Chapter I. Introduction.
The interval since my publication of “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life” has been one of stormy discussion and of much invective.
I have not thought it necessary to disturb my spirit and confuse my sense of right by even an attempt at reading the many abusive articles that both here and in England have followed that disclosure. Friends have undertaken the task for me, giving me from time to time the substance of anything really worthy of attention which came to view in the tumult.
It appeared to me essential that this first excitement should in a measure spend itself before there would be a possibility of speaking to any purpose. Now, when all would seem to have spoken who can speak, and, it is to be hoped, have said the utmost they can say, there seems a propriety in listening calmly, if that be possible, to what I have to say in reply.
And, first, why have I made this disclosure at all?
To this I answer briefly, because I considered it my duty to make it.
I made it in defence of a beloved, revered friend, whose memory stood forth in the eyes of the civilized world charged with most repulsive crimes, of which I certainly knew her innocent.
I claim, and shall prove, that Lady Byron’s reputation has been the victim of a concerted attack, begun by her husband during her lifetime, and coming to its climax over her grave. I claim, and shall prove, that it was not I who stirred up this controversy in this year 1869. I shall show who did do it, and who is responsible for bringing on me that hard duty of making these disclosures, which it appears to me ought to have been made by others.
I claim that these facts were given to me unguarded by any promise or seal of secrecy, expressed or implied; that they were lodged with me as one sister rests her story with another for sympathy, for counsel, for defence. Never did I suppose the day would come that I should be subjected to so cruel an anguish as this use of them has been to me. Never did I suppose that,–when those kind hands, that had shed nothing but blessings, were lying in the helplessness of death,–when that gentle heart, so sorely tried and to the last so full of love, was lying cold in the tomb,–a countryman in England could be found to cast the foulest slanders on her grave,–and not one in all England to raise an effective voice in her defence.
I admit the feebleness of my plea, in point of execution. It was written in a state of exhausted health, when no labor of the kind was safe for me,–when my hand had not strength to hold the pen, and I was forced to dictate to another.
I have been told that I have no reason to congratulate myself on it as a literary effort. O my brothers and sisters! is there then nothing in the world to think of but literary efforts? I ask any man with a heart in his bosom, if he had been obliged to tell a story so cruel, because his mother’s grave gave no rest from slander, -I ask any woman who had been forced to such a disclosure to free a dead sister’s name from grossest insults, whether she would have thought of making this work of bitterness a literary success?
Are the cries of the oppressed, the gasps of the dying, the last prayers of mothers, — are any words wrung like drops of blood from the human heart to be judged as literary efforts?
My fellow-countrymen of America, men of the press, I have done you one act of justice, -of all your bitter articles, I have read not one.
shall never be troubled in the future time by the remembrance of any unkind word you have said of me, for at this moment I recollect not one. I had such faith in you, such pride in my countrymen, as men with whom, above all others, the cause of woman was safe and sacred, that I was at first astonished and incredulous at what I heard of the course of the American press, and was silent, not merely from the impossibility of being heard, but from grief and shame. But reflection convinces me that you were, in many cases, acting from a misunderstanding of facts and through misguided honorable feeling; and I still feel courage, therefore, to ask from you a fair hearing. Now, as I have done you this justice, will you also do me the justice to hear me seriously and candidly?
What interest have you or I, my brother and my sister, in this short life of ours, to utter anything but the truth? Is not truth between man and man and between man and woman the foundation on which all things rest? Have you not, every individual of you, who must hereafter give an account yourself alone to God, an interest to know the exact truth in this matter, and a duty to perform as respects that truth? Hear me, then, while I tell you the position in which I stood, and what was my course in relation to it.
A shameless attack on my friend’s memory had appeared in the Blackwood of July, 1869, branding Lady Byron as the vilest of criminals, and recommending the Guiccioli book to a Christian public as interesting from the very fact that it was the avowed production of Lord Byron’s mistress. No efficient protest was made against this outrage in England, and Littell’s Living Age reprinted the Blackwood article, and the Harpers, the largest publishing house in America, perhaps in the world, re-published the book.
Its statements — with those of the Blackwood, Pall Mall Gazette, and other English periodicals — were being propagated through all the young reading and writing world of America. I was meeting them advertised in dailies, and made up into articles in magazines, and thus the generation of to-day, who had no means of judging Lady Byron but by these fables of her slanderers, were being foully deceived. The friends who knew her personally were a small select circle in England, whom death is every day reducing. They were few in number compared with the great world, and were silent. I saw these foul slanders crystallizing into history uncontradicted by friends who knew her personally, who, firm in their own knowledge of her virtues and limited in view as aristocratic circles generally are, had no idea of the width of the world they were living in, and the exigency of the crisis. When time passed on and no voice was raised, I spoke. I gave at first a simple story, for I knew instinctively that whoever put the first steel point of truth into this dark cloud of slander must wait for the storm to spend itself. I must say the storm exceeded my expectations, and has raged loud and long. But now that there is a comparative stillness I shall proceed, first, to prove what I have just been asserting, and, second, to add to my true story such facts and incidents as I did not think proper at first to state.
Chapter II. The Attack on Lady Byron.
In proving what I asserted in the first chapter, I make four points: 1st. A concerted attack upon Lady Byron’s reputation, begun by Lord Byron in self-defence. 2d. That he transmitted his story to friends to be continued after his death. 3d. That they did so continue it. 4th. That the accusations reached their climax over Lady Byron’s grave in Blackwood of 1869, and the Guiccioli book, and that this reopening of the controversy was my reason for speaking.
And first I shall adduce my proofs that Lady Bryon’s reputation was, during the whole course of her husband’s life, the subject of a concentrated, artfully planned attack, commencing at the time of the separation and continuing during his life. By various documents carefully prepared, and used publicly or secretly as suited the case, he made converts of many honest men, some of whom were writers and men of letters, who put their talents at his service during his lifetime in exciting sympathy for him, and who, by his own request, felt bound to continue their defence of him after he was dead.
In order to consider the force and significance of the documents I shall cite, we are to bring to our view just the issues Lord Byron had to meet, both at the time of the separation and for a long time after.
In Byron Memoirs, Vol. IV. Letter 350, under date December 10, 1819, nearly four years after the separation, he writes to Murray in a state of great excitement on account of an article in Blackwood, in which his conduct towards his wife had been sternly and justly commented on, and which he supposed to have been written by Wilson, of the Noctes Ambrosianæ. He says in this letter: “I like and admire W——n, and he should not have indulged himself in such outrageous license. . . . . When he talks of Lady Byron’s business he talks of what he knows nothing about; and you may tell him no man can desire a public investigation of that affair more than I do.” (italics added by Stowe)
He shortly after wrote and sent to Murray a pamphlet for publication, which was printed, but not generally circulated till some time afterwards. Though more than three years had elapsed since the separation, the current against him at this time was so strong in England that his friends thought it best, at first, to use this article of Lord Byron’s discreetly with influential persons rather than to give it to the public.
The writer in Blackwood and the indignation of the English public, of which that writer was the voice, were now particularly stirred up by the appearance of the first two cantos of “Don Juan,” in which the indecent caricature of Lady Byron was placed in vicinity with other indecencies, the publication of which was justly considered an insult to a Christian community.
It must here be mentioned, for the honor of Old England, that at first she did her duty quite respectably in regard to “Don Juan.” One can still read, in Murray’s standard edition of the poems, how every respectable press thundered reprobations, which it would be well enough to print and circulate as tracts for our days.
Byron, it seems, had thought of returning to England, but he says, in the letter we have quoted, that he has changed his mind, and shall not go back, adding: “I have finished the Third Canto of ‘Don Juan,’ but the things I have heard and read discourage all future publication. You may try the copy question, but you’ll lose it; the cry is up, and the cant is up. I should have no objection to return the price of the copyright, and have written to Mr. Kinnaird on this subject.”
One sentence quoted by Lord Byron from the Blackwood article will show the modern readers what the respectable world of that day were thinking and saying of him:–
“It appears, in short, as if this miserable man, having exhausted every species of sensual gratification, -having drained the cup of sin even to its bitterest dregs, — were resolved to show us that he is no longer a human being even in his frailties, but a cool, unconcerned fiend, laughing with detestable glee over the whole of the better and worse elements of which human life is composed.”
The defence which Lord Byron makes, in his reply to that paper, is of a man cornered and fighting for his life. He speaks thus of the state of feeling at the time of his separation from his wife: —
“I was accused of every monstrous vice by public rumor and private rancor; my name, which had been a knightly or a noble one since my fathers helped to conquer the kingdom for William the Norman, was tainted. I felt that, if what was whispered and muttered and murmured was true, I was unfit for England; if false, England was unfit for me. I withdrew; but this was not enough. In other countries — in Switzerland, in the shadow of the Alps, and by the blue depth of the lakes, — I was pursued and breathed upon by the same blight. I crossed the mountains, but it was the same; so I went a little farther, and settled myself by the waves of the Adriatic, like the stag at bay, who betakes him to the waters.
“If I may judge by the statements of the few friends who gathered round me, the outcry of the period to which I allude was beyond all precedent, all parallel, even in those cases where political motives have sharpened slander and doubled enmity. I was advised not to go to the theatres lest I should be hissed, nor to my duty in Parliament, lest I should be insulted by the way; even on the day of my departure my most intimate friend told me afterwards that he was under the apprehension of violence from the people who might be assembled at the door of the carriage.”
Now Lord Byron’s charge against his wife was that SHE was directly responsible for getting up and keeping up this persecution, which drove him from England, — that she did it in a deceitful, treacherous manner, which left him no chance of defending himself.
He charged against her that, taking advan
tage of a time when his affairs were in confusion, and an execution in the house, she left him suddenly, with treacherous professions of kindness, which were repeated by letters on the road, and that soon after her arrival at her home her parents sent him word that she would never return to him, and she confirmed the message; that when he asked the reason why, she refused to state any; and that when this step gave rise to a host of slanders against him she silently encouraged and confirmed the slanders. His claim was that he was denied from that time forth even the justice of any tangible accusation against himself which he might meet and refute.
He observes, in the same article from which we have quoted:–
“When one tells me that I cannot ‘in any way justify my own behavior in that affair,’ I acquiesce, because no man can ‘justify’ himself until he knows of what he is accused; and I have never had — and, God knows, my whole desire has ever been to obtain it — any specific charge, in a tangible shape, submitted to me by the adversary, nor by others, unless the atrocities of public rumor and the mysterious silence of the lady’s legal advisers may be deemed such.”
Lord Byron, his publishers, friends, and biographers, thus agree in representing his wife as the secret author and abettor of that persecution, which it is claimed broke up his life, and was the source of all his subsequent crimes and excesses.
Lord Byron wrote a poem in September, 1816, in Switzerland, just after the separation, in which he stated, in so many words, these accusations against his wife. Shortly after the poet’s death Murray published this poem, together with the “Fare thee well,” and the lines to his sister, under the title of “Domestic Pieces,” in his standard edition of Byron’s poetry. It is to be remarked, then, that this was for some time a private document, shown to confidential friends, and made use of judiciously, as readers or listeners to his story were able to bear it. Lady Byron then had a strong party in England. Sir Samuel Romilly and Dr. Lushington were her counsel. Lady Byron’s parents were living, and the appearance in the public prints of such a piece as this would have brought down an aggravated storm of public indignation.
For the general public such documents as the “Fare thee well” were circulating in England, and he frankly confessed his wife’s virtues and his own sins to Madame de Staδl and others in Switzerland, declaring himself in the wrong, sensible of his errors, and longing to cast himself at the feet of that serene perfection,
“Which wanted one sweet weakness, — to forgive.”
But a little later he drew for his private partisans this bitter poetical indictment against her, which, as we have said, was used discreetly during his life, and published after his death.
Before we proceed to lay that poem before the reader we will refresh his memory with some particulars of the tragedy of Æschylus, which Lord Byron selected as the exact parallel and proper illustration of his wife’s treatment of himself. In his letters and journals he often alludes to her as Clytemnestra, and the allusion has run the round of a thousand American papers lately, and been read by a thousand good honest people, who had no very clear idea who Clytemnestra was, and what she did which was like the proceedings of Lady Byron. According to the tragedy, Clytemnestra secretly hates her husband Agamemnon, whom she professes to love, and wishes to put him out of the way that she may marry her lover, Ægistheus. When her husband returns from the Trojan war she receives him with pretended kindness, and officiously offers to serve him at the bath. Inducing him to put on a garment, of which she had adroitly sewed up the sleeves and neck so as to hamper the use of his arms, she gives the signal to a concealed band of assassins, who rush upon him and stab him. Clytemnestra is represented by Æschylus as grimly triumphing in her success, which leaves her free to marry an adulterous paramour.
“I did it, too, in such a cunning wise,
That he could neither scape nor ward off doom.
I staked around his steps an endless net,
As for the fishes.”
In the piece entitled ” Lines on hearing Lady Byron is ill,” Lord Byron charges on his wife a similar treachery and cruelty. The whole poem is in Murray’s English edition, Vol. IV. p. 207. Of it we quote the following. The reader will bear in mind that it is addressed to Lady Byron on a sick-bed.
“I am too well avenged, but ‘t was my right;
Whate’er my sins might be, thou wert not sent
To be the Nemesis that should requite,
Nor did Heaven choose so near an instrument.
Mercy is for the merciful! If thou
Hast been of such, ‘t will be accorded now.
Thy nights are banished from the realms of sleep,
For thou art pillowed on a curse too deep;
Yes! they may flatter thee, but thou shalt feel
A hollow agony that will not heal.
Thou hast sown in my sorrow, and must reap
The bitter harvest in a woe as real.
I have had many foes, but none like thee;
For ‘gainst the rest myself I could defend,
And be avenged, or turn them into friend;
But thou, in safe implacability,
Hast naught to dread, — in thy own weakness shielded,
And in my love, which hath but too much yielded,
And spared, for thy sake, some I should not spare.
And thus upon the world, trust in thy truth,
And the wild fame of my ungoverned youth, —
On things that were not and on things that are, —
Even upon such a basis thou hast built
A monument whose cement hath been guilt!
The moral Clytemnestra of thy lord,
And hewed down with an unsuspected sword
Fame, peace, and hope, and all that better life
Which, but for this cold treason of thy heart,
Might yet have risen from the grave of strife
And found a nobler duty than to part.
But of thy virtues thou didst make a vice,
Trafficking in them with a purpose cold,
And buying others’ woes at any price,
For present anger and for future gold;
And thus, once entered into crooked ways,
The early truth, that was thy proper praise,
Did not still walk beside thee, but at times,
And with a breast unknowing its own crimes,
Deceits, averments incompatible,
Equivocations, and the thoughts that dwell
In Janus spirits, the significant eye
That learns to lie with silence, the pretext
Of prudence with advantages annexed,
The acquiescence in all things that tend,
No matter how, to the desired end, —
All found a place in thy philosophy.
The means were worthy and the end is won.
I would not do to thee as thou hast done.” (italics were added by Stowe)
Now, if this language means anything, it means, in plain terms, that, whereas, in her early days, Lady Byron was peculiarly characterized by truthfulness, she has in her recent dealings with him acted the part of a liar, — that she is not only a liar, but that she lies for cruel, mean, and malignant purposes, — that she is a moral assassin, and her treatment of her husband has been like that of the most detestable murderess and adulteress of ancient history, -that she has learned to lie skilfully and artfully, that she equivocates, says incompatible things, and crosses her own tracks, — that she is doublefaced, and has the art to lie even by silence, and that she has become wholly unscrupulous, and acquiesces in anything, no matter what, that tends to the desired end, and that end the destruction of her husband. This is a brief summary of the story that Byron made it his life’s business to spread through society, to propagate and make converts to during his life, and which has been in substance reasserted by Blackwood in a recent article this year.
Now, the reader will please to notice that this poem is dated in September, 1816, and that on the 29th of March, of that same year, he had thought proper to tell quite another story. At that time the deed of separation was not signed, and negotiations between Lady Byron, acting by legal counsel, and himself were still pending. At that time, therefore, he was standing in a community who knew all he had said in former days of his wife’s character, who were in an aroused and excited state by the fact that so lovely and good and patient a woman had actually been forced for some unexplained cause to leave him. His policy at that time was to make large general confessions of sin, and to praise and compliment her, with a view of enlisting sympathy. Everybody feels for a handsome sinner, weeping on his knees, asking pardon for his offences against his wife in the public newspapers.
The celebrated “Fare thee well,” as we are told, was written on the 17th of March, and accidentally found its way into the newspapers at this time “through the imprudence of a friend whom he allowed to take a copy.” These “imprudent friends” have all along been such a marvellous convenience to Lord Byron.
But the question met him on all sides, What is the matter? This wife you have declared the brightest, sweetest, most amiable of beings, and against whose behavior as a wife you actually never had nor can have a complaint to make, -why is she now all of a sudden so inflexibly set against you?
This question required an answer, and he answered by writing another poem, which also accidentally found its way into the public prints. It is in his “Domestic Pieces,” which the reader may refer to at the end of this volume, and is called ” A Sketch.”
There was a most excellent, respectable, wellbehaved Englishwoman, a Mrs. Clermont, who had been Lady Byron’s governess in her youth, and was still, in mature life, revered as her confidential friend. It appears that this person had been with Lady Byron during a part of her married life, especially the bitter hours of her lonely child-bed, when a young wife so much needs a sympathetic friend. This Mrs. Clermont was the person selected by Lord Byron at this time to be the scapegoat to bear away the difficulties of the case into the wilderness.
We are informed in Moore’s Life what a noble pride of rank Lord Byron possessed, and how when the head-master of a school, against whom he had a pique, invited him to dinner, he declined, saying, “To tell you the truth, Doctor, if you should come to Newstead, I should n’t think of inviting you to dine with me, and so I don’t care to dine with you here.” Different countries, it appears, have different standards as to good taste; Moore gives this as an amusing instance of a young lord’s spirit.
Accordingly, his first attack against this “lady,” as we Americans should call her, consists in gross statements concerning her having been born poor and in an inferior rank. He begins by stating that she was
“Born in the garret, in the kitchen bred,
Promoted thence to deck her mistress’ head;
Next — for some gracious service unexpressed
And from its wages only to be guessed —
Raised from the toilet to the table, where
Her wondering betters wait behind her chair.
With eye unmoved and forehead unabashed,
She dines from off the plate she lately washed;
Quick with the tale, and ready with the lie,
The genial confidante and general spy, —
Who could, ye gods! her next employment guess, —
An only infant’s earliest governess!
What had she made the pupil of her art
None knows; but that high soul secured the heart,
And panted for the truth it could not hear
With longing soul and undeluded ear!” (italics were added by Stowe)
The poet here recognizes as a singular trait in Lady Byron her peculiar love of truth, — a trait which must have struck every one that had any knowledge of her through life. He goes on now to give what he certainly knew to be the real character of Lady Byron: —
“Foiled was perversion by that youthful mind,
Which flattery fooled not, baseness could not blind,
Deceit infect not, nor contagion soil,
Indulgence weaken, or example spoil,
Nor mastered science tempt her to look down
On humbler talent with a pitying frown,
Nor genius swell, nor beauty render vain,
Nor envy ruffle to retaliate pain.”
We are now informed that Mrs. Clermont, whom he afterwards says in his letters was a spy of Lady Byron’s mother, set herself to make mischief between them. He says: —
“If early habits, — those strong links that bind
At times the loftiest to the meanest mind, —
Have given her power too deeply to instil
The angry essence of her deadly will;
If like a snake she steal within your walls,
Till the black slime betray her as she crawls;
If like a viper to the heart she wind,
And leaves the venom there she did not find, —
What marvel that this hag of hatred works
Eternal evil latent as she lurks.”
The noble lord then proceeds to abuse this woman of inferior rank in the language of the
upper circles. He thus describes her person and manner: —
“Skilled by a touch to deepen scandal’s tints
With all the kind mendacity of hints,
While mingling truth with falsehood, sneers with smiles,
A thread of candor with a web of wiles;
A plain blunt show of briefly spoken scheming;
A lip of lies; a face formed to conceal,
And without feeling mock at all who feel;
With a vile mask the Gorgon would disown, —
A cheek of parchment and an eye of stone.
Mark how the channels of her yellow blood
Ooze to her skin and stagnate there to mud,
Cased like the centipede in saffron mail,
Or darker greenness of the scorpion’s scale, —
(For drawn from reptiles only may we trace
Congenial colors in that soul or face,)
Look on her features! and behold her mind
As in a mirror of itself defined :
Look on the picture! deem it not o’ercharged;
There is no trait which might not be enlarged.”
The poem thus ends: —
“May the strong curse of crushed affections light
Back on thy bosom with reflected blight,
And make thee in thy leprosy of mind
As loathsome to thyself as to mankind!
Till all thy self-thoughts curdle into hate,
Black — as thy will for others would create;
Till thy hard heart be calcined into dust,
And thy soul welter in its hideous crust.
