Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lord Byron's Marriage: The Bitter End

This is the last installment of the Lord Byron marriage saga. If you want to catch up on previous "episodes" starting with the first one, click HERE.

Annabella left 13 Piccadilly Square for good on January 15, 1816. Arguably, this was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. Later, she would later write that as she left that morning, it took every ounce of strength not to crumple at the foot of his door, where his dog normally lay, in the hopes they could start again.

As happens with so many couples in the midst of a split, the games now turned to finger pointing, accusations, and dismay. Byron’s already crumbling world virtually disintegrated.

Once Annabella and the newborn, Ada, were under her parents’ roof, all masks of deception she had worn during the one-year course of her marriage came off. With judicial precision, Annabella’s parents questioned her. They would know the true nature of her marriage with a man they had come to despise. There was to be no forgiveness, no negotiations, no reconciliation.

Byron: Public Domain

Annabella’s heart was in turmoil. In the beginning, she wrote letters to Byron that suggested her love for him was still strong. She was casual and offered nothing but news from home, signing her letters, “Ever thy most loving Pippin…Pip…Pip.” (Pip was Byron’s pet name for Annabella). Even so, once her mother had caught wind of some of Byron’s behavior, all control of the situation moved out of Annabella's hands. On January 20th, Annabella’s mother, Lady Noel, set out for London determined to bring about a separation.
In the early days of this legal battle, letters circulated back and forth amongst Annabella, Byron, and Augusta, and finally between Lord Milbanke, Byron, and lawyers. Augusta was every bit as anxious as Byron to somehow stop the separation and wrote to Annabella that she please reconsider for Byron’s sake and for the sake of their child. Already rumors were flying, ones that involved Augusta as well as some involving Byron’s time in Greece several years before. "I was accused of every monstrous vice by public rumour and private rancor." Byron claimed complete innocence and bemusement at the charges leveled against him. He had no recollection of treating his wife poorly, and he roundly denounced any suggestion of incest between himself and his half-sister.

By February, it was obvious to Augusta and Byron, that they would not persuade Annabella to return to him. Byron reported that her parents had turned her against him. By now, the separation proceedings had taken on a life of their own. Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Byron’s lovers and a cousin by marriage to Annabella, heaped fuel on the fire with her revelation that years before, Byron had told her of his love for a woman who carried his child: “…there is a woman I love so passionately—she is with child by me, and if a daughter it shall be called Medora.” Medora was the name of Augusta’s daughter, but it should be mentioned that these words came through Caroline (and she was hardly a reliable witness).

The time of social worship ended for Byron during the spring of 1816. He was publicly cut. None of the old invitations came his way, and when he did appear in public, he was shunned. All public support moved to Annabella’s court.

Lady Byron: Public Domain

In the end, Lord Byron and Annabella were legally separated by divortium a mensa et thoro. Literally, this Latin phrase means separation from table and bed. This process was used in the case of cruel and violent treatment or adultery on either side. All financial ties were released from either party and remarriage was never allowed.

 Byron’s reputation now ruined, he left England in the spring of that year to live abroad. He never returned to England. With his usual flair for dramatics, Byron would later write,

“I was unfit for England; if false, England was unfit for me. I withdrew; but this was not enough. In other countries—in Switzerland, in the shadow of the Alps, and by the blue depths of the lakes—I was pursued and breathed upon by the same blight. I crossed the mountains, but it was the same; so I went a little farther, and settled myself by the waves of the Adriatic, like a stag at bay, who betakes him to the waters.”

As for Annabella, who went on to live a full life with many philanthropic endeavors, she was once asked by a friend how she had managed to survive her year of marriage to such a man. Annabella responded:

“I felt a responsibility for him as well as myself, and when my own interpretation of the natural law was clouded by my feelings, I referred to the Revealed will—in this sense, J[esus] Christ may indeed be said to have been my Saviour—I found in his precepts that ‘immutable morality’ which the reason of man is often incapable of discerning.”

Faith had always been Annabella’s cornerstone as much as self-damnation had been Byron’s. The inequality of their moral and spiritual philosophies may well have been the defeat of their marriage, as it has been for many others since.

