Lord Byron - Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Bittersweet Fame Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Lord Byron - Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Bittersweet Fame

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The first part of this series of Entries covers the life of Lord Byron from his birth in 1788 to the start of his continental tour in 1809.

The second part covers the beginning of Lord Byron's continental tour in 1809 to his society life in 1812.

This entry covers the life of Lord Byron from his scandalous lifestyle in 1812 to his last times in England in 1816.


Not in those climes where I have late been straying,
Though Beauty long hath there been matchless deem'd;
Not in those visions to the heart displaying
Forms which it sighs but to have only dream'd,
Hath aught like thee in truth or fancy seem'd...

- from To Ianthe, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

The winter of 1812 saw Byron find solace in other things. His financial status was even more dismal, and soon he was forced to initiate the sale of his beloved Newstead Abbey. He would no longer wander down its haunted corridors, or flee there for respite. Time had moved on, and Byron did not have much of that left.

Childe Harold, Byron's fictional projection of himself, was considerably luckier. Now on its fifth edition, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was as popular as ever, despite the poet's rather public personal life. In his mind's eye, Lady Caroline Lamb was a thing of the past. He was now with Jane Elizabeth, Lady Oxford, who played the field like Byron, but was less demanding than her hysterical predecessor.

Caroline, now in Ireland with her family, still persisted in sending Byron demanding letters. However, the letters reached him at the Oxford family home of Eyrwood. The letters may have been addressed to Lord Byron, but the replies were manufactured by both Byron and Lady Oxford together. One such cutting rejection letter from Byron stabbed Caroline deep in the heart after she wrote an insulting letter to Lady Oxford:

I am no longer your lover; and since you oblige me to confess it, by this truly unfeminine persecution, - learn, that I am attached to another; whose name it would of course be dishonourable to mention. I shall ever remember with gratitude the many instances I have received of the predilection you have shewn in my favour. I shall ever continue your friend, if your Ladyship will permit me so to style myself; and, as a first proof of my regard, I offer you this advice, correct your vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices upon others; and leave me in peace.

She was to reproduce this letter in her first novel, Glenarvon. It was basically a severe attack on Byron's character, but with all the names changed.

Even with Caroline's letters of abuse, Byron had a happy life with Lady Oxford. Lady Charlotte Harley, one of the children of Lady Oxford, was immortalised as Ianthe in the preface to the seventh edition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. By hanging around with the Oxfords, he soon became part of the Princess of Wales's inner circle, visiting Kensington Palace on a regular basis.

However, like all the other relationships, it could not last for long. Byron returned to London, popping in at Parliament occasionally but focusing more on his society bashes. Caroline, on the other hand, was withering away. She was no longer the excited woman who was in love with a celebrity - she had almost gone completely bonkers. Taking effigies of Byron, his letters to her and the trinkets he had given her, she burned them all in a massive bonfire at Brocket. The village girls danced around the flames, and Caroline chanted self-penned words of declamation for the man who had once loved her. She was stuck in an eternal loop, tragically infatuated with the poet, and nothing was able to break it.


A year ago, you swore, fond she!
'To love, to honour,' and so forth:
Such was the vow you pledged to me,
And here's exactly what 'tis worth.

- Endorsement To The Deed Of Separation, Domestic Pieces

Turning back the clock to the moment that Lord Byron first met Lady Caroline Lamb, not too long after the success of the first edition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, he also became acquainted with another woman who also admired his poetry. She was completely different to Caroline, but she was eloquent, talented, and almost too perfect to be true.

Anne Isabella Milbanke, known as Annabella for short, was Lady Caroline Lamb's cousin. She was clever, modest, a good reader and had huge piles of cash. Just like her cousin, she became acquainted with the poet soon after the success of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron, while entangled in the mess of an affair with Caroline, often saw Annabella Milbanke at various social meets, though not specifically talking with her. She was overshadowed by the embarrassments of her cousin.

During May 1812, Byron was sent a collection of poetry written by Annabella from Lady Caroline Lamb, and his reaction is well observed in the reply letter:

I have no hesitation in saying that she has talents which, were it proper or requisite to indulge, would have led to distinction.

Byron, self-aware of his personification as a 'fallen spirit', had no intention of becoming further acquainted with Annabella, writing that he would 'like her more if she were less perfect'. However, during the furious tirades at the climax of his and Caroline's break-up, Byron would often write to her. She was a different love, not violent like Caroline, and also, she was the perfect solution for getting Caroline off his back.

