Thursday, January 26, 2017

Lord Byron's Marriage: The Love Triangle

During the month of January, I am writing installments regarding the marriage of Lord Byron to Annabella Milbanke in January of 1815. This was a marriage equal in status, but woefully unequal in all other respects.

After a miserable first honeymoon week at Halnaby House in Yorkshire, Byron and Annabella settled into a reasonably happy time around or after January 7. On that date, Byron wrote to his friend and confidante, Lady Melbourne: "Bell and I go on extremely well so far without any other company than our own selves as yet." To others he wrote, "I have great hopes this match will turn out well--I have found nothing as yet that I could wish changed for the better--but Time does wonders--so I won't be too hasty in my happiness."

In fact, the peaceful and happy weeks of their remaining honeymoon were predictably interrupted by Byron's constant mentions of his half-sister, Augusta. Even so, he did not write to "Guss" after they left Halnaby. Lord and Lady Byron traveled once more to visit Annabella's parents in Seaham, where they stayed for three pleasant weeks. This time, it was Augusta who wrote to Annabella and scolded Byron for his silence. "Poor dear B! He must have So many occupations, walking, dining, playing at Drafts with 'Mama' &c. &c. &c. & no time to scribble to 'Guss.' I am vain enough to think he does not forget her--& so--never mind."

Most likely feeling the pressure to show how happy they were (and to stake her claim), Annabella returned Augusta's note and hinted that she and Byron were spending much time enjoying the physical benefits of marriage. Augusta replied simply, "I am glad B's spirits do not decrease with the Moon. I rather suspect he rejoices at the discovery of your 'ruling passion' for mischief in private."

Having never met Augusta in person, Annabella's freely offered information about bedroom matters must be seen as an attempt to draw boundaries. He is mine, not yours. It seems clear that she suspected something untoward may have passed between her husband and her new sister-in-law at some point and was eager to let it be known that such behavior would not be repeated, if she could help it.

Augusta Byron (1783-1851), later The Honourable Augusta Leigh, was the half-sister of Lord Byron. Public Domain.

Within a few weeks, Augusta countered with an invitation to her home at Six Mile Bottom. Her husband, Colonel Leigh, would not be at home for a time, and on March 9, the couple ended their honeymoon and headed south.

Arguably, this interlude between Halnaby, Seaham, and their eventual home in London, was a terrible mistake. If Byron had managed to avoid seeing Augusta for a little while longer, the couple's marriage might have stood a chance. But in Annabella's mind, the worst was over. She was learning how to deal with Byron, to make light of his comments that she would be better off alone. In fact, during one rare moment of ease, Byron said to Annabella, "You married me to make me happy, didn't you? Well, then, you do make me happy."

The black violence had passed, and Byron seemed content. "He was not content if I was away from him except on the black days when he would shut himself up in frenzied gloom." Presumably, Annabella took comfort in this and the idea of better days to come. Sadly for her, these were some of the better days of her marriage.

As the carriage pulled into Six Mile Bottom, Byron at first insisted upon meeting his sister alone and darted headlong into the house. When Annabella joined him, he was upset, nearly frantic. Augusta was not there to greet them. A few moments later, Augusta did appear and greeted Annabella guardedly. Annabella was disappointed. How could she not be? After the enthusiastic and intimate letters the two women had shared over the past two months, she was now to be greeted with such stiff regard. Even so, brother and sister warmly clasped one another, and Annabella left them for a time, knowing they had much catching up to do. At least, that was what she told herself. In truth, she couldn't have stayed another moment. She couldn't have watched their connection and heartfelt emotion. It would have broken her heart.

Later that night, Annabella lay in bed above the room in which her husband and his half-sister laughed and talked until all hours. And every evening thereafter, Annabella had to endure the subtle suggestions that she leave them and go to bed. And then there were the blatant taunts from Byron: "We can amuse ourselves without you, my charmer."

Annabella was deeply hurt and confused. "He never spent a moment with me that could be avoided, & even got up early in the morning (contrary to his general habit) to leave me and to go to her."

The bliss of Halnaby and Seaham was all but forgotten.

Next Week: Locked to a Lord for Life

Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. Alfred A. Knopf. New York: 1999.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lord Byron's Marriage: The First Week

This month I'm blogging about Lord Byron's marriage to Annabella Milbanke. They were married January 2, 1815--opposite types brought together by status and Society and doomed from the start. Annabella was devout in her faith and sheltered from the world for most of her life; Byron was worldly-wise--so much so that he considered himself cursed.

The morning after their wedding, Annabella awoke with what she described as "perhaps the deadliest chill that ever fell on my heart." Even now, no doubt, she wondered if she had made a terrible mistake. He had, after all, spent the majority of their wedding day telling her she should have married someone else. The second day was no different.

