Sear’d in heart, and lone, and blighted

On 23rd April 1816, Byron left London for the last time. In a grand dramatic gesture he had ordered a huge travelling-coach modelled on one that had belonged to his hero Napoleon. You sent Napoleon to distant and lonely exile last year; now look at me, forced to do the same!

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Napoleon’s travelling carriage

London Society, pretending to have turned its back on its prodigal son, was still watching him closely. He had written a final poem to his estranged wife, Fare thee well!, a desperate cry from the heart.

Fare thee well! and if forever,

Still for ever, fare thee well:

Even though unforgiving, never

‘Gainst thee shall my heart rebel….

 

Fare thee well! Thus disunited,

Torn from every nearer tie,

Sear’d in heart, and lone, and blighted,

More than this I scarce can die.

Foolishly, he had circulated copies to close friends. A “friend” had made sure that the poem was published in a newspaper, and now the entire press was cheerfully publishing lurid old gossip and hearsay.

No sooner had his heavy coach trundled out of London than the bailiffs took possession of all that remained in Piccadilly Terrace. Byron’s English life was at an end.

On 25th April Byron set sail from Dover, accompanied by a Swiss courier, his valet William Fletcher (who was leaving behind a wife and two sons rather than abandon the man he had cared for since Byron was eighteen) and his doctor, Dr Polidori: specially hired for the journey, and already keeping a journal with an eye to publication. Thus we owe to Dr Polidori the knowledge that, exactly two hundred years ago today, on 26th April 1816, Byron arrived at the Hotel Cour Imperiale in Ostend, where he …fell like a thunderbolt on the chambermaid.

I thank you truly…

April 8th 1816. Byron has almost completed his preparations for leaving England. The terms of the legal separation from his wife have been agreed, signed and sealed. His beloved books have been sold at auction, raising £723 (add a couple of zeroes for a rough modern equivalent) and now he is effectively camping out in a bare and spartan Piccadilly Terrace with his friend John Hobhouse. Hobhouse has moved in to keep an eye on his friend due to concerns about his mental health.

The Society gossips have been having a field-day; the separation of Lord and Lady Byron has kept tongues wagging and malice flowing. Byron’s refusal to make any criticism of his wife, coupled with her determination to make sure her side of the story is spread as widely as possible, means that he has become something of a social pariah so that – as his earliest biographer puts it,

… it required no small degree of courage, even among that class who are supposed to be the most tolerant of domestic irregularities, to invite him into their society.

In fact, there seems to be only one lady with a great enough degree of courage, Lady Jersey. A leader of fashion and with friends in high places (her mother-in-law was once one of the Prince Regent’s many mistresses) she is well-known for her kindness. And so she signals her support for Byron by giving a farewell party in his honour on Monday April 8th, 1816.

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The Countess of Jersey.

Byron attends the party in the company of both Hobhouse and his sister Augusta. Most of the guests, no doubt having gone along only to sniff out more gossip, take the opportunity to snub him. However, both Lady Jersey herself and one other guest, Miss Mercer Elphinstone, go out of their way to offer him warmth and friendship.

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Miss Mercer Elphinstone

This is itself is grist to the gossip mill, so that ten years later, by which time Miss Elphinstone is the wife of the French Ambassador to Berlin, William Hazlitt and his friend James Northcote are still talking about

… a little red-haired girl, who, when countesses and ladies of fashion were leaving the room where he was in crowds (to cut him after his quarrel with his wife), stopped short near a table against which he was leaning, gave him a familiar nod, and said, “You should have married me and then this would not have happened to you!

 Byron pretends to be unaffected by his reception at Lady Jersey’s party, though the atmosphere can doubtless be cut with a knife. However, once safely back home he entertains himself by writing viciously funny character-assassinations of his fellow-guests, and by writing to thank Miss Elphinstone for her kindness and

… wishing you a much happier destiny – not than mine is – for that is nothing – but than mine ever could have been.

 His reception at Lady Jersey’s has given him final confirmation, if any were needed, that it is time to shake the dust of England from his shoes, and in two weeks he will leave London for the last time.

I place my happiness in your hands…

In March 1816, with his marriage in tatters and his possessions disappearing by the day as they were auctioned to pay his debts, Lord Byron received a letter from a young lady.

Nothing unusual in that: ever since that morning in 1812 when he had woken to find himself famous, Byron had been on the receiving end of a considerable amount of fan mail from young ladies. Some sent declarations of undying love. Others asked for an autograph or a lock of hair; sending him their own hair, and verses they’d written, as keepsakes. A few of the braver ones offered to meet. Although he kept all of the letters, Byron usually made no effort to reply.