In October 1812, Byron proposed to Annabella. However, with the highly-publicised goings-on between him and Caroline still running strife, she refused, sending him a letter that described his character at that time. That was not the only proposal that Byron made. Another 'chase' had begun, and he desperately needed to get away from crazy Caroline. Marriage seemed like the ideal option, and Annabella Milbanke was not a bad sort of girl. He had written to his confidante, Lady Melbourne, making a subtle hint that Annabella would be an ideal wife:

As to Love, that is done in a week, (provided the Lady has a reasonable share) besides marriage goes on better with esteem and confidence than romance, and she is quite pretty enough to be loved by her husband, without being so glaringly beautiful as to attract too many rivals.

Caroline, on the other hand, was ranting and raving that Byron still loved her. In January 1813, she went out of her way to forge Byron's handwriting to request a portrait of him from his publisher, John Murray. Murray acceded to the request, thinking that his acclaimed poet was just asking for another royalty.

Unfortunately for Byron, the portrait was sent to Lady Caroline Lamb, and he was not a happy person when he heard of it. Repeated demands to Caroline to return the portrait fell on deaf ears. It was not until she made a deal that she would return the portrait only if Byron gave her a lock of his hair, that Byron had the last laugh. He cut off a lock from the head of Lady Oxford and sent it to Caroline, who, thinking that Byron had done what she wanted, returned the portrait. The result was embarrassing for both women when Byron remarked that 'it was a lucky coincidence of colour and shape for my purpose'.

Caroline's state of mind was also being questioned, as at one point she had all her buttons inscribed with Ne Crede Byron (Don't Trust in Byron), a bastardisation of the Byron family motto Crede Byron.

Social confrontations between Byron and Caroline were embarrassing and full of anger. At one of her last public scenes at a waltzing party on 5 July 1813, Caroline approached Byron, sitting down as he usually did because he could not dance. When he commented upon her dexterity as she danced, Caroline snatched a penknife, which amused the poet greatly:

Do, my dear. If you mean to act a Roman's part, mind which way you strike with your knife - be it at your own heart, not mine - you have struck there already.

In a bout of hysterics, Caroline rushed from the room. People tried to remove the penknife from her hand, but instead, she stabbed herself with it, causing only a minor injury. The periodicals had a field day; Sir William was forced to remove Caroline from London before she caused more grief.

Annabella Milbanke, on the other hand, was enjoying the communication between herself and Byron. His familiarity with the public was now not for his poetry, but for his notoriety as a lover. There was nothing wrong with their relationship - it was friendly, full of joy, and certainly not scandalous. Seeing the mess he was in after Caroline's previous outburst, she offered him some moral advice:

No longer suffer yourself to be the slave of the moment, nor trust your noble impulses to the chances of Life. Have an object that will permanently occupy your feelings and exercise your reason. Do good.

Luckily for her, Byron did exactly that. He worked upon a few more pieces of poetry, namely The Bride of Abydos, which sold six thousand copies in one month, and The Giaour. In late December, the poet started work on The Corsair, a wonderous tale about the east. When it was published in early 1814, it sold ten thousand copies on the first day, and over twenty-five thousand in the first month. Some critics accused Byron from profiting outrageously from his writings. However, this was not true. Byron had given the copyrights for each of his works to his publisher, and had not profited from anything from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage onwards, thinking it beneath himself to be paid for it.

One thing could be said about the poet, however. Byron was back.

The Wife of Byron

Here's a happy new year! but with reason
I beg you'll permit me to say -
Wish me many returns of the season,
But as few as you please of the day.

- On My Wedding-Day, Domestic Pieces

With the success of The Corsair, Byron was again the lion of the literary scene. The huge mess that was his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb seemed to be far behind him. Everybody wanted to know him again, including old flames that were best forgotten from his youth.

The last Byron heard of Mary Chaworth was when she made cruel comments about his club foot ten years ago. Now that he was all the rage, she wrote many letters to him, numbering over fifty in one month. She was unhappy with her marriage, and she hoped that he might look for reconciliation.

Unfortunately for her, Byron was concentrating more on his poems, writing a collection entitled Hebrew Melodies (published April 1815), as well as working with the new Drury Lane Theatre in London. He was also in frequent correspondence with the rich heiress Annabella Milbanke. At the end of 1814, they became engaged, then married on 2 January, 1815 in Seaham, County Durham. They were both hoping to settle down to normal domestic activities. Byron gave Annabella the pet name of 'The Princess of Parallelograms', due to her interest in mathematics. Despite these seemingly caring actions, Byron was inwardly unhappy with marriage:

I got a wife and a cold on the same day, but have got rid of the last pretty speedily.
- from a letter to Lady Melbourne, 1815

Even with her mathematical leanings, Annabella had read one too many Gothic novels in her time. Now she was married to the poet, Annabella had the intention of changing her husband from the notorious reputation as a seducer that he had now established for himself to something that she thought was better. Byron knew that he was a fallen soul, and he did not want to leave that persona at that time. Annabella was determined to change Byron; Byron felt fine as the dark brooding soul in agony.