O, may thy grave be sleepless as the bed,
The widowed couch of fire, that thou hast spread!
Then when thou fain wouldst weary Heaven with prayer,
Look on thy earthly victims — and despair!
Down to the dust! and as thou rott’st away,
Even worms shall perish on thy poisonous clay.
But for the love I bore and still must bear
To her thy malice from all ties would tear,
Thy name, — thy human name, — to every eye
The climax of all scorn, should hang on high,
Exalted o’er thy less abhorred compeers,
And festering in the infamy of years.”
March 29, 1816.
Now, on the 29th of March, 1816, this was Lord Byron’s story. He states that his wife had a truthfulness even from early girlhood that the most artful and unscrupulous governess could not pollute, — that she always panted for truth, — that flattery could not fool nor baseness blind her, — that though she was a genius and master of science, she was yet gentle and tolerant, and one whom no envy could ruffle to retaliate pain.
In September of the same year she is a monster of unscrupulous deceit and vindictive cruelty. Now, what had happened in the five months between the dates of these poems to produce such a change of opinion? Simply this: —
1st. The negotiation between him and his wife’s lawyers had ended in his signing a deed of separation in preference to standing a suit for divorce.
2d. Madame de Staël, moved by his tears of anguish and professions of repentance, had offered to negotiate with Lady Byron on his behalf, and had failed.
The failure of this application is the only apology given by Moore and Murray for this poem, which gentle Thomas Moore admits was not in quite as generous a strain as the “Fare thee well.”
But Lord Byron knew perfectly well, when he suffered that application to be made, that Lady Byron had been entirely convinced that her marriage relations with him could never be renewed, and that duty both to man and God required her to separate from him. The allowing the negotiation was, therefore, an artifice to place his wife before the public in the attitude of a hard-hearted, inflexible woman; her refusal was what he knew beforehand must inevitably be the result, and merely gave him capital in the sympathy of his friends, by which they should be brought to tolerate and accept the bitter accusations of this poem.
We have recently heard it asserted that this last-named piece of poetry was the sudden offspring of a fit of ill-temper, and was never intended to be published at all. There were certainly excellent reasons why his friends should have advised him not to publish it at that time. But that it was read with sympathy by the circle of his intimate friends, and believed by them, is evident from the frequency with which allusions to it occur in his confidential letters to them. (Note: In Lady Blessington’s conversations with Lord Byron, just before he went to Greece, she records that he gave her this poem in manuscript. It was published in her Journal.)
About three months after, under date March 10, 1817, he writes to Moore: “I suppose now I shall never be able to shake off my sables in public imagination, more particularly since my moral —- clove down my fame.” Again to Murray in 1819, three years after, he says: “I never hear anything of Ada, the little Electra of Mycenæ.”
Electra was the daughter of Clytemnestra, in the Greek poem, who lived to condemn her wicked mother, and to call on her brother to avenge the father. There was in this mention of Electra more than meets the ear. Many passages in Lord Byron’s poetry show that he intended to make this daughter a future partisan against her mother, and explain the awful words he is stated in Lady Anne Barnard’s diary, to have used when first he looked on his little girl, — “What an instrument of torture I have gained in you!”
In a letter to Lord Blessington, April 6, 1823, he says, speaking of Dr. Parr: —
“He did me the honor once to be a patron of mine, though a great friend of the other branch of the house of Atreus, and the Greek teacher, I believe, of my moral Clytemnestra. I say moral because it is true, and is so useful to the virtuous, that it enables them to do anything without the aid of an Ægistheus.”
If Lord Byron wrote this poem merely in a momentary fit of spleen, why were there so many persons evidently quite familiar with his allusions to it? and why was it preserved in Murray’s hands? and why published after his death? That Byron was in the habit of reposing documents in the hands of Murray, to be used as occasion offered, is evident from a part of a note written by him to Murray respecting some verses so intrusted: “Pray let not these versiculi go forth with my name except to the initiated.”
Murray, in publishing this attack on his wife after Lord Byron’s death, showed that he believed in it, and, so believing, deemed Lady Byron a woman whose widowed state deserved neither sympathy nor delicacy of treatment. At a time when every sentiment in the heart of the most deeply wronged woman would forbid her appearing to justify herself from such cruel slander of a dead husband, an honest, kindhearted, worthy Englishman actually thought it right and proper to give these lines to her eyes and the eyes of all the reading world. Nothing can show more plainly what this poem was written for, and how thoroughly it did its work! Considering Byron as a wronged man, Murray thought he was contributing his mite towards doing him justice. His editor prefaced the whole set of “Domestic Pieces” with the following statements: —
They all refer to the unhappy separation, of which the precise causes are still a mystery, and which he declared to the last were never disclosed to himself. He admitted that pecuniary embarrassments, disordered health, and dislike to family restraints had aggravated his naturally violent temper and driven him to excesses. He suspected that his mother-in-law had fomented the discord, -which Lady Byron denies, — and that more was due to the malignant offices of a female dependant, who is the subject of the bitterly satirical sketch.
To these general statements can only be added the still vaguer allegations of Lady Byron, that she conceived his conduct to be the result of insanity, — that, the physician pronouncing him responsible for his actions, she could submit to them no longer, and that Dr. Lushington, her legal adviser, agreed that a reconciliation was neither proper nor possible. No weight can be attached to the opinions of an opposing counsel upon accusations made by one party behind the back of the other, who urgently demanded and was pertinaciously refused the least opportunity of denial or defence. He rejected the proposal for an amicable separation, but consented when threatened with a suit in Doctors’ Commons.” (italics were added by Stowe)
Neither honest Murray nor any of Byron’s partisans seem to have pondered the admission in these last words.
Here, as appears, was a woman, driven to the last despair, standing with her child in her arms, asking from English laws protection for herself and child against her husband.
She had appealed to the first counsel in England, and was acting under their direction.
Two of the greatest lawyers in England have pronounced that there has been such a cause of offence on his part that a return to him is neither proper nor possible, and that no alternative remains to her but separation or divorce. He asks her to state her charges against him. She, making answer under advice of her counsel, says, “That if he insists on the specifications, he must receive them in open court in a suit for divorce.”
What, now, ought to have been the conduct of any brave, honest man, who believed that his wife was taking advantage of her reputation for virtue to turn every one against him, who saw that she had turned on her side even the lawyer he sought to retain on his*; that she was an unscrupulous woman, who acquiesced in every and any thing to gain her ends, while he stood before the public, as he says, “accused of every monstrous vice, by public rumor or private rancor”? When she, under advice of her lawyers, made the alternative legal separation or open investigation in court for divorce, what did he do? (Note: Lord Byron says, in his observations on an article in Blackwood: “I recollect being much hurt by Romilly’s conduct : he (having a general retainer for me) went over to the adversary, alleging, on being reminded of his retainer, that he had forgotten it, as his clerk had so many. I observed that some of those who were now so eagerly laying the axe to my roof-tree might see their own shaken. His fell and crushed him.” In the first edition of Moore’s Life of Lord Byron there was printed a letter on Sir Samuel Romilly, so brutal that it was suppressed in the subsequent editions. (See Appendix.)
HE SIGNED THE ACT OF SEPARATION AND LEFT ENGLAND.
Now, let any man who knows the legal mind of England, — let any lawyer who knows the character of Sir Samuel Romilly and Dr. Lushington, ask whether they were the men to take a case into court for a woman that had no evidence but her own statements and impressions? Were they men to go to trial without proofs? Did they not know that there were artful, hysterical women in the world, and would they, of all people, be the men to take a woman’s story on her own side, and advise her in the last issue to bring it into open court, without legal proof of the strongest kind? Now, as long as Sir Samuel Romilly lived, this statement of Byron’s — that he was condemned unheard, and had no chance of knowing whereof he was accused — never appeared in public.
It, however, was most actively circulated in private. That Byron was in the habit of intrusting to different confidants articles of various kinds to be shown to different circles as they could bear them, we have already shown. We have recently come upon another instance of this kind. In the late eagerness to exculpate Byron, a new document has turned up, of which honest John Murray, it appears, had never heard when, after Byron’s death, he published in the preface to his “Domestic Pieces” the sentence: “He rejected the proposal for an amicable separation, but consented when threatened with a suit in Doctors’ Commons.” It appears that, up to 1853, neither John Murray senior, nor the son who now fills his place, had taken any notice of this newly found document, which we are now informed “was drawn up by Lord Byron in August, 1817, while Mr. Hobhouse was staying with him at La Mira, near Venice, given to Mr. Matthew Gregory Lewis, for circulation among friends in England, found in Mr. Lewis’s papers after his death, and now in the possession of Mr. Murray.” Here it is: —
“It has been intimated to me that the persons understood to be the legal advisers of Lady Byron have declared ‘their lips to be sealed up’ on the cause of the separation between her and myself. If their lips are sealed up, they are not sealed up by me, and the greatest favor they can confer upon me will be to open them. From the first hour in which I was apprised of the intentions of the Noel family to the last communication between Lady Byron and myself in the character of wife and husband (a period of some months), I called repeatedly and in vain for a statement of their or her charges, and it was chiefly in consequence of Lady Byron’s claiming (in a letter still existing) a promise on my part to consent to a separation, if such was really her wish, that I consented at all; this claim, and the exasperating and inexpiable manner in which their object was pursued, which rendered it next to an impossibility that two persons so divided could ever be reunited, induced me reluctantly then, and repentantly still, to sign the deed, which I shall be happy — most happy — to cancel, and go before any tribunal which may discuss the business in the most public manner.
“Mr. Hobhouse made this proposition on my part, viz. to abrogate all prior intentions — and go into court — the very day before the separation was signed, and it was declined by the other party, as also the publication of the correspondence during the previous discussion. Those propositions I beg here to repeat, and to call upon her and hers to say their worst, pledging myself to meet their allegations, — whatever they may be, -and only too happy to be informed at last of their real nature.
” August 9, 1817.
“P. S. — I have been, and am now, utterly ignorant of what description her allegations, charges, or whatever name they may have assumed, are; and am as little aware for what purpose they have been kept back, — unless it was to sanction the most infamous calumnies by silence.
“LA MIRA, near VENICE.”
It appears the circulation of this document must have been very private, since Moore, not over-delicate towards Lady Byron, did not think fit to print it; since John Murray neglected it, and since it has come out at this late hour for the first time.
If Lord Byron really desired Lady Byron and her legal counsel to understand the facts herein stated, and was willing at all hazards to bring on an open examination, why was this privately circulated? Why not issued as a card in the London papers? Is it likely that Mr. Matthew Gregory Lewis, and a chosen band of friends acting as a committee, requested an audience with Lady Byron, Sir Samuel Romilly, and Dr. Lushington, and formally presented this cartel of defiance?
We incline to think not. We incline to think that this small serpent, in company with many others of like kind, crawled secretly and privately around, and when it found a good chance, bit an honest Briton, whose blood was thenceforth poisoned by an undetected falsehood.
The reader now may turn to the letters that Mr. Moore has thought fit to give us of this stay at La Mira, beginning with Letter 286, dated July 1, 1817, where he says: “I have been working up my impressions into a Fourth Canto of Childe Harold,” and also “Mr. Lewis is in Venice. I am going up to stay a week with him there.”
Next, under date La Mira, Venice, July 10, * he says: “Monk Lewis is here; how pleasant!” Next, under date July 20, 1817, to Mr. Murray: “I write to give you notice that I have completed the fourth and ultimate canto of Childe Harold. . . . . It is yet to be copied and polished, and the notes are to come.”
Under date of La Mira, August 7, 1817, he records that the new canto is one hundred and thirty stanzas in length, and talks about the price for it. He is now ready to launch it on the world; and, as now appears, on August 9, 1817, two days after, he wrote the document above cited, and put it into the hands of Mr. Lewis, as we are informed, “for circulation among friends in England.” The reason of this may now be evident. Having prepared a suitable number of those whom he calls in his notes to Murray “the initiated,” by private documents and statements, he is now prepared to publish his accusations against his wife, and the story of his wrongs, in a great immortal poem, which shall have a band of initiated interpreters, shall be read through the civilized world, and stand to accuse her after his death.
In the Fourth Canto of ” Childe Harold,” with all his own overwhelming power of language, he sets forth his cause as against the silent woman who all this time had been making no party, and telling no story, and whom the world would therefore conclude to be silent because she had no answer to make. I remember well the time when this poetry, so resounding in its music, so mournful, so apparently generous, filled my heart with a vague anguish of sorrow for the sufferer, and of indignation at the cold insensibility that had maddened him. Thousands have felt the power of this great poem, which stands, and must stand to all time, a monument of what sacred and solemn powers God gave to this wicked man, and how vilely he abused this power as a weapon to slay the innocent.
It is among the ruins of ancient Rome that his voice breaks forth in solemn imprecation:–
“O Time, thou beautifier of the dead,
Adorner of the ruin, comforter,
And only healer when the heart hath bled!
Time, the corrector when our judgments err,
The test of truth, love,–sole philosopher,
For all besides are sophists,–from thy shrift
That never loses, though it doth defer!
Time, the avenger! unto thee I lift
My hands and heart and eyes, and claim of thee a gift.
“If thou hast ever seen me too elate,
Hear me not; but if calmly I have borne
Good, and reserved my pride against the hate
Which shall not whelm me, let me not have worn
This iron in my soul in vain,–shall THEY not
And thou who never yet of human wrong
Left the unbalanced scale, great Nemesis,
Here where the ancients paid their worship long,
Thou who didst call the Furies from the abyss,
And round Orestes bid them howl and hiss
For that unnatural retribution,–just
Had it but come from hands less near,–in this
Thy former realm I call thee from the dust.
Dost thou not hear my heart? awake thou shalt and
It is not that I may not have incurred
For my ancestral faults, and mine the wound
Wherewith I bleed withal, and had it been conferred
With a just weapon it had flowed unbound,
But now my blood shall not sink in the ground.
“But in this page a record will I seek;
Not in the air shall these my words disperse,
Though I be ashes,–a far hour shall wreak
The deep prophetic fulness of this verse,
And pile on human heads the mountain of my curse.
That curse shall be forgiveness. Have I not,–
Hear me, my Mother Earth! behold it, Heaven,–
Have I not had to wrestle with my lot?
Have I not suffered things to be forgiven?
Have I not had my brain seared, my heart riven,
Hopes sapped, name blighted, life’s life lied away,
And only not to desperation driven,
Because not altogether of such clay
As rots into the soul of those whom I survey?
“From mighty wrongs to petty perfidy,
Have I not seen what human things could do,–
From the loud roar of foaming calumny,
To the small whispers of the paltry few,
And subtler venom of the reptile crew,
The Janus glance of whose significant eye,
Learning to lie with silence, would seem true,
And without utterance, save the shrug or sigh,
Deal round to happy fools its speechless obloquy?” (italics were added by Stowe)
The reader will please notice that the lines in italics are almost, word for word, a repetition of the lines in italics in the former poem on his wife, where he speaks of a significant eye that has learned to lie in silence, and were evidently meant to apply to Lady Byron and her small circle of confidential friends.
Before this, in the Third Canto of “Childe Harold,” he had claimed the sympathy of the world, as a loving father, deprived by a severe fate of the solace and society of his only child:–
“My daughter,–with this name my song began,–
My daughter,–with this name my song shall end,–
I see thee not and hear thee not, but none
Can be so wrapped in thee; thou art the friend
To whom the shadows of far years extend.
“To aid thy mind’s developments, to watch
The dawn of little joys, to sit and see
Almost thy very growth, to view thee catch
Knowledge of objects,–wonders yet to thee,–
And print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss,–
This it should seem was not reserved for me.
Yet this was in my nature,–as it is,
I know not what there is, yet something like to this.
“Yet though dull hate as duty should be taught,
I know that thou wilt love me; though my name
Should be shut out from thee as spell still fraught
With desolation and a broken claim,
Though the grave close between us,–‘t were the same.
I know that thou wilt love me, though to drain
My blood from out thy being were an aim
And an attainment,–all will be in vain.”
To all these charges against her, sent all over the world in verses as eloquent as the English language is capable of, the wife replied nothing. ‘As a lamb before her shearers is dumb, so she opened not her mouth.’
“Assailed by slander and the tongue of strife,
Her only answer was,–a blameless life.”
She had a few friends, a very few, with whom she sought solace and sympathy. One letter from her, written at this time, preserved by accident, is the only authentic record of how the matter stood with her.
We regret to say that the publication of this document was not brought forth to clear Lady Byron’s name from her husband’s slanders, but to shield him from the worst accusation against him, by showing that this crime was not included in the few private confidential revelations that friendship wrung from the young wife at this period.
Lady Anne Barnard, authoress of “Auld Robin Grey,” a friend, whose age and experience made her a proper confidant, sent for the broken-hearted, perplexed wife, and offered her a woman’s sympathy.
To her Lady Byron wrote many letters, under seal of confidence, and Lady Anne says: “I will give you a few paragraphs transcribed from one of Lady Byron’s own letters to me. It is sorrowful to think that in a very little time this young and amiable creature, wise, patient, and feeling, will have her character mistaken by every one who reads Byron’s works. To rescue her from this I preserved her letters, and when she afterwards expressed a fear that anything of her writing should ever fall into hands to injure him (I suppose she meant by publication), I safely assured her that it never should. But here this letter shall be placed, a sacred record in her favor, unknown to herself.”
“I am a very incompetent judge of the impression which the last Canto of ‘Childe Harold’ may produce on the minds of indifferent readers.
“It contains the usual trace of a conscience restlessly awake, though his object has been too long to aggravate its burden, as if it could thus be oppressed into eternal stupor. I will hope, as you do, that it survives for his ultimate good.
“It was the acuteness of his remorse, impenitent in its character, which so long seemed to demand from my compassion to spare every semblance of reproach, every look of grief, which might have said to his conscience, ‘You have made me wretched.’
“I am decidedly of opinion that he is responsible. He has wished to be thought partially deranged, or on the brink of it, to perplex observers and prevent them from tracing effects to their real causes through all the intricacies of his conduct. I was, as I told you, at one time the dupe of his acted insanity, and clung to the former delusions in regard to the motives that concerned me personally, till the whole system was laid bare.
“He is the absolute monarch of words, and uses them, as Bonaparte did lives, for conquest, without more regard to their intrinsic value, considering them only as ciphers, which must derive all their import from the situation in which he places them, and the ends to which he adapts them, with such consummate skill.
“Why, then, you will say, does he not employ them to give a better color to his own character? Because he is too good an actor to over-act, or to assume a moral garb, which it would be easy to strip off.
“In regard to his poetry, egotism is the vital principle of his imagination, which it is difficult for him to kindle on any subject with which his own character and interests are not identified; but by the introduction of fictitious incidents, by change of scene or time, he has enveloped his poetical disclosures in a system impenetrable except to a very few, and his constant desire of creating a sensation makes him not averse to be the object of wonder and curiosity, even though accompanied by some dark and vague suspicions.
“Nothing has contributed more to the misunderstanding of his real character than the lonely grandeur in which he shrouds it, and his affectation of being above mankind, when he exists almost in their voice. The romance of his sentiments is another feature of this mask of state. I know no one more habitually destitute of that enthusiasm he so beautifully expresses, and to which he can work up his fancy chiefly by contagion.
“I had heard he was the best of brothers, the most generous of friends, and I thought such feelings only required to be warmed and cherished into more diffusive benevolence. Though these opinions are eradicated, and could never return but with the decay of my memory, you will not wonder if there are still moments when the association of feelings which arose from them soften and sadden my thoughts.
“But I have not thanked you, dearest Lady Anne, for your kindness in regard to a principal object,–that of rectifying false impressions. I trust you understand my wishes, which never were to injure Lord Byron in any way; for, though he would not suffer me to remain his wife, he cannot prevent me from continuing his friend; and it was from considering myself as such that I silenced the accusations by which my own conduct might have been more fully justified.
“It is not necessary to speak ill of his heart in general; it is sufficient that to me it was hard and impenetrable,–that my own must have been broken before his could have been touched. I would rather represent this as my misfortune than as his guilt; but, surely, that misfortune is not to be made my crime! Such are my feelings; you will judge how to act.
“His allusions to me in ‘Childe Harold’ are cruel and cold, but with such a semblance as to make me appear so, and to attract all sympathy to himself. It is said in this poem that hatred of him will be taught as a lesson to his child. I might appeal to all who have ever heard me speak of him, and still more to my own heart, to witness that there has been no moment when I have remembered injury otherwise than affectionately and sorrowfully.
“It is not my duty to give way to hopeless and wholly unrequited affection; but, so long as I live, my chief struggle will probably be not to remember him too kindly. I do not seek the sympathy of the world, but I wish to be known by those whose opinion is valuable and whose kindness is dear to me. Among such, my dear Lady Anne, you will ever be remembered by your truly affectionate
” A. BYRON.”
