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My Lady Brigante!

The Lady Brigante loves nothing more than shocking unsuspecting folk with the tale that she was abandoned at birth by gypsies and raised en famille with kindly mice in the crypt of an old church.

Alas! The truth is altogether more unremarkable for although blessed with an illustrious and extensive lineage – Lady B was in truth raised in genteel affluence in the shadow of the ceremonial stone gatehouse of Micklegate in the ancient City of York.

A dreamer from birth with a taste for history and the irresistible urge to create – Lady B’s natural milieu within the sanctuary of a library, pacing the floors of an art gallery or gazing in wonder at some breathtaking architecture has always been in opposition to the frills, frivolities and fripperies of the fashionable society to which she grew accustomed.

And yet despite this nonchalance for politesse – Lady B has been known to glide effortlessly to the year 1815 and among the Ton of Regency society as she enjoys the confidence of a frustrated Lady Ph, takes tea with the celebrated Countess of Melbourne or reads with the poet Lord Byron at his grand home in Piccadilly Terrace.

However, within the old walls of a small atelier among the shelves of weird creatures, baskets of sumptuous silks and lace perched upon an antique dresser, the tubs of delightfully named paints, the odd pot of glue, stacks of parchment paper, exotic woods and other strange looking implements – we truly discern the essence of Lady B!

For it is from within this atelier in which Lady B’s passion bursts forth in the design of an eclectic and unique array of miniatures created for her fellow humans who relish the appeal of the macabre or those who boast of an imagination of the fantastical bent.

However, as Lady B weaves her idiosyncratic talent in the design of tiny things – she does so under the watchful eye of Miss Minnie B – a black feline of irascible temperament who also shares a talent of moving between different worlds and who on occasion has been quick to cast a disapproving look over the more mundane creations.

And as the sun falls on yet another day and with the messy apron discarded and the door to the atelier closed – Lady B goes in search of the dead.

For if she’s not wandering through a cemetery, musing upon the discovery of a mysterious bundle of ephemera, poring over the details of a tatty burial record or recording her exciting discovery of an elusive ancestor in an old notebook – she will be leading unsuspecting folk through the snickelways and secret passageways of York as she shares the tales of the illustrious, miscreants, artists and misfits who have ALL been lost to history – until now!

Although it has long been rumoured that the very name of Brigante is of notorious origin signifying rascals and bandits and that our Lady B herself shares the blood-line of a famous outlaw – it is also a truth universally acknowledged that this familial connection has offended the more delicate sensibilities of the Brigante clan in the years following  and as such we must speak of it no more. 

‘Between Two Worlds Life Hovers Like a Star, ‘Twixt Night and Morn…

How Little Do We Know That Which We Are!’

Don Juan

Images of the Lady Brigante Courtesy of Steve Evans Photography York.

A Rage Against the Machine?

Today, February 27 was the day that my mother was delivered of me some years ago and a few years before that, Lord Byron delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

I have traversed the seat of war in the Peninsula; I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.

And what are your remedies?

After months of inaction, and months of action worse than inactivity, at length comes forth the grand specific….

Setting aside the palpable injustice and the certain inefficiency of the bill, are there not capital punishments sufficient on your statutes?

A Copy of Lord Byron’s Maiden Speech in the House of Lords on Display at Newstead Abbey…

Yes, indeed on this very day some 209 years ago, our poet spoke out in ‘A Rage Against the Machine’ AND not unlike the US group of the same name who sang Killing in the Name Of which went on to become a most unlikely Christmas hit!

In the infancy of the industrial revolution, manufacturers in the stocking-weaving business had exploited the advances in technology to employ greater uses for new machinery as the looms would deliver goods at a faster and cheaper rate to the detriment of the workers.

As the stocking-weavers found themselves surplus to requirements with wages falling and with 50,000 families reduced to starvation; organised gangs of desperate and hungry men began breaking the manufacturers’ looms led by the mythical ‘King Ludd’.

But while the exalted offender can find means to baffle the law, new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt. These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them.

Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.

‘Hurtful to Commonality’ Click on the Image to Read the Story of the the Luddites…

In an effort to bring an end to the industrial unrest, troops were sent to Nottingham to quash the revolt by the Luddites, and as the uprising spread to Lancashire and across Yorkshire; the Government passed the Frame Breaking Act, which introduced the death penalty for frame breaking.

It was during this Parliamentary debate in which Byron made his famous speech:

Is there not blood enough upon your penal code, that more must be poured forth to ascend to heaven and testify against you?

How will you carry this bill into effect?

Can you commit a whole county to their own prisons

Will you erect a gibbet in every field, and hang up men like scare-crows?

Byron identified with the Luddite cause and claiming to be as penniless as those he supported, he sought the support of Lord Holland as the leader of the Whigs to address the House and to voice his opposition to the introduction of the death penalty.

Or will you proceed (as you must to bring this measure into effect) by decimation; place the county under martial law; depopulate and lay waste all around you, and restore Sherwood Forest as an acceptable gift to the crown in its former condition of a royal chase, and an asylum for outlaws?

Are these the remedies for a starving and desperate populace?

Following the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in May 1812, the government responded to the rebellion with mass arrests and despite the threat of trial and harsh sentencing, the unrest continued and in 1813 on a cold January day in York, fifteen men were hanged in the shadow of what we know as Clifford’s Tower.

The Polite Tourist Stands in the September Shadow of Clifford’s Tower in the Ancient City of York

In the years following, the harsh measures of capital punishment or transportation had little effect as the demonstrations for improved wages, frame breaking and riots continued throughout pockets of Middle England, however, by 1816 the Luddite Rebellion was effectively finished.

Although his speech was well received, Byron was to find that he was not suited to the slow daily business of Parliament, the ‘Parlimentary mummeries’ as he was soon to call them, his temperament too volatile and easily distracted as his letter to his friend Francis Hodgson several days later makes clear:

‘…of them I shall mention Sir F. Burdetts. – He says it is the best speech by a Lord since the “Lord knows when” probably from a fellow feeling in ye. sentiments.

Lord Byron

 ‘And so much for vanity. – – I spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused every thing & every body, & put the Ld. Chancellor very much out of humour, & if I may believe what I hear, have not lost any character by the experiment.  

As to my delivery, loud and fluent enough, perhaps a little theatrical. – – I could not recognise myself or any one else in the Newspapers….

Hobhouse is here, I shall tell him to write. – My Stone is gone for the present, but I fear is part of my habit. – We all talk of a visit to Cambridge.’

However, the tale of a certain Childe Harold was soon to be unleashed upon London society in the days following but that is for ANOTHER story!

In 2013, a fellow Byronian Christy Fearn published Framed her debut novel about Byron and the Luddite rebellion; signed copies of which can now be purchased from the author.

