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