The marriage was a mistake from the beginning - they had nothing in common. Annabella's attempts at changing her wild husband were fruitless, and Byron, whose original intention of marriage was so he could get away from his problems with Lady Caroline Lamb, was often found going on drinking binges with various friends, leaving his wife at home. The financial situation was even more dire; eventually he was forced to put Newstead Abbey on the market for more funds.

On 10 December 1815, Annabella gave birth to a daughter, who was named Augusta Ada1. However, Byron continued on his late-night partying, and Annabella soon turned to her aunt, Lady Melbourne, for some emotional support.

Positively Scandalous!

My sister! my sweet sister! if a name
Dearer and purer were, it should be thine...

- from Epistle to Augusta, Domestic Pieces

By the end of 1815, Byron and Annabella's marriage was getting beyond tolerable. He was often leaving both wife and child at home while he went on drunken rampages around London, fuelled by the arrival of bailiffs due to the non-sale of Newstead Abbey, and the pressures from Lady Byron to be moulded into something completely different. He sought refuge with a number of people - his publisher, John Murray, when the bailiffs came round, and his half-sister Augusta Leigh.

Byron had not seen his half-sister for a very long time, and had not communicated with her at all during his continental tour. She came to London with her husband on 27 June, 1813, and Byron was delighted to meet Augusta again. She was a welcome escape from the domestic troubles that he and Annabella were having. His sister became his constant companion, and Byron spent many hours with Augusta, relating his difficulties.

Annabella, on the other hand, now believed that her husband was mad, due to his harsh conduct and drunken ravings. She still had hope that she could change Byron, but this was soon to fade. On 15 January, 1816, she left London for her father's house, taking Augusta Ada with her. That was the last time Byron ever saw his wife and child. However, for a legal separation to take place, Lady Byron needed proof that the poet was actually unfit to be a husband or father, and she hesitated.

Her proof came in the form of Lady Caroline Lamb. Still furious and still stark-raving crazy about Lord Byron, Caroline was to exert her final piece of revenge on the poet that scorned her. During the Byrons' marriage, Caroline had responded calmly to it. Now that they were estranged, she was able to have another hack at the poet.

Firstly, she acted as a double agent. She spread rumours around the social circles about the relationship between Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, while offering her support to the poet. However, Byron was quick to suspect her duplicity, and he was disgusted by her behaviour.

Next, Caroline arranged a meeting with her cousin Annabella. This was where she let rip. She described a 'criminal intercourse' between Byron and Augusta, suggesting that Medora Leigh, who Augusta had given birth to on 15 April 1814, was actually the daughter of Byron. Caroline also mentioned the relationships that Byron had had with fellow schoolmates during his time in Harrow.

Whether the incestuous relationship that Caroline had described between Byron and Augusta was actually true is hotly debated. It was true that Byron and his half-sister were exceptionally close, even carving their names into a tree. Byron often hinted in his letters to his confidante, Lady Melbourne, that Augusta and he were closer than they outwardly appeared. However, Byron's feelings towards Medora Leigh, the supposed daughter, was not the same as all the other children he had fathered, even though Augusta had named her after Byron's heroine in The Corsair. She was just another child. Also, Lady Caroline Lamb, still pent up with rage that Byron did not love her like she did him, may have spread the rumour as a final act of vengeance. When Caroline wrote to Byron, telling him what she did, she received no reply, which drove her completely insane.

Without a DNA test on Medora Leigh, we shall never be too sure. However, if the incestuous relationship was true, not many people would be surprised.

Annabella now had all the information she needed to apply for a legal separation from Byron. In April 1816, Byron signed the separation papers, giving Annabella custody of Augusta Ada. They had been married for just over a year.

The public outcry to the supposed incestuous relationship was also far too scandalous for the celebrity poet to handle. He would soon leave England forever, and would never return alive.

After the Break...

The final part covers Lord Byron's exile from England in 1816 to his death in 1824.

1The name Ada Byron may not strike you as very important, but a certain Lady Ada Lovelace may ring more bells. After the death of Byron, Annabella was determined to make sure that Ada did not become a poet like her father, so she encouraged her daughter in mathematics. Later on, Ada Byron married Sir William Lovelace, and also became a brilliant mathematician, as well as one of the pioneers of computer programming.

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