On this letter I observe Lord Lindsay remarks that it shows a noble but rather severe character, and a recent author has remarked that it seemed to be written rather in a “cold spirit of criticism.” It seems to strike these gentlemen as singular that Lady Byron did not enjoy the poem! But there are two remarkable sentences in this letter which have escaped the critics hitherto. Lord Byron, in this, the Third Canto of “Childe Harold,” expresses in most affecting words an enthusiasm of love for his sister. So long as he lived he was her faithful correspondent; he sent her his journals; and, dying, he left her and her children everything he had in the world. This certainly seems like an affectionate brother; but in what words does Lady Byron speak of this affection?
“I had heard he was the best of brothers, the most generous of friends. I thought these feelings only required to be warmed and cherished into more diffusive benevolence. THESE OPINIONS ARE ERADICATED, AND COULD NEVER RETURN BUT WITH THE DECAY OF MEMORY.” Let me ask those who give this letter as a proof that at this time no idea such as I have stated was in Lady Byron’s mind, to account for these words. Let them please answer these questions: Why had Lady Byron ceased to think him a good brother? Why does she use so strong a word as that the opinion was eradicated, torn up by the roots, and could never grow again in her except by decay of memory?
And yet this is a document Lord Lindsay vouches for as authentic, and which he brings forward in defence of Lord Byron.
Again she says, “Though he would not suffer me to remain his wife, he cannot prevent me from continuing his friend.” Do these words not say that in some past time, in some decided manner, Lord Byron had declared to her his rejection of her as a wife? I shall yet have occasion to explain these words.
Again she says, “I silenced accusations by which my conduct might have been more fully justified.”
The people in England who are so very busy in searching out evidence against my true story have searched out and given to the world an important confirmation of this assertion of Lady Byron’s.
It seems that the confidential waiting-maid who went with Lady Byron on her wedding journey has been sought out and interrogated, and, as appears by description, is a venerable, respectable old person, quite in possession of all
her senses in general, and of that sixth sense of propriety in particular, which appears not to be a common virtue in our days.
As her testimony is important, we insert it just here, with a description of her person in full. The ardent investigators thus speak: —
“Having gained admission, we were shown into a small but neatly furnished and scrupulously clean apartment, where sat the object of our visit. Mrs. Minns is a venerable-looking old lady, of short stature, slight and active appearance, with a singularly bright and intelligent countenance. Although midway between eighty and ninety years of age, she is in full possession of her faculties, discourses freely and cheerfully, hears apparently as well as ever she did, and her sight is so good that, aided by a pair of spectacles, she reads the Chronicle every day with ease. Some idea of her competency to contribute valuable evidence to the subject which now so much engages public attention on three continents may be found from her own narrative of her personal relations with Lady Byron. Mrs. Minns was born in the neighborhood of Seaham, and knew Lady Byron from childhood. During the long period of ten years she was Miss Milbanke’s lady’s-maid, and in that capacity became the close confidante of her mistress. There were circumstances which rendered their relationship peculiarly intimate. Miss Milbanke had no sister or female friend to whom she was bound by the ties of more than a common affection; and her mother, whatever other excellent qualities she may have possessed, was too high-spirited and too hasty in temper to attract the sympathies of the young. Some months before Miss Milbanke was married to Lord Byron Mrs. Minns had quitted her service on the occasion of her own marriage with Mr. Minns, but she continued to reside in the neighborhood of Seaham, and remained on the most friendly terms with her former mistress. As the courtship proceeded, Miss Milbanke concealed nothing from her faithful attendant, and when the wedding-day was fixed she begged Mrs. Minns to return and fulfil the duties of lady’s-maid, at least during the honeymoon. Mrs. Minns at the time was nursing her first child, and it was no small sacrifice to quit her own home at such a moment, but she could not refuse her old mistress’s request. Accordingly, she returned to Seaham Hall some days before the wedding, was present at the ceremony, and then preceded Lord and Lady Byron to Halnaby Hall, near Croft, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, one of Sir Ralph Milbanke’s seats, where the newly married couple were to spend the honeymoon. Mrs. Minns remained with Lord and Lady Byron during the three weeks they spent at Halnaby Hall, and then accompanied them to Seaham, where they spent the next six weeks. It was during the latter period that she finally quitted Lady Byron’s service, but she remained in the most friendly communication with her Ladyship till the death of the latter, and for some time was living in the neighborhood of Lady Byron’s residence in Leicestershire, where she had frequent opportunities of seeing her former mistress. It may be added that Lady Byron was not unmindful of the faithful services of her friend and attendant in the instructions to her executors contained in her will. Such was the position of Mrs. Minns towards Lady Byron, and we think no one will question that it was of a nature to entitle all that Mrs. Minns may say on the subject of the relations of Lord and Lady Byron to the most respectful consideration and credit.”
Such is the chronicler’s account of the faithful creature, whom nothing but intense indignation and disgust at Mrs. Beecher Stowe would lead to speak on her mistress’s affairs; but Mrs. Beecher Stowe feels none the less sincere respect for her, and is none the less obliged to her for having spoken. Much of Mrs. Minns’s testimony will be referred to in another place; we only extract one passage, to show that while Lord Byron spent his time in setting afloat slanders against his wife, she spent hers in sealing the mouths of witnesses against him.
Of the period of the honeymoon Mrs. Minns says: —
“The happiness of Lady Byron, however, was of brief duration; even during the short three weeks they spent at Halnaby the irregularities of Lord Byron occasioned her the greatest distress, and she even contemplated returning to her father. Mrs. Minns was her constant companion and confidante through this painful period, and she does not believe that her ladyship concealed a thought from her. With laudable reticence, the old lady absolutely refuses to disclose the particulars of Lord Byron’s misconduct at this time; she gave Lady Byron a solemn promise not to do so.
“So serious did Mrs. Minns consider the conduct of Lord Byron, that she recommended her mistress to confide all the circumstances to her father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, a calm, kind, and most excellent parent, and take his advice as to her future course. At one time Mrs. Minns thinks Lady Byron had resolved to follow her counsel and impart her wrongs to Sir Ralph; but on arriving at Seaham Hall her ladyship strictly enjoined Mrs. Minns to preserve absolute silence on the subject, — a course which she followed herself, — so that when, six weeks later, she and Lord Byron left Seaham for London, not a word had escaped her to disturb her parents’ tranquillity as to their daughter’s domestic happiness. As might be expected, Mrs. Minns bears the warmest testimony to the noble and lovable qualities of her departed mistress. She also declares that Lady Byron was by no means of a cold temperament, but that the affectionate impulses of her nature were checked by the unkind treatment she experienced from her husband.”
We have already shown that Lord Byron had been, ever since his separation, engaged in a systematic attempt to reverse the judgment of the world against himself, by making converts of all his friends to a most odious view of his wife’s character, and inspiring them with the zeal of propagandists to spread these views through society. We have seen how he prepared partisans to interpret the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold.
This plan of solemn and heroic accusation was the first public attack on his wife. Next we see him commencing a scurrilous attempt to turn her to ridicule in the First Canto of Don Juan.
It is to our point now to show how carefully and cautiously this Don Juan campaign was planned.
Vol. IV. p. 138, we find Letter 325 to Mr. Murray: —
“VENICE, January 25, 1819.
“You will do me the favor to print privately, for private distribution, fifty copies of Don Juan. The list of the men to whom I wish it presented I will send hereafter.”
The poem, as will be remembered, begins with the meanest and foulest attack on his wife that ever ribald wrote, and put it in close neighborhood with scenes which every pure man or woman must feel to be the beastly utterances of a man who had lost all sense of decency. Such a potion was too strong to be administered even in a time when great license was allowed, and men were not over-nice. But Byron chooses fifty armor-bearers of that class of men who would find indecent ribaldry about a wife a good joke, and talk about the “artistic merits” of things which we hope would make an honest boy blush.
At this time he acknowledges that his vices had brought him to a state of great exhaustion, attended by such debility of the stomach that nothing remained on it; and adds, “I was obliged to reform my way of life, which was conducting me from the yellow leaf to the ground with all deliberate speed.” But as his health is a little better he employs it in making the way to death and hell elegantly easy for other young men, by breaking down the remaining scruples of a society not over-scrupulous.
Society revolted, however, and fought stoutly against the nauseous dose. Even his sister wrote to him that she heard such things said of it that she never would read it; and the outcry against it on the part of all women of his acquaintance was such that for a time he was quite overborne; and the Countess Guiccioli finally extorted a promise from him to cease writing it. Nevertheless, there came a time when England accepted Don Juan, -when Wilson, in the Noctes Ambrosianæ, praised it as a classic, and took every opportunity to reprobate Lady Byron’s conduct. When first it appeared the Blackwood came out with that indignant denunciation of which we have spoken, and to which Byron replied in the extracts we have already quoted. He did something more than reply. He marked out Wilson as one of the strongest literary men of the day, and set his “initiated” with their documents to work upon him.
One of these documents to which he requested Wilson’s attention was the private autobiography, written expressly to give his own story of all the facts of the marriage and separation.
In the indignant letter he writes Murray on the Blackwood article, Vol. IV. Letter 350, — under date December 10, 1819, — he says: —
“I sent home for Moore, and for Moore only (who has my journal also), my memoir written up to 1816, and I gave him leave to show it to whom he pleased, but not to publish on any account. You may read it, and you may let Wilson read it if he likes, — not for his public opinion, but his private, for I like the man, and care very little about the magazine. And I could wish Lady Byron herself to read it, that she may have it in her power to mark anything mistaken or misstated. As it will never appear till after my extinction, it would be but fair she should see it; that is to say, herself willing. Your Blackwood accuses me of treating women harshly; but I have been their martyr; my whole life has been sacrificed to them and by them.”
It was a part of Byron’s policy to place Lady Byron in positions before the world where she could not speak, and where her silence would be set down to her as haughty, stony indifference and obstinacy. Such was the pretended negotiation through Madame de Staël, and such now this apparently fair and generous offer to let Lady Byron see and mark this manuscript.
The little Ada is now in her fifth year, -a child of singular sensibility and remarkable mental powers, — one of those exceptional children who are so perilous a charge for a mother.
Her husband proposes this artful snare to her, — that she shall mark what is false in a statement which is all built on a damning lie, that she cannot refute over that daughter’s head, — and which would perhaps be her ruin to discuss.
Hence came an addition of two more documents, to be used “privately among friends,”* (Note: Lord Byron took especial pains to point out to Murray the importance of these two letters. Vol. V. Letter 443, he says: “You must also have from Mr. Moore the correspondence between me and Lady B., to whom I offered a sight of all that concerns herself in these papers. This is important. He has her letter and my answer.”) and which Blackwood uses after Lady Byron is safely out of the world to cast ignominy on her grave, — the wife’s letter, that of a mother standing at bay for her daughter, knowing that she is dealing with a desperate, powerful, unscrupulous enemy.
” KIRKBY MALLORY, March 10, 1820.
“I received your letter of January 1, offering to my perusal a Memoir of part of your life. I decline to inspect it. I consider the publication or circulation of such a composition at any time as prejudicial to Ada’s future happiness. For my own sake, I have no reason to shrink from publication; but, notwithstanding the injuries which I have suffered, I should lament some of the consequences.
” A. BYRON.
“To LORD BYRON.”
Lord Byron, writing for the public, as is his custom, makes reply: —
“RAVENNA, April 3, 1820.
“I received yesterday your answer, dated March 10. My offer was an honest one, and surely could only be construed as such, even by the most malignant casuistry. I could answer you, but it is too late, and it is not worth while. To the mysterious menace of the last sentence, whatever its import may be, — and I cannot pretend to unriddle it, — I could hardly be very sensible even if I understood it, as, before it can take place, I shall be where ‘nothing can touch him further.’ . . . . I advise you, however, to anticipate the period of your intention, for, be assured, no power of figures can avail beyond the present; and if it could, I would answer with the Florentine: —
“‘Ed io, che posto son con loro in croce . . . . . e certo La fiera moglie, più ch’ altro, mi nuoce.’*
“To LADY BYRON.”
Two things are very evident in this correspondence. Lady Byron intimates that, if he
“And I, who with them on the cross am placed,
. . . . . . . truly
My savage wife, more than aught else, doth harm me.”
Inferno, Canto XVI., Longfellow translation.
publishes his story, some consequences must follow which she shall regret.
Lord Byron receives this as a threat, and says he doesn’t understand it. But directly after he says, “Before IT can take place, I shall be,” &c.
The intimation is quite clear. He does understand what the consequences alluded to are. They are evidently that Lady Byron will speak out and tell her story. He says she cannot do this till after he is dead, and then he shall not care. In allusion to her accuracy as to dates and figures, he says: “Be assured no power of figures can avail beyond this present” (life); and then ironically advises her to anticipate the period, — i. e. to speak out while he is alive.
In Vol. VI. Letter 518, which Lord Byron wrote to Lady Byron, but did not send, he says: “I burned your last note for two reasons, — firstly, because it was written in a style not very agreeable; and, secondly, because I wished to take your word without documents, which are the resources of worldly and suspicious people.”
It would appear from this that there was a last letter of Lady Byron to her husband, which he did not think proper to keep on hand, or show to the “initiated” with his usual unreserve; that this letter contained some kind of pledge for which he preferred to take her word, without documents.
Each reader can imagine for himself what that pledge might have been; but from the tenor of the three letters we should infer that it was a promise of silence for his lifetime, on certain conditions, and that the publication of the autobiography would violate those conditions, and make it her duty to speak out.
This celebrated autobiography forms so conspicuous a figure in the whole history, that the reader must have a full idea of it, as given by Byron himself, in Vol. IV. Letter 344, to Murray: —
“I gave to Moore, who is gone to Rome, my life in MS., — in seventy-eight folio sheets, brought down to 1816. . . . . Also a journal kept in 1814. Neither are for publication during my life, but when I am cold you may do what you please. In the mean time, if you like to read them you may, and show them to anybody you like. I care not. . . . .”
He tells him also: —
“You will find in it a detailed account of my marriage and its consequences, as true as a party concerned can make such an account.”
Of the extent to which this autobiography was circulated we have the following testimony of Shelton Mackenzie, in notes to the “Noctes” of June, 1824.
In the Noctes Odoherty says: —
“The fact is, the work had been copied for the private reading of a great lady in Florence.”
The note says: —
“The great lady in Florence, for whose private reading Byron’s autobiography was copied, was the Countess of Westmoreland. . . . . Lady Blessington had the autobiography in her possession for weeks, and confessed to having copied every line of it. Moore remonstrated, and she committed her copy to the flames, but did not tell him that her sister, Mrs. Home Purvis, now Viscountess of Canterbury, had also made a copy! . . . . From the quantity of’ copy I have seen, — and others were more in the way of falling in with it than myself, -I surmise that at least half a dozen copies were made, and of these five are now in existence. Some particular parts, such as the marriage and separation, were copied separately; but I think there cannot be less than five full copies yet to be found.”
This was written after the original autobiography was burned.
We may see the zeal and enthusiasm of the Byron party, — copying seventy-eight folio sheets, as of old Christians copied the Gospels. How widely, fully, and thoroughly, thus, by this secret process, was society saturated with Byron’s own versions of the story that related to himself and wife! Against her there was only the complaint of an absolute silence. She put forth no statements, no documents; had no party, sealed the lips of her counsel, and even of her servants; yet she could not but have known, from time to time, how thoroughly and strongly this web of mingled truth and lies was being meshed around her steps.
From the time that Byron first saw the importance of securing Wilson on his side, and wrote to have his partisans attend to him, we may date an entire revolution in the Blackwood. It became Byron’s warmest supporter, — is to this day the bitterest accuser of his wife.
Why was this wonderful silence? It appears by Dr. Lushington’s statements, that, when Lady Byron did speak, she had a story to tell that powerfully affected both him and Romilly, — a story supported by evidence on which they were willing to have gone to public trial. Supposing, now, she had imitated Lord Byron’s example, and, avoiding public trial, had put her story into
private circulation; as he sent “Don Juan” to fifty confidential friends, suppose she had sent a written statement of her story to fifty judges as intelligent as the two that had heard it; or suppose she had confronted his autobiography with her own, — what would have been the result?
The first result would have been Mrs. Leigh’s utter ruin. The world may finally forgive the man of genius anything; but for a woman there is no mercy and no redemption.
This ruin Lady Byron prevented by her utter silence and great self-command. Mrs. Leigh never lost position. Lady Byron never so varied in her manner toward her as to excite the suspicions even of her confidential old servant.
To protect Mrs. Leigh effectually, it must have been necessary to continue to exclude even her own mother from the secret, as we are assured she did at first; for, had she told Lady Milbanke, it is not possible that so high-spirited a woman could have restrained herself from such outward expressions as would at least have awakened suspicion. There was no resource but this absolute silence.
Lady Blessington, in her last conversation with Lord Byron, thus describes the life Lady Byron was leading. She speaks of her as “wearing away her youth in almost monastic seclusion, questioned by some, appreciated by few, seeking consolation alone in the discharge of her duties, and avoiding all external demonstrations of a grief that her pale cheek and solitary existence alone were vouchers for.”
The main object of all this silence may be imagined, if we remember that if Lord Byron had not died, — had he truly and deeply repented, and become a thoroughly good man, and returned to England to pursue a course worthy of his powers, there was on record neither word nor deed from his wife to stand in his way.
HIS PLACE WAS KEPT IN SOCIETY, ready for him to return to whenever he came clothed and in his right mind. He might have had the heart and confidence of his daughter unshadowed by a suspicion. He might have won the reverence of the great and good in his own land and all lands. That hope, which was the strong support, the prayer of the silent wife, it did not please God to fulfil.
Lord Byron died a worn-out man at thirtysix. But the bitter seeds he had sown came up, after his death, in a harvest of thorns over his grave; and there were not wanting hands to use them as instruments of torture on the heart of his widow.
Chapter III. Résumé of the Conspiracy.
We have traced the conspiracy of Lord Byron against his wife up to its latest device. That the reader’s mind may be clear on the points of the process, we shall now briefly recapitulate the documents in the order of time.
I. March 17, 1816. — While negotiations for separation were pending, — “Fare thee well, and if forever.”
While writing these pages, we have received from England the testimony of one who has seen the original draught of that “Fare thee well.” This original copy had evidently been subjected to the most careful and acute revision. Scarcely two lines that were not interlined, scarcely an adjective that was not exchanged for a better; showing that the noble lord was not so far overcome by grief as to have forgotten his reputation. (Found its way to the public prints through the imprudence of a friend.)
II. March 29, 1816. — An attack on Lady Byron’s old governess for having been born poor, for being homely, and for having unduly influenced his wife against him; promising that her grave should be a fiery bed, &c.; also praising his wife’s perfect and remarkable truthfulness and discernment, that made it impossible for flattery to fool, or baseness blind her; but ascribing all his woes to her being fooled and blinded by this same governess. (Found its way to the prints by the imprudence of a friend.)
III. September, 1816. — Lines on hearing that Lady Byron is ill. Calls her a Clytemnestra, who has secretly set assassins on her lord; says she is a mean, treacherous, deceitful liar, and has entirely departed from her early truth, and become the most unscrupulous and unprincipled of women. Never printed till after Lord Byron’s death, but circulated privately among the “initiated.”
IV. Aug. 9, 1817. — Gives to M. G. Lewis a paper for circulation among friends in England, stating that what he most wants is public investigation, which has always been denied him; and daring Lady Byron and her counsel to come out publicly. Found in M. G. Lewis’s portfolio after his death; never heard of before, except among the “initiated.”
Having given M. G. Lewis’s document time to work, —
January, 1818. — Gives the fourth canto of “Childe Harold” to the public.
Jan. 25, 1819. — Sends to Murray to print for private circulation among the “initiated” the first canto of “Don Juan.”
Is nobly and severely rebuked for this insult to his wife by the “Blackwood,” August, 1819.
October, 1819. — Gives Moore the manuscript Autobiography, with leave to show it to whom he pleases, and print it after his death.
Oct. 29, 1819, vol. iv. letter 344. — Writes to Murray, that he may read all this Autobiography, and show it to anybody he likes.
Dec. 10, 1819. — Writes to Murray on this article in “Blackwood” against “Don Juan” and himself, which he supposes written by Wilson; sends a complimentary message to Wilson, and asks him to read his Autobiography sent by Moore. (Letter 350.)
March 15, 1820. — Writes, and dedicates to I. Disraeli, Esq., a vindication of himself in reply to the “Blackwood” on “Don Juan,” containing an indignant defence of his own conduct in relation to his wife, and maintaining that he never yet has had an opportunity of knowing whereof he has been accused; accusing Sir S. Romilly of taking his retainer, and then going over to the adverse party, &c. Printed for private circulation; to be found in the standard English edition of Murray, vol. ix. p.57.
To this condensed account of Byron’s strategy we must add the crowning stroke of policy which transmitted this warfare to his friends, to be continued after his death.
