When Lady Byron left London AND her husband in January 1816 she was to send him the following note:
Dearest B., We arrived here safely – the child is the best of travellers.
Now do leave off the abominable trade of versifying, and brandy, everything that is nau – –
Byron was always the first to admit with brutal honesty that he had NOT been the ‘most agreeable’ spouse having admitted as much in a letter to his father-in-law Ralph Milbanke in February 1816:
During the last year I have had to contend with distress without and disease within. Upon the former I have little to say – except that I have endeavoured to remove it by every sacrifice in my power; and the latter I should not mention if I had not professional authority for saying that the disorder that I have to combat, without much impairing my apparent health, is such as to induce a morbid irritability of temper…..
In the autumn and winter of 1816, Byron’s ‘disorder’ was a liver complaint which had caused soreness in his face and head as well as severe pain in his loins and the ‘distress’ that he refers to were his ‘pecuniary embarrassments’ in other words he was probably admitting to being a broke drunk!
He had been juggling debts, money-lenders and extravagant expenditures since his time as a precocious and wild teenager, so much so that his distressed mother was to write frantically to John Hanson, Byron’s solicitor in March 1806:
That Boy will be the death of me and drive me mad!……Where can he get Hundreds? Has he got into the hands of money lenders? He has no feeling, no Heart….
He knows that I am doing everything in my power to pay his Debts and he writes to me about hiring Servants….God knows what is to be done with him, I much fear he is already ruined at eighteen!!!
At the time of his marriage to Annabella in January 1815, he was still juggling his debts which now amounted to around £30,000.
In 1816 as the Marriage Settlement was de rigeur for the settlement of a dowry, the agreement of the proposed marital income and pin money, Byron had agreed to settle £60,000 on his future wife through the sale of Newstead Abbey with Sir Ralph agreeing to settle £20,000 of which Byron was to settle £300 a year for Annabella’s pin money.
However, during their brief 54 week marriage, Annabella’s promised fortune and the yearly payment was never paid and Byron’s settlement on Annabella would only materialise with the eventual sale of Newstead Abbey in November 1817.
At the time of his marriage, Byron’s creditors believed that as he had married a heiress, he would now be in a position to settle his debts as the newly married couple had also moved into the very grand house at 13 Piccadilly Terrace belonging to Elizabeth Cavendish Duchess of Devonshire.
However, their lifestyle could arguably be described in the words of one of JFK’s detractors, of ‘all style and no substance.’
By autumn 1815, the bailiff beckoned, the sale of his precious library was initiated and executions were threatened and implemented and faced with all this, Byron in his worry and torment did what many have done in that he got drunk AND frequently!
Throughout the Regency, the amount of alcohol consumed by Byron and his society would appear to be eye-watering amounts by today’s standards, however it would seems that in this winter of discontent he would take his alcohol intake to a new level.
With his finances in such a desperate state he probably drank himself to oblivion through brandy as the means of escape and as the stress increased so did his brandy intake with the result that his moods became ever more erratic and violent.
His moods by all accounts were ‘ferocious’ and he was beside himself at the idea of a bailiff present at Piccadilly Terrace at the same time as Annabella’s midwife during her accouchement in early December and it is unfortunate that he had a spouse who was simply unable to understand why they were so ferocious.
Annabella had never known what is was to be short of money and never would, she seemed unable to understand him and his feelings of humiliation and horror as his many creditors demanded the money he simply did not have as her journal indicates:
When he did stay at home himself, it was to drink Brandy – & he would then dismiss me to my room in the most unkind manner. He told me he must either have his brandy or his mistress…
He had for many months professed his intention of giving himself up either to women or drinking and had asked me to sanction these courses, adding however that he should pursue them whether I gave him leave or not.
Accordingly for about three months before my confinement he was accustomed to drink Brandy & other liquors to intoxication, which caused him to commit many outrageous acts, as breaking & burning several valuable articles, and brought on paroxysms of rage or frenzy – not only terrifying but dangerous to me….
During the separation, Byron was to later admit to his friend Hobhouse and Scrope Davies that:
he may have been bereaved of reason during his paroxysms with his wife…
Evidently, he was often so drunk that he could not remember what he had said during these frequent brandy ramblings and Annabella, an assiduous note-taker, believed that they were convincing evidence that her husband was guilty of the following: insanity, dreadful crimes, flagrant infidelity, unnatural behaviour and unmitigated violence.
She was even said to have convinced herself that Byron was even guilty of murder!
Murder was the idea suggested to my mind. He said another time at Halnaby that many a man who had committed murder walked about unsuspected, & added with trembling horror & mystery, ‘I know some.’
During his brandy ramblings. Byron would drop less than subtle hints of his ‘hereditary madness’ and which the naive Annabella took to be the truth, which was all rather unfortunate for prior to his marriage Byron had received from Lady Melbourne a wish list complied by his future spouse of the essential qualities required of her ideal husband which included the essential quality of ‘sanity’.
Perhaps Byron’s brandy soaked ramblings were arguably rambled more in mischief than in reality and in the nightmare of mounting debts with little income AND shackled to a serious wife – he only served to stoke the flames of his notorious black humour.
For with outrageous confessions, wild theatrical gestures, ‘nau’ behaviour and copious bottles of brandy available with a captive audience of one, perhaps this was simply Byron’s way of reacting to his monetary difficulties; a Byronic coping mechanism but his captive audience of one would stock-pile these brandy ramblings as the ammunition needed to justify her separation from him.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Lord Byron’s Wife, Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray, 1962)
My Amiable Mamma, Megan Bowes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd, 1991)