Thanks for reading this exploration of the year of marriage between Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. 

My first Regency novel, Dangerous to Know, a story inspired by their marriage, is slated to be released sometime this fall through Elk Lake Publishing.


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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Lord Byron's Marriage: Rage or Insanity?

Throughout January and February, I've been writing about Lord Byron's marriage to Annabella Milbanke. This is the next-to-the-last installment.

In October or November of 1815, just a few weeks before Annabella gave birth to their child, Byron took a lover. Her name was Susan Boyce, a hot-headed actress from Drury Lane Theatre, more noted for the girl-fights she started rather than any roles she played. By this point, Byron was severely depressed and drinking night and day. In fact, Susan Boyce enjoyed much of the same behavior that Byron had bestowed upon his wife. She would wait up for him, only to find that he didn't show, with no apology or excuse. He soon tired of her and got rid of her altogether when she asked him for money. She was inconsequential to Byron's life but served as a tool of torment for Annabella.

Whether or not some of the things he told her were true, Annabella believed them. Byron told her that he gave Susan Boyce jewelry, expensive gifts of his affection. When he arrived home late, he told his wife that he'd just come from his mistress's bed. Annabella was not allowed to sit in Byron's box seats at the theatre, lest he desire to attend with Susan. Finally, he encouraged her to relay all of the sordid details of his affair to his half-sister, Augusta--undoubtedly, the real target for his cruel arrows of psychological torture.

Even in light of all Byron's ridiculous behavior outside of his home, it was inside the walls of 13 Piccadilly Terrace where the most bizarre goings-on took place. Despite all that had previously transpired between the trio, as Annabella's confinement approached, she requested Augusta's presence. Annabella could not ask her mother to come. If Lady Noel were to see her son-in-law's behavior toward her daughter and soon-to-be grandchild, it would have killed her.

Augusta arrived to find Byron in a drunken rage, the servants hiding in fright, and Annabella barricaded in her room. Byron suggested that both Annabella and the baby should die during childbirth--it would be better for them all. Then he took to firing off his pistols...inside the house...just below Annabella's rooms. He also smashed furniture and anything glass (he was notably fond of removing the necks of brandy decanters with a poker stick). Augusta realized very quickly that this was far more than she could handle on her own. She summoned other relatives to come and help get him under control.

Both Augusta and Annabella questioned Byron's sanity. When Augusta confronted him regarding his tantrums, Byron responded, "I am determined to fling Misery around me & upon all those with whom I concerned." Byron went on to tell several of his friends that he must separate from Annabella--she and the child must go and live with her parents--else he might divorce her or worse.

Annabella's labor began on December 9th and with it, Byron's mind games. According to Annabella's maid, Byron locked himself in her rooms and attempted to rape her. The maid came in during the physical struggle and intervened. When a friend of the family suggested Annabella leave the house to have the baby, Byron heard of the plan, and immediately confronted his wife, violently demanding whether or not she would continue to live with him. Ultimately, Annabella decided to stay and Byron spent the evening at the theatre.

Annabella's daughter, Augusta Ada, was born December 10th at one o'clock in the afternoon. She was named after her godmother and a family member on her father's side. During her life she would be called Ada, and she would go on to become a mathematician who would help Charles Babbage create the analytical engine (one of the first computers). When Byron first saw his daughter, he immediately checked her feet to make sure they did not share his deformity, and then he allegedly pronounced, "Oh! What an implement of torture I have acquired in you!" 

(Ada Byron, aged 4. Public Domain)

Later, Byron would deny all of these accusations. Whether it truly was a season of madness or just the rage of losing control over his life, it is hard to say. Annabella requested that he be examined by a doctor for signs of insanity, but she didn't stick around to find out the verdict. After a violent exchange with her husband on January 3rd, Annabella made plans to leave London...and Byron.

Next Week: The Bitter End

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

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Lord Byron's Marriage: Money Miseries

During the month of February, I am writing about Lord Byron’s marriage to Annabella Milbanke.