During the last visit Moore made him in Italy, and just before Byron presented to him his Autobiography, the following scene occurred, as narrated by Moore (vol. iv. p. 221): —
“The chief subject of conversation, when alone, was his marriage, and the load of obloquy which it had brought upon him. He was most anxious to know the worst that had been alleged of his conduct; and, as this was our first opportunity of speaking together on the subject, I did not hesitate to put his candor most searchingly to the proof, not only by enumerating the various charges I had heard brought against him by others, but by specifying such portions of these charges as I had been inclined to think not incredible myself.
“To all this he listened with patience, and answered with the most unhesitating frankness; laughing to scorn the tales of unmanly outrage related of him, but at the same time acknowledging that there had been in his conduct but too much to blame and regret, and stating one or two occasions during his domestic life when he had been irritated into letting the ‘breath of bitter words’ escape him, . . . which he now evidently remembered with a degree of remorse and pain which might well have entitled them to be forgotten by others.
“It was, at the same time, manifest, that, whatever admissions he might be inclined to make respecting his own delinquencies, the inordinate measure of the punishment dealt out to him had sunk deeply into his mind, and, with the usual effect of such injustice, drove him also to be unjust himself; so much so, indeed, as to impute to the quarter to which he now traced all his ill fate a feeling of fixed hostility to himself, which would not rest, he thought, even at his grave, but continue to persecute his memory as it was now imbittering his life. So strong was this impression upon him, that, during one of our few intervals of seriousness, he conjured me by our friendship, if, as he both felt and hoped, I should survive him, not to let unmerited censure settle upon his name.”
In this same account, page 218, Moore testifies that
” Lord Byron disliked his countrymen, but only because he knew that his morals were held in contempt by them. The English, themselves rigid observers of family duties, could not pardon him the neglect of his, nor his trampling on principles: therefore neither did he like being presented to them, nor did they, especially when they had wives with them, like to cultivate his acquaintance. Still there was a strong desire in all of them to see him; and the women in particular, who did not dare to look at him but by stealth, said in an under-voice, ‘What a pity it is!’ If, however, any of his compatriots of exalted rank and high reputation came forward to treat him with courtesy, he showed himself obviously flattered by it. It seemed, that, to the wound which remained open in his ulcerated heart, such soothing attentions were as drops of healing balm, which comforted him.”
When in society, we are further informed by a lady quoted by Mr. Moore, he was in the habit of speaking of his wife with much respect and affection, as an illustrious lady, distinguished for her qualities of heart and understanding; saying that all the fault of their cruel separation lay with himself. Mr. Moore seems at times to be somewhat puzzled by these contradictory statements of his idol, and speculates not a little on what could be Lord Byron’s object in using such language in public; mentally comparing it, we suppose, with the free handling which he gave to the same subject in his private correspondence.
The innocence with which Moore gives himself up to be manipulated by Lord Byron, the naïveté with which he shows all the process, let us a little into the secret of the marvellous powers of charming and blinding which this great actor possessed.
Lord Byron had the beauty, the wit, the genius, the dramatic talent, which have constituted the strength of some wonderfully fascinating women.
There have been women able to lead their leashes of blinded adorers; to make them swear that black was white, or white black, at their word; to smile away their senses, or weep away their reason. No matter what these sirens may say, no matter what they may do, though caught in a thousand transparent lies, and doing a thousand deeds which would have ruined others, still men madly rave after them in life, and tear their hair over their graves. Such an enchanter in man’s shape was Lord Byron.
He led captive Moore and Murray by being beautiful, a genius, and a lord; calling them “Dear Tom,” and “Dear Murray,” while they were only commoners. He first insulted Sir Walter Scott, and then witched his heart out of him by ingenuous confessions and poetical compliments; he took Wilson’s heart by flattering messages and a beautifully-written letter; he corresponded familiarly with Hogg; and, before his death, had made fast friends, in one way or another, of the whole Noctes Ambrosianæ Club.
We thus have given the historical résumé of Lord Byron’s attacks on his wife’s reputation: we shall add, that they were based on philosophic principles, showing a deep knowledge of mankind. An analysis will show that they can be philosophically classified: —
1st, Those which addressed the sympathetic nature of man, representing her as cold, methodical, severe, strict, unforgiving.
2d, Those addressed to the faculty of association, connecting her with ludicrous and licentious images; taking from her the usual protection of womanly delicacy and sacredness.
3d, Those addressed to the moral faculties, accusing her as artful, treacherous, untruthful, malignant.
All these various devices he held in his hand, shuffling and dealing them as a careful gamester his pack of cards according to the exigencies of the game. He played adroitly, skilfully, with blinding flatteries and seductive wiles, that made his victims willing dupes.
Nothing can more clearly show the power and perfectness of his enchantments than the masterly way in which he turned back the moral force of the whole English nation, which had risen at first in its strength against him. The victory was complete.
Chapter IV. Results After Lord Byron’s Death.
AT the time of Lord Byron’s death, the English public had been so skilfully manipulated by the Byron propaganda, that the sympathy of the whole world was with him. A tide of emotion was now aroused in England by his early death, — dying in the cause of Greece and liberty. There arose a general wail for him, as for a lost pleiad, not only in England, but over the whole world; a great rush of enthusiasm for his memory, to which the greatest literary men of England freely gave voice. By general consent, Lady Byron seems to have been looked upon as the only cold-hearted, unsympathetic person in this general mourning.
From that time, the literary world of England apparently regarded Lady Byron as a woman to whom none of the decorums, nor courtesies of ordinary womanhood, nor even the consideration belonging to common humanity, were due.
“She that is a widow indeed, and desolate,” has been regarded in all Christian countries as an object made sacred by the touch of God’s afflicting hand, sacred in her very helplessness; and the old Hebrew Scriptures give to the Supreme Father no dearer title than “the widow’s God.” But, on Lord Byron’s death, men not devoid of tenderness, men otherwise generous and of fine feeling, acquiesced in insults to his widow with an obtuseness that seems, on review, quite incredible.
Lady Byron was not only a widow, but an orphan. She had no sister for confidante; no father and mother to whom to go in her sorrows, — sorrows so much deeper and darker to her than they could be to any other human being. She had neither son nor brother to uphold and protect her. On all hands it was acknowledged, that, so far, there was no fault to be found in her but her utter silence. Her life was confessed to be pure, useful, charitable; and yet, in this time of her sorrow, the writers of England issued article upon article not only devoid of delicacy, but apparently injurious and insulting towards her, with a blind unconsciousness which seems astonishing.
One of the greatest literary powers of that time was the “Blackwood:” the reigning monarch on that literary throne was Wilson, the lion-hearted, the brave, generous, tender poet, and, with some sad exceptions, the noble man. But Wilson had believed the story of Byron, and, by his very generosity and tenderness and pity, was betrayed into injustice.
In “The Noctes” of November, 1824, there is a conversation of the Noctes club, in which North says, “Byron and I knew each other pretty well; and I suppose there’s no harm in adding, that we appreciated each other pretty tolerably. Did you ever see his letter to me?”
The footnote to this says, “This letter, which was PRINTED in Byron’s lifetime, was not published till 1830, when it appeared in Moore’s Life of Byron. It is one of the most vigorous prose compositions in the language. Byron had the highest opinion of Wilson’s genius and noble spirit.”
In the first place, with our present ideas of propriety and good taste, we should reckon it an indecorum to make the private affairs of a pure and good woman, whose circumstances from any point of view were trying, and who evidently shunned publicity, the subject of public discussion in magazines which were read all over the world.
Lady Byron, as they all knew, had on her hands a most delicate and onerous task, in bringing up an only daughter, necessarily inheriting peculiarities of genius and great sensitiveness; and the many mortifications and embarrassments which such intermeddling with her private matters must have given, certainly should have been considered by men with any pretensions to refinement or good feeling.
But the literati of England allowed her no consideration, no rest, no privacy.
In “The Noctes” of November, 1825, there is the record of a free conversation upon Lord and Lady Byron’s affairs, interlarded with exhortations to push the bottle, and remarks on whiskey-toddy. Medwin’s “Conversations with Lord Byron” is discussed, which, we are told in a note, appeared a few months after the noble poet’s death.
There is a rather bold and free discussion of Lord Byron’s character, — his fondness for gin and water, on which stimulus he wrote “Don Juan;” and James Hogg says pleasantly to Mullion, “O Mullion! it’s a pity you and Byron could na ha’ been acquaint. There would ha’ been brave sparring to see who could say the wildest and the dreadfullest things; for he had neither fear of man or woman, and would ha’ his joke or jeer, cost what it might.” And then follows a specimen of one of his jokes with an actress, that, in indecency, certainly justifies the assertion. From the other stories which follow, and the parenthesis that occurs frequently, (“Mind your glass, James, a little more!”) it seems evident that the party are progressing in their peculiar kind of civilization.
It is in this same circle and paper that Lady Byron’s private affairs come up for discussion. The discussion is thus elegantly introduced: —
Hogg. — “Reach me the black bottle. I say, Christopher, what, after all, is your opinion o’ Lord and Leddy Byron’s quarrel? Do you yoursel’ take part with him, or with her? I wad like to hear your real opinion.”
North. — “Oh, dear! Well, Hogg, since you will have it, I think Douglas Kinnaird and Hobhouse are bound to tell us whether there be any truth, and how much, in this story about the declaration, signed by Sir Ralph” [Milbanke].
The note here tells us that this refers to a statement that appeared in “Blackwood” immediately after Byron’s death, to the effect, that,
previous to the formal separation from his wife, Byron required and obtained from Sir Ralph Milbanke, Lady Byron’s father, a statement to the effect that Lady Byron had no charge of moral delinquency to bring against him. (Note: Recently, Lord Lindsay has published another version of this story, which makes it appear that he has conversed with a lady who conversed with Hobhouse during his lifetime, in which this story is differently reported. In the last version, it is made to appear that Hobhouse got this declaration from Lady Byron herself.)
North continues: —
“And I think Lady Byron’s letter, the ‘Dearest Duck’ one I mean, should really be forthcoming, if her ladyship’s friends wish to stand fair before the public. At present, we have nothing but loose talk of society to go upon; and certainly, if the things that are said be true, there must be thorough explanation from some quarter, or the tide will continue, as it has assuredly begun, to flow in a direction very opposite to what we were for years accustomed. Sir, they must explain this business of the letter. You have, of course, heard about the invitation it contained, the warm, affectionate invitation, to Kirkby Mallory” —
Hogg interposes, —
“I dinna like to be interruptin’ ye, Mr. North; but I must inquire, Is the jug to stand still while ye’re going on at that rate?”
North. — “There, Porker! These things are part and parcel of the chatter of every bookseller’s shop; à fortiori, of every drawing-room in May Fair. Can the matter stop here? Can a great man’s memory be permitted to incur damnation while these saving clauses are afloat anywhere uncontradicted?”
And from this the conversation branches off into strong, emphatic praise of Byron’s conduct in Greece during the last part of his life.
The silent widow is thus delicately and considerately reminded in the “Blackwood” that she is the talk, not only over the whiskey-jug of the Noctes, but in every drawing-room in London; and that she must speak out and explain matters, or the whole world will set against her.
But she does not speak yet. The public persecution, therefore, proceeds. Medwin’s book being insufficient, another biographer is to be selected. Now, the person in the Noctes club who was held to have the most complete information of the Byron affairs, and was, on that account, first thought of by Murray to execute this very delicate task of writing a Memoir which should include the most sacred domestic affairs of a noble lady and her orphan daughter, was Maginn. Maginn, the author of the pleasant joke, that “man never reaches the apex of civilization till he is too drunk to pronounce the word,” was the first person in whose hands the Autobiography, Memoirs, and Journals of Lord Byron were placed with this view.
The following note from Shelton Mackenzie, in the June number of “The Noctes,” 1824, says,–
“At that time, had he been so minded, Maginn (Odoherty) could have got up a popular Life of Byron as well as most men in England. Immediately on the account of Byron’s death being received in London, John Murray proposed that Maginn should bring out Memoirs, Journals, and Letters of Lord Byron, and, with this intent, placed in his hand every line that he ( Murray) possessed in Byron’s handwriting. . . . The strong desire of Byron’s family and executors that the Autobiography should be burned, to which desire Murray foolishly yielded, made such an hiatus in the materials, that Murray and Maginn agreed it would not answer to bring out the work then. Eventually Moore executed it.”
The character of the times in which this work was to be undertaken will appear from the following note of Mackenzie’s to ” The Noctes” of August, 1824, which we copy, with the author’s own Italics:–
“In the ‘Blackwood’ of July, 1824, was a poetical epistle by the renowned Timothy Tickler, to the editor of the ‘John Bull’ magazine, on an article in his first number. This article . . . professed to be a portion of the veritable Autobiography of Byron which was burned, and was called ‘ My Wedding Night.’ It appeared to relate in detail every thing that occurred in the twenty-four hours immediately succeeding that in which Byron was married. It had plenty of coarseness, and some to spare. It went into particulars such as hitherto had been given only by Faublas; and it had, notwithstanding, many phrases and some facts which evidently did not belong to a mere fabricator. Some years after, I compared this ‘ Wedding Night’ with what I had all assurance of having been transcribed from the actual manuscripts of Byron, and was persuaded that the magazine-writer must have had the actual statement before him, or have had a perusal of it. The writer in ‘ Blackwood’ declared his conviction that it really was Byron’s own writing.”
The reader must remember that Lord Byron died April, 1824: so that, according to this, his Autobiography was made the means of this gross insult to his widow three months after his death.
If some powerful cause had not paralyzed all feelings of gentlemanly honor, and of womanly delicacy, and of common humanity, towards Lady Byron, throughout the whole British nation, no editor would have dared to open a periodical with such an article; or, if he had, he would have been overwhelmed with a storm of popular indignation, which, like the fire upon Sodom, would have left him a pillar of salt for a warning to all future generations.
” Blackwood” reproves “The John Bull” in a poetical epistle, recognizing the article as coming from Byron, and says to the author,–
“But that you, sir, a wit and a scholar like you,
Should not blush to produce what he blushed not to do,–
Take your compliment, youngster: this doubles, almost,
The sorrow that rose when his honor was lost.”
We may not wonder that the Autobiography was burned, as Murray says in a recent account, by a committee of Byron’s friends, including Hobhouse, his sister, and Murray himself.
Now, the ” Blackwood” of July, 1824, thus declares its conviction that this outrage on every sentiment of human decency came from Lord Byron, and that his honor was lost. Maginn does not undertake the Memoir. No Memoir at all is undertaken; till finally Moore is selected, as, like Demetrius of old, a well-skilled gilder and “maker of silver shrines,” though not for Diana. To Moore is committed the task of doing his best for this battered image, in which even the worshippers recognize foul sulphurous cracks, but which they none the less stand ready to worship as a genuine article that “fell down from Jupiter.”
Moore was a man of no particular nicety as to moralities, but in that matter seems not very much below what this record shows his average associates to be. He is so far superior to Maginn, that his vice is rose-colored and refined. He does not burst out with such heroic stanzas as Maginn’s frank invitation to Jeremy Bentham:–
“Jeremy, throw your pen aside,
And come get drunk with me;
And we’ll go where Bacchus sits astride,
Perched high on barrels three.”
Moore’s, vice is cautious, soft, seductive, slippery, and covered at times with a thin, tremulous veil of religious sentimentalism.
In regard to Byron, he was an unscrupulous, committed partisan: he was as much bewitched by him as ever man has been by woman; and therefore to him, at last, the task of editing Byron’s Memoirs was given.
This Byron, whom they all knew to be obscene beyond what even their most drunken tolerance could at first endure; this man, whose foul license spoke out what most men conceal from mere respect to the decent instincts of humanity; whose “honor was lost,” –was submitted to this careful manipulator, to be turned out a perfected idol for a world longing for one, as the Israelites longed for the calf in Horeb.
The image was to be invested with deceitful glories and shifting haloes,–admitted faults spoken of as peculiarities of sacred origin,-and the world given to understand that no common rule or measure could apply to such an undoubtedly divine production; and so the hearts of men were to be wrung with pity for his sorrows as the yearning pain of a god, and with anger at his injuries as sacrilege on the sacredness of genius, till they were ready to cast themselves at his feet, and adore.
Then he was to be set up on a pedestal, like Nebuchadnezzar’s image on the plains of Dura; and what time the world heard the sound of cornet, sackbut, and dulcimer, in his enchanting verse, they were to fall down and worship.
For Lady Byron, Moore had simply the respect that a commoner has for a lady of rank, and a good deal of the feeling that seems to underlie all English literature,–that it is no matter what becomes of the woman when the man’s story is to be told. But, with all his faults, Moore was not a cruel man; and we cannot conceive such outrageous cruelty and ungentlemanly indelicacy towards an unoffending woman, as he shows in these Memoirs, without referring them to Lord Byron’s own influence in making him an unscrupulous, committed partisan on his side.
So little pity, so little sympathy, did he suppose Lady Byron to be worthy of, that he laid before her, in the sight of all the world, selections from her husband’s letters and journals, in which the privacies of her courtship and married life were jested upon with a vulgar levity; letters filled, from the time of the act of separation, with a constant succession of sarcasms, stabs, stings, epigrams, and vindictive allusions to herself, bringing her into direct and insulting comparison with his various mistresses, and implying their superiority over her. There, too, were gross attacks on her father and mother, as having been the instigators of the separation; and poor Lady Milbanke, in particular, is sometimes mentioned with epithets so offensive, that the editor prudently covers the terms with stars, as intending language too gross to be printed.
The last mistress of Lord Byron is uniformly brought forward in terms of such respect and consideration, that one would suppose that the usual moral laws that regulate English family life had been specially repealed in his favor. Moore quotes with approval letters from Shelley, stating that Lord Byron’s connection with La Guiccioli has been of inestimable benefit to him; and that he is now becoming what he should be, “a virtuous man.” Moore goes on to speak of the connection as one, though somewhat reprehensible, yet as having all those advantages of marriage and settled domestic ties that Byron’s affectionate spirit had long sighed for, but never before found; and in his last résumé of the poet’s character, at the end of the volume, he brings the mistress into direct comparison with the wife in a single sentence: “The woman to whom he gave the love of his maturer years idolizes his name; and, with a single unhappy exception, scarce an instance is to be found of one brought . . . into relations of amity with him who did not retain a kind regard for him in life, and a fondness for his memory.”
Literature has never yet seen the instance of a person, of Lady Byron’s rank in life, placed before the world in a position more humiliating to womanly dignity, or wounding to womanly delicacy.
The direct implication is, that she has no feelings to be hurt, no heart to be broken, and is not worthy even of the consideration which in ordinary life is to be accorded to a widow who has received those awful tidings which generally must awaken many emotions, and call for some consideration, even in the most callous hearts.
The woman who we are told walked the room, vainly striving to control the sobs that shook her frame, while she sought to draw from the servant that last message of her husband which she was never to hear, was not thought worthy even of the rights of common humanity.
The first volume of the Memoir came out in 1830. Then for the first time came one flash of lightning from the silent cloud; and she who had never spoken before spoke out. The libels on the memory of her dead parents drew from her what her own wrongs never did. During all this time, while her husband had been keeping her effigy dangling before the public as a mark for solemn curses, and filthy lampoons, and secretly-circulated disclosures, that spared no sacredness and violated every decorum, she had not uttered a word. She had been subjected to nameless insults, discussed in the assemblies of drunkards, and challenged to speak for herself. Like the chaste lady in “Comus,” whom the vile wizard had bound in the enchanted seat to be “grinned at and chattered at” by all the filthy rabble of his dehumanized rout, she had remained pure, lofty, and undefiled; and the stains of mud and mire thrown upon her had fallen from her spotless garments.
Now that she is dead, a recent writer in ” The London Quarterly” dares give voice to an insinuation which even Byron gave only a suggestion of when he called his wife Clytemnestra; and hints that she tried the power of youth and beauty to win to her the young solicitor Lushington, and a handsome young officer of high rank.
At this time, such insinuations had not been thought of; and the only and chief allegation against Lady Byron had been a cruel severity of virtue.
At all events, when Lady Byron spoke, the world listened with respect, and believed what she said.