Framed: A Historical Novel about the Revolt of the Luddites by Christy Fearn

As French émigré Roman Catholics, Lizette Molyneux and her brother Robert are used to an existence on the edge of their Regency Nottingham community.

But when Robert is arrested for a crime he insists he did not commit, Lizzie must draw on all her strength and courage to help him. Overcoming poverty, prejudice and the unwanted advances of her employer’s son, she unites with the frame-breaking Luddites to free her brother and to rectify social injustice.

Why not treat yourself to a copy? You’ll learn something of the Luddite Rebellion, Lord B AND you’ll enjoy yourself too!

Sources Used:

Byron’s Letters & Journals Vol 2 1810-1812, Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1973)

Byron The Making of a Myth, Stephen Coote (London: The Bodley Head 1988)

Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, Thomas Moore (Elibron Classics 2006

A Preamble to Matrimony…

…. for it was to avoid troubling you upon it that I finally determined to remain an absent friend rather than become a tiresome guest. If I offend it is better at a distance…

Lord Byron

Described by the late, great Byron Scholar, Peter Cochran as a ‘masterpiece of circumlocution’ – Byron’s second proposal of marriage in September 1814 would lay the foundation stone for his eventual exile from our shores in 1816.

An opinion also shared by his last love, the Contessa di Guiccioli who was to speak of Byron’s marriage as having had:

exercised such a deplorable influence over his destiny, that it is impossible to speak of it succinctly, and without entering into details; for this one great misfortune proved the fruitful source of all others..

Contessa di Guiccioli

Having accepted his proposal of marriage and with a courtship facilitated by the aid of the mail coach, Annabella would not meet her betrothed until November of that year and after his hasty departure from Seaham prior to their wedding, she would soon be reconsidering the painful truth of her betrothed’s words and of his apparent determination to ‘remain an absent friend’!

My only anxiety is to learn that you are coming….

What can I say to hasten your journey? I am scolded every day for your absence, besides feeling it most myself…

Annabella and Byron were married at her family home Seaham Hall on January 2 1815 and a mere 54 weeks later, their brief marriage would implode at their London home in Piccadilly Terrace with accusations of cruelty, drunkenness, sodomy and incest.

Throughout the intervening years, criticism of Annabella has often been unjust and the examples of her ‘cold and analytical manner’ and her ‘tortured’ style of writing have been cited to support the argument of her unsuitability as Byron’s bride.

And now with the use of published material and contemporary photographs – Wedlock’s THE Devil! is THE story of Annabella’s courtship with the most famous Poet of our age and that far from being cold and dispassionate – the hopes and dreams of this young woman can be revealed.

Sources Used:

Byron’s Letters and Journals Volume 4 1814-1815, Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1975)

Lord Byron’s Wife Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1962)

Can YOU Make ME Happy?

Seaham Hall (September 14 1814)

I have your second letter, and am almost too agitated to write – but you will understand.

It would be absurd to suppress any thing.

I am and have long pledged to myself to make your happiness my first object in life.

If I can make you happy, I have no other consideration.

I will trust to you for all I should look up to – all I can love.

The fear of not realizing your expectations is the only one I now feel.

Convince me – it is all I wish – that my affection may supply what is wanting in my character to form your happiness.

This is a moment of joy which I have too much despaired of ever experiencing  – I dared not believe it possible, and I have painfully supported a determination founded in fact on the belief that you did not wish it removed – that its removal would not be for your good.

There has in reality been scarcely a change in my sentiments. More of this I defer.

I wrote by last post – with different feelings!

Let me be grateful for those with which I now acknowledge myself

Most affectly yours.


Sources Used:

Lord Byron’s Wife Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1962)

A Proposal of Marriage – Possibly?

You were good enough in your last to say that I might write “soon” – but you did not add often – I have therefore to apologise for again intruding on your time – to say nothing of patience. – There is something I wish to say – and as I may not see you for some – perhaps for a long time – I will endeavour to say it at once…

Lord Byron

In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you…

Mr Darcy

Will you marry me?..

Mr B.

Oops, I appear to have mixed up three marriage proposals here!

Lord Byron’s, Mr Darcy’s and mine!

For there I was with my worn copy of Wedlock’s the Devil – a collection of Byron’s letters from the years 1814-1815 with pages marked by my ‘Pride & Prejudice’ bookmark, a hastily bought souvenir from Bath and as I was reading the letter written by Byron on this very day, September 9 1814 – I confess that my attention wandered to the alluring and haughty figure of Mr Darcy in conversation with a certain Miss Bennet and somehow the words from his first marriage proposal became embroiled with what would also turn out to be Byron’s second marriage proposal to Annabella Milbanke…

A few weeks ago you asked me a question – which I answered – I have now one to propose… Are the “objections” – to which you alluded – insuperable? – or is there any line or change of conduct which could possibly remove them?

still I neither wish you to promise or pledge yourself to anything – but merely to learn a possibility which would not leave you the less a free agent.

But it’s hardly a declaration of ardent love and enduring passion, is it?

Which is all rather ironic when one considers Byron’s reputation as the great Romantic poet!

He would appear to write with a dread of being accepted and as with Mr Darcy, this, his second proposal would be immediately accepted and by September 18 the die was cast.

My dear Moore, I am going to be married – that is, I am accepted, and one usually hopes the rest will follow…

Things may occur to break it off, but I will hope not…

I must, of course, reform thoroughly

Unlike Mr Darcy and Miss Bennet however, Byron and Annabella were to be denied their happy-ever-after for by January 1816, a mere sixteen months later, Annabella had returned to her parents with the baby Ada and their brief marriage dissolved into bitterness, innuendo, scandal and exile.

And yes, that’s Dottie Chicken photo-bombing!

However, that is another story, or possibly several more!

Several years ago, like Annabella Milbanke I also received a proposal of marriage from another aspiring Man of Letters; delivered not in person nor indeed by mail coach but courtesy of the fax machine!

‘for it was to avoid troubling you upon it that I finally determined to remain an absent friend rather than become a tiresome guest – if I offend it is better at a distance..

Lord Byron

However, MY Man of Letters was at the time some several thousand miles away in the Middle East and fortunately my story has turned out very differently!

Sources Used:
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 4 1814-1815 Ed, Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1975)

Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice An Annotated Edition Ed, Patricia Meyer Spacks (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2010)

A Regency Recondite!

‘Books of Travel are Expensive and I Don’t Want Them.’

Lord Byron

When asked for her opinion about the famous Regency doyenne Lady Caroline Lamb- the actress Sarah Miles replied that Caro “was a woman born out of her time and was forced to suffer hugely because of it.”

As I too was born ‘out of my time’ – I have a fond heart for Regency history and it is no secret that I also have a passionate interest in the life of the poet Lord Byron.

Resplendent Newstead? Blast!

