person as a balm for his wounds. He accepted her offer, opening a long concatenation of new griefs. On April 25, 1816, with three servants and a personal physician, he sailed for Ostend, never to see England again.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!