Here let us, too, read her statement, and give it the careful attention she solicits (Moore Life of Byron, vol. vi. p. 275): —
“I have disregarded various publications in which facts within my own knowledge have been grossly misrepresented; but I am called upon to notice some of the erroneous statements proceeding from one who claims to be considered as Lord Byron’s confidential and authorized friend. Domestic details ought not to be intruded on the public attention: if, however, they are so intruded, the persons affected by them have a right to refute injurious charges. Mr. Moore has promulgated his own impressions of private events in which I was most nearly concerned, as if he possessed a competent knowledge of the subject. Having survived Lord Byron, I feel increased reluctance to advert to any circumstances connected with the period of my marriage; nor is it now my intention to disclose them further than may be indispensably requisite for the end I have in view. Self-vindication is not the motive which actuates me to make this appeal, and the spirit of accusation is unmingled with it; but when the conduct of my parents is brought forward in a disgraceful light by the passages selected from Lord Byron’s letters, and by the remarks of his biographer, I feel bound to justify their characters from imputations which I know to be false. The passages from Lord Byron’s letters, to which I refer, are, — the aspersion on my mother’s character (p. 648, l. 4): ‘My child is very well and flourishing, I hear; but I must see also. I feel no disposition to resign it to the contagion of its grandmother’s society.’ The assertion of her dishonorable conduct in employing a spy (p. 645, l. 7, &c.): ‘A Mrs. C. (now a kind of housekeeper and spy of Lady N.’s), who, in her better days, was a washerwoman, is supposed to be — by the learned — very much the occult cause of our domestic discrepancies.’ The seeming exculpation of myself in the extract (p. 646), with the words immediately following it, ‘Her nearest relations are a—-;’ where the blank clearly implies something too offensive for publication. These passages tend to throw suspicion on my parents, and give reason to ascribe the separation either to their direct agency, or to that of ‘officious spies’ employed by them. From the following part of the narrative (p. 642), it must also be inferred that an undue influence was exercised by them for the accomplishment of this purpose: ‘It was in a few weeks after the latter communication between us ( Lord Byron and Mr. Moore) that Lady Byron adopted the determination of parting from him. She had left London at the latter end of January, on a visit to her father’s house in Leicestershire; and Lord Byron was in a short time to follow her. They had parted in the utmost kindness, — she wrote him a letter, full of playfulness and affection, on the road; and, immediately on her arrival at Kirkby Mallory, her father wrote to acquaint Lord Byron that she would return to him no more.’
“In my observations upon this statement, I shall, as far as possible, avoid touching on any matters relating personally to Lord Byron and myself. The facts are, — I left London for Kirkby Mallory, the residence of my father and mother, on the 15th of January, 1816. Lord Byron had signified to me in writing (Jan. 6) his absolute desire that I should leave London on the earliest day that I could conveniently fix. It was not safe for me to undertake the fatigue of a journey sooner than the 15th. Previously to my departure, it had been strongly impressed on my mind that Lord Byron was under the influence of insanity. This opinion was derived in a great measure from the communications made to me by his nearest relatives and personal attendant, who had more opportunities than myself of observing him during the latter part of my stay in town. It was even represented to me that he was in danger of destroying himself. With the concurrence of his family, I had consulted Dr. Baillie, as a friend (Jan. 8), respecting this supposed malady. On acquainting him with the state of the case, and with Lord Byron’s desire that I should leave London, Dr. Baillie thought that my absence might be advisable as an experiment, assuming the fact of mental derangement; for Dr. Baillie, not having had access to Lord Byron, could not pronounce a positive opinion on that point. He enjoined, that, in correspondence with Lord Byron, I should avoid all but light and soothing s. Under these impressions, I left London, determined to follow the advice given by Dr. Baillie. Whatever might have been the nature of Lord Byron’s conduct towards me from the time of my marriage, yet, supposing him to be in a state of mental alienation, it was not for me, nor for any person of common humanity, to manifest at that moment a sense of injury, On the day of my departure, and again on my arrival at Kirkby (Jan. 16), I wrote to Lord Byron in a kind and cheerful tone, according to those medical directions.
“The last letter was circulated, and employed as a pretext for the charge of my having been subsequently influenced to ‘desert’ my husband. It has been argued that I parted from Lord Byron in perfect harmony; that feelings incompatible with any deep, sense of injury had dictated the letter which I addressed to him; and that my sentiments must have been changed by persuasion and interference when I was under the roof of my parents. These assertions and inferences are wholly destitute of foundation. When I arrived at Kirkby Mallory, my parents were unacquainted with the existence of any causes likely to destroy my prospects of happiness; and, when I communicated to them the opinion which had been formed concerning Lord Byron’s state of mind, they were most anxious to promote his restoration by every means in their power. They assured those relations who were with him in London, that ‘they would devote their whole care and attention to the alleviation of his malady;’ and hoped to make the best arrangements for his comfort, if he could be induced to visit them.
“With these intentions, my mother wrote on the 17th to Lord Byron, inviting him to Kirkby Mallory. She had always treated him with an affectionate consideration and indulgence, which extended to every little peculiarity of his feelings. Never did an irritating word escape her lips in her whole intercourse with him. The accounts given me after I left Lord Byron, by the persons in constant intercourse with him, added to those doubts which had before transiently occurred to my mind as to the reality of the alleged disease; and the reports of his medical attendant were far from establishing the existence of any thing like lunacy. Under this uncertainty, I deemed it right to communicate to my parents, that, if I were to consider Lord Byron’s past conduct as that of a person of sound mind, nothing could induce me to return to him. It therefore appeared expedient, both to them and myself, to consult the ablest advisers. For that object, and also to obtain still further information respecting the appearances which seemed to indicate mental derangement, my mother determined to go to London. She was empowered by me to take legal opinions on a written statement of mine, though I had then reasons for reserving a part of the case from the knowledge even of my father and mother. Being convinced by the result of these inquiries, and by the tenor of Lord Byron’s proceedings, that the notion of insanity was an illusion, I no longer hesitated to authorize such measures as were necessary in order to secure me from being ever again placed in his power. Conformably with this resolution, my father wrote to him on the 2d of February to propose an amicable separation. Lord Byron at first rejected this proposal; but when it was distinctly notified to him, that, if he persisted in his refusal, recourse must be had to legal measures, he agreed to sign a deed of separation. Upon applying to Dr. Lushington, who was intimately acquainted with all the circumstances, to state in writing what he recollected upon this subject, I received from him the following letter, by which it will be manifest that my mother cannot have been actuated by any hostile or ungenerous motives towards Lord Byron: —
“‘MY DEAR Lady Byron, — I can rely upon the accuracy of my memory for the following statement. I was originally consulted by Lady Noel, on your behalf, whilst you were in the country. The circumstances detailed by her were such as justified a separation; but they were not of that aggravated description as to render such a measure indispensable. On Lady Noel’s representation, I deemed a reconciliation with Lord Byron practicable, and felt most sincerely a wish to aid in effecting it. There was not on Lady Noel’s part any exaggeration of the facts; nor, so far as I could perceive, any determination to prevent a return to Lord Byron: certainly none was expressed when I spoke of a reconciliation. When you came to town, in about a fortnight, or perhaps more, after my first interview with Lady Noel, I was for the first time informed by you of facts utterly unknown, as I have no doubt, to Sir Ralph and Lady Noel. On receiving this additional information, my opinion was entirely changed: I considered a reconciliation impossible. I declared my opinion, and added, that, if such an idea should be entertained, I could not, either professionally or otherwise, take any part towards effecting it.
Believe me, very faithfully yours,
GREAT GEORGE STREET, Jan. 31, 1830.'”
“I have only to observe, that, if the statements on which my legal advisers (the late Sir Samuel Romilly and Dr. Lushington) formed their opinions were false, the responsibility and the odium should rest with me only. I trust that the facts which I have here briefly recapitulated will absolve my father and mother from all accusations with regard to the part they took in the separation between Lord Byron and myself.
“They neither originated, instigated, nor advised that separation; and they cannot be condemned for having afforded to their daughter the assistance and protection which she claimed. There is no other near relative to vindicate their memory from insult. I am therefore compelled to break the silence which I had hoped always to observe, and to solicit from the readers of Lord Byron’s Life an impartial consideration of the testimony extorted from me.
” A. I. Noel Byron.
“HANGER HILL, Feb. 19, 1830.”
The effect of this statement on the literary world may be best judged by the discussion of it by Christopher North (Wilson) in the succeeding May number of “The Noctes,” where the bravest and most generous of literary men that then were — himself the husband of a gentle wife — thus gives sentence: the conversation is between North and the Shepherd: —
North. — “God forbid I should wound the feelings of Lady Byron, of whose character, known to me but by the high estimation in which it is held by all who have enjoyed her friendship, I have always spoken with respect! . . . But may I, without harshness or indelicacy, say, here among ourselves, James, that, by marrying Byron, she took upon herself, with eyes wide open and conscience clearly convinced, duties very different from those of which, even in common cases, the presaging foresight shadows . . . the light of the first nuptial moon?”
Shepherd. — “She did that, sir; by my troth, she did that.”
. . . . . . . . . . .
North. — “Miss Milbanke knew that he was reckoned a rake and a rouθ; and although his genius wiped off, by impassioned eloquence in love-letters that were felt to be irresistible, or hid the worst stain of, that reproach, still Miss Milbanke must have believed it a perilous thing to be the wife of Lord Byron. . . . But still, by joining her life to his in marriage, she pledged her troth and her faith and her love, under probabilities of severe, disturbing, perhaps fearful trials, in the future.
“But I think Lady Byron ought not to have printed that Narrative. Death abrogates not the rights of a husband to his wife’s silence when speech is fatal . . . to his character as a man. Has she not flung suspicion, over his bones interred, that they are the bones of a — monster? . . . If Byron’s sins or crimes — for we are driven to use terrible terms — were unendurable and unforgivable as if against the Holy Ghost, ought the wheel, the rack, or the stake to have extorted that confession from his widow’s breast? . . . But there was no such pain here, James: the declaration was voluntary, and it was calm. Self-collected, and gathering up all her faculties and feelings into unshrinking strength, she denounced before all the world -and throughout all space and all time — her husband, as excommunicated by his vices from woman’s bosom.
. . . . . . . . . . .
“‘Twas to vindicate the character of her parents that Lady Byron wrote, — a holy purpose and devout, nor do I doubt sincere. But filial affection and reverence, sacred as they are, may be blamelessly, nay, righteously, subordinate to conjugal duties, which die not with the dead, are extinguished not even by the sins of the dead, were they as foul as the grave’s corruption.”
Here is what John Stuart Mill calls the literature of slavery for woman, in length and breadth; and, that all women may understand the doctrine, the Shepherd now takes up his parable, and expounds the true position of the wife. We render his Scotch into English: —
“Not a few such widows do I know, whom brutal, profligate, and savage husbands have brought to the brink of the grave, -as good, as bright, as innocent as, and far more forgiving than, Lady Byron. There they sit in their obscure, rarely-visited dwellings; for sympathy instructed by suffering knows well that the deepest and most hopeless misery is least given to complaint.”
Then follows a pathetic picture of one such widow, trembling and fainting for hunger, obliged, on her way to the well for a can of water, her only drink, to sit down on a “knowe” and say a prayer.
“Yet she’s decently, yea, tidily dressed, poor creature! in sair worn widow’s clothes, a single suit for Saturday and Sunday; her hair, untimely gray, is neatly braided under her crape cap; and sometimes, when all is still and solitary in the fields, and all labor has disappeared into the house, you may see her stealing by herself, or leading one wee orphan by the hand, with another at her breast, to the kirkyard, where the love of her youth and the husband of her prime is buried.”
“Yet,” says the Shepherd, “he was a brute, a ruffian, a monster. When drunk, how he raged and cursed and swore! Often did she dread, that, in his fits of inhuman passion, he would have murdered the baby at her breast; for she had seen him dash their only little boy, a child of eight years old, on the floor, till the blood gushed from his ears; and then the madman threw himself down on the body, and howled for the gallows. Limmers haunted his door, and he theirs; and it was hers to lie, not sleep, in a cold, forsaken bed, once the bed of peace, affection, and perfect happiness. Often he struck her; and once, when she was pregnant with that very orphan now smiling on her breast, reaching out his wee fingers to touch the flowers on his father’s grave. . . .
“But she tries to smile among the neighbors, and speaks of her boy’s likeness to its father; nor, when the conversation turns on bygone times, does she fear to let his name escape her white lips, ‘My Robert; the bairn’s not ill-favored, but he will never look like his father,’ — and such sayings, uttered in a calm, sweet voice. Nay, I remember once how her pale countenance reddened with a sudden flush of pride, when a gossiping crone alluded to their wedding; and the widow’s eye brightened through her tears to hear how the bridegroom, sitting that sabbath in his front seat beside his bonny bride, had not his equal for strength, stature, and all that is beauty in man, in all the congregation. That, I say, sir, whether right or wrong, was — forgiveness.”
Here is a specimen of how even generous men had been so perverted by the enchantment of Lord Byron’s genius, as to turn all the pathos and power of the strongest literature of that day against the persecuted, pure woman, and for the strong, wicked man. These “Blackwood” writers knew, by Byron’s own filthy, ghastly writings, which had gone sorely against their own moral stomachs, that he was foul to the bone. They could see, in Moore’s Memoirs right before them, how he had caught an innocent girl’s heart by sending a love-letter, and offer of marriage, at the end of a long friendly correspondence, — a letter that had been written to show to his libertine set, and sent on the tossup of a copper, because he cared nothing for it one way or the other.
They admit, that, having won this poor girl, he had been savage, brutal, drunken, cruel. They had read the filthy taunts in “Don Juan,” and the nameless abominations in the Autobiography. They had admitted among themselves that his honor was lost; but still this abused, desecrated woman must reverence her brutal master’s memory, and not speak, even to defend the grave of her own kind father and mother.
That there was no lover of her youth, that the marriage-vow had been a hideous, shameless cheat, is on the face of Moore’s account; yet the “Blackwood” does not see it nor feel it, and brings up against Lady Byron this touching story of a poor widow, who really had had a true lover once, — a lover maddened, imbruted, lost, through that very drunkenness in which the Noctes Club were always glorying.
It is because of such transgressors as Byron, such supporters as Moore and the Noctes Club, that there are so many helpless, cowering, broken-hearted, abject women, given over to the animal love which they share alike with the poor dog, — the dog, who, beaten, kicked, starved, and cuffed, still lies by his drunken master with great anxious eyes of love and sorrow, and with sweet, brute forgiveness nestles upon his bosom, as he lies in his filth in the snowy ditch, to keep the warmth of life in him. Great is the mystery of this fidelity in the poor, loving brute, — most mournful and most sacred!
But oh, that a noble man should have no higher ideal of the love of a high-souled, heroic woman!
Oh, that men should teach women that they have no higher duties, and are capable of no higher tenderness, than this loving, unquestioning animal fidelity! The dog is ever-loving, ever-forgiving, because God has given him no high range of moral faculties, no sense of justice, no consequent horror at impurity and vileness.
Much of the beautiful patience and forgiveness of women is made possible to them by that utter deadness to the sense of justice which the laws, literature, and misunderstood religion of England have sought to induce in woman as a special grace and virtue.
The lesson to woman in this pathetic piece of special pleading is, that man may sink himself below the brute, may wallow in filth like the swine, may turn his home into a hell, beat and torture his children, forsake the marriage-bed for foul rivals; yet all this does not dissolve the marriage-vow on her part, nor free his bounden serf from her obligation to honor his memory, — nay, to sacrifice to it the honor due to a kind father and mother, slandered in their silent graves.
Such was the sympathy, and such the advice, that the best literature of England could give to a young widow, a peeress of England, whose husband, as they verily believed and admitted, might have done worse than all this; whose crimes might have been “foul, monstrous, unforgivable as the sin against the Holy Ghost.” If these things be done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry? If the peeress as a wife has no rights, what is the state of the cotter’s wife?
But, in the same paper, North again blames Lady Byron for not having come out with the whole story before the world at the time she separated from her husband. He says of the time when she first consulted counsel through her mother, keeping back one item, —
“How weak, and worse than weak, at such a juncture, on which hung her whole fate, to ask legal advice on an imperfect
document! Give the delicacy of a virtuous woman its due; but at such a crisis, when the question was whether her conscience was to be free from the oath of oaths, delicacy should have died, and nature was privileged to show unashamed — if such there were — the records of uttermost pollution.”
Shepherd. — “And what think ye, sir, that a’ this pollution could hae been, that sae electrified Dr. Lushington?”
North. — “Bad — bad — bad, James. Nameless, it is horrible: named, it might leave Byron’s memory yet within the range of pity and forgiveness; and, where they are, their sister affections will not be far; though, like weeping seraphs, standing aloof, and veiling their wings.”
Shepherd. — “She should indeed hae been silent — till the grave had closed on her sorrows as on his sins.”
North. — “Even now she should speak, — or some one else for her, — . . . and a few words will suffice. Worse the condition of the dead man’s name cannot be — far, far better it might — I believe it would be — were all the truth somehow or other declared; and declared it must be, not for Byron’s sake only, but for the sake of humanity itself; and then a mitigated sentence, or eternal silence.”
We have another discussion of Lady Byron’s duties in a further number of “Blackwood.”
The Memoir being out, it was proposed that there should be a complete annotation of Byron’s works gotten up, and adorned, for the further glorification of his memory, with portraits of the various women whom he had delighted to honor.
Murray applied to Lady Byron for her portrait, and was met with a cold, decided negative. After reading all the particulars of Byron’s harem of mistresses, and Moore’s comparisons between herself and La Guiccioli, one might imagine reasons why a lady, with proper self respect, should object to appearing in this manner. One would suppose there might have been gentlemen who could well appreciate the motive of that refusal; but it was only considered a new evidence that she was indifferent to her conjugal duties, and wanting in that respect which Christopher North had told her she owed a husband’s memory, though his crimes were foul as the rottenness of the grave.
Never, since Queen Vashti refused to come at the command of a drunken husband to show herself to his drunken lords, was there a clearer case of disrespect to the marital dignity on the part of a wife. It was a plain act of insubordination, rebellion against law and order; and how shocking in Lady Byron, who ought to feel herself but too much flattered to be exhibited to the public as the head wife of a man of genius!
Means were at once adopted to subdue her contumacy, of which one may read in a note to the “Blackwood” (Noctes), September, 1832. An artist was sent down to Ealing to take her picture by stealth as she sat in church. Two sittings were thus obtained without her knowledge. In the third one, the artist placed himself boldly before her, and sketched, so that she could not but observe him. We shall give the rest in Mackenzie’s own words, as a remarkable specimen of the obtuseness, not to say indelicacy of feeling, which seemed to pervade the literary circles of England at the time: —
“After prayers, Wright and his friend (the artist) were visited by an ambassador from her ladyship to inquire the meaning of what she had seen. The reply was, that Mr. Murray must have her portrait, and was compelled to take what she refused to give. The result was, Wright was requested to visit her, which he did; taking with him, not the sketch, which was very good, but another, in which there was a strong touch of caricature. Rather than allow that to appear as her likeness (a very natural and womanly feeling by the way), she consented to sit for the portrait to W. J. Newton, which was engraved, and is here alluded to.”
The artless barbarism of this note is too good to be lost; but it is quite borne out by the conversation in the Noctes Club, which it illustrates.
It would appear from this conversation that these Byron beauties appeared successively in pamphlet form; and the picture of Lady Byron is thus discussed: —
Mullion. — “I don’t know if you have seen the last brochure. It has a charming head of Lady Byron, who, it seems, sat on purpose: and that’s very agreeable to hear of; for it shows her ladyship has got over any little soreness that Moore’s Life occasioned, and is now willing to contribute any thing in her power to the real monument of Byron’s genius.”
North. — “I am delighted to hear of this: ’tis really very noble in the unfortunate lady. I never saw her. Is the face a striking one?”
Mullion. — “Eminently so, — a most calm, pensive, melancholy style of native beauty, — and a most touching contrast to the maids of Athens, Annesley, and all the rest of them. I’m sure you’ll have the proof Finden has sent you framed for the Boudoir at the Lodge.”
North. — “By all means. I mean to do that for all the Byron Beauties.”
But it may be asked, Was there not a man in all England with delicacy enough to feel for Lady Byron, and chivalry enough to speak a bold word for her? Yes: there was one. Thomas Campbell the poet, when he read Lady Byron’s statement, believed it, as did Christopher North; but it affected him differently. It appears he did not believe it a wife’s duty to burn herself on her husband’s funeral-pile, as did Christopher North; and held the singular idea, that a wife had some rights as a human being as well as a husband.
Lady Byron’s own statement appeared in pamphlet form in 1830: at least, such is the date at the foot of the document. Thomas Campbell, in “The New Monthly Magazine,” shortly after, printed a spirited, gentlemanly defence of Lady Byron, and administered a pointed rebuke to Moore for the rudeness and indelicacy he had shown in selecting from Byron’s letters the coarsest against herself, her parents, and her old governess Mrs. Clermont, and by the indecent comparisons he had instituted between Lady Byron and Lord Byron’s last mistress.
It is refreshing to hear, at last, from somebody who is not altogether on his knees at the feet of the popular idol, and who has some chivalry for woman, and some idea of common humanity. He says, —
“I found my right to speak on this painful subject, on its now irrevocable publicity, brought up afresh as it has been by Mr. Moore, to be the theme of discourse to millions, and, if I err not much, the cause of misconception to innumerable minds. I claim to speak of Lady Byron in the right of a man, and of a friend to the rights of woman, and to liberty, and to natural religion. I claim a right, more especially, as one of the many friends of Lady Byron, who, one and all, feel aggrieved by this production. It has virtually dragged her forward from the shade of retirement, where she had hid her sorrows, and compelled her to defend the heads of her friends and her parents from being crushed under the tombstone of Byron. Nay, in a general view, it has forced her to defend herself; though, with her true sense and her pure taste, she stands above all special pleading. To plenary explanation she ought not — she never shall be driven. Mr. Moore is too much a gentleman not to shudder at the thought of that; but if other Byronists, of a far different stamp, were to force the savage ordeal, it is her enemies, and not she, that would have to dread the burning ploughshares.