However, as much as I adore Byron’s poetry and letters and remain intrigued by his unique and fascinating life – I also believe that his image as the original Regency ‘bad boy’ has been complimented by the scandal surrounding his brief marriage and which would precipitate his journey into exile.

The Morning Star of Annesley?

The Ramblings of a Regency Recondite are the tales of one who has followed in the footsteps of Byron as he lived and loved.

To the Parish of Marylebone!

From the cobbled streets of Aberdeen and the ruined majesty of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire and to the elegant colonnade of Melbourne House in London until his departure from our shores in April 1816.

The ‘Dreary Coast’ of Seaham…
Door Stepping in Whitehall…

Although Caro Lamb is remembered for her glorious and difficult life – I confess that all I have suffered have been the windswept train stations, the occasional motorway queue, the inclement weather and the inability to read a map correctly!

The Agony of Piccadilly?
To the Vale of Graves!

Yet despite the frustrations of transport delays, weariness and a frequent diet of suspect food familiar to most travellers – I have relished the opportunities to visit the wonderful places that are tinged with the history of Byron.

Paying Court at St James…

Time to saddle up the horses me thinks!

Marilyn and a Million OR Three!

If I valued fame, I should flatter received opinions, which have gathered strength by time, and will yet wear longer than any living works to the contrary…

Lord Byron

These were the thoughts expressed by Byron in his November 1813 journal entry as this fashionable ‘literary lion’ pondered the question of his fame.

I have been reading the book by Ghislaine McDayter Byromania and the birth of Celebrity Culture which places Byron and the heady years of stardom as the patriarch of all of our modern celebrities and so in addition to being a brilliant and irreverent poet, and despite his own cynicism on the matter – Byron is also honoured as the first ever celebrity!

However, it is another celebrity who I’m also scribbling about in this month of August – the wonderful Marilyn Monroe who died one balmy and mysterious evening in 1962.

Despite being born two centuries apart, both MM and Byron were considered beautiful and fabulous – despite some ferocious changes in mood, an indulgence for reckless affairs, disastrous marriages and a fondness for alcohol.

They were in their time pursued and adored by legions of fans and both would die at the ripe old age of thirty six.

However, another striking parallel between Byron and MM is that both are still recognised for their portraits in iconic dress.

There is the familiar portrait of Byron painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 dressed in the Albanian costume that he had bought during his Grand Tour.

Byron would later gave the costume to the beautiful heiress Margaret Mercer Elphinstone and confidante of the Princess Charlotte of Wales for a fancy dress ball in May 1814 and in an playful letter with a hint of sexual innuendo from his bachelor pad in London; he writes:

I send you the Arnaout garments – which will make an admirable costume for a Dutch Dragoon – The Camesa or Kilt (to speak Scottishly) you will find very long – it is the custom with the Beys and a sign of rank to wear it to the ancle – I know not why-but so it is – the million shorten it to the knee which is more antique – and becoming – at least to those who have legs and a propensity to show them…

I have sent but one camesa – the other I will dispatch when it has undergone the Mussulman process of ablution…

It is put off & on in a few minutes – if you like the dress – keep it – I shall be very glad to get rid of it – as it reminds me of one or two things I don’t wish to remember…

To make it more acceptable – I have worn this very little – & never in England except for half an hour to Phillips.

The costume along with Byron’s letter was treasured and can now be seen on display at Bowood House and Gardens in Wiltshire, the home of Margaret’s daughter Emily through her marriage to the 4th Marquess of Lansdowne Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Earl of Shelburne.

AND then there is THE white ‘Subway Dress’ worn by MM for the 1954 film The Seven Year Itch and which went under the hammer in Beverly Hills for $5.6 million pounds!

MM’s signature dress owned by the actress Debbie Reynolds was auctioned in June 2011 along with a vast collection of other famous Hollywood memorabilia including Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Tramp Hat and Judy Garland’s ‘Red Ruby Slippers’…

BUT $5.6 million? Wow!

Sources used:
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 3 Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1974)

Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 4 Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1975)

Adieu Most Amiable Mamma…

 ‘I thought my dear Augusta that your opinion of my meek mamma would coincide with mine… But she flies into a fit of phrenzy, upbraids me as if I was the most undutiful wretch in existence, rakes up the ashes of my father, abuses him, says I shall be a true Byrrone, which is the worst epiphet she can invent.

Am I call to this woman mother?

In the hagiography which often passes for the writing of Byron’s life, Catherine Gordon Byron is something of a Marmite figure – for you will either love OR hate her!

However, my hatred of Marmite is equal to the fondness that I have for the story of this most ‘Amiable Mamma’ who Byron once described as

A tender and peremptory parent who indulged me sometimes with holidays and now and then with a box on the ear.’

Lord Byron
A Portrait of Lord Byron’s Most ‘Amiable Mamma’

Catherine Gordon was born in 1764 in the Castle of Gight, in the shire of Aberdeen to Katherine Innes and George Gordon, the 12th Laird of Gight and her ancestry could lay a proud claim to the descent from the sister of King James II ; a wild race noted for their ferocious battles, treacherous deeds, suicide and murder.

In 1820 while living in Europe and in a letter to his publisher John Murray, Byron alluding to his mother’s ‘haughty’ pride in her Gordon ancestry, described her as:

being precise upon points of genealogy like all the Aristocratical Scots – She had a long list of ancestors like Sir Lucius O’Triggers most of whom are to be found in the Old Scotch Chronicles – Spalding – & in arms & doing mischief

Lord Byron

For it was with the suicide of her father who had been found drowned in the Avon Canal in Bath on January 9 1779 that the ‘romping good-humoured girl of sixteen, inclined to corpulency’ became the 13th and final Laird of Gight and with a passion for dancing and with a temper to match, the wealthy, outspoken and superstitious Miss Gordon was introduced to Bath society in 1785.

Her presence was to be quickly noted by John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron who despite his grief for the death of his wife Amelia, Baroness Conyers and the plight of his motherless daughter Augusta; was in desperate need of a wife who could continue to support him in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

A Portrait of John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron

The naive and romantic Catherine was united in Holy Matrimony to the feckless and charming John Byron on Friday May 13 1785 at St Michael’s Church in Bath and with no marriage settlement in place, all Byron had to do was to agree to take the name of Gordon and then he could make free with his wife’s money – all £22,580 of it.

O where are ye gaein’, bonny Miss Gordon,
O where are ye gaein’ sae bonnie and braw.
Ye’ve married, ye’ve married wi’ Jonny Byron,
To squander the lands of Gight awa

For not only had Catherine married an upstart Englishman but by the winter of 1787 and with the lands of Gight squandered ‘awa’ Catherine now ‘big with bairn’ could now only follow her cruel and dissipated husband to Chantilly in France in an effort to escape his creditors.