"It's too late now ... it's s done ... it cannot be undone." Byron repeatedly chanted these lines over the first weeks of their marriage. "I am a villain--I could convince you of it in three words." These words were coupled by his insistence that his family on both sides (the Gordons and the Byrons) were defiled by insanity and suicides. He punctuated this insistence a few weeks later by spurring on an argument regarding some material Annabella had read, grabbing a dagger that was left on display, and rushing into his bedroom where he locked himself in.

In fact, the material that caused such a ruckus was John Dryden's eighteenth century play, Don Sebastien. The story features an incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister who do not realize they are related. Byron had already planted seeds of doubt regarding his relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. He had read some of Augusta's letters aloud to Annabella, making sure she heard his half-sister's lines of endearment for him such as, "Dearest, first and best of human beings." He had also made it clear that no one loved, understood, or entertained him as well as Augusta.

Desperate for help, Annabella wrote to Augusta on the fourth of January and asked her to join them on their honeymoon. It seems illogical, to invite the very person of whom she was suspicious, but one might imagine that at this time, she was only beginning to connect the dots. Most likely Annabella had more questions than anything, and in fact, within that first letter, she sent a list of them to Augusta. One of the questions was whether or not Augusta would be her friend--perhaps her "only friend."

Augusta sent a response that she could not come away from her young family at home (she and her husband had many children), but that she would be Augusta's "only friend." Augusta's letters were lighthearted, somewhat childish in tone, but she also included advice as to how her brother might be governed. Augusta suggested Byron was best managed when his black moods were ignored. Annabella should make light of them; instead, she should tease him or jokingly admonish his bad behavior.

This may have been the best way to deal with Byron, but joking and teasing was not really within Annabella's wheelhouse. It would have been impossible for her to muster such good nature during the nights when Byron locked himself in his room with loaded pistols. Later, he would explain his behavior away. He'd been depressed over their money situation, and anyway, he'd caught a cold the day of their wedding. I

t would take about a week for Byron to settle into his new situation and accept that this was his life now ... with Annabella. On January 7, it would appear that his black mood had lifted and he acted as though nothing had happened or was amiss.

Annabella was only too relieved that money and illness were the only causes of his violent tantrums and tirades. Now they could carry on happily, couldn't they?

Next Week: Annabella and Augusta Meet

Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York: 1999.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Lord Byron's Marriage: The "Treacle" Moon

During the month of January, I will be writing about the first days of Lord Byron’s marriage to Annabella Milbanke.

Over the course of his life, Byron suffered many things. Born with a clubbed foot, he was often victimized by bullies, who ridiculed him. His father abandoned him at a young age, and Byron and his mother had a fractious relationship. He loved his half-sister, Augusta, and when they were reunited as adults, his attachment to her became one of an inappropriate nature. All of these wounds played into his self-proclaimed cursed state.

Annabella Milbanke knew some of these things about her husband before entering into the marriage; some of them she didn’t. After all, before their marriage, the couple hadn’t spent much time together—a day here, a day there. The majority of their courtship had been via letter.

Now, Annabella would meet the real Byron.

Lord and Lady Byron set out for their honeymoon on the second day of January, 1815. With his usual wit and sarcasm, Byron called it their “treacle moon” … in truth, it was less sweet than it was sour. Although there were some moments of promise within those weeks, the couple’s first day of marriage was nothing less than a disaster.

As their carriage pulled away from Annabella’s hometown of Seaham, Byron transformed. Annabella later said that his “countenance changed to gloom and defiance.” Byron began to sing “in a wild manner”—a coping mechanism he would employ throughout their marriage whenever he was enraged or defeated. But on this first occasion, Annabella was frightened. She scarcely recognized the man sitting next to her, who suddenly filled the carriage with a loud, raucous voice. Even so, Annabella was a quiet, highly disciplined woman, who most likely endured the bad behavior with no reaction.

Perhaps to further distress his new bride, Byron verbally attacked Annabella. “You had better married [another], he would have made you a better husband.” In written accounts of this event, Annabella omitted the name of the person Byron suggested. In fact, she’d had ample opportunity to marry other men. She’d had plenty of suitors, but Byron had been her choice. According to Byron, she would suffer for her choice. She should never have married him. He was a Byron and cursed, and now she would feel the effects of it. He chastised her for not marrying him sooner; if she had, he argued, he might not have committed some of his more grievous sins.