“We, her friends, have no wish to prolong the discussion: but a few words we must add, even to her admirable statement; for hers is a cause not only dear to her friends, but having become, from Mr. Moore and her misfortunes, a publicly agitated cause, it concerns morality, and the most sacred rights of the sex, that she should (and that, too, without more special explanations) be acquitted out and out, and honorably acquitted, in this business, of all share in the blame, which is one and indivisible. Mr. Moore, on further reflection, may see this; and his return to candor will surprise us less than his momentary deviation path.
“For the tact of Mr. Moore’s conduct in this affair, I have not to answer; but, if indelicacy be charged upon me, I scorn the charge. Neither will I submit to be called Lord Byron’s accuser; because a word against him I wish not to say beyond what is painfully wrung from me by the necessity of owning or illustrating Lady Byron’s unblamableness, and of repelling certain misconceptions respecting her, which are now walking the fashionable world, and which have been fostered (though Heaven knows where they were born) most delicately and warily by the Christian godfathership of Mr. Moore.
“I write not at Lady Byron’s bidding. I have never humiliated either her or myself by asking if I should write, or what I should write; that is to say, I never applied to her for information against Lord Byron, though I was justified, as one intending to criticise Mr. Moore, in inquiring into the truth of some of his statements. Neither will I suffer myself to be called her champion, if by that word be meant the advocate of her mere legal innocence; for that, I take it, nobody questions.
“Still less is it from the sorry impulse of pity that I speak of this noble woman; for I look with wonder and even envy at the proud purity of her sense and conscience, that have carried her exquisite sensibilities in triumph through such poignant tribulations. But I am proud to be called her friend, the humble illustrator of her cause, and the advocate of those principles which make it to me more interesting than Lord Byron’s. Lady Byron (if the subject must be discussed) belongs to sentiment and morality (at least as much as Lord Byron); nor is she to be suffered, when compelled to speak, to raise her voice as in a desert, with no friendly voice to respond to her. Lady Byron could not have outlived her sufferings if she had not wound up her fortitude to the high point of trusting mainly for consolation, not to the opinion of the world, but to her own inward peace; and, having said what ought to convince the world, I verily believe that she has less care about the fashionable opinion respecting her than any of her friends can have. But we, her friends, mix with the world; and we hear offensive absurdities about her, which we have a right to put down.
“I proceed to deal more generally with Mr. Moore’s book. You speak, Mr. Moore, against Lord Byron’s censurers in a tone of indignation which is perfectly lawful towards calumnious traducers, but which will not terrify me, or any other man of courage who is no calumniator, from uttering his mind freely with regard to this part of your hero’s conduct. I question your philosophy in assuming that all that is noble in Byron’s poetry was inconsistent with the possibility of his being devoted to a pure and good woman; and I repudiate your morality for canting too complacently about ‘the lava of his imagination,’ and the unsettled fever of his passions, being any excuses for his planting the tic douloureux of domestic suffering in a meek woman’s bosom.
“These are hard words, Mr. Moore; but you have brought them on yourself by your voluntary ignorance of facts known to me: for you might and ought to have known both sides of the question; and, if the subject was too delicate for you to consult Lady Byron’s confidential friends, you ought to have had nothing to do with the subject. But you cannot have submitted your book even to Lord Byron’s sister, otherwise she would have set you right about the imaginary spy, Mrs. Clermont.”
Campbell now goes on to print, at his own peril, he says, and without time to ask leave, the following note from Lady Byron in reply to an application he made to her, when he was about to review Moore’s book, for an “estimate as to the correctness of Moore’s statements.”
The following is Lady Byron’s reply: —
“DEAR MR. CAMPBELL, — In taking up my pen to point out for your private information those passages in Mr. Moore’s representation of my part of the story which were open to contradiction, I find them of still greater extent than I had supposed; and to deny an assertion here and there would virtually admit the truth of the rest. If, on the contrary, I were to enter into a full exposure of the falsehood of the views taken by Mr. Moore, I must detail various matters, which, consistently with my principles and feelings, I cannot under the existing circumstances disclose. I may, perhaps, convince you better of the difficulty of the case by an example: It is not true that pecuniary embarrassments were the cause of the disturbed state of Lord Byron’s mind, or formed the chief reason for the arrangements made by him at that time. But is it reasonable for me to expect that you or any one else should believe this, unless I show you what were the causes in question? and this I cannot do. “I am, &c.,
“A. I. NOEL BYRON.”
Campbell then goes on to reprove Moore for his injustice to Mrs. Clermont, whom Lord Byron had denounced as a spy, but whose respectability and innocence were vouched for by Lord Byron’s own family; and then he pointedly rebukes one false statement of great indelicacy and cruelty concerning Lady Byron’s courtship, as follows: —
“It is a further mistake on Mr. Moore’s part, and I can prove it to be so, if proof be necessary, to represent Lady Byron, in the course of their courtship, as one inviting her future husband to correspondence by letters after she had at first refused him. She never proposed a correspondence. On the contrary, he sent her a message after that first refusal, stating that he meant to go abroad, and to travel for some years in the East; that he should depart with a heart aching, but not angry; and that he only begged a verbal assurance that she had still some interest in his happiness. Could Miss Milbanke, as a well-bred woman, refuse a courteous answer to such a message? She sent him a verbal answer, which was merely kind and becoming, but which signified no encouragement that he should renew his offer of marriage.
“After that message, he wrote to her a most interesting letter about himself, — about his views, personal, moral, and religious, — to which it would have been uncharitable not to have replied. The result was an insensibly increasing correspondence, which ended in her being devotedly attached to him. About that time, I occasionally saw Lord Byron; and though I knew less of him than Mr. Moore, yet I suspect I knew as much of him as Miss Milbanke then knew. At that time, he was so pleasing, that, if I had had a daughter with ample fortune and beauty, I should have trusted her in marriage with Lord Byron.
“Mr. Moore at that period evidently understood Lord Byron better than either his future bride or myself; but this speaks more for Moore’s shrewdness than for Byron’s ingenuousness of character.
“It is more for Lord Byron’s sake than for his widow’s that I resort not to a more special examination of Mr. Moore’s misconceptions. The subject would lead me insensibly into hateful disclosures against poor Lord Byron, who is more unfortunate in his rash defenders than in his reluctant accusers. Happily, his own candor turns our hostility from himself against his defenders. It was only in wayward and bitter remarks that he misrepresented Lady Byron. He would have defended himself irresistibly if Mr. Moore had left only his acknowledging passages. But Mr. Moore has produced a Life of him which reflects blame on Lady Byron so dexterously, that ‘more is meant than meets the ear.’ The almost universal impression produced by his book is, that Lady Byron must be a precise and a wan, unwarming spirit, a blue-stocking of chilblained learning, a piece of insensitive goodness.
“Who that knows Lady Byron will not pronounce her to be every thing the reverse? Will it be believed that this person, so unsuitably matched to her moody lord, has written verses that would do no discredit to Byron himself; that her sensitiveness is surpassed and bounded only by her good sense; and that she is
‘Blest with a temper, whose unclouded ray
Can make to-morrow cheerful as to-day’?
“She brought to Lord Byron beauty, manners, fortune, meekness, romantic affection, and every thing that ought to have made her to the most transcendent man of genius — had he been what he should have been — his pride and his idol. I speak not of Lady Byron in the commonplace manner of attesting character: I appeal to the gifted Mrs. Siddons and Joanna Baillie, to Lady Charlemont, and to other ornaments of their sex, whether I am exaggerating in the least when I say, that, in their whole lives, they have seen few beings so intellectual and well-tempered as Lady Byron.
“I wish to be as ingenuous as possible in speaking of her. Her manner, I have no hesitation to say, is cool at the first interview, but is modestly, and not insolently, cool: she contracted it, I believe, from being exposed by her beauty and large fortune, in youth, to numbers of suitors, whom she could not have otherwise kept at a distance. But this manner could have had no influence with Lord Byron; for it vanishes on nearer acquaintance, and has no origin in coldness. All her friends like her frankness the better for being preceded by this reserve. This manner, however, though not the slightest apology for Lord Byron, has been inimical to Lady Byron in her misfortunes. It endears her to her friends; but it piques the indifferent. Most odiously unjust, therefore, is Mr. Moore’s assertion, that she has had the advantage of Lord Byron in public opinion. She is, comparatively speaking, unknown to the world; for though she has many friends, that is, a friend in every one who knows her, yet her pride and purity and misfortunes naturally contract the circle of her acquaintance.
“There is something exquisitely unjust in Mr. Moore comparing her chance of popularity with Lord Byron’s, the poet who can command men of talents, — putting even Mr. Moore into the livery of his service, — and who has suborned the favor of almost all women by the beauty of his person and the voluptuousness of his verses. Lady Byron has nothing to oppose to these fascinations but the truth and justice of her cause.
“You said, Mr. Moore, that Lady Byron was unsuitable to her lord: the word is cunningly insidious, and may mean as much or as little as may suit your convenience. But, if she was unsuitable, I remark that it tells all the worse against Lord Byron. I have not read it in your book (for I hate to wade through it); but they tell me that you have not only warily depreciated Lady Byron, but that you have described a lady that would have suited him. If this be true, ‘it is the unkindest cut of all,’ — to hold up a florid description of a woman suitable to Lord Byron, as if in mockery over the forlorn flower of virtue that was drooping in the solitude of sorrow.
“But I trust there is no such passage in your book. Surely you must be conscious of your woman, with her ‘virtue loose about her, who would have suited Lord Byron,’ to be as imaginary a being as the woman without a head. A woman to suit Lord Byron! Poo, poo! I could paint to you the woman that could have matched him, if I had not bargained to say as little as possible against him.
“If Lady Byron was not suitable to Lord Byron, so much the worse for his lordship; for let me tell you, Mr. Moore, that neither your poetry, nor Lord Byron’s, nor all our poetry put together, ever delineated a more interesting being than the woman whom you have so coldly treated. This was not kicking the dead lion, but wounding the living lamb, who was already bleeding and shorn, even unto the quick. I know, that, collectively speaking, the world is in Lady Byron’s favor; but it is coldly favorable, and you have not warmed its breath. Time, however, cures every thing; and even your book, Mr. Moore, may be the means of Lady Byron’s character being better appreciated. “THOMAS CAMPBELL.”
Here is what seems to be a gentlemanly, high spirited, chivalric man, throwing down his glove in the lists for a pure woman. What was the consequence? Campbell was crowded back, thrust down, overwhelmed, his eyes filled with dust, his mouth with ashes.
There was a general confusion and outcry, which re-acted both on him and on Lady Byron. Her friends were angry with him for having caused this re-action upon her; and he found himself at once attacked by Lady Byron’s enemies, and deserted by her friends. All the literary authorities of his day took up against him. with energy. Christopher North, professor of moral philosophy in the Edinburgh University, in a fatherly talk in “The Noctes,” condemns Campbell, and justifies Moore, and heartily recommends his Biography, as containing nothing materially objectionable on the score either of manners or morals. Thus we have it in ” The Noctes” of May, 1830: —
“Mr. Moore’s biographical book I admired; and I said so to my little world, in two somewhat lengthy articles, which many approved, and some, I am sorry to know, condemned.”
On the point in question between Moore and Campbell, North goes on to justify Moore altogether, only admitting that “it would have been better had he not printed any coarse expression of Byron’s about the old people; ” and, finally, he closes by saying, —
“I do not think, that, under the circumstances, Mr. Campbell himself, had he written Byron’s Life, could have spoken, with the sentiments he then held, in a better, more manly, and more gentlemanly spirit, in so far as regards Lady Byron, than Mr. Moore did: and I am sorry he has been deterred from ‘swimming’ through Mr. Moore’s work by the fear of ‘wading;’ for the waters are clear and deep; nor is there any mud, either at the bottom or round the margin.”
Of the conduct of Lady Byron’s so-called friends on this occasion it is more difficult to speak.
There has always been in England, as John Stuart Mill says, a class of women who glory in the utter self-abnegation of the wife to the husband, as the special crown of womanhood. Their patron saint is the Griselda of Chaucer, who, when her husband humiliates her, and treats her as a brute, still accepts all with meek, unquestioning, uncomplaining devotion. He tears her from her children; he treats her with personal abuse; he repudiates her, — sends her out to nakedness and poverty; he installs another mistress in his house, and sends for the first to be her handmaid and his own: and all this the meek saint accepts in the words of Milton, —
“My guide and head,
What thou hast said is just and right.”
Accordingly, Miss Martineau tells us, that when Campbell’s defence came out, coupled with a note from Lady Byron, —
“The first obvious remark was, that there was no real disclosure; and the whole affair had the appearance of a desire, on the part of Lady Byron, to exculpate herself, while yet no adequate information was given. Many, who had regarded her with favor till then, gave her up so far as to believe that feminine weakness had prevailed at last.”
The saint had fallen from her pedestal! She had shown a human frailty! Quite evidently she is not a Griselda, but possessed with a shocking desire to exculpate herself and her friends.
Is it, then, only to slandered men that the privilege belongs of desiring to exculpate themselves and their families and their friends from unjust censure?
Lord Byron had made it a life-long object to vilify and defame his wife. He had used for that one particular purpose every talent that he possessed. He had left it as a last charge to Moore to pursue the warfare after death, which Moore had done to some purpose; and Christopher North had informed Lady Byron that her private affairs were discussed, not only with the whiskey-toddy of the Noctes Club, but in every drawing-room in May Fair; and declared that the “Dear Duck” letter, and various other matters, must be explained, and urged somebody to speak; and then, when Campbell does speak with all the energy of a real gentleman, a general outcry and an indiscriminate mêlée is the result.
The world, with its usual injustice, insisted on attributing Campbell’s defence to Lady Byron.
The reasons for this seemed to be, first, that Campbell states that he did not ask Lady Byron’s leave, and that she did not authorize him to defend her; and, second, that, having asked some explanations from her, he prints a note in which she declines to give any.
We know not how a lady could more gently yet firmly decline to make a gentleman her confidant than in this published note of Lady Byron; and yet, to this day, Campbell is spoken of by the world as having been Lady Byron’s confidant at this time. This simply shows how very trustworthy are the general assertions about Lady Byron’s confidants.
The final result of the matter, so far as Campbell was concerned, is given in Miss Martineau’s sketch, in the following paragraph: —
“The whole transaction was one of poor Campbell’s freaks. He excused himself by saying it was a mistake of his; that he did not know what he was about when he published the paper.”
It is the saddest of all sad things to see a man, who has spoken from moral convictions, in advance of his day, and who has taken a stand for which he ought to honor himself, thus forced down and humiliated, made to doubt his own better nature and his own honorable feelings, by the voice of a wicked world.
Campbell had no steadiness to stand by the truth he saw. His whole story is told incidentally in a note to “The Noctes,” in which it is stated, that in an article in ” Blackwood,” January, 1825, on Scotch poets, the palm was given to Hogg over Campbell; “one ground being, that he could drink ‘eight and twenty tumblers of punch, while Campbell is hazy upon seven.'”
There is evidence in ” The Noctes,” that in due time Campbell was reconciled to Moore, and was always suitably ashamed of having tried to be any more generous or just than the men of his generation.
And so it was settled as a law to Jacob, and an ordinance in Israel, that the Byron worship should proceed, and that all the earth should keep silence before him. “Don Juan,” that, years before, had been printed by stealth, without Murray’s name on the title page, that had been denounced as a book which no woman should read, and had been given up as a desperate enterprise, now came forth in triumph, with banners flying and drums beating. Every great periodical in England that had fired moral volleys of artillery against it in its early days, now humbly marched in the glorious procession of admirers to salute this edifying work of genius.
“Blackwood,” which in the beginning had been the most indignantly virtuous of the whole, now grovelled and ate dust as the serpent in the very abjectness of submission. Odoherty (Maginn) declares that he would rather have written a page of “Don Juan” than a ton of “Childe Harold.” Timothy Tickler informs Christopher North that he means to tender Murray, as Emperor of the North, an interleaved copy of “Don Juan,” with illustrations, as the only work of Byron’s he cares much about; and Christopher North, professor of moral philosophy in Edinburgh, smiles approval! We are not, after this, surprised to see the assertion, by a recent much-aggrieved writer in “The London Era,” that “Lord Byron has been, more than any other man of the age, the teacher of the youth of England and that he has “seen his works on the bookshelves of bishops’ palaces, no less than the tables of university under-graduates.”
A note to ” The Noctes” of July, 1822, informs us of another instance of Lord Byron’s triumph over English morals: —
“The mention of this” ( Byron’s going to Greece) “reminds me, by the by, of what the Guiccioli said in her visit to London, where she was so lionized as having been the lady-love of Byron. She was rather fond of speaking on the subject, designating herself by some Venetian pet phrase, which she interpreted as meaning ‘Love-Wife.'”
What was Lady Byron to do in such a world? She retired to the deepest privacy, and devoted herself to works of charity, and the education of her only child, — that brilliant daughter, to whose eager, opening mind the whole course of current litèrature must bring so many trying questions in regard to the position of her father and mother, — questions that the mother might not answer. That the cruel inconsiderateness of the literary world added thorns to the intricacies of the path trodden by every mother who seeks to guide, restrain, and educate a strong, acute, and precociously intelligent child, must easily be seen.
What remains to be said of Lady Byron’s life shall be said in the words of Miss Martineau, published in “The Atlantic Monthly:”–
“Her life, thenceforth, was one of unremitting bounty to society, administered with as much skill and prudence as benevolence. She lived in retirement, changing her abode frequently; partly for the benefit of her child’s education and the promotion of her benevolent schemes, and partly from a restlessness which was one of the few signs of injury received from the spoiling of associations with home.
“She felt a satisfaction which her friends rejoiced in when her daughter married Lord King, at present the Earl of Lovelace, in 1835; and when grief upon grief followed, in the appearance of mortal disease in her only child, her quiet patience stood her in good stead as before. She even found strength to appropriate the blessings of the occasion, and took comfort, as did her dying daughter, in the intimate friendship, which grew closer as the time of parting drew nigh.
“Lady Lovelace died in 1852; and, for her few remaining years, Lady Byron was devoted to her grandchildren. But nearer calls never lessened her interest in remoter objects. Her mind was of the large and clear quality which could comprehend remote interests in their true proportions, and achieve each aim as perfectly as if it were the only one. Her agents used to say that it was impossible to mistake her directions; and thus her business was usually well done. There was no room, in her case, for the ordinary doubts, censures, and sneers about the misapplication of bounty.
“Her taste did not lie in the ‘Charity-Ball” direction; her funds were not lavished in encouraging hypocrisy and improvidence among the idle and worthless; and the quality of her charity was, in fact, as admirable as its quantity. Her chief aim was the extension and improvement of popular education; but there was no kind of misery that she heard of that she did not palliate to the utmost, and no kind of solace that her quick imagination and sympathy could devise that she did not administer.
“In her methods, she united consideration and frankness with singular success. For one instance among a thousand: A lady with whom she had had friendly relations some time before, and who became impoverished in a quiet way by hopeless sickness, preferred poverty with an easy conscience to a competency attended by some uncertainty about the perfect rectitude of the resource. Lady Byron wrote to an intermediate person exactly what she thought of the case. Whether the judgment of the sufferer was right or mistaken was nobody’s business but her own: this was the first point. Next, a voluntary poverty could never be pitied by anybody: that was the second. But it was painful to others to think of the mortification to benevolent feelings which attends poverty; and there could be no objection to arresting that pain. Therefore she, Lady Byron, had lodged in a neighboring bank the sum of one hundred pounds, to be used for benevolent purposes; and, in order to preclude all outside speculation, she had made the money payable to the order of the intermediate person, so that the sufferer’s name need not appear at all.
“Five and thirty years of unremitting secret bounty like this must make up a great amount of human happiness; but this was only one of a wide variety of methods of doing good. It was the unconcealable magnitude of her beneficence, and its wise quality, which made her a second time the theme of English conversation in all honest households within the four seas. Years ago, it was said far and wide that Lady Byron was doing more good than anybody else in England; and it was difficult to imagine how anybody could do more.
“Lord Byron spent every shilling that the law allowed him out of her property while he lived, and left away from her every shilling that he could deprive her of by his will; yet she had, eventually, a large income at her command. In the management of it, she showed the same wise consideration that marked all her practical decisions. She resolved to spend her whole income, seeing how much the world needed help at the moment. Her care was for the existing generation, rather than for a future one, which would have its own friends. She usually declined trammelling herself with annual subscriptions to charities; preferring to keep her freedom from year to year, and to achieve definite objects by liberal bounty, rather than to extend partial help over a large surface which she could not herself superintend.