As the birth of her child approached, Catherine returned to England and having surrendered the care of the five year old Augusta to the girl’s pious grandmother Lady Holderness; the impoverished young mother-to-be moved into a furnished room at 16 Holles Street to await her lonely confinement.

And it was here that on Tuesday January 22 1788 she gave birth to a boy who was born with a caul over his head, a deformity of the right leg and with the prosaic names of George Gordon in honour of her father.

Catherine would return to her homeland of Aberdeen with her ‘dear son George’ as a toddler and after the death of ‘Mad Jack’ on August 2 1791 in Valenciennes, she devoted herself to the well being of her ‘ill-deedie laddie’ denying him nothing despite his mischievous nature, her tightened purse strings and short temper.

Their provincial and happy life in Aberdeen came to an end in August 1798 as Catherine and her son, now the 6th Lord Byron would leave Scotland to take possession of Newstead Abbey in Nottingham, the ancestral abode of the Byron family since the Reformation.

The Ancestral Abode of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire

And by all accounts their first season at Newstead was an idyllic one despite the dilapidated mansion with a leaky roof and the bare grounds stripped of all woodland and Byron would plant an oak tree in the garden which he would later celebrate in verse:

Young Oak!

when I planted thee deep in the ground,

I hoped that thy days would be longer than mine;

That thy dark-waving branches would flourish around,

And ivy thy trunk with its mantle entwine.

The ‘Byron Oak’ in the Grounds of Newstead Abbey in springtime…

And as he, with his boys, shall revisit this spot,

    He will tell them in whispers more softly to tread.

Oh! surely, by these I shall ne’er be forgot;

 Remembrance still hallows the dust of the dead.

With Byron now a Peer of the Realm, Catherine would be increasingly marginalised over time as the decisions concerning the health and education of her son were the responsibilities of his guardian Lord Carlisle and the attorney John Hanson and with maternal pride and fond concern frequently mistaken for ignorance, fickleness and tedious embarrassment as Dr Glennie attested:

Mrs Byron was a total stranger to English society and English manners… a mind almost wholly without cultivation… and not endowed with powers to retrieve the fortune and form the character and manners of a young nobleman, her son.

Dr. Glennie

There is no doubt that Catherine as a woman of volatile opinion and expansive feeling was probably her own worst enemy, but then life had been hard for her and without the benefit of a supportive network and financial security, who are we to judge?

As Byron moved through adolescence frequently bored of school, in need of cash and always willing to challenge authority; the relationship with his mother was to become ever more explosive and unpredictable and in a series of letters to his ‘dearest Augusta’, he lets forth with invective, which although amusing, suggests a cruel attitude which affords him little credit.

I have at last succeeded, my dearest Augusta, in a pacifying the dowager, and mollifying that piece of flint which the good Lady denominates her heart.

She now has condescended to send you her love, although with many comments on the occasion, and many compliments to herself.

But to me she still continues to be a torment, and I doubt not would continue so till the end of my life… It is a happy thing that she is my mother and not my wife, so that I can rid myself of her when I please

And with Byron full of teenage angst and pockets full of ready cash obtained by dubious means; the ‘good Lady’ was far from pleased:

That Boy will be the death of me and drive me mad! I never will consent to his going Abroad. Where can he get Hundreds? Has he got into the hands of money lenders? He has no feeling, no Heart.

This I have long known he has behaved as ill as possible to me for years back, this bitter Truth I can no longer conceal, it is wrung from me by heart-rending agony.

I am well rewarded, I came to Nottinghamshire to please him and now he hates it.

He knows that I am doing everything in my power to pay his Debts and he writes to me about hiring Servants and the last time he wrote to me was to desire that I would send him £25.0.0 to pay his Harrow Bills which I would have done if I had had as much as he has – three hundred – I am glad I did not, but it shows what he is, God knows what is to be done with him, I much fear he is already ruined at eighteen!!!

Great God I am distracted I can say no more.

As Byron made plans to travel abroad with his friend John Cam Hobhouse, he was also planning to uproot his mother from her cosy home at Burgage Manor in Southwell to Newstead Abbey, a cold, damp ruin which promised social isolation and more than one visit from the bailiffs.

Burgage Manor in Southwell, Nottinghamshire…

However, despite the acrimony in which they had parted, Catherine was also to be the recipient of Byron’s most beautifully witty and picturesque letters that were written as he travelled throughout the East.

If I wed I will bring you home a sultana with half a score of cities for a dowry, and reconcile you to an Ottoman daughter in law with a bushel of pearls not larger than ostrich eggs or smaller than walnuts.’

Lord Byron

Her reply is equally witty in return and there are delicious hints that mother and son would surely have enjoyed some lighthearted times together.

A thousand thanks for your long letter which amused me much. I see you are quite charmed with the Spanish Ladies. For Heavens sake have nothing to do with them. They make nothing of poisoning both Husbands and Lovers if they are jealous of them or offend them. The Italian ladies do the same.

I will however agree to your marrying a very pretty very sensible rich Sultana, with half a Million to her fortune not less, and also a Bushel of Pearls and diamonds. No other is worthy of you nor will she be received by me.

Despite her ill-health, she valiantly tried to maintain the upkeep of the Abbey throughout the long winter of 1810 and 1811 and continued to juggle her son’s debts while in constant fear of a bailiff removing her belongings.

Hutton the Bailiff and two of his men arrived from Nottingham. How is this? I thought this business would have been settled… I did not think you would let this come on me… They say the things must be sold immediately.
P.S. For God(s) sake do not let me live in this state…

Catherine Gordon Byron

Catherine died at the age of forty six on Wednesday August 1 1811 at Newstead Abbey surrounded by her devoted servants and as her son was travelling from London poste haste to be by her side after borrowing ‘forty pounds’ from John Hanson as he didn’t have the funds to undertake the journey from London.

My poor mother died yesterday! I heard one day of her illness, the next of her death – Thank God her last moments were most tranquil… I now feel the truth of Mr Gray’s observation, ‘That we can only have one mother.’ Peace be with her!

Every thing is doing that can now be done plainly yet decently for the internment.

The ‘Byron’ Memorial Tablet in the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham

On Friday August 9 , her remains were interred to the Byron family vault in the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire and thirteen years later in 1824, she would be reunited with her ‘Dear son George’ and granddaughter Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace in November 1852.

Byron’s biographer John Galt was moved to write charitably of Catherine some years after her death:

Notwithstanding her violent temper and other unseemly conduct, her affection for him had been so fond and dear, that he undoubtedly returned it with unaffected sincerity and from many casual and incidental expressions which I have heard him employ concerning her, I am persuaded that his filial love was not at any time even of the ordinary kind.