(public domain via Wikipedia Commons)

In the summer of 1815, following the departure of Byron’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and despite Annabella’s progressing pregnancy, Byron sank into another depression. He was drinking heavily and not producing poetry. When invited to join the Sub-Management Committee of Drury Lane Theatre, he was delighted.

Byron had always been passionate about the theater and this opportunity offered him a reprieve from what he now saw as his sentence to a life of domesticity. Unfortunately, this opportunity also allowed him a return to his old ways of scouting new flesh with which to amuse himself. As he told Annabella one evening, torturing her with his barely veiled threats to choose one of the actresses from Drury Lane, “I am looking out to see who will suit me best.”

There was no doubt that any affection he’d once held for Annabella was waning fast. Perhaps familiarity had given birth to contempt (before Byron took on this position at Drury Lane, the couple was rarely ever apart). Perhaps too much time was spent in his half-sister Augusta’s company, encouraging his long-held and highly inappropriate attraction for her instead of his wife. Most likely, the passing months of their marriage had served only to solidify the truth of their unequally yoked state. Annabella, serious, sincere, and desperate to attain the love of her husband, could not comprehend Byron's self-indulgence and lack of emotional discipline.   

Byron had attempted to sell his childhood home, Newstead Abbey, in the hopes of paying off some of his many debts. Previous attempts to sell the place had fallen through and when it was put it up for auction in July of 1815, it failed to meet the reserve. At this time, Byron constructed his final will—most of his estate would be left to his half-sister, Augusta.

Always willing to see people in their best light, Annabella did not view this as a mean-spirited decision. She chose to believe that this signified Byron’s generosity, as his half-sister’s finances were worse than their own.

During that summer, Byron embarked on a journey to Six Mile Bottom to help the Leighs sort out their financial ruin. He left in a foul temper, and Lady Byron later told her maid that she feared, “she would never see him again and that he was going abroad.” Letters passed between Annabella and Augusta, in which Augusta expressed concern that her husband, Colonel Leigh, might try to extract money from Byron. In the end, it was not Colonel Leigh who requested the money, but Augusta herself who accepted some seven hundred pounds from Byron.

Annabella frantically attempted to stave off creditors. She educated herself on financial matters, including mortgages and lenders and how to raise money. Her parents had tried to help. They had sold property and attempted to finagle extra funds through collateral and complex money-lending plans. Annabella knew it was only a matter of time before the bailiffs came knocking. “For positively, the Execution cannot be suspended beyond the 6th of November,” she wrote to her parents. “Do you know of any means by which a week could be gained?”

In the fall, Annabella approached her confinement, and Byron expressed a wish to have all financial matters settled before the birth of their child. He did not want the bailiffs in the house as Annabella gave birth. Nevertheless, on November 8, the bailiffs arrived with the intent to execute the sale of any and all valuables in order to satisfy the debt.

Byron was mortified. He had known this was coming, but now that it was here the humiliation was more than he could bear. Annabella later wrote to Augusta, “…he seems to regard [this subject] as if no mortal had ever experienced anything so shocking.” Even so, Byron still refused to take any money for his poetry. It was his publisher who finally sent Byron fifteen hundred pounds in order to save his library from seizure.

Next week: Preparing for the Final Descent

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Lord Byron's Marriage: Locked to a Lord for Life

Throughout the month of January and February, I'm writing about Lord Byron's marriage to Annabella Milbanke. You can catch up on the other installments, starting HERE.

Once Lord and Lady Byron left Augusta Leigh's home at the end of March 1815, some of Byron's anxiety decreased. For a few short weeks, the newlyweds were able to settle in to their lives at 13 Piccadilly Terrace in London. But as was usual with Byron, the peace did not last.

Their finances were bad. Byron had debts in excess of thirty thousand pounds and no way to settle them. Their house at Piccadilly Terrace was large and required substantial staff; the rent was seven hundred pounds a year; they require a coach and coachmen. To live in the expected manner of the nobility was an expensive task. Byron's poetry might have been lucrative enough to pay for many of these niceties, but as a gentleman, Byron refused all monetary profits from his work.