“It was her first industrial school that awakened the admiration of the public, which had never ceased to take an interest in her, while sorely misjudging her character. We hear much now — and everybody hears it with pleasure — of the spread of education in ‘common things;’ but long before Miss Coutts inherited her wealth, long before a name was found for such a method of training, Lady Byron had instituted the thing, and put it in the way of making its own name.
“She was living at Ealing, in Middlesex, in 1834; and there she opened one of the first industrial schools in England, if not the very first. She sent out a master to Switzerland, to be instructed in De Fellenburgh’s method. She took, on lease, five acres of land, and spent several hundred pounds in rendering the buildings upon it fit for the purposes of the school. A liberal education was afforded to the children of artisans and laborers during the half of the day when they were not employed in the field or garden. The allotments were rented by the boys, who raised and sold produce, which afforded them a considerable yearly profit if they were good workmen. Those who worked in the field earned wages; their labor being paid by the hour, according to the capability of the young laborer. They kept their accounts of expenditure and receipts, and acquired good habits of business while learning the occupation of their lives. Some mechanical trades were taught, as well as the arts of agriculture.
“Part of the wisdom of the management lay in making the pupils pay. Of one hundred pupils, half were boarders. They paid little more than half the expenses of their maintenance, and the day-scholars paid three pence per week. Of course, a large part of the expense was borne by Lady Byron, besides the payments she made for children who could not otherwise have entered the school. The establishment flourished steadily till 1852, when the owner of the land required it back for building purposes. During the eighteen years that the Ealing schools were in action, they did a world of good in the way of incitement and example. The poor-law commissioners pointed out their merits. Land-owners and other wealthy persons visited them, and went home and set up similar establishments. During those years, too, Lady Byron had herself been at work in various directions to the same purpose.
“A more extensive industrial scheme was instituted on her Leicestershire property, and not far off she opened a girls’ school and an infant school; and when a season of distress came, as such seasons are apt to befall the poor Leicestershire stocking-weavers, Lady Byron fed the children for months together, till they could resume their payments. These school were opened in 1840. The next year, she built a schoolhouse on her Warwickshire property; and, five years later, she set up an iron schoolhouse on another Leicestershire estate.
“By this time, her educational efforts were costing her several hundred pounds a year in the mere maintenance of existing establishments; but this is the smallest consideration in the case. She has sent out tribes of boys and girls into life fit to do their part there with skill and credit and comfort. Perhaps it is a still more important consideration, that scores of teachers and trainers have been led into their vocation, and duly prepared for it, by what they saw and learned in her schools. As for the best and the worst of the Ealing boys, the best have, in a few cases, been received into the Battersea Training School, whence they could enter on their career as teachers to the greatest advantage; and the worst found their school a true reformatory, before reformatory schools were heard of. At Bristol, she bought a house for a reformatory for girls; and there her friend, Miss Carpenter, faithfully and energetically carries out her own and Lady Byron’s aims, which were one and the same.
“There would be no end if I were to catalogue the schemes of which these are a specimen. It is of more consequence to observe that her mind was never narrowed by her own acts, as the minds of benevolent people are so apt to be. To the last, her interest in great political movements, at home and abroad, was as vivid as ever. She watched every step won in philosophy, every discovery in science, every token of social change and progress in every shape. Her mind was as liberal as her heart and hand. No diversity of opinion troubled her: she was respectful to every sort of individuality, and indulgent to all constitutional peculiarities. It must have puzzled those who kept up the notion of her being ‘strait-laced’ to see how indulgent she was even to Epicurean tendencies, — the remotest of all from her own.
“But I must stop; for I do not wish my honest memorial to degenerate into panegyric. Among her latest known acts were her gifts to the Sicilian cause, and her manifestations on behalf of the antislavery cause in the United States. Her kindness to William and Ellen Craft must be well known there; and it is also related in the newspapers, that she bequeathed a legacy to a young American to assist him under any disadvantages he might suffer as an abolitionist.
“All these deeds were done under a heavy burden of ill health. Before she had passed middle life, her lungs were believed to be irreparably injured by partial ossification. She was subject to attacks so serious, that each one, for many years, was expected to be the last. She arranged her affairs in correspondence with her liabilities: so that the same order would have been found, whether she died suddenly or after long warning.
“She was to receive one more accession of outward greatness before she departed. She became Baroness Wentworth in November, 1856. This is one of the facts of her history; but it is the least interesting to us, as probably to her. We care more to know that her last days were bright in honor, and cheered by the attachment of old friends worthy to pay the duty she deserved. Above all, it is consoling to know that she who so long outlived her only child was blessed with the unremitting and tender care of her grand-daughter. She died on the 16th of May, 1860.
“The portrait of Lady Byron as she was at the time of her marriage is probably remembered by some of my readers. It is very engaging. Her countenance afterwards became much worn; but its expression of thoughtfulness and composure was very interesting. Her handwriting accorded well with the character of her mind. It was clear, elegant, and womanly. Her manners differed with circumstances. Her shrinking sensitiveness might embarrass one visitor; while another would be charmed with her easy, significant, and vivacious conversation. It depended much on whom she talked with. The abiding certainty was, that she had strength for the hardest of human trials, and the composure which belongs to strength. For the rest, it is enough to point to her deeds, and to the mourning of her friends round the chasm which her departure has made in their life, and in the society in which it is spent. All that could be done in the way of personal love and honor was done while she lived: it only remains now to see that her name and fame are permitted to shine forth at last in their proper light.”
We have simply to ask the reader whether a life like this was not the best, the noblest answer that a woman could make to a doubting world.
Chapter V. The Attack on Lady Byron’s Grave.
WE have now brought the review of the antagonism against Lady Byron down to the period of her death. During all this time, let tha candid reader ask himself which of these two parties seems to be plotting against the other.
Which has been active, aggressive, unscrupulous? which has been silent, quiet, unoffending? Which of the two has labored to make a party, and to make that party active, watchful, enthusiastic?
Have we not proved that Lady Byron remained perfectly silent during Lord Byron’s life, patiently looking out from her retirement to see the waves of popular sympathy, that once bore her up, day by day retreating, while his accusations against her were resounding in his poems over the whole earth? And after Lord Byron’s death, when all the world with one consent began to give their memorials of him, and made it appear, by their various “recollections of conversations,” how incessantly he had obtruded his own version of the separation upon every listener, did she manifest any similar eagerness?
Lady Byron had seen the “Blackwood” coming forward, on the first appearance of “Don Juan,” to rebuke the cowardly lampoon in words eloquent with all the unperverted vigor of an honest Englishman. Under the power of the great conspirator, she had seen that “Blackwood” become the very eager recipient and chief reporter of the stories against her, and the blind admirer of her adversary.
All this time, she lost sympathy daily by being silent. The world will embrace those who court it; it will patronize those who seek its favor; it will make parties for those who seek to make parties: but for the often accused who do not speak, who make no confidants and no parties, the world soon loses sympathy.
When at last she spoke, Christopher North says “she astonished the world.” Calm, clear, courageous, exact as to time, date, and circumstance, was that first testimony, backed by the equally clear testimony of Dr. Lushington.
It showed that her secret had been kept even from her parents. In words precise, firm, and fearless, she says, “If these statements on which Dr. Lushington and Sir Samuel Romilly formed their opinion were false, the responsibility and the odium should rest with me only.” Christopher North did not pretend to disbelieve this statement. He breathed not a doubt of Lady Byron’s word. He spoke of the crime indicated, as one which might have been foul as the grave’s corruption, unforgivable as the sin against the Holy Ghost. He rebuked the wife for bearing this testimony, even to save the memory of her dead father and mother, and, in the same breath, declared that she ought now to go farther, and speak fully the one awful word, and then — “a mitigated sentence, or eternal silence!”
But Lady Byron took no counsel with the world, nor with the literary men of her age. One knight, with some small remnant of England’s old chivalry, set lance in rest for her: she saw him beaten back unhorsed, rolled in the dust, and ingloriously vanquished, and perceived that henceforth nothing but injury could come to any one who attempted to speak for her.
She turned from the judgments of man and the fond and natural hopes of human nature, to lose herself in sacred ministries to the downcast and suffering. What nobler record for woman could there be than that which Miss Martineau has given?
Particularly to be noted in Lady Byron was her peculiar interest in reclaiming fallen women. Among her letters to Mrs. Prof. Follen of Cambridge was one addressed to a society of ladies who had undertaken this difficult work. It was full of heavenly wisdom and of a large and tolerant charity. Fénelon truly says, it is only perfection that can tolerate imperfection; and the very purity of Lady Byron’s nature made her most forbearing and most tender towards the weak and the guilty. This letter, with all the rest of Lady Byron’s, was returned to the hands of her executors after her death. Its publication would greatly assist the world in understanding the peculiarities of its writer’s character.
Lady Byron passed to a higher life in 1860. After her death, I looked for the publication of her Memoir and Letters as the event that should give her the same opportunity of being known and judged by her life and writings that had been so freely accorded to Lord Byron.
She was, in her husband’s estimation, a woman of genius. She was the friend of many of the first men and women of her times, and corresponded with them on s of literature, morals, religion, and, above all, on the benevolent and philanthropic movements of the day, whose principles she had studied with acute observation, and in connection with which she had acquired a large experience.
The knowledge of her, necessarily diffused by such a series of letters, would have created in America a comprehension of her character, of itself sufficient to wither a thousand slanders. Such a Memoir was contemplated. Lady Byron’s letters to Mrs. Follen were asked for from Boston; and I was applied to by a person in England, who I have recently learned is one of the existing trustees of Lady Byron’s papers, to furnish copies of her letters to me for the purpose of a Memoir. Before I had time to have copies made, another letter came, stating that the trustees had concluded that it was not best to publish any Memoir of Lady Byron at all.
This left the character of Lady Byron in our American world precisely where the slanders of her husband, the literature of the Noctes Club, and the unanimous verdict of May Fair as recorded by “Blackwood”, had placed it. True, Lady Byron had nobly and quietly lived down these slanders in England by deeds that made her name revered as a saint among all those who valued saintliness.
But in France and Italy, and in these United States, I have had abundant opportunity to know that Lady Byron stood judged and condemned on the testimony of her brilliant husband, and that the feeling against her had a vivacity and intensity not to be overcome by mere allusions to a virtuous life in distant England.
This is strikingly shown by one fact. In the American edition of Moore “Life of Byron”, by Claxton, Remsen, and Haffelfinger, Philadelphia, 1869, which I have been consulting, Lady Byron’s statement, which is found in the Appendix of Murray’s standard edition, is entirely omitted. Every other paper is carefully preserved. This one incident showed how the tide of sympathy was setting in this New World. Of course, there is no stronger power than a virtuous life; but, for a virtuous life to bear testimony to the world, its details must be told, so that the world may know them.
Suppose the memoirs of Clarkson and Wilberforce had been suppressed after their death, how soon might the coming tide have wiped out the record of their bravery and philanthropy! Suppose the lives of Francis Xavier and Henry Martyn had never been written, and we had lost the remembrance of what holy men could do and dare in the divine enthusiasm of Christian faith! Suppose we had no Fénelon, no Book of Martyrs!
Would there not be an outcry through all the literary and artistic world if a perfect statue were allowed to remain buried forever because some painful individual history was connected with its burial and its recovery? But is not a noble life a greater treasure to mankind than any work of art?
We have heard much mourning over the burned Autobiography of Lord Byron, and seen it treated of in a magazine as “the lost chapter in history.” The lost chapter in history is Lady Byron’s Autobiography in her life and letters; and the suppression of them is the root of this whole mischief.
We do not in this intend to censure the parties who came to this decision.
The descendants of Lady Byron revere her memory, as they have every reason to do. That it was their desire to have a Memoir of her published, I have been informed by an individual of the highest character in England, who obtained the information directly from Lady Byron’s grandchildren.
But the trustees in whose care the papers were placed drew back on examination of them, and declared, that, as Lady Byron’s papers could not be fully published, they should regret any thing that should call public attention once more to the discussion of her history.
Reviewing this long history of the way in which the literary world had treated Lady Byron, we cannot wonder that her friends should have doubted whether there was left on earth any justice, or sense that any thing is due to woman as a human being with human rights. Evidently this lesson had taken from them all faith in the moral sense of the world. Rather than re-awaken the discussion, so unsparing, so painful, and so indelicate, which had been carried on so many years around that loved form, now sanctified by death, they sacrificed the dear pleasure of the memorials, and the interests of mankind, who have an indefeasible right to all the help that can be got from the truth of history as to the living power of virtue, and the reality of that great victory that overcometh the world.
There are thousands of poor victims, suffering in sadness, discouragement, and poverty; heart-broken wives of brutal, drunken husbands; women enduring nameless wrongs and horrors which the delicacy of their sex forbids them to utter, — to whom the lovely letters lying hidden away under those seals might bring courage and hope from springs not of this world.
But though the friends of Lady Byron, perhaps from despair of their kind, from weariness of the utter injustice done her, wished to cherish her name in silence, and to confine the story of her virtues to that circle who knew her too well to ask a proof, or utter a doubt, the partisans of Lord Byron were embarrassed with no such scruple.
Lord Byron had artfully contrived during his life to place his wife in such an antagonistic position with regard to himself, that his intimate friends were forced to believe that one of the two had deliberately and wantonly injured the other. The published statement of Lady Byron contradicted boldly and point-blank all the statement of her husband concerning the separation: so that, unless she was convicted as a false witness, he certainly was.
The best evidence of this is Christopher North’s own shocked, astonished statement, and the words of the Noctes Club.
The noble life that Lady Byron lived after this hushed every voice, and silenced even the most desperate calumny, while she was in the world. In the face of Lady Byron as the world saw her, of what use was the talk of Clytemnestra, and the assertion that she had been a mean, deceitful conspirator against her husband’s honor in life, and stabbed his memory after death?
But when she was in her grave, when her voice and presence and good deeds no more spoke for her, and a new generation was growing up that knew her not, then was the time selected to revive the assault on her memory, and to say over her grave what none would ever have dared to say of her while living.
During these last two years, I have been gradually awakening to the evidence of a new crusade against the memory of Lady Byron, which respected no sanctity, — not even that last and most awful one of death.
Nine years after her death, when it was fully understood that no story on her side or that of her friends was to be forthcoming, then her calumniators raked out from the ashes of her husband’s sepulchre all his bitter charges, to state them over in even stronger and more indecent forms.
There seems to be reason to think that the materials supplied by Lord Byron for such a campaign yet exist in society.
To ” The Noctes” of November, 1824, there is the following note apropos to a discussion of the Byron question:–
” Byron’s Memoirs, given by him to Moore, were burned, as everybody knows. But, before this, Moore had lent them to several persons. Mrs. Home Purvis, afterwards Viscountess of Canterbury, is known to have sat up all one night, in which, aided by her daughter, she had a copy made. I have the strongest reason for believing that one other person made a copy; for the description of the first twenty-four hours after the marriage ceremonial has been in my hands. Not until after the death of Lady Byron, and Hobhouse, who was the poet’s literary executor, can the poet’s Autobiography see the light; but I am certain it will be published.”
Thus speaks Mackenzie in a note to a volume of “The Noctes,” published in America in 1854. Lady Byron died in 1860.
Nine years after Lady Byron’s death, when it was ascertained that her story was not to see the light, when there were no means of judging her character by her own writings, commenced a well-planned set of operations to turn the public attention once more to Lord Byron, and to represent him as an injured man, whose testimony had been unjustly suppressed.
It was quite possible, supposing copies of the Autobiography to exist, that this might occasion a call from the generation of to-day, in answer to which the suppressed work might appear. This was a rather delicate operation to commence; but the instrument was not wanting. It was necessary that the subject should be first opened by some irresponsible party, whom more powerful parties might, as by accident, recognize and patronize, and on whose weakness they might build something stronger.
Just such an instrument was to be found in Paris. The mistress of Lord Byron could easily be stirred up and flattered to come before the world with a book which should re-open the whole controversy; and she proved a facile tool. At first, the work appeared prudently in French, and was called “Lord Byron jugé par les Témoins de sa Vie,” and was rather a failure. Then it was translated into English, and published by Bentley.
The book was inartistic, and helplessly, childishly stupid as to any literary merits, — a mere mass of gossip and twaddle; but after all, when one remembers the taste of the thousands of circulating-library readers, it must not be considered the less likely to be widely read on that account. It is only once in a century that a writer of real genius has the art to tell his story so as to take both the cultivated few and the average many. De Foe and John Bunyan are almost the only examples. But there is a certain class of reading that sells and spreads, and exerts a vast influence, which the upper circles of literature despise too much ever to fairly estimate its power.
However, the Guiccioli book did not want for patrons in the high places of literature. The “Blackwood” — the old classic magazine of England; the defender of conservatism and aristocracy; the paper of Lockhart, Wilson, Hogg, Walter Scott, and a host of departed grandeurs — was deputed to usher into the world this book, and to recommend it and its author to the Christian public of the nineteenth century.
The following is the manner in which ” Blackwood” calls attention to it:–
“One of the most beautiful of the songs of Béranger is that addressed to his Lisette, in which he pictures her, in old age, narrating to a younger generation the loves of their youth; deckt with flowers at each returning spring, and reciting the verses that had been inspired by her vanished charms:–
‘When youthful eyes your wrinkles shall explore
To see what beauties once inspired my lays,
Then will they say to thee, “Who was that friend
So loved, so wept, so sung in ceaseless praise?”
Paint to their eyes, if possible, my love,
Its ardors, its deliriums, e’en its fears;
And, good old friend, beside thy peaceful fire
Repeat the love-songs of my early years.
“Ah!” will they say, “was he so lovely, then?”
And thou without a blush shalt say, “I loved.”
“Of wrong or evil was he guilty ever?”
And thou with noble pride shalt answer, “Never!”‘
“This charming picture,” ” Blackwood” goes on to say, “has been realized in the case of a poet greater than Béranger, and by a mistress more famous than Lisette. The Countess Guiccioli has at length given to the world her ‘Recollections of Lord Byron.’ The book first appeared in France under the title of ‘ Lord Byron jugé par les Témoins de sa Vie,’ without the name of the countess. A more unfortunate designation could hardly have been selected. The ‘witnesses of his life’ told us nothing but what had been told before over and over again; and the uniform and exaggerated tone of eulogy which pervaded the whole book was fatal to any claim on the part of the writer to be considered an impartial judge of the wonderfully mixed character of Byron.
“When, however, the book is regarded as the avowed production of the Countess Guiccioli, it derives value and interest from its very faults. * There is something inexpressibly touching in the picture of the old lady calling up the phantoms of half a century ago; not faded and stricken by the hand of time, but brilliant and gorgeous as they were when Byron, in his manly prime of genius and beauty, first flashed upon her enraptured sight, and she gave her whole soul up to an absorbing passion, the embers of which still glow in her heart. (italics were added by Stowe)
“To her there has been no change, no decay. The god whom she worshipped with all the ardor of her Italian nature at seventeen is still the ‘Pythian of the age’ to her at seventy. To try such a book by the ordinary canons of criticism would be as absurd as to arraign the authoress before a jury of British matrons, or to prefer a bill of indictment against the Sultan for bigamy to a Middlesex grand jury.”
This, then, is the introduction which one of the oldest and most classical periodicals of Great Britain gives to a very stupid book, simply because it was written by Lord Byron’s mistress. That fact, we are assured, lends grace even to its faults.
Having brought the authoress upon the stage, the review now goes on to define her position, and assure the Christian world that
“The Countess Guiccioli was the daughter of an impoverished noble. At the age of sixteen, she was taken from a convent, and sold as third wife to the Count Guiccioli, who was old, rich, and profligate. A fouler prostitution never profaned the name of marriage. A short time afterwards, she accidentally met Lord Byron. Outraged and rebellious nature vindicated itself in the deep and devoted passion with which he inspired her. With the full assent of husband, father, and brother, and in compliance with the usages of Italian society, he was shortly afterwards installed in the office, and invested with all the privileges, of her ‘Cavalier Servente.'”
It has been asserted that the Marquis de Boissy, the late husband of this Guiccioli lady, was in the habit of introducing her in fashionable circles as “the Marquise de Boissy, my wife, formerly mistress to Lord Byron”! We do not give the story as a verity; yet, in the review of this whole history, we may be pardoned for thinking it quite possible.
The mistress, being thus vouched for and presented as worthy of sympathy and attention by one of the oldest and most classic organs of English literature, may now proceed in her work of glorifying the popular idol, and casting abuse on the grave of the dead wife.