This letter, however, wasted no time beating around the bush. It came from a young lady who knew exactly what she wanted:

I place my happiness in your hands… If a woman, whose reputation has yet remained unstained, if without either guardian or husband to control she should throw herself on your mercy, if with a beating heart she should confess the love she has borne you many years …could you betray her?

A second letter soon followed, with an even plainer proposition:

Lord Byron is requested to state whether seven o’clock this Evening will be convenient to him to receive a lady to communicate with him on business of peculiar importance.  She desires to be admitted alone and with the utmost privacy.

The lady who wished to be admitted alone and with the utmost privacy was Claire Clairmont; the eighteen year-old stepsister of Mary Godwin. Mary had caused a scandal the previous year when she had left home to live with the married poet Percy Shelley. Claire was now out to catch a poet of her own.

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Claire and Mary had read Byron’s poems to each other ever since  the first Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published when they were impressionable fourteen year-olds: they had particularly enjoyed Lara, a jolly tale of murder and revenge with that type of brooding, melancholy hero who was a Byron speciality, the kind that readers so often elided with their creator:
Coldness of mien, and carelessness of praise; 
A high demeanour, and a glance that took 
Their thoughts from others by a single look; 
And that sarcastic levity of tongue, 
The stinging of a heart the world hath stung…

On that first evening of utmost privacy, Claire told a tale of wanting to become an actress: perhaps Byron could help her? He duly wrote a letter of introduction to his friends at the Drury Lane theatre. Claire was soon back – no, perhaps the career of a lady author would suit her better: could he offer any advice?

Persistence eventually paid off, and Claire was successful in her business of peculiar importance: she and Byron became lovers. The relationship lasted for a matter of weeks: Byron set out on his European journey in April. By the time he left London, Claire was pregnant.

Your offer is liberal in the extreme…

February 1816. Wife and child gone. Bailiffs in the house. His precious library of books seized, to be sold on behalf of his debtors.

Byron was – as might be expected – in extremely low spirits at this time. And so his friends began to rally round and offer help.

His closest male friend, John Hobhouse, offered moral support. He visited Byron frequently – often several times in a single day – wrote to Annabella on Byron’s behalf, listened to his friend’s often confused outpourings about his marriage.

His publisher, John Murray, made a more practical offer of help. He was about to publish two new poems by his best-selling author, The Siege of Corinth and Parisina. He made a very generous offer: rather than pay a steady trickle of royalties over the years, he would buy the copyright of both poems, with a lump sum of £1,050. It is difficult to calculate a precise equivalent, but this would be at least £100,000 in today’s money: far more than any modern poet would ever dream of earning for two pieces.

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The Siege of Corinth and Parisina.

This large sum would have been tremendously helpful to Byron in clearing at least part of his enormous backlog of debt. It would have got him out of immediate trouble and taken the bailiffs out of his kitchen, but would by no means have cleared everything: in 1818, when he was finally in a position to satisfy all of his creditors, it took £34,000 – around £3 million today – to pay all of his debts.

However Byron, always the gentleman, refused Murray’s offer. Partly this was because an aristocratic author could not be seen to make money from his writing. That would have carried a very unwelcome aura of “trade.” Partly it was because – as Byron freely admitted in his letter to Murray – neither poem was very good. They were, he said,

…compositions which I do not feel at all equal to my own notions of what they should be…

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Parisina: a glance at the opening stanza should be enough to make any reader agree with Byron’s own estimation of this piece.

Murray published the poems on 13th February 1816. They sold remarkably well, passing through at least three editions in that year alone. The verses were what was expected from Byron at that time: tales of war, doomed love and violent death. Each featured the type of tortured hero whom the reading public were happy to confuse with the creator, in much the same way that a modern celebrity can be conflated with their most famous film or TV role. And no doubt the growing whiff of scandal (the gossip columns were full of stories about Lord B….. and the departure of Lady B……) helped to boost sales quite nicely.

…tried to prove her loving lord was mad, But as he had some lucid intermissions, She next decided he was only bad…

Annabella Byron was not by any stretch of the imagination a sympathetic woman. She was the adored and pampered only child of elderly parents, and had grown up expecting to have her own way in everything. The result? A firm belief that her opinion was not only always right but was the only one that mattered. Brought up as an Evangelical Christian a long way, both physically and mentally, from the urban environments which Byron preferred, she was hardly an ideal partner for a man who questioned everything, who was teasing and whimsical when his mental health was on an even keel, but who could quickly be plunged into black, despairing moods.

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Seaham Hall, County Durham: Annabella’s childhood home, and where her marriage to Byron took place. He would be wryly amused to find that the address is now “Lord Byron’s Walk” and that it offers wedding packages!

