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Books: Marriage of Inconvenience

4 minute read

LORD BYRON’S WIFE (556 pp.)—Malcolm Elwin—Harcourt, Brace & World ($8.75).

George Gordon Byron’s courtship was as mannered as a Jane Austen novel and his honeymoon as melodramatic as The Mysteries of Udolpho. On the famous drive of the bridal pair from Seaham to Halnaby, Byron’s “countenance changed to gloom & defiance as soon as we got into the carriage. He began singing in a wild manner as he usually does when angry and scarcely spoke to me till we came near Durham.” Later, added his bride, he said, “Now I have you in my power, and I could make you feel it.” The poet, after balking at sharing a bed with her, started out of a restless sleep, caught sight of the glowing candle, and cried: “Good God, I am surely in hell!”

Atrocious Crimes. Byron was 27, and his bride, the former Annabella Milbanke, had just turned 23; their marriage lasted not quite a year. Its failure has variously been attributed to Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half sister Augusta Leigh, to his heavy drinking, his mental instability, his not-so-latent homosexuality, and even his sagging finances. Byron himself blamed it on his mother-in-law, who later changed her name from Milbanke to Noel. When Lady Noel recovered from a severe illness, Byron scribbled a note to his sister: “I will reserve my tears for the demise of Lady Noel, but the old bitch will live forever because she is so amiable and useful.”

Old bitch she may have been, but British Literary Historian Malcolm Elwin doubts that she was what went wrong with the marriage. In this first study of the subject based on “unrestricted use of the Lovelace Papers,” the famous collection of family letters and documents, Elwin concludes that the real villain was more probably Annabella herself. A quiet, humorless, literal-minded girl, she took all of Byron’s Gothic romancing with impenetrable solemnity. For a man like Byron, thinks Elwin, the temptation to pile extravagance on extravagance must have been almost irresistible once he found an audience that responded to his frequent, mysterious allusions to “atrocious crimes” and “abominable secrets” in his past. Annabella apparently believed that Byron had committed murder while traveling in the Mediterranean, and solemnly noted that during his brandy bouts he ranted wildly of his conquests (“In 1813 he had absolute criminal Connections with an old Lady at the same time as with her Daughter-in-Law”) while brandishing the dagger or the two pistols he habitually kept by his bedside.

Greatest Villain. For the most part, Elwin lets the letters speak for themselves; they provide fascinating glimpses into a marriage in which the very emotional vocabularies of the partners were almost totally different. When Annabella first met Byron in 1812, he had just published Childe Harold and was the hero of London society. Annabella reported to her mother that she found him “a very bad, very good man … He is sincerely repentant for the evil he has done, though he has no resolution (without aid) to adopt a new course of conduct and feeling.” It took her no time to decide that she could provide precisely the aid he needed: “I consider it as an act of humanity and Christian duty not to deny him any temporary satisfaction he can derive from my acquaintance.” Byron, while just as adept at assuming a pose as Annabella, at least saw his own feelings about her more clearly: “I have no desire to be better acquainted with Miss Milbanke,” he wrote to his mistress of the moment, Lady Caroline Lamb. “I should like her more if she were less perfect.”

Somehow, after two years of intermittent correspondence and one rejected proposal by Byron, they blundered into marriage. (“It never rains but it pours,” said Byron dryly to a companion when he received Annabella’s note of acceptance.) Strangely, Byron was the more upset of the two when the marriage broke up. While Annabella was congratulating herself on escaping “from the greatest Villain that ever existed,” Byron was writing pleading and apparently sincere letters asking for a reconciliation. But Annabella by that time was a woman with an obsession: in self-justification, she had already begun assembling the letters and documents that would comprise the Lovelace Papers, the collection of which would occupy her the remaining 44 years of her life.

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