Her attacks on Lady Byron are, to be sure, less skilful and adroit than those of Lord Byron. They want his literary polish and tact; but what of that? “Blackwood” assures us that even the faults of manner derive a peculiar grace from the fact that the narrator is Lord Byron’s mistress; and so we suppose the literary world must find grace in things like this:–
“She has been called, after his words, the moral Clytemnestra of her husband. Such a surname is severe: but the repugnance we feel to condemning a woman cannot prevent our listening to the voice of justice, which tells us that the comparison is still in favor of the guilty one of antiquity; for she, driven to crime by fierce passion overpowering reason, at least only deprived her husband of physical life, and, in committing the deed, exposed herself to all its consequences; while Lady Byron left her husband at the very moment that she saw him struggling amid a thousand shoals in the stormy sea of embarrassments created by his marriage, and precisely when he more than ever required a friendly, tender, and indulgent hand to save him.
“Besides, she shut herself up in silence a thousand times more cruel than Clytemnestra’s poniard: that only killed the body; whereas Lady Byron’s silence was destined to kill the soul, -and such a soul! — leaving the door open to calumny, and making it to be supposed that her silence was magnanimity destined to cover over frightful wrongs, perhaps even depravity. In vain did he, feeling his conscience at ease, implore some inquiry and examination. She refused; and the only favor she granted was to send him, one fine day, two persons to see whether he were not mad.
“And why, then, had she believed him mad? Because she, a methodical, inflexible woman, with that unbendingness which a profound moralist calls the worship rendered to pride by a feelingless soul, — because she could not understand the possibility of tastes and habits different to those of ordinary routine, or of her own starched life. Not to be hungry when she was; not to sleep at night, but to write while she was sleeping, and to sleep when she was up; in short, to gratify the requirements of material and intellectual life at hours different to hers, — all that was not merely annoying for her, but it must be madness; or, if not, it betokened depravity that she could neither submit to nor tolerate without perilling her own morality.
“Such was the grand secret of the cruel silence which exposed Lord Byron to the most malignant interpretations, to all the calumny and revenge of his enemies.
“She was, perhaps, the only woman in the world so strangely organized,–the only one, perhaps, capable of not feeling happy and proud at belonging to a man superior to the rest of humanity; and fatally was it decreed that this woman alone of her species should be Lord Byron’s wife!”
In a note is added, —
“If an imaginary fear, and even an unreasonable jealousy, may be her excuse (just as one excuses a monomania), can one equally forgive her silence? Such a silence is morally what are physically the poisons which kill at once, and defy all remedies; thus insuring the culprit’s safety. This silence it is which will ever be her crime; for by it she poisoned the life of her husband.”
The book has several chapters devoted to Lord Byron’s peculiar virtues; and, under the one devoted to magnanimity and heroism, his forgiving disposition receives special attention. The climax of all is stated to be that he forgave Lady Byron. All the world knew that, since he had declared this fact in a very noisy and impassioned manner in the fourth canto of “Childe Harold,” together with a statement of the wrongs which he forgave; but the Guiccioli thinks his virtue, at this period, has not been enough appreciated. In her view, it rose to the sublime. She says of Lady Byron, —
“An absolute moral monstrosity, an anomaly in the history of types of female hideousness, had succeeded in showing itself in the light of magnanimity. But false as was this high quality in Lady Byron, so did it shine out in him true and admirable. The position in which Lady Byron had placed him, and where she continued to keep him by her harshness, silence, and strange refusals, was one of those which cause such suffering, that the highest degree of self-control seldom suffices to quiet the promptings of human weakness, and to cause persons of even slight sensibility to preserve moderation. Yet, with his sensibility and the knowledge of his worth, how did he act? what did he say? I will not speak of his ‘Farewell;’ of the care he took to shield her from blame by throwing it on others, by taking much too large a share to himself.”
With like vivacity and earnestness does the narrator now proceed to make an incarnate angel of her subject by the simple process of denying every thing that he himself ever confessed, -every thing that has ever been confessed in regard to him by his best friends. He has been in the world as an angel unawares from his cradle. His guardian did not properly appreciate him, and is consequently mentioned as that wicked Lord Carlisle. Thomas Moore is never to be sufficiently condemned for the facts told in his Biography. Byron’s own frank and lawless admissions of evil are set down to a peculiar inability he had for speaking the truth about himself, -sometimes about his near relations; all which does not in the least discourage the authoress from giving a separate chapter on “Lord Byron’s Love of Truth.”
In the matter of his relations with women, she complacently repeats (what sounds rather oddly as coming from her) Lord Byron’s own assurance, that he never seduced a woman; and also the equally convincing statement, that he had told her (the Guiccioli) that his married fidelity to his wife was perfect. She discusses Moore’s account of the mistress in boy’s clothes who used to share Byron’s apartments in college, and ride with him to races, and whom he presented to ladies as his brother.
She has her own view of this matter. The disguised boy was a lady of rank and fashion, who sought Lord Byron’s chambers, as we are informed noble ladies everywhere, both in Italy and England, were constantly in the habit of doing; throwing themselves at his feet, and imploring permission to become his handmaids.
In the authoress’s own words, “Feminine overtures still continued to be made to Lord Byron; but the fumes of incense never hid from his sight his IDEAL.” We are told, that, in case of these poor ladies, generally “disenchantment took place on his side without a corresponding result on the other: THENCE many heart-breakings.” Nevertheless, we are informed that there followed the indiscretions of these ladies “none of those proceedings that the world readily forgives, but which his feelings as a man of honor would have condemned.”
As to drunkenness, and all that, we are informed he was an anchorite. Pages are given to an account of the biscuits and soda-water that on this and that occasion were found to be the sole means of sustenance to this ethereal creature.
As to the story of using his wife’s money, the lady gives, directly in the face of his own Letters and Journal, the same account given before by Medwin, and which caused such merriment when talked over in the Noctes Club, — that he had with her only a marriage-portion of £10,000; and that, on the separation, he not only paid it back, but doubled it.* (Note: In the Noctes of November, 1824, Christopher North says, “I don’t call Medwin a liar. . . . Whether Byron bammed him, or he, by virtue of his own stupidity, was the sole and sufficient bammifier of himself, I know not.” A note says, that Murray had been much shocked by Byron’s misstatements to Medwin as to money-matters with him. The note goes on to say, ” Medwin could not have invented them, for they were mixed up with acknowledged facts; and the presumption is, that Byron mystified his gallant acquaintance. He was fond of such tricks.”)
So on the authoress goes, sowing right and left the most transparent absurdities and misstatements with what Carlyle well calls “a composed stupidity, and a cheerful infinitude of ignorance.” Who should know, if not she, to be sure? Had not Byron told her all about it? and was not his family motto Crede Byron?
The “Blackwood,” having a dim suspicion that this confused style of attack and defence in reference to the two parties under consideration may not have great weight, itself proceeds to make the book an occasion for re-opening the controversy of Lord Byron with his wife.
The rest of the review is devoted to a powerful attack on Lady Byron’s character, — the most fearful attack on the memory of a dead woman we have ever seen made by a living man. The author proceeds, like a lawyer, to gather up, arrange, and restate, in a most workmanlike manner, the confused accusations of the book.
Anticipating the objection, that such a reopening of the inquiry was a violation of the privacy due to womanhood and to the feelings of a surviving family, he says, that though marriage usually is a private matter which the world has no right to intermeddle with or discuss, yet —
Lord Byron’s was an exceptional case. It is not too much to say, that, had his marriage been a happy one, the course of events of the present century might have been materially changed; that the genius which poured itself forth in ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Cain’ might have flowed in far different channels; that the ardent love of freedom which sent him to perish at six and thirty at Missolonghi might have inspired a long career at home; and that we might at this moment have been appealing to the counsels of his experience and wisdom at an age not exceeding that which was attained by Wellington, Lyndhurst, and Brougham.
“Whether the world would have been a gainer or a loser by the exchange is a question which every man must answer for himself, according to his own tastes and opinions; but the possibility of such a change in the course of events warrants us in treating what would otherwise be a strictly private matter as one of public interest.
“More than half a century has elapsed, the actors have departed from the stage, the curtain has fallen; and whether it will ever again be raised so as to reveal the real facts of the drama, may, as we have already observed, be well doubted. But the time has arrived when we may fairly gather up the fragments of evidence, clear them as far as possible from the incrustations of passion, prejudice, and malice, and place them in such order, as, if possible, to enable us to arrive at some probable conjecture as to what the skeleton of the drama originally was.”
Here the writer proceeds to put together all the facts of Lady Byron’s case, just as an adverse lawyer would put them as against her, and for her husband. The plea is made vigorously and ably, and with an air of indignant severity, as of an honest advocate who is thoroughly convinced that he is pleading the cause of a wronged man who has been ruined in name, shipwrecked in life, and driven to an early grave, by the arts of a bad woman, — a woman all the more horrible that her malice was disguised under the cloak of religion.
Having made an able statement of facts, adroitly leaving out ONE,* of which he could not have been ignorant had he studied the case carefully enough to know all the others, he proceeds to sum up against the criminal thus. — (Note: This one fact is, that Lord Byron might have had an open examination in court, if he had only persisted in refusing the deed of separation.)
“We would deal tenderly with the memory of Lady Byron. Few women have been juster objects of compassion. It would seem as if Nature and Fortune had vied with each other which should be most lavish of her gifts, and yet that some malignant power had rendered all their bounty of no effect. Rank, beauty, wealth, and mental powers of no common order, were hers; yet they were of no avail to secure her happiness. The spoilt child of seclusion, restraint, and parental idolatry, a fate (alike evil for both) cast her into the arms of the spoilt child of genius, passion, and the world. What real or fancied wrongs she suffered, we may never know; but those which she inflicted are sufficiently apparent.
“It is said that there are some poisons so subtle that they will destroy life, and yet leave no trace of their action. The murderer who uses them may escape the vengeance of the law; but he is not the less guilty. So the slanderer who makes no charge; who deals in hints and insinuations; who knows melancholy facts he would not willingly divulge, — things too painful to state; who forbears, expresses pity, sometimes even affection, for his victim, shrugs his shoulders, looks with
‘The significant eye,
Which learns to lie with silence,’ —
is far more guilty than he who tells the bold falsehood which may be met and answered, and who braves the punishment which must follow upon detection.
“Lady Byron has been called
‘The moral Clytemnestra of her lord.’
The ‘moral Brinvilliers’ would have been a truer designation.
“The conclusion at which we arrive is, that there is no proof whatever that Lord Byron was guilty of any act that need have caused a separation, or prevented a re-union, and that the imputations upon him rest on the vaguest conjecture; that whatever real or fancied wrongs Lady Byron may have endured are shrouded in an impenetrable mist of her own creation, — a poisonous miasma in which she enveloped the character of her husband, — raised by her breath, and which her breath only could have dispersed.
‘She dies, and makes no sign. O God! forgive her.'”
As we have been obliged to review accusations on Lady Byron founded on old Greek tragedy, so now we are forced to abridge a passage from a modern conversations-lexicon, that we may understand what sort of comparisons are deemed in good taste in a conservative English review, when speaking of ladies of rank in their graves.
Under the article “Brinvilliers”, we find as follows: —
” MARGUERITE D’AUBRAI, MARCHIONESS OF BRINVILLIERS. — The singular atrocity of this woman gives her a sort of infamous claim to notice. She was born in Paris in 1651; being daughter of D’Aubrai, lieutenant-civil of Paris, who married her to the Marquis of Brinvilliers. Although possessed of attractions to captivate lovers, she was for some time much attached to her husband, but at length became madly in love with a Gascon officer. Her father imprisoned the officer in the Bastille; and, while there, he learned the art of compounding subtle and most mortal poisons; and, when he was released, he taught it to the lady, who exercised it with such success, that, in one year, her father, sister, and two brothers, became her victims. She professed the utmost tenderness for her victims, and nursed them assiduously. On her father she is said to have made eight attempts before she succeeded. She was very religious, and devoted to works of charity; and visited the hospitals a great deal, where it is said she tried her poisons on the sick.”
People have made loud outcries lately, both in America and England, about violating the repose of the dead. We should like to know what they call this. Is this, then, what they mean by respecting the dead?
Let any man imagine a leading review coming out with language equally brutal about his own mother, or any dear and revered friend.
Men of America, men of England, what do you think of this?
When Lady Byron was publicly branded with the names of the foulest ancient and foulest modern assassins, and Lord Byron’s mistress was publicly taken by the hand, and encouraged to go on and prosper in her slanders, by one of the oldest and most influential British reviews, what was said and what was done in England?
That is a question we should be glad to have answered. Nothing was done that ever reached us across the water.
And why was nothing done? Is this language of a kind to be passed over in silence?
Was it no offence to the house of Wentworth to attack the pure character of its late venerable head, and to brand her in her sacred grave with the name of one of the vilest of criminals?
Might there not properly have been an indignant protest of family solicitors against this insult to the person and character of the Baroness Wentworth?
If virtue went for nothing, benevolence for nothing, a long life of service to humanity for nothing, one would at least have thought, that, in aristocratic countries, rank might have had its rights to decent consideration, and its guardians to rebuke the violation of those rights.
We Americans understand little of the advantages of rank; but we did understand that it secured certain decorums to people, both while living and when in their graves. From Lady Byron’s whole history, in life and in death, it would appear that we were mistaken.
What a life was hers! Was ever a woman more evidently desirous of the delicate and secluded privileges of womanhood, of the sacredness of individual privacy? Was ever a woman so rudely dragged forth, and exposed to the hardened, vulgar, and unfeeling gaze of mere curiosity? — her maiden secrets of love thrown open to be handled by roués; the sanctities of her marriage-chamber desecrated by leering satyrs; her parents and best friends traduced and slandered, till one indignant public protest was extorted from her, as by the rack, — a protest which seems yet to quiver in every word with the indignation of outraged womanly delicacy!
Then followed coarse blame and coarser comment, — blame for speaking at all, and blame for not speaking more. One manly voice, raised for her in honorable protest, was silenced and overborne by the universal roar of ridicule and reprobation; and henceforth what refuge? Only this remained: “Let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him as to a faithful Creator.”
Lady Byron turned to this refuge in silence, and filled up her life with a noble record of charities and humanities. So pure was she, so childlike, so artless, so loving, that those who knew her best, feel, to this day, that a memorial of her is like the relic of a saint. And could not all this preserve her grave from insult? O England, England!
I speak in sorrow of heart to those who must have known, loved, and revered Lady Byron, and ask them, Of what were you thinking when you allowed a paper of so established literary rank as the “Blackwood” to present and earnestly recommend to our New World such a compendium of lies as the Guiccioli book?
Is the great English-speaking community, whose waves toss from Maine to California, and whose literature is yet to come back in a thousand voices to you, a thing to be so despised?
If, as the solicitors of the Wentworth family observe, you might be entitled to treat with silent contempt the slanders of a mistress against a wife, was it safe to treat with equal contempt the indorsement and recommendation of those slanders by one of your oldest and most powerful literary authorities?
No European magazine has ever had the weight and circulation in America that the “Blackwood” has held. In the days of my youth, when New England was a comparatively secluded section of the earth, the wit and genius of the “Noctes Ambrosianæ” were in the mouths of men and maidens, even in our most quiet mountain-towns. There, years ago, we saw all Lady Byron’s private affairs discussed, and felt the weight of Christopher North’s decisions against her. Shelton Mackenzie, in his American edition, speaks of the American circulation of “Blackwood” being greater than that in England. It was and is now reprinted monthly; and, besides that, Littell’s Magazine reproduces all its striking articles, and they come with the weight of long-established position. From the very fact that it has long been considered the Tory organ, and the supporter of aristocratic orders, all its admissions against the character of individuals in the privileged classes have a double force.
When ” Blackwood,” therefore, boldly denounces a lady of high rank as a modern Brinvilliers, and no sensation is produced, and no remonstrance follows, what can people in the New World suppose, but that Lady Byron’s character was a point entirely given up; that her depravity was so well established and so fully conceded, that nothing was to be said, and that even the defenders of aristocracy were forced to admit it?
I have been blamed for speaking on this subject without consulting Lady Byron’s friends, trustees, and family. More than ten years had elapsed since I had had any intercourse with England, and I knew none of them. How was I to know that any of them were living? It was perfectly fair for me to conclude that they were not; for, if they had been, they certainly must have taken some public steps to stop such a scandal. I was astonished to learn, for the first time, by the solicitors’ letters, that there were trustees, who held in their hands all Lady Byron’s carefully-prepared proofs and documents, by which this falsehood might immediately have been refuted.
If they had spoken, they might have saved all this confusion. Even if bound by restrictions for a certain period of time, they still might have called on, a Christian public to frown down such a cruel and indecent attack on the character of a noble lady who had been a benefactress to so many in England. They might have stated that the means of wholly refuting the slanders of the “Blackwood” were in their hands, and only delayed in coming forth from regard to the feelings of some in this generation. Then might they not have announced her Life and Letters, that the public might have the same opportunity as themselves for knowing and judging Lady Byron by her own writings?
Had this been done, I had been most happy to have remained silent. I have been astonished that any one should have supposed this speaking on my part to be any thing less than it is, — the severest act of self-sacrifice that one friend can perform for another, and the most solemn and difficult tribute to justice that a human being can be called upon to render.
I have been informed that the course I have taken would be contrary to the wishes of my friend. I think otherwise. I know her strong sense of justice, and her reverence for truth. Nothing ever moved her to speak to the public but an attack upon the honor of the dead. In her statement, she says of her parents, “There is no other near relative to vindicate their memory from insult: I am therefore compelled to break the silence I had hoped always to have observed.”
If there was any near relative to vindicate Lady Byron’s memory, I had no evidence of the fact; and I considered the utter silence to be strong evidence to the contrary. In all the storm of obloquy and rebuke that has raged in consequence of my speaking, I have had two unspeakable sources of joy: first, that they could not touch her; and, second, that they could not blind the all-seeing God. It is worth being in darkness to see the stars.
It has been said that I have drawn on Lady Byron’s name greater obloquy than ever before. I deny the charge. Nothing fouler has been asserted of her than the charges of the “Blackwood,” because nothing fouler could be asserted. No satyr’s hoof has ever crushed this pearl deeper in the mire than the hoof of the “Blackwood;” but none of them have so defiled it or trodden it so deep that God cannot find it in the day “when he maketh up his jewels.”
I have another word, as an American, to say about the contempt shown to our great people in thus suffering the materials of history to be falsified to subserve the temporary purposes of family feeling in England.
Lord Byron belongs not properly either to the Byrons or the Wentworths. He is not one of their family jewels, to be locked up in their cases. He belongs to the world for which he wrote, to which he appealed, and before which he dragged his reluctant, delicate wife to a publicity equal with his own: the world has, therefore, a right to judge him.
We Americans have been made accessories, after the fact, to every insult and injury that Lord Byron and the literary men of his day have heaped upon Lady Byron. We have been betrayed into injustice, and a complicity with villany. After Lady Byron had nobly lived down slanders in England, and died full of years and honors, the “Blackwood” takes occasion to re-open the controversy by recommending a book full of slanders to a rising generation who knew nothing of the past. What was the consequence in America? My attention was first called to the result, not by reading the “Blackwood” article, but by finding in a popular monthly magazine two long articles, — the one an enthusiastic recommendation of the Guiccioli book, and the other a lamentation over the burning of the Autobiography as a lost chapter in history.
Both articles represented Lady Byron as a cold, malignant, mean, persecuting woman, who had been her husband’s ruin. They were so full of falsehoods and misstatements as to astonish me. Not long after, a literary friend wrote to me, “Will you, can you, reconcile it to your conscience to sit still and allow that mistress so to slander that wife, — you, perhaps, the only one knowing the real facts, and able to set them forth?”
Upon this, I immediately began collecting and reading the various articles and the book, and perceived that the public of this generation were in a way of having false history created, uncontradicted, under their own eyes.
I claim for my country men and women our right to true history. For years, the popular literature has held up publicly before our eyes the facts as to this man and this woman,
and called on us to praise or condemn. Let us have truth when we are called on to judge. It is our right.
There is no conceivable obligation on a human being greater than that of absolute justice. It is the deepest personal injury to an honorable mind to be made, through misrepresentation, an accomplice in injustice. When a noble name is accused, any person who possesses truth which might clear it, and withholds that truth, is guilty of a sin against human nature and the inalienable claims of justice. I claim that I have not only a right, but an obligation, to bring in my solemn testimony upon this subject.
For years and years, the silence-policy has been tried; and what has it brought forth? As neither word nor deed could be proved against Lady Byron, her silence has been spoken of as a monstrous, unnatural crime, “a poisonous miasma,” in which she enveloped the name of her husband.
Very well: since silence is the crime, I thought I would tell the world that Lady Byron had spoken.
Christopher North, years ago, when he condemned her for speaking, said that she should speak further, —
“She should speak, or some one for her. One word would suffice.”
That one word I have spoken.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Lady Byron Vindicated: Part One by Harriet Beecher Stowe" https://englishhistory.net/byron/lady-byron-vindicated-part-one-by-harriet-beecher-stowe/, February 28, 2015