Annabella made it plain that she did not enjoy London society, yet when Byron began to go out alone she made her displeasure even plainer. She disapproved strongly of the theatre, and of  her husband’s involvement with the Drury Lane Committee.

As the couple’s financial difficulties grew ever worse, and Byron, in despair, turned to drink, she decided that her life was in danger. When the only family member who showed any concern, Byron’s sister Augusta, moved in to care for him, Annabella became convinced that, not only did Byron love his sister more than he loved her, their relationship must be incestuous.

She kept a journal, where his faults were noted,

And opened certain trunks of books and letters,

All of which might, if occasion served, be quoted…

In January 1816, back home with her adoring parents, Annabella shared her unhappiness with them. Her mother instantly set out for London, consulting a leading lawyer and Byron’s physician. The physician stated that Byron was not mad; the lawyer advised a legal separation. On 2nd February 1816, Byron received a letter by private messenger, informing him that his marriage was over. Byron wrote a dignified reply to Annabella’s father, and a confused, despairing letter to his wife; but Annabella stuck to her assumed moral high ground,

And saw his agonies with such sublimity,

That all the world exclaim’d, “What magnanimity!”

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This statue of Byron and Annabella, intended to show them dancing away from each other in opposite directions, was unveiled in Seaham last week. (The sculptor obviously wasn’t aware that, conscious of his lame leg, Byron never danced!)

Fare Thee Well!

As promised, here is the first in my series of blogs about 1816: the year in which Byron travelled to Venice.

1816 didn’t get off to a bright start for Byron, despite the birth of his daughter, Augusta Ada, who had arrived towards the end of the old year, on 10th December 1815. By the time January arrived, his marriage was in tatters.

If ever two people should never have married each other, those two people were George Gordon, Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. If Annabella is to be believed, the marriage –which had taken place in January 1815 – started to collapse from the moment they set out on their honeymoon.

Marriage led to huge expenses, including an enormous rent for the imposing marital residence in Piccadilly Terrace. When these new expenses were added to the mountain of existing debts from his bachelor days, his creditors had had enough. As word spread of Byron’s marriage “to an heiress” they began to close in.

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Annabella Milbanke, Byron’s wife

The problem was that Annabella Milbanke was just that: an heiress, not yet an inheritor: an (admittedly elderly) uncle and her mother were the barriers to her own path to a fortune. Her marriage settlement barely paid the rent on Piccadilly Terrace, and soon the creditors were threatening foreclosure. By November 1815 there was a resident bailiff in the kitchen.

Byron’s mental health, ever-fragile, now collapsed.  He was drinking far too much, and prowled the house at night, or took pot-shots at his growing collection of empty bottles. These were hardly ideal living conditions for a woman about to give birth, and they were made far worse by poisonous tittle-tattle fed to Annabella Byron by her companion Mrs Clermont.

So, when Byron, at the end of his tether and truly desperate (only the fact that he had taken his seat in the House of Lords and was an active parliamentarian was preventing his arrest for debt) suggested that, as a temporary money-saving measure he should go and live cheaply abroad and she should live for a time with her parents, Annabella didn’t ask for explanations or reassurance: she immediately convinced herself that her husband no longer loved her and their marriage was over.

Annabella’s mother had sent an invitation for both Lord and Lady Byron and the baby to pay a visit to the new grandparents at their home at Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire (the modern Mallory Park motor-racing circuit). And so Annabella made her plans. On 15th January 1816, Lady Byron left her husband in Piccadilly Terrace, pretending that she was paying a short visit to her parents.

Byron was never to see his wife or his daughter again.

 

Happy New Year 1816!

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1816 – exactly two hundred years ago this year – was a significant year for Lord Byron.
His marriage, contracted just one short year earlier, on 2nd January 1815, crumbled into dust.
His wife left him, taking his one month-old daughter with her: he would never see either of them again.
He was bankrupt, with bailiffs sitting in the kitchen of his home at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, London.
And so he decided to leave England and resume his travels.
April found him in Belgium, whilst he spent the summer on Lake Geneva.
In the autumn he set out for Italy.
On 10th November 1816 Lord Byron arrived in Venice……

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The Byron – Venice blog plans to follow Milord as he travels across Europe. Along his route there will be eccentric doctors, Romantic poets, countless ladies, chambermaids and draper’s wives. Byron will visit Waterloo less than a year after the Battle; he will host an evening in Geneva which will lead to the creation of horror’s two most celebrated characters; he will – inevitably – fall in love.
We hope you will join us on our journey: Happy New Year!