John Galt

Sources used:

Byron and His World, Derek Parker (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd 1968)

Byron’s Letters and Journals Volume One, Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1973)

My Amiable Mamma A Biography of Mrs. Catherine Gordon Byron, Megan Boyes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd 1991)

Let Me Have Implora Pace! Please?

The last sad rites to the illustrious dead were performed upon the remains of this great poet at four o’clock on Friday evening last, in the family vault of the church of Hucknall Torkard, in this county, close to the ancient demesne of the Byons, who held Newstead Abbey for centuries…

Then and Now What the Papers Said About the Death of Lord Byron

On this day, July 16 AND an incredible 26 years ago I celebrated the safe arrival of my youngest son Tom and in 1824 a further 197 years ago, the church of St Mary Magdalene in the town of Hucknall in Nottingham welcomed the safe arrival of Byron’s remains for burial after his death at the age of 36 on April 19 in the town of Missolonghi in Greece.

Ten o’clock being the time fixed for the procession to leave Nottingham, the great bell at St Mary’s tolled at that hour…’

A quarter before eleven o’clock, the hearse, adorned with the large sable plumes, drawn by six black horses, each bearing a plume of feathers on his head, was ordered to the front of the Blackmoor’s Head Inn, for the purpose of receiving the body of his Lordship, which, on being brought out and placed therein, the first mourning coach and six came up, in which was put the urn, containing the heart, &c., covered with a black silk velvet pall ornamented with escutcheons of the Byron arms, on a white ground

The utmost silence prevailed during this ceremony. The arrangements having been completed, at eleven o’clock the procession set out

At half past eleven o’clock, a number of the undertaker’s men arrived, and immediately began to clothe the pulpit and reading desk with black cloth. A large seat next to the pulpit, together with communion table and rails were also covered with black cloth.

An eschutcheon of the poet with the motto, ‘Crede Byron’ underneath, was hung in front of the pulpit below the cushion. All these preparations were finished by half past one, at which hour the minute bell began to toll.

The church and little village were crowded to excess at this hour, and all eyes were fixed on the road which the procession had to pass… Although the procession left Nottingham at 20 minutes past eleven and had only seven miles to traverse, it did not reach Hucknall church until half-past three o’clock.

The Rev. Chas Nixon, the vicar, who was in attendance all day, immediately repaired to the church yard where he received the body…

At a quarter before four o’clock the procession entered the church.

The body and urn being brought in, and placed on two trestles fixed in the aisle, the mourners passed to the seats prepared for them. The coronet and cushion were then placed upon the case of feathers.

The Rev. Chas Nixon, the vicar, clothed in his white surplice, then read a part of the beautiful service of the Church of England’ and in a few minutes the undertaker and his attendants slowly removed the coronet supporting it on the cushion at the head of the tomb, whilst the clergyman read the remainder of the service.

The coffin was then gradually lowered, and placed on an old leaden coffin…. The original intention was that it should have been laid upon his mother’s coffin, but the mutilated and decayed state of the latter rendered that impossible; it rests, however, exactly next to it, with the case containing the urn at the head.

Around the vault stood Col. Leigh, chief mourner (the present Lord Byron was said to be indisposed at Bath); next to him, Mr Hobhouse and Mr Hanson; then Lord Rancliffe and Colonel Wildman; the Household of the deceased in the rear.

The whole ceremony was finished at 20 minutes past four o’clock.

The One wish of the late distinguished poet is gratified by his remains being deposited in his native land, and in the tomb of his ancestors, and in his own words, to mingle with ‘The crush’s relics of their vanished might.’

However, before I become TOO carried away with this wonderful evocative account of Byron’s funeral and the moving processional scenes of the crowds of ordinary people who attended him to his grave – I am reminded of a letter written by Byron to his faithful publisher John Murray in the summer of 1819:

‘I am sure my Bones would not rest in an English grave – or my Clay mix with the earth of that Country: – I believe the thought would drive me mad on my death-bed could I suppose that any of my friends would be base enough to convey my carcase back to your soil – I would not even feed your worms – if I could help it.’

Lord Byron

In toto!

AND on that note, I’m off to see if I can enjoy a large slice of birthday cake!

The Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham

Sources used:

Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 6 1818-1819 Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)

Then and Now What the Papers Said About the Death of Lord Byron (The Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene Hucknall)

It’s Daggers at Dawn!

‘My dear Ly. M – God knows what has happened – but a 4 in the morning Ly. Ossulstone angry (& at that moment ugly) delivered to me a confused kind of message from you of some scene – this is all I know – except that with laudable logic she drew the usual feminine deduction that I “must have behaved very ill...’

Oh dear, it would appear that on another balmy July evening some 205 years ago, the poet Lord Byron had found himself in hot water – again!

‘Ly. W(estmorland) says “you must have done something – you know between people in your situation – a word or a look goes a great way” &c. &c. – so it seems indeed….’

On the evening of Monday July 5 he attended a ‘Small Waltzing Party – 10 o’clock at the home of Lady Heathcote despite his intense dislike for the ‘fashionable Waltz’ on account of his lameness and for his disdain for anything remotely fashionable.

That he had attended a party only days before that had all ‘the refuse of the Regent & the Red book – Bedfords – Jerseys – Ossulstones – Greys & the like’ also did VERY little to deter him!

And that he might bump into Lady Caroline Lamb, his aggrieved and furious former lover whom he had been anxiously avoiding several days earlier was yet ANOTHER futile deterrent.

Byron’s most recent paramour Lady Oxford had sailed out of his life with her husband at the end of June and although he had been reunited with his half- sister Augusta Leigh, he was making plans to go abroad again.

And so he went to Lady Heathcote’s party as did Caro who according to Byron’s trusty confidant, his ‘Dear Lady M’ was determined to pique the poet ‘by her Waltzing’.

Piqued or not, something happened to Caro at this party involving a Waltz, blunt words and a sharp weapon according to the people there and with human memory so notoriously fallible – some wild and rather outrageous stories were shared.

Have you ever seen the dramatic scene as portrayed in the 1973 film Lady Caroline Lamb with Richard Chamberlain as an unsympathetic Byron wrestling a knife from an hysterical and suicidal Caro as a group of ladies including Annabella Milbanke, THE future Lady Byron scream and run for cover?

Unfortunately, and however delightful to image – that scene was just another example of creative license!

Professing ignorance of the whole bloody scene, Lord Byron could only say:

I have heard a strange story of C’s scratching herself with glass – & I know not what besides…

What I did or said to provoke her – I know not – I told her it was better to waltz – ‘because she danced well’ but I see nothing in this to produce cutting and maiming – besides before supper I saw her – & though she said and did even then a foolish thing…

She took hold of my hand as I passed & pressed it against some sharp instrument – & said – ‘I mean to use this’ – I answered – ‘against me I presume’ – & passed on… nor do I know where this cursed scarification took place – nor when – I mean the room – & the hour.

