“There were three of us in this marriage so it was a bit crowded”
Diana, Princess of Wales
By April 1816 Annabella having already contemplated the vagaries, distress and challenge that her brief marriage of one year to Byron had brought her and having made her decision to leave in February 1816, the ‘Suffering Angel’ was to remain formidable in her resolution and the process towards Annabella’s desire to be ‘securely separated’ from Lord Byron over 200 years ago was reaching an increasingly bitter, fraught and heart breaking conclusion.
Despite Annabella’s consistent avowal that she would not return to him, Byron had continued to object to the separation throughout the cold months of February and March with his belief that she had been manipulated by the demands of her parents and with mischief from her former nurse and governess Mrs Clermont.
In 1816 the laws for divorce were complicated and in the absence of the legality of a wife’s right to defend and assert her desire for a separation, the Courts usually awarded rights, property and children to the husband and it was with this in mind that as Annabella’s legal team were preparing depositions in support of her claim and despite her ‘horrors of the Law’, she was to write to her mother on Monday March 4 1816:
“Well – nothing but war remains. All offers of amicable arrangement have been refused… It is a bad job – for I shall lose the cause…
My opinion of the best course to pursue is this – to put in the strongest statement to Court, and then to delay proceeding, so as to tire him out… So I don’t think he can well escape – and yet he is so artfull that I despond about it at times..”
Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister who had continued living with Byron at Piccadilly Terrace as the war toward separation raged on was just as despondent:
“All going on as bad as possible – a Court inevitable I fear & the Citation will be out immediately.
I’m nearly dead with worry & finding I can do no good I will not stay any longer…
‘..there will come out what must destroy him FOR EVER in this world – even what will deprive him of all right to his Child, & so blast his character that neither Sister nor Wife who has lived under the same roof with can ever be considered as they have been again!”
At Annabella’s insistence and against the advice of her lawyer, a meeting was arranged between the scared sister and the wronged wife on Friday March 15 and directly after this meeting with her ‘dearest Augusta’ – Byron’s objections to the separation were suddenly dropped.
But what of this mysterious ‘citation’ that had driven Augusta to distraction and brought Byron ‘to terms’?
For let us now consider a possible fourth reason that would explain Annabella’s insistence on a separation, Augusta’s fear and Byron’s sudden capitulation.
On Easter Sunday in 1816 as the preparations for the wedding of the Princess Charlotte to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg were being made and the negotiations for Byron separation were drawing to a close and as Annabella was in London gleefully passing onto her mother the newspaper reports that were favourable to her – Byron was making plans to leave England, saying farewell to his sister Augusta and firing off a missive to his estranged spouse:
“More last words – not many – and such as you will attend to – answer I do not expect – not does it import – but you will hear me. – – I have just parted from Augusta – almost the last being you had left me to part with – & the only unshattered tie of my existence – wherever I may go – & I am going far – you & I can never meet again in this world – nor in the next – let this content or atone…..
recollect that though it may be advantage to you to have lost your husband – it is sorrow to her to have the waters now – or the earth hereafter – between her & her brother. – She is gone”
For over two hundred years the exact relationship between Lord Byron and and his half-sister Augusta Mary Leigh has been clothed in mystery, fear, controversy, scandal and anger.
That they loved each other is without any doubt and Annabella certainly had NO doubts that their love was also an incestuous love.
The inspiration for this post has come from the play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore written by John Ford in 1629 which has continued to delight, intrigue and disgust and tells the story of an incestuous love between Giovanni and his sister Annabella which includes plenty of disaster, murder, lust, vengeance, greed AND an interfering nurse!
Interestingly, besides the recognisable human emotions, the character of Annabella, a brother and sister, these are not the only parallels to the Byron story for their story also included the interfering nurse, a certain Mrs Clermont who as Annabella’s devoted and scheming former governess was bitterly satirised in Byron’s poem The Sketch.
However, the tale of Mrs Clermont and her intrigues is for another post!
As the character of Giovanni is warned about his sinful love for his sister he replies that his ‘passion remains beyond his control’ and by November 1813 as Byron was writing to Lady Melbourne of the consequences of his attachment to yet another married woman, the Lady Frances Webster Wedderburn – he was to conclude with a telling line:
“C (aroline) would go wild with grief that – it did not happen about her – Ly. O (xfor)d would say that I deserved it for not coming to Cagliari – and – – poor – she would be really uncomfortable – do you know? I am much afraid that that perverse passion was my deepest after all….”
In Regency England although adultery was commonplace and homosexuality a sin punishable by death, the charge of incest although considered morally repugnant was not against the law and the colourful history of the Byron family shows a frequent propensity to addictive and reckless behaviour including a predisposition to marriage among cousins and incest as the letters from Byron’s father ‘Mad Jack’ Byron to his sister Frances Leigh clearly indicate.
Whatever the truth or importance of Byron’s relationship with his sister Augusta I shall let Byron have ‘more last words’:
“What do you mean? – what is there known? or can be known? which you & I do not know much better? & what concealment can you have from me? I never shrank – & it was on your account principally that I gave way at all – for I thought they would endeavour to drag you into it – although they had no business with anything previous to my marriage with that infernal fiend – whose destruction I shall yet see…”
TO BE CONTINUED!
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 2 Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1974)
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 3 Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1974)
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 5 Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)
Lord Byron’s Wife Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1962)