LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter XXIX

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Lord Byron in 1813.—The lady’s tragedy.—Miss Milbanke.—Growing uneasiness of Lord Byron’s mind.—The friar’s ghost.—The marriage.—A member of the Drury-lane committee.—Embarrassed affairs.—The separation.

The year 1813 was perhaps the period of all Lord Byron’s life in which he was seen to most advantage. The fame of Childe Harold was then in its brightest noon; and in that year he produced The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos—compositions not only of equal power, but even tinted with superior beauties. He was himself soothed by the full enjoyment of his political rank and station; and though his manners and character had not exactly answered to the stern and stately imaginations which had been formed of his dispositions and appearance, still he was acknowledged to be no common man, and his company in consequence was eagerly courted.

It forms no part of the plan of this work to repeat the gossip and tattle of private society, but occurrences happened to Lord Byron which engaged both, and some of them cannot well be passed over unnoticed. One of these took place during the spring of this year, and having been a subject of newspaper remark, it may with less impropriety be mentioned than others which were more indecorously made the topics of general discussion. The incident alluded to was an extravagant scene enacted by a lady of high rank, at a rout given by Lady Heathcote; in which, in revenge, as it was reported, for having been rejected
by Lord Byron, she made a suicidal attempt with an instrument, which scarcely penetrated, if it could even inflict any permanent mark on, the skin.

The insane attachment of this eccentric lady to his Lordship was well known; insane is the only epithet that can be applied to the actions of a married woman, who, in the disguise of her page, flung herself to a man, who, as she told a friend of mine, was ashamed to be in love with her because she was not beautiful—an expression at once curious and just, evincing a shrewd perception of the springs of his Lordship’s conduct, and the acuteness blended with frenzy and talent which distinguished herself. Lord Byron unquestionably at that time cared little for her. In showing me her picture, some two or three days after the affair, and laughing at the absurdity of it, he bestowed on her the endearing diminutive of vixen, with a hard-hearted adjective that I judiciously omit.

The immediate cause of this tragical flourish was never very well understood; but in the course of the evening she had made several attempts to fasten on his Lordship, and was shunned: certain it is, she had not, like Burke in the House of Commons, premeditatedly brought a dagger in her reticule, on purpose for the scene; but, seeing herself an object of scorn, she seized the first weapon she could find—some said a pair of scissors—others, more scandalously, broken jelly-glass, and attempted an incision of the jugular, to the consternation of all the dowagers, and the pathetic admiration of every Miss who witnessed or heard of the rapture.

Lord Byron at the time was in another room, talking with Prince K—, when Lord P— came, with a face full of consternation, and told them what had happened. The cruel poet, instead of being agitated by the tidings, or standing in the smallest degree in need of a smelling-bottle, knitted his scowl, and said, with a contemptuous indifference, “It is only a trick.”
All things considered, he was perhaps not uncharitable; and a man of less vanity would have felt pretty much as his Lordship appeared to do on the occasion. The whole affair was eminently ridiculous; and what increased the absurdity was a letter she addressed to a friend of mine on the subject, and which he thought too good to be reserved only for his own particular study.

It was in this year that Lord Byron first proposed for Miss Milbanke; having been urged by several of his friends to marry, that lady was specially recommended to him for a wife. It has been alleged, that he deeply resented her rejection of his proposal; and I doubt not, in the first instance, his vanity may have been a little piqued; but as he cherished no very animated attachment to her, and moreover, as she enjoyed no celebrity in public opinion to make the rejection important, the resentment was not, I am persuaded, either of an intense or vindictive kind. On the contrary, he has borne testimony to the respect in which he held her character and accomplishments; and an incidental remark in his journal, “I shall be in love with her again, if I don’t take care,” is proof enough that his anger was not of a very fierce or long-lived kind.

The account ascribed to him of his introduction to Miss Milbanke, and the history of their attachment, ought not to be omitted, because it serves to illustrate, in some degree, the state of his feelings towards her, and is so probable, that I doubt not it is in the main correct:—

“The first time of my seeing Miss Milbanke was at Lady ****’s. It was a fatal day; and I remember, that in going upstairs I stumbled, and remarked to Moore, who accompanied me, that it was a bad omen. I ought to have taken the warning. On entering the room, I observed a young lady more simply dressed than the rest of the assembly sitting
alone upon a sofa. I took her for a female companion, and asked if I was right in my conjecture. ‘She is a great heiress,’ said he, in a whisper, that became lower as he proceeded, ‘you had better marry her, and repair the old place, Newstead.’

