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.