On Top of Everything
- Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame by Benita Eisler
Hamish Hamilton, 835 pp, £25.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 241 13260 6
Once more upon the waters! yet once more! And the waves bound beneath me as a steed That knows his rider.
On 25 April 1816, Byron set out from Dover for the Continent, never to return to England. Four days earlier, he had signed the separation papers that put an end to what Benita Eisler calls ‘one of the most infamously wretched marriages in history’. Annabella Milbanke – intellectual, religious and marriageable – was very different from Byron’s other women. He looked to her to rescue him from debt and the persisting attentions of Caroline Lamb, and blambed her for not saving him from his sinful relationship with his half-sister Augusta when she had the oppurtunity. In the autumn of 1812 she had turned down his first proposal, and the following summer Augusta came to London in need of Byron’ financial help. Lady Oxford had recently ended her affair with the poet and returned to her husband, and Byron could not resist the ‘irreplaceable joy’ offered by his sister. In an account written after the marriage collapsed, Annabella claims that, within hours of their wedding in January 1815, Byron told her that her previous refusal to marry him had damned him, and he had only married her now to exact his revenge.
Augusta played a peculiar role throughout the courtship and marriage. After they were engaged, Byron repeatedly postponed a visit to Annabella’s parents on the pretext that he was waiting for his lawyer. During this period Augusta corresponded with Annabella more often than Byron did. After the marriage, her role continued to be ambiguous. The newly-weds spent three weeks alone together at Seaham, on the Yorkshire coast. During this time Annabella wrote regularly to her sister-in-law, with intimate details about their sex life, which was busy, despite Byron’s heavy drinking. Augusta then invited them to stay with her at Six Mile Bottom, near Newmarket Eisler speculates that it was this visit – so soon after their wedding – rather than Annabella’s refusal to marry earlier that proved fatal to the Byrons’ marriage. The unwelcome third party in this uncomfortable ménage was not Byron’s sister but his wife. The Byrons then moved to London, where for ten days they lived together in relative happiness until Augusta descended. Before long she had become Annabella’s ‘full-fledged rival’ and was asked to leave. For the remaining months of their marriage Byron was more or less the model of an abusive husband. After the birth of their daughter in December he tried to rape his wife four times in the space of a fortnight, until the servants took to locking the door to her room. He tried to evict her from their house; and she finally fled north to her parents after he had dragged her from the drawing room in the presence of Augusta and his cousin, George Byron, quite possibly with the intention of killing her. Alcoholic, frighteningly destructive and arguably insane, the poet had reached the nadir of his life.
The separation was a protracted and messy business, as Byron continued to protest his innocence and refused to sign the papers. His wife and her family eventually had to resort to blackmail to persuade him to settle out of court. Threatened with a sinister ‘unnamed allegation’, he capitulated. Most of his property was seized by the bailiffs. His reputation was in tatters and he was in danger of being prosecuted for sodomy and incest. He was forced to leave the country, just as he had been when he embarked on his first European tour seven years previously. On that occasion the cause had been a chorister two years younger than Byron who had been his lover at Cambridge. John Edleston (commemorated in his poetry as ‘Thyrza’) moved to London when his voice broke to take up a position as a clerk in a mercantile firm. They hadn’t seen each other for a while, when Edleston wrote to Byron, asking for help with finding a new job. Byron, now legally adult, was worried not only that his passion for Edleston would revive, but that he could be prosecuted were their relationship exposed. ‘To any contemporary of Byron’s,’ Eisler writes, ‘the urgency of his flight would have held no mystery.’ This is perhaps a little overdramatic; but the second time he went away, the mess he was fleeing was all too real.
There was something wilfully self-destructive about the way Byron had got himself into it. He had a crippling tendency to passivity, happily giving way, for example, to Lady Melbourne – Caroline Lamb’s mother-in-law and Annabella Milbanke’s aunt – ‘the Spider’, doyenne of Whig society and arch manipulator who engineered his marriage. He was all too happy to let others do things for him, and would rarely act on his own initiative to change an unsatisfactory situation, unless he had no other choice. Eisler describes the ‘familiar cycle’ of a Byron relationship as ‘pursuit, persuasion, ending in passive withdrawal’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.