Lady Melbourne with her sensibility, poise and distaste for scandal had merely this to say:

‘She broke a Glass, & Scratched herself, as you call it, with the broken pieces – Ly O(ssulstone) and Ly H(eathcote) – discussed instead of taking it from her, & I had just left off, holding her for 2 Minutes.’

However according the Duchess of Beaufort, poor Caro

not only wounded herself in several places but was carried out by several people actually in a straight waist coat.

But it is only fair that we hear from the Lady herself:

He had made me swear I was never to Waltz – Lady Heathcote said ‘come Lady Caroline you must begin, & I bitterly answered  – Oh yes! I am in a merry humour.’

I did so but whispered to Lord Byron, ‘I conclude I may Waltz now’ and he answered sarcastically, ‘with every body in turn, you always did it better than any one. I shall have pleasure in seeing you’.

I did so, with what feelings you may judge.

After this, feeling ill, I went into a small inner room where supper was prepared: Lord Byron & Lady Rancliffe entered after!

Seeing me, he said ‘I have been admiring your dexterity.’ I clasped the knife, not intending anything, ‘So my dear,’ he said ‘yet if you mean to act a Roman part, mind which way you strike with our knife, be it at your own heart not mine – you have struck there already.’ ‘Byron’ I said, and ran away with the knife.

I never stabbed myself….people pulled to get it from me; I was terrified my hand got cut & blood came over my gown..’

With Caro’s hysterics, Lady Melbourne’s anguish AND the scolding by the ladies of Lady Heathcote’s circle, Byron must have been counting the days until his departure abroad, particularly when the story was published in The Satirist:

‘With horn-handled knife,

To kill a tender lamb as dead as mutton’

However, his departure would not be for another three years AND that is for another story!

Sources used: 

Byron’s ‘Corbeau Blanc’ The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne Ed Jonathan David Gross (Liverpool University Press 1997)

Byron’s Letters and Journals Volume 3 1813-1814 Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1974)

Lady Caroline Lamb Paul Douglass (Palgrave Macmillan 2004)

The Whole Disgraceful Truth Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb Paul Douglass (Palgrave Macmillan 2006)

Stone Me! Such a Pretentious Poseur!

‘P.S. – Torwaltzen has done a bust of me at Rome for Mr Hobhouse – which is reckoned very good – he is their best after Canova – & by some preferred to him. – I have had a letter from Mr. Hodgson – maudlin & fine feeling – he is very happy – has got a living – but not a child – if he had stuck to a Curacy – babes would have come of course because he could not have maintained them. – –

Remember me to all your friends, &c. &c…..

An Austrian officer the other day, being in love with a Venetian – was ordered with his regiment into Hungary – distracted between love & duty he purchased a deadly drug which dividing with his mistress both swallowed – The ensuing pains were terrific but the pills were purgative – & not poisonous – by the contrivance of the unsentimental apothecary – so that so much suicide was all thrown away….

Only Byron could ‘P.S’ such a fabulous letter with a tale of two futile suicides, the disadvantage to his friend who is now no longer a poor and potentially propagating Curate and of himself being immortalised in stone..

Hobhouse inspired by his love of classical antiquity had commissioned the fashionable Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen to make a portrait bust of his ‘dearest friend’ during their visit to Rome in May 1817.

Image Courtesy of the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen

One wonders if he had to try hard to persuade his ‘dearest friend’ to actually sit for Thorvaldsen as the first meeting between the artist and Byron was one of wry amusement on the part of one and studied indifference by the other.

The inauspicious start did little to deter Thorvaldsen from his task despite the challenges Byron presented.

‘When I was about to make Byron’s statue; he placed himself just opposite me, and began immediately to assume quite another countenance to what was customary to him.

Will you not sit still? said I; but you must not make these faces.

It is my expression, said Byron. Indeed? said I, and then I made him as I wished, and everybody said, when it was finished, that I had hit the likeness.

When Byron, however, saw it, he said, “It does not resemble me at all; I look more unhappy”.

He was, above all things, so desirous of looking extremely unhappy..

Image Courtesy of the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen

Unhappy or not, Byron’s reaction to the bust was also one of wry embarrassment as he was later to write:

‘I would not pay the price of a Thorwaldsen for any human head and shoulders….a bust looks like putting up pretensions to permanency…

Lord Byron

Perhaps he was also thinking about the myth of Medusa, another troubled and irreverent beauty:

‘Even you, Medusa, should you seek your reflection, shall turn to rock the instant you see your face…

Despite Byron’s reaction to his likeness, Hobhouse was delighted with Thorvaldsen’s work and anticipating his friend in the style of a Roman conqueror he proposed that the bust should be decorated with a laurel wreath across the brow.

However, the reaction from the bemused poseur was emphatic:

‘I protest against & prohibit the “laurels” – which would be a most awkward assumption…. – but I won’t have my head garnished like a Xmas pie with Holly – or a Cod’s head and Fennel – or whatever the damned weed is they strew round it…

Lord Byron

I think that Byron was quite right not rest upon his laurels – besides a laurel wreath would only have hidden all of those wonderful curls!

However, in typical Byronic fashion, he was NOT immune to the admiration for another bust – far from it!

‘The Helen of Canova (a bust which is in the house of Madame the Countess d’Albrizzi, whom I know) is without exception, to my mind, the most perfectly beautiful of human conceptions, and far beyond my ideas of human execution

Lord Byron
‘Bust of Helen’ by Antonio Canova (1811) Image Courtesy of Accademia Galleries Venice.

For as a guest at the Venetian salon of Countess Albrizzi in 1816, he came across Antonio Canova’s ‘Ideal Head of Helen’ on display in all of her finery and his delight for Canova’s genius would later inspire the following lines:

In this beloved marble view,
Above the works and thoughts of Man –
What Nature could – but would not – do
And Beauty and Canova can!

Sources used:

So Late into the Night (Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 5) Ed, Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)

The Byronic Image The Poet Portrayed, Robert Beevers (Olivia Press 2005)

The Works of Lord Byron Letters and Journals. Vol. IV. Ed, Rowland E. Prothero (London: John Murray 1900)

To the Vale of Graves…

That eye which had gleam’d as in flashed from Heav’n, –

Whose glances by angles and demons seem’d given. –

It anxiously gaz’d, but its language and lights

As they faded were seal’d from mortality’s sights.

In the days following the news of Lord Byron’s death in Greece on April 19 1824; his young widow had written a poem which tells of her sorrow that on his death bed her exiled spouse had asked that a message be brought to her – a message the faithful valet William Fletcher had been unable to understand.