“There was something piquant, and what we term pretty, in Miss Milbanke. Her features were small and feminine, though not regular. She had the fairest skin imaginable. Her figure was perfect for her height, and there was a simplicity, a retired modesty about her, which was very characteristic, and formed a happy contrast to the cold artificial formality and studied stiffness which is called fashion. She interested me exceedingly. I became daily more attached to her, and it ended in my making her a proposal, that was rejected. Her refusal was couched in terms which could not offend me. I was, besides, persuaded, that in declining my offer, she was governed by the influence of her mother; and was the more confirmed in my opinion, by her reviving our correspondence herself twelve months after. The tenour of her letter was, that, although she could not love me, she desired my friendship. Friendship is a dangerous word for young ladies; it is love full-fledged, and waiting for a fine day to fly.”

But Lord Byron possessed this sort of irrepressible predilections—was so much the agent of impulses, that he could not keep long in unison with the world, or in harmony with his friends. Without malice, or the instigation of any ill spirit, he was continually provoking malignity and revenge. His verses on the Princess Charlotte weeping, and his other merciless satire on her father, begot him no friends, and armed the hatred of his enemies. There was, indeed, something like ingratitude in the attack on the Regent, for his Royal Highness had been particularly civil; had intimated a wish to have him introduced to him; and Byron, fond of the distinction, spoke of it with a
sense of gratification. These instances, as well as others, of gratuitous spleen, only justified the misrepresentations which had been insinuated against himself, and what was humour in his nature, was ascribed to vice in his principles.

Before the year was at an end, his popularity was evidently beginning to wane: of this he was conscious himself, and braved the frequent attacks on his character and genius with an affectation of indifference, under which those who had at all observed the singular associations of his recollections and ideas, must have discerned the symptoms of a strange disease. He was tainted with a Herodian malady of the mind: his thoughts were often hateful to himself; but there was an ecstasy in the conception, as if delight could be mingled with horror. I think, however, he struggled to master the fatality, and that his resolution to marry was dictated by an honourable desire to give hostages to society, against the wild wilfulness of his imagination.

It is a curious and a mystical fact, that at the period to which I am alluding, and a very short time, only a little month, before he successfully solicited the hand of Miss Milbanke, being at Newstead, he fancied that he saw the ghost of the monk which is supposed to haunt the abbey, and to make its ominous appearance when misfortune or death impends over the master of the mansion.—The story of the apparition in the sixteenth canto of Don Juan is derived from this family legend, and Norman Abbey, in the thirteenth of the same poem, is a rich and elaborate description of Newstead.

After his proposal to Miss Milbanke had been accepted, a considerable time, nearly three months, elapsed before the marriage was completed, in consequence of the embarrassed condition in which, when the necessary settlements were to be made, he found his affairs. This state of things, with the previous unhappy controversy with himself, and anger at the
world, was ill-calculated to gladden his nuptials: but, besides these real evils, his mind was awed with gloomy presentiments, a shadow of some advancing misfortune darkened his spirit, and the ceremony was performed with sacrificial feelings, and those dark and chilling circumstances, which he has so touchingly described in
The Dream:—

I saw him stand
Before an altar with a gentle bride;
Her face was fair, but was not that which made
The starlight of his boyhood:—as he stood
Even at the altar, o’er his brow there came
The self-same aspect, and the quivering shock
That in the antique oratory shook
His bosom in its solitude; and then—
As in that hour—a moment o’er his face
The tablet of unutterable thoughts
Was traced—and then it faded as it came,
And he stood calm and quiet, and he spoke
The faltering vows, but heard not his own words,
And all things reeled around him: he could see
Not that which was, nor that which should have been—
But the old mansion and the accustom’d hall,
And the remembered chambers, and the place,
The day, the hour, the sunshine and the shade,
All things pertaining to that place and hour.
And her, who was his destiny, came back,
And thrust themselves between him and the light.

This is very affectingly described; and his prose description bears testimony to its correctness. “It had been predicted by Mrs. Williams that twenty-seven was to be a dangerous age for me. The fortune-telling witch was right; it was destined to prove so. I shall never forget the 2d of January, 1815, Lady Byron was the only unconcerned person present; Lady Noel, her mother, cried; I trembled like a leaf, made the wrong responses, and after the ceremony called her Miss Milbanke.

“There is a singular history attached to the ring. The very day the match was concluded a ring of my
mother’s, that had been lost, was dug up by the gardener at Newstead. I thought it was sent on purpose for the wedding; but my mother’s marriage had not been a fortunate one, and this ring was doomed to be the seal of an unhappier union still.

“After the ordeal was over, we set off for a country-scat of Sir Ralph’s (Lady B.’s father), and I was surprised at the arrangements for the journey, and somewhat out of humour, to find the lady’s maid stuck between me and my bride. It was rather too early to assume the husband; so I was forced to submit, but it was not with a very good grace. I have been accused of saying, on getting into the carriage, that I had married Lady Byron out of spite, and because she had refused me twice. Though I was for a moment vexed at her prudery, or whatever you may choose to call it, if I had made so uncavalier, not to say brutal, a speech, I am convinced Lady Byron would instantly have left the carriage to me and the maid. She had spirit enough to have done so, and would properly have resented the affront. Our honeymoon was not all sunshine; it had its clouds.

