“My own Sweet Sis – the deeds are signed – so that is over. – All I have now to beg or desire on the subject is – that you will never mention not allude to Lady Byron’s name again in any shape – or on any occasion – except indispensable business….”
This was to be one of Lord Byron’s last letters to his ‘Dearest Augusta’ as he made plans to leave his home and his life in England behind him.
He had signed the deed of separation on the afternoon of Sunday April 21 1816 signifying the end of his brief year-long marriage to Annabella and from the fatherhood of his five-month old daughter Ada.
He left 13 Piccadilly Terrace on April 23, St George’s Day, bound for Dover and finally departed from England on Thursday April 25 and was never to see Augusta, Annabella or Ada again.
The Byron separation had been one of bitterness, legal wrangling, innuendo, veiled threats and finally a plea for a ‘private arrangement’ and the winner undoubtedly was Annabella who in January 1816 had demanded:
“to pursue such measures as may be necessary to effect a secure & final separation between Lord Byron and myself… I am more convinced of the escape I have had, and the impossibility of ever regretting the step I have taken.
All I have suffered can never be known.”
Not knowing precisely what Annabella had suffered during her marriage was to precipitate in scandalous rumour, vitriol and exile for Byron, the unfortunate loser and which brings us to the fifth and final possible reason.
Upon receiving the notice from Sir Ralph Milbanke that his daughter was insistent upon a separation from him, Byron had asked for confirmation from Annabella herself who duly replied with the following charge:
“that total dereliction of principle, which, since our marriage, you have professed and gloried in…”
Augusta was also to hint at this charge in a letter sent to Annabella about her concern for Byron’s well-being as their separation was being increasingly played out in public and much to Byron’s disadvantage:
“There are reports abroad of a nature too horrible to repeat….Every other sinks into nothing before this MOST horrid one… This MOST dreadful report! – who knows what it may urge him to do.
He said to me last night in an agony ‘Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction & ruin to a man & from which he can never recover’
I am alas! but too well convinced you are acting from Duty – From Principle. Surely even the truth is better concealed if possible….”
But what was this mysterious truth that led Byron to a total dereliction of principle?
His angry former mother-in-law was to say of him that it was ‘not fit such men should live’ and the poet Thomas Campbell in his defence of Annabella was to say:
“It concerns morality and the most sacred rights of the sex that she be acquitted of any share in the blame, which was Byron’s and Byron’s alone.”
Even Lady Caroline Lamb had something to say about Byron’s ‘dereliction of principle’ in her one of her many farewell letters to him:
“I do not believe I never will believe you can have had the heart to suffer me to be so treated – what I have gone through – it is neither my wish or intention to repeat…
henceforward you are safe – the means you took to frighten me from your door are not in vain.”
On February 22 1816 after a private interview with her legal advisor Dr Stephen Lushington, Annabella was to reveal something so shocking that separation from Byron was inevitable and that it must forever remain unknown to the rest of the world and it had the desired effect!
Byron was forced into acquiescence and exile and as the ’cause’ of the separation was not revealed, rumour and innuendo was to prevail and very much to his discredit.
In Byron’s time adultery was commonplace, his two closest female confidants, Lady Oxford and Lady Melbourne had given birth to children of questionable paternity and incest was more of a murkier issue for although morally wrong, it was not yet considered to be a crime.
However, homosexuality and the act of sodomy were certainly considered to be criminal behaviour.
The threat of the gallows was a very real one and suspected sodomites were frequently pilloried in front of a baying, angry crowd with dreadful consequences.
Could this have been the pivotal reason for Annabella’s determination for a separation after a marriage of only a year?
And could this explain why she was almost unremitting in her campaign to ensure that Byron remained the ‘guilty party’ and thus the unsympathetic character forced into exile?
George Colman, the author of Don Leon certainly believed this to be so!
Me thinks ’twas yesterday as both in bed
We lay: her cheeks were pillowed on my breast,
Fondly my arms her snowy bosom pressed.
Love no denial found, desire no stay.
That night it was, when tired of amorous play,
She bade me speak of wonders I had seen.
“And thou, dear Anna, think’st thou I can see
Without longing all these charms in thee?
Then turn thee round, indulge a husband’s wish,
And taste with me this truly classic dish”
Ah, fatal hour, that saw my prayer succeed,
And my fond bride enact the Ganymede….
‘Tis true, that from her lips some murmurs fell –
In joy or anger, ’tis too late to tell;
But this I swear, that not a single sign
Proved that her pleasure did not equal mine.
Colman was the theatrical manager at Drury Lane and a wonderful writer of comedy who considered Byron a friend and as they got drunk together on more than one occasion and he had an intuitive understanding of the complexities of the Byron marriage and the subsequent separation – perhaps his poem offers us a tantalising hint of what happened all those years ago.
Don Leon The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 5 (So Late into the Night) Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)
Lord Byron’s Marriage The Evidence of Asterisks, G. Wilson Knight (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1957)
Lord Byron’s Wife, Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1974)
The Uninhibited Byron An Account of His Sexual Confusion, Bernard Grebanier (Peter Owen 1970)
The Whole Disgraceful Truth, Paul Douglass (Palgrave MacMillan 2006)