Wednesday 26 September 2018

Byron's women

Biography: In Byron's Wake, Miranda Seymour, Simon & Schuster, hardback, 560 pages, €30.90

Doomed: Ada Lovelace's life descended in adultery and deceit
Doomed: Ada Lovelace's life descended in adultery and deceit
In Byron's Wake by Miranda Seymour

It wasn't easy being Byron's wife - or his daughter, Ada. Claudia FitzHerbert on two lives and a toxic legacy.

Byron first saw Annabella Milbanke in the spring of 1812 at the house of her aunt (and his "tante") Lady Melbourne. He was entering the annus mirabilis occasioned by the wild success of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Annabella, the only child of adoring parents with estates in Yorkshire and coal fields in Co Durham, was also expected to inherit a great fortune from her maternal uncle, Lord Wentworth. Nearly 20, she was enjoying her third season in London, and had already noted her aunt's daughter-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb, as "clever in everything that is not within the province of commonsense".

The headstrong and fiercely independent Annabella had turned down several eligible suitors, and was revelling in her success: "I am much the fashion this year. Mankind bow before me, and womankind think me somebody." At this first encounter, she thought Byron's disdainful expression "suggested a proper degree of scorn for the frivolity that surrounded him". Miranda Seymour remarks perceptively that "truth and wishful thinking were inextricably entwined" in her judgments. For his part, Byron noticed Annabella's air of "quiet contempt", but his attention that year would be diverted by the increasingly troublesome complications of his scandalous affair with Lady Caroline. By September, after Caroline had caused snippets of her pubic hair to be hand-delivered to his rooms, he told Lady Melbourne that "nothing but marriage and a speedy one can save me".

That October, Byron ungallantly asked Lady Melbourne to make his first, unsuccessful, proposal to Annabella. He characteristically affected his relief at the rejection, explaining that he preferred "hot suppers". Luckily these lay to hand in the bewitching form of Lady Oxford, whom he later likened to a sunset landscape by Claude Lorrain, her beauties enhanced by the knowledge they were shedding their last, dying beams. By the following summer, her ladyship's sun had set and, in late June 1813, Annabella happened upon Byron sitting beside his half-sister, the Honourable Mrs Augusta Leigh. In the months that followed, while Byron and Augusta secretly prosecuted their doomed affair, Annabella set out to seduce Byron by letter, while vowing that her heart was occupied elsewhere.

This was a challenge to delight Byron, who gamely entered into a seductive correspondence that, in April 1814, led to an unusually forward invitation, that Byron should visit Annabella and her parents at Seaham Hall in Durham. Byron accepted in principle, but dawdled for months, savouring Annabella's mounting agitation. By now, rumours of his incestuous affair with Augusta, unhelpfully fuelled by the semi-confessional Bride of Abydos and the birth of her fourth child, Medora, were circulating in London - though not yet Seaham. By September, a respectable marriage was essential to draw fire away from Augusta. Byron signalled his capitulation and received Annabella's consent to wed him on the day that a gardener dug up his mother's wedding ring from a flower bed at Newstead. "It never rains but it pours," he quipped to Augusta.

The ill-fated marriage took place on January 2, 1815. Augusta broke off sexual relations with Byron and befriended Annabella, which may have contributed to Byron's increasing savagery, drunkenness and despair over the next year. Their daughter Ada was born in December. On the morning of January 15, 1816, Annabella stole out of the house in Piccadilly Terrace with her infant daughter, having resisted a final impulse to curl up on the dog's mat outside her sleeping husband's door. Byron never saw his wife or daughter again.

This endlessly fascinating story, skilfully retold, forms merely the overture to Seymour's book, which extends the narrative to cover the full lives of Annabella and Ada, later Countess of Lovelace. The voluminous archives left by Byron, Annabella and the Lovelaces were filleted a generation ago by scholars such as Leslie Marchand and Doris Langley Moore, under the watchful eye of Byron's loyal (and much indebted) publishers, John Murray. Their books painted Annabella as self-serving and vindictive, played down the matter of Byron's relations with Augusta, and had little interest in Ada, whom Byron never knew.

Seymour has made full use of the same archives to produce a more nuanced account, attuned to contemporary preoccupations. She gives a fuller picture of Annabella's philanthropy and Ada's remarkable insights into computing avant la lettre. These are serious and worthy subjects, but they do not always sit easily with the fascination - acknowledged in Seymour's title, In Byron's Wake - with the radioactive half-life of his legacy.

Annabella's tragedy was to be high-minded, tenacious and lacking in self-knowledge. She could neither help loving Byron, nor wishing to reform him. This hopeless quest reproduced itself in her relations with Augusta, Ada and Augusta's deranged daughter Medora, whose father might have been Byron. Convinced of her duty and rectitude, she used her wealth to manipulate them all, but failed in every case. She could never sufficiently prevail upon Augusta to confess her heinous crimes. She "rescued" Medora from a degrading affair in France with her sister's good-for-nothing husband Henry Trevanion, himself a distant relation of Byron. Medora was a valuable pawn in her battle with Augusta, but ultimately deceived Annabella and slipped her net.

Her beloved Ada's life descended into adultery, deceit, racing debts and agonising pain, countered with heavy doses of laudanum; at the last, she chose to be buried beside the father she had never known. (Annabella inexplicably blamed Ada's loving and long-suffering husband Lord Lovelace for these "aberrations".)

Goethe thought the spectacle of the Byrons' marriage "so poetical that if Lord Byron had invented it, he would hardly have had a more fortunate subject for his genius". Seymour's account, while less boldly imaginative than David Crane's The Kindness of Sisters (2002), shows that it has lost none of its power to enthral.

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