“I was not so young when my father died, but that I perfectly remember him, and had a very early horror of matrimony from the sight of domestic broils: this feeling came over me very strongly at my wedding. Something whispered me that I was sealing my own death-warrant. I am a great believer in presentiments: Socrates’s demon was not a fiction; Monk Lewis had his monitor, and Napoleon many warnings. At the last moment I would have retreated, could I have done so; I called to mind a friend of mine, who had married a young, beautiful, and rich girl, and yet was miserable; he had strongly urged me against putting my neck in the same yoke.”

For some time after the marriage things went on in the usual matrimonial routine, until he was chosen into the managing committee of Drury Lane; an office
in which, had he possessed the slightest degree of talent for business, he might have done much good. It was justly expected that the illiterate presumption which had so long deterred poetical genius from approaching the stage, would have shrunk abashed from before him; but he either felt not the importance of the duty he had been called to perform, or, what is more probable, yielding to the allurements of the moment, forgot that duty, in the amusement which he derived from the talents and peculiarities of the players. No situation could be more unfit for a man of his temperament, than one which exposed him to form intimacies with persons whose profession, almost necessarily, leads them to undervalue the domestic virtues.

It is said, that the course of life into which he was drawn after he joined the managing committee of Drury Lane was not in unison with the methodical habits of Lady Byron. But independently of outdoor causes of connubial discontent and incompatibility of temper, their domestic affairs were falling into confusion.

“My income at this period,” says Lord Byron, “was small, and somewhat bespoken. We had a house in town, gave dinner-parties, had separate carriages, and launched into every sort of extravagance. This could not last long; my wife’s ten thousand pounds soon melted away. I was beset by duns, and at length an execution was levied, and the bailiffs put in possession of the very beds we had to sleep on. This was no very agreeable state of affairs, no very pleasant scene for Lady Byron to witness; and it was agreed she should pay her father a visit till the storm had blown over, and some arrangement had been made with my creditors.” From this visit her Ladyship never returned; a separation took place; but too much has been said to the world respecting it, and I have no taste for the subject. Whatever
was the immediate cause, the event itself was not of so rare a kind as to deserve that the attention of the public should be indelicately courted to it.

Beyond all question, however, Lord Byron’s notions of connubial obligations were rather philosophical. “There are,” said he to Captain Parry, “so many undefinable and nameless, and not to be named, causes of dislike, aversion, and disgust in the matrimonial state, that it is always impossible for the public, or the friends of the parties, to judge between man and wife. Theirs is a relation about which nobody but themselves can form a correct idea, or have any right to speak. As long as neither party commits gross injustice towards the other; as long as neither the woman nor the man is guilty of any offence which is injurious to the community; as long as the husband provides for his offspring, and secures the public against the dangers arising from their neglected education, or from the charge of supporting them; by what right does it censure him for ceasing to dwell under the same roof with a woman, who is to him, because he knows her, while others do not, an object of loathing? Can anything be more monstrous, than for the public voice to compel individuals who dislike each other to continue their cohabitation? This is at least the effect of its interfering with a relationship, of which it has no possible means of judging. It does not indeed drag a man to a woman’s bed by physical force, but it does exert a moral force continually and effectively to accomplish the same purpose. Nobody can escape this force, but those who are too high or those who are too low for public opinion to reach; or those hypocrites who are, before others, the loudest in their approbation of the empty and unmeaning forms of society, that they may securely indulge all their propensities in secret.”

In the course of the conversation, in which he is represented to have stated these opinions, he added
what I have pleasure in quoting, because the sentiments are generous in respect to his wife, and strikingly characteristic of himself:—

Lady Byron has a liberal mind, particularly as to religious opinions: and I wish when I married her that I had possessed the same command over myself that I now do. Had I possessed a little more wisdom and more forbearance, we might have been happy. I wished, when I was just married to have remained in the country, particularly till my pecuniary embarrassments were over. I knew the society of London; I knew the characters of many who are called ladies, with whom Lady Byron would necessarily have to associate, and I dreaded her contact with them. But I have too much of my mother about me to be dictated to; I like freedom from constraint; I hate artificial regulations: my conduct has always been dictated by my own feelings, and Lady Byron was quite the creature of rules. She was not permitted either to ride, or run, or walk, but as the physician prescribed. She was not suffered to go out when I wished to go: and then the old house was a mere ghost-house, I dreamed of ghosts and thought of them waking. It was an existence I could not support.” Here Lord Byron broke off abruptly, saying, “I hate to speak of my family affairs, though I have been compelled to talk nonsense concerning them to some of my butterfly visitors, glad on any terms to get rid of their importunities. I long to be again on the mountains. I am fond of solitude, and should never talk nonsense, if I always found plain men to talk to.”