Each of these taunting, vindictive words, like slaps, made Annabella heartsick. When the couple reached a resting point, the Inn at Rushford, Byron turned on her again. “I wonder how much longer I shall be able to keep up the part I have been playing.” When they reached the spot for their honeymoon (one of the Milbanke’s houses, Halnaby Hall near Darlington), servants noticed the pained expression on Annabella’s face as she emerged from the carriage. Her husband disembarked and limped away. He did not look back at her, and he certainly did not hand her down from the carriage.

Undoubtedly, the reality of his own choices dawned on him during that carriage ride. He had really done it. He’d married her. Whether out of convenience, spite, or revenge, he’d gone through with the nuptials. Now he was trapped. And on top of it all, he had caught a cold.

Byron’s memoir (later burned by his friends) recounted that he “had Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner on the day of their marriage.” Later that night, he agreed to allow his wife to sleep in the bed with him. He didn’t like to share a bed with his lovers, and he was vexed by the idea of having to do so now, but he finally relented. Even so, he cruelly reminded Annabella that “one animal of the kind was as good to him as another”--another attempt to insult her and divulge that their union had little meaning to him.

There are a few different versions of their first night finale. One account was that Byron awoke, and glimpsing a burning candle through the red curtains around the bed, he shouted, “Good God! I am in hell!” In another version, Byron imagined himself as Orpheus in hell with Prosperpine, prompting the same response and waking Annabella.

These first days of marriage were far from harmonious ones for the Byrons, but they were only the beginning. There was more to come as the snow fell around Halnaby, trapping the less-than-happy couple inside.

Next week: The honeymoon drags on…

Crane, David. The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 2002.

MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. Farar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2002.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Marrying Byron: The Day of the Ceremony

Most young women dream about their wedding day. It’s not always a perfect day (in fact, rarely so), but it’s usually one of the most exciting in a woman’s life.

("Bridal dress'"Ackermann's Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashion and Politics, June 1816.) 

Annabella Milbanke had been waiting several months for her wedding day with Lord George Gordon Byron. He had delayed his journey to her parent’s home several times, but two months later than she’d anticipated, in January of 1815, the event finally took place.

A day that should have been marked by anticipation and excitement was marred by nervous apprehension and anxiety. Byron’s last visit to Seaham had been in November when he’d stayed two weeks. During that time, Annabella succumbed to a shyness that rendered her quiet and skittish. Most likely, the long absence between their meeting and their engagement (they had only seen each other a few times in London and the engagement had been arranged through letters) had given her time to build him up in her mind. Indeed, by the day of their marriage it would seem Annabella had allowed the term she coined for other women’s wild idolization of Byron, “Byromania,” to manifest as reality in her own heart. Despite her natural practicality and staid disposition, Annabella adored her fiancé.

(portrait of Lord Byron by Richard Westall)

Byron had viewed Annabella’s silence as prudishness and told his lawyer, John Hanson, that he “never liked prudes,” but he quickly added that he found Annabella “clever,” and the fact she knew Greek and Latin was a bonus. Sadly, Byron was not in love with Annabella. She had been a willing participant in an arrangement of necessary arrangement—marriage—in order to satisfy Society and stave off anymore crazy antics of his stalker, Lady Caroline Lamb.

The wedding took place January 2, 1815, in the drawing room of the Milbanke’s home in Seaham. There were only a few people present besides the couple and the minister: Annabella’s parents, Byron’s best friend John Hobhouse, and Annabella’s former governess, Mrs. Clermont. Annabella took time with her vows, pronouncing them with great care and staring adoringly at Byron as she spoke them. Byron stumbled over his, but took a moment to cast a frown in Hobhouse’s direction when he came to the vow that required him to say, “With all my worldly goods I thee endow.” Byron was deeply in debt by that time and counted on Annabella’s worldy goods to help with his creditors.

After the ceremony had ended, the couple had signed the registry, and congratulations had circulated, the scene turned somber.  Annabella emerged teary-eyed in her going-away attire. She would be leaving her parents for good to live in London. Byron’s countenance must have been dire, for Hobhouse later noted that he felt as though he had “buried a friend.”

As Annabella was handed into the carriage, Hobhouse wished her great joy in her marriage. “If I am not happy it will be my own fault.” Her words suggested a hopefulness that her marriage would be a success and an understanding that it was she who had wanted this marriage to happen, regardless of her own misgivings, her family’s warnings, and Byron’s waffling right up to the hour of the event. Annabella was in love with him and still under the delusion that he loved her too.  

As the carriage pulled away, Seaham’s church bells rang and six men fired muskets to celebrate their marriage. Byron clutched his friend’s hand so tightly through the open carriage window that Hobhouse finally had to pull away.

According to letters Annabella later penned, their harmony in marriage lasted approximately five minutes. In fact, it did not extend beyond their journey through Annabella’s hometown of Seaham.

Next time: The honeymoon

Source: MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York: 2002.