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.