The effort was made, but all, all, was in vain

And dark is that page which he sought to explain…

And some 36 years later on the day before her 68th birthday and with her beloved granddaughter and namesake Anne Isabella Noel King by her side; Annabella died in the early morning hours of Wednesday May 16 1860 while staying at 11 St George’s Terrace in Primrose Hill, North London from Bronchitis and Pleurisy after suffering from the effects of a prolonged illness throughout most of the Spring and NOT from breast cancer as is often erroneously reported.

In a poignant letter to the ‘other’ Mrs Lamb, the ‘Caro George’ of the glittering season of 1812 and the last remaining member of the Melbourne clan; she had been told:

My darling suffered very much, except the few hours before the end. The end was in sleep, which passed into the sleep of death – gently and calmly.

It is at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London on May 21 1860 that Annabella was laid to rest and despite the incorrect spelling of her first name and that she had been born in the home of her mother’s great friend Isabella Baker at Elemore Hall, her simple and elegant grave can be discovered in the shadow of the enormous Dissenter’s Chapel.

And it was on a glorious afternoon in October as I took a stroll through this fabulous cemetery to FINALLY find my way to the grave of Byron’s spouse.

I use the word FINALLY as this grave was not one of the easiest to find, hidden as it is by an impressive display of several large obelisks and some rather flamboyant monuments.

The grave itself is in very good condition despite the blanket of bramble and the rather nice ferns struggling to make themselves seen.

As I was making my way carefully around the grave trying to avoid the large holes in the ground while trying not to trip over the odd piece of  broken monument which lay scattered about – I was surprisingly affected by the lonely appearance of this grave despite it’s beauty.

I also thought of how far away she rests from her devoted parents Judith and Ralph who rest in the churchyard of All Saints at Kirkby Mallory and that of her only daughter Ada who had been reunited with her father some 8 years previously in the Byron Vault at the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

But far from the scenes of his birth and his youth,

that breath of sweet song died away in the south.

And silent and lone was the vale of the graves

There were none to divine the last tokens he gave! –

However despite having no family near, Annabella is by no means alone as her good friend the author and art critic Anna Jameson is near and she is surrounded by various members of the Lushington clan including Sophia, Mary and Amelia sisters to the ‘Gentlemanlike, clear-headed and clever’ attorney Dr. Stephen Lushington who had acted so decisively for her during the separation saga of 1816.

Reminders of her place in the Byron orbit are everywhere throughout the 72 acres of this cemetery as both the poet’s chum John Cam Hobhouse and his publisher John Murray are buried here along with a Byron servant and niece or three who are scattered nearby.

Byron’s ‘Dearest Sis’ the Hon. Augusta Mary Leigh is also resident here, however her remains along with those of her spouse are enclosed in a lead lined coffin within the huge vaulted catacomb beneath the Dissenter’s  Chapel; which has a delicious touch of irony when you consider her sorry tale of debt, feckless children and scandal.

As a spot in the catacombs has always been more expensive and prestigious than a burial within the grounds of a cemetery, they have long been considered to be the most exclusive resting place for those in the higher echelon of the social strata; however, I was astounded upon reading the final paragraph of The Kindness of Sisters by David Crane.

For having made no secret of his hostility toward Lady B, he writes of her ‘crusade against the Byrons’ and that the very style of her grave both visible and proud indicates her triumph against the hapless Augusta Leigh who finds herself ‘tucked away on the bottom shelf’ in the darkness of the catacombs.

As I can really find no answer to this absurd contretemps which appears indicative of the misunderstanding surrounding the poet’s spouse and which still dominates so many years later – I am happy to let the lady herself have the last word:

The one truth then reveal’d, that might save and might bless, – 

That hallowed last link ‘twixt, the living and dead. –

‘Twas all speechless and void; – and that word was not said.

Sources Used:

The Kindness of Sisters Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons David Crane (London: Flamingo 2003)

The Real Lady Byron Joan Pierson (London: Robert Hale 1992)

Thursday’s Angel Child HAS Far to Go!

As I began my previous tale with an epistolary rant from the Hon. Judith Noel as she championed the separation of her ‘poor Child’ from the ‘unmanly and despicable Ld Byron – the drama of which continues to reverberate and divide opinion many years later – it is with a nod to mischief that I hand over the baton once more:

For Godsake do not let any consideration for her influence You – for it is owing in a great degree to the settled hatred She has long born to You and Yours

the Viscountess never forgave Annabella the involuntary Act of coming into the World – which injur’d her dearly beloved Brother & Nephew – and it has been a regular Wish to injure ever since…

More than 229 years have now passed since that ‘involuntary Act of coming into the World’ for May 17 is the birthday of Anne Isabella, Lady Noel Byron, the Poet’s ‘Princess of Parallelograms’ and the woman he later said was ‘born for my destruction.’

Born on Ascension Day in 1792 in County Durham, she was the cherished only child of Sir Ralph and the Hon. Judith Milbanke who had lived through a marriage of over 15 years, childlessness and hope in anticipation of the arrival of their ‘’little angel’.

The adored baby was given the prosaic names of Anne Isabella in honour of her royal godmother the Duchess of Cumberland and Mrs. George Baker who had tended to Judith’s confinement at Elemore Hall while the completion of the Milbanke’s new house overlooking the wild coast at Seaham was still underway.

Annabella, the name that she would become universally known by, was baptised at Seaham in August of that year and despite his disappointment, Judith’s brother Lord Wentworth had been one of the first to offer his congratulations on the birth of this ‘little Lassie’ along with her estranged spouse became the heirs to the Wentworth Estates upon the death of her mother in 1822.

As Judith suspected that her talented sister-in-law had always resented the arrival of this heir to the Milbanke riches of Seaham and Halnaby – it is not known if the indomitable Lady Melbourne had fired off a similar congratulatory letter to her delighted sibling!

However, far away from the glamour of the ‘Melbourne Court’, the ‘pretty Spot’ of Seaham Hall would remain Annabella’s favourite home as she enjoyed a childhood of bathing in the sea, clamouring across the rocks, dreaming up stories of dragons and shipwrecks while running across the sands and where she would live in peaceful anonymity until her marriage to a certain poet in January 1815 and from then on her life would never be the same again.

It was during her first visit to London in 1799 that the delightful portrait of Annabella in her 8th year had been painted by John Hoppner – the fashionable artist most favoured by the Northern gentry.

Although this image of Lady B remains a favourite and I have yet to gaze at the original which hangs in the Ferens Art Gallery in the City of Hull – a copy of this delightful portrait can be viewed in the dining room of 13 Piccadilly Terrace – albeit in 12th scale!

For despite Malcolm Elwin’s assertion of the ‘suggestion of complacency’ in this portrait – I see only the image of a graceful child with an expression of determination and strength that remains a touching prophesy of the heartache and triumph that we know will await her.