The ton was all aflutter to see the new couple. Had Lady Byron managed to tame her wild lord, or was he as unruly as ever? Invitations poured in from all corners of Society. The Byrons were in demand for parties and dining engagements. No one at these events ever reported Byron's behavior as anything but gentlemanly and attentive to Annabella. Possibly he was settling into his new life, learning to accept it along with his husbandly role. Or perhaps he was on his best behavior because he knew people were watching... 

Another turn of the screw came with the discovery of Annabella's pregnancy. Byron was in two minds on this. On the one hand, he would have an heir; on the other hand, it was another mouth to feed. Byron wrote to his friend that he was "not particularly anxious" to have a child. Even so, reports of his affectionate concern and treatment of Annabella during this time reveal a more tender-hearted Byron, perhaps a man growing fond of the idea of fatherhood.

Not two weeks after the Byrons had moved into their new home, on April 12, Augusta Leigh arrived. Augusta had been appointed as one of Queen Charlotte's ladies-in-waiting. Consequently, Annabella had invited her to stay with them in Piccadilly Terrace while she sorted out and furnished rooms of her own at St. James's Palace. Perhaps Annabella wished to attempt a deeper relationship with her sister-in-law, to win her over to her side of the battle. Annabella would later write, "It was hopeless to keep them apart. It was not hopeless, in my opinion, to keep them innocent."

Annabella's intentions may have been pure, but the results were predictable. Augusta's visit produced the same sort distress within Lord Byron as when they had visited her at Six Mile Bottom. It was not long after her arrival that Byron told his wife, "You were a fool to let her come--You will find it will make a good deal of difference to you in all ways." No doubt Annabella had hoped for a different outcome for their marriage once they were settled in London and she was carrying his child, but she was again disappointed when Byron and Augusta took up exactly where they'd left off at Six Mile Bottom. Now, with the money woes as an additional stress, Byron taunted Annabella about her uncle's refusal to die and pass on the promised inheritance, as well as her father's promised marriage settlement of twenty thousand pounds, which had yet to be received.

Augusta's stay at Piccadilly Terrace stretched into a month, and then another. Although there were moments when her presence helped to buffer Byron's black moods, and she faithfully defended Annabella whenever he chose to treat her poorly, the late nights when Augusta and Byron sat up talking, laughing, and who knew what else, drove Annabella mad. One time in particular, Annabella wrote that "the thought of the dagger lying in the next room ... crossed my mind--I wished it in her heart." Obviously, a breaking point had been reached.

In June, Annabella finally sent Augusta packing. Again, there was the briefest of respites from Byron's black moods.

Was Byron prone to violent mood swings? Most likely, he was. By his own account, he was cursed and doomed, marred with the mark of Cain in the form of his lame leg. But did Annabella embellish these tales in any way? Some scholars say this, too, is a distinct probability. Much of what we hear about the horrors of their marriage come from Annabella's letters and legal statements from years later. Is it possible she had a different recollection of the way things unfolded?

In August of the year of their marriage, the Byrons received a young visitor from Boston, a Mr. George Ticknor, who came to meet and "worship at the shrine" of Byron. He was very surprised, however, to find that Byron was not at all the man he expected, nothing like the "the characters of his own Childe Harold & Giaour...either of his early follies or his present eccentricities." Instead, the visitor described Byron as "gentle...natural and unaffected." He went on to say that Byron was modest about his own works, but talked "of his rivals, or rather contemporaries, with justice, generosity, and discriminating praise."

Perhaps the most interesting observation made by Ticknor was in regard to Annabella. Byron, he said, acted in an "affectionate manner" with his wife. Once, he observed, as she prepared to depart for an outing, Byron "followed her to the door, and shook hands with her, as if he were not to see her for a month."

Byron could not have been wholly wicked to his wife all of the time, but a selfish and self-destructive streak in the poet drove him to discontent and a propensity toward behavior that split the couple apart. Perhaps if Byron had married another woman or if Annabella had married another man, they would have had the opportunity for happiness. But opposites attract. The unequal insist on being yoked. But fire and ice cannot coexist, and ultimately, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Next week: Debt and Desperation

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

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