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.


  1. Chilling last words, so true a house divided against itself cannot stand. Interesting he didn't want to take money for his poetry.


    1. Yes, I think that's interesting too, Betty. Apparently, "gentlemen" during that time didn't take money for their time and talents.

  2. That darn Byron. I don't even like his poetry.


    1. Ha! I have to say I do like his poetry. I don't much like poetry in general, but there's something about his that engages me.