It is also tempting to wonder if the poignancy of Annabella’s adult life can be glimpsed in the lines of the old English nursery rhyme ‘Thursday’s Child’ as the historical interpretation of the ‘Far to Go’ would be to have favoured her with a long and successful life, blessed with limitless potential.

However, could the ambiguity behind the meaning of this ‘Thursday’s Child’ with the ‘Far to Go’ offer an explanation for the sympathy, misunderstanding and hostility she can still command?

Interestingly, as the house where Annabella died on May 16 1860 at 11 St George’s Place in Primrose Hill, London is also the house familiar to another troubled and brilliant genius, the poet and writer Sylvia Plath who in the spring of 1961 was to compose her only semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar – I shall borrow a line as a tribute to the Birthday Girl:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

Sylvia Plath

Sources used:

Lord Byron’s Wife Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1974)

The Life and Letters of Anne Isabella, Lady Noel Byron Ethel Colburn Mayne (London: Constable & Co Ltd 1929)

Blest Her! The Angel Suffers No More…

Your barbarous and hard hearted Brother has I am too firmly persuaded broken the heart that was devoted to him – and I doubt not will have pleasure in the Deed. She will not long exist, so he may glory in the Success of his endeavors.

She is dreadfully ill and was last night and this day in a State which terrifys me – tell Lord Byron this if you please.

Wonder not that I write Strongly, who could see that Suffering Angel Sinking under such unmanly and despicable treatment, and not feel?

Ld Byron is sending her Parents also with Sorrow to the Grave – let him glory also in that – and that he had three Lives to answer for at that great account, as much as if he had plunged his Dagger in our hearts – indeed that would have been a short suffering compared to a broken Heart…

… Oh! my God! how has my poor Child been sacrificed! not only to a wicked, but unmanly Creature! her only Error, too strong an attachment to him, and how has he rewarded it!”

Lady Noel

The agitated author of this letter was the Hon. Judith Noel to Augusta Leigh in the dying days of January 1816 as the marriage separation between her beloved only daughter and Lord Byron became increasingly acrimonious and as the latter prepared for a life in exile far away from the marital home of 13 Piccadilly Terrace in London.

Luckily for Byron’s ‘Dearest Sis’ – this letter was never sent AND also for Annabella as Judith had been quite mistaken in her distraught prediction about her ‘poor child’s’ imminent demise for NOT only did Annabella survive her estranged spouse by some 36 years but also that of both her parents, the Hon. Augusta Leigh AND even that of her only daughter Ada who would die in her thirty-sixth year in November 1851.

One day before her sixty-eighth birthday and with her beloved granddaughter and namesake Anne Isabella Noel King by her side; Annabella died in the early morning hours of Wednesday May 16 1860 while staying at 11 St George’s Terrace in Primrose Hill, North London from the effects of Bronchitis and Pleurisy after suffering from a prolonged illness throughout most of the Spring and NOT from breast cancer as is commonly argued.

In a poignant letter to the ‘other’ Mrs Lamb, the ‘Caro George’ of the glittering season of 1812 and the last remaining member of the Melbourne clan – Annabella the Younger was to write:

“My darling suffered very much, except the few hours before the end. The end was in sleep, which passed into the sleep of death – gently and calmly.”

Interestingly, the house where Annabella died is also a house familiar to another troubled and brilliant genius, the poet and writer Sylvia Plath.

In the spring of 1961 Plath composed her only semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar in the study of 11 St George’s Place at the invitation of friends and which tells of the story of Esther Greenwood who haunted by the presence of death becomes increasingly ill with depression and makes several attempts at suicide.

The Bell Jar is arguably a roman à clef as the protagonist’s struggle with mental illness with that of Plath’s own descent into clinical depression is strikingly apparent and in the month following the publication of this novel here in the UK and after several failed attempts; Plath would eventually take her own life in February 1963.

In a letter to her mother, Plath had justified writing the book as the means in which to ‘picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar’.

And when one considers the life that Annabella had lived through with the letters, journals and poetry that she and others have left us for posterity against a tide of hostility, ignorance and disparagement which she still meets with many years after her death – I wonder if she would recognised herself through this distorted lens?

And would she would have been sympathetic to that immortal line: “Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage”…

Sources used:

Lord Byron’s Wife Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1974)

The Real Lady Byron Joan Pierson (London: Robert Hale 1992)

MAY You Marry in Haste?

Mr Farquar of Doctor’s Commons has a copy of the certificate of my marriage which he got from Bath…..I was married however on the 12th or 13th May (I don’t know which) – 1785 at St. Michaels Church, Bath (and St Michaels Parish I suppose but I don’t know for certain) and this is all I can inform you about it.

Catherine Gordon Byron

It is interesting that Byron’s mother should have been unsure as to the precise date of her fated marriage to John Byron in the year 1785.

With her Scottish ancestry for omens and superstition perhaps Catherine’s confusion is understandable for she did indeed marry ‘Mad Jack’ Byron on Friday May 13 and by all accounts their brief marriage was a disaster.

And even though our last May Friday 13 was in 2016 – I can STILL remember a day not entirely free from mishap much like the fated Catherine Gordon Byron some two hundred and thirty four years ago!

With the suicide of her father who had been found drowned in the Avon Canal in Bath on January 9 1779 that the ‘romping good-humoured girl of sixteen, inclined to corpulency’ became the 13th and final Laird of Gight and with a passion for dancing and with a temper to match, the wealthy, outspoken and superstitious Miss Gordon was introduced to Bath society in 1785.

Her presence had been quickly noted by John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron who despite his grief for the death of his wife Amelia, Baroness Conyers and the plight of his motherless daughter Augusta; was in desperate need of a wife who could continue to support him in the manner to which he had become accustomed and weeks later the marriage by License of ‘John Byron Esq… a Widower’ of less than one year to the young and naive spinster was held in the beautiful ‘Parifh’ Church of St Michael in Bath – the town synonymous with the romance of my favourite Jane Austen novel Persuasion.

Their marriage was ‘folemnized’ in the presence of two of Catherine’s friends who despite being anxious for her welfare had been unable to halt her dash into the charismatic and feckless orbit of John Byron and with no marriage settlement in place, all Byron had to do was to agree to take the name of Gordon and then he could make free with his wife’s money.

The star of their ill-starred union would be born on January 22 in 1788 but by then most of Catherine’s wealth had been swallowed up by her husband’s wild spending or by his creditors.

O where are ye gaein’, bonny Miss Gordon,
O where are ye gaein’ sae bonnie and braw.
Ye’ve married, ye’ve married wi’ Jonny Byron,
To squander the lands of Gight awa’

In August 1791 John Byron died in France and Catherine was left to raise her son ‘Geordie’ alone with only the meagre allowance that had been salvaged from what remained of her wealth in addition to her strong will and determination to do all that she could for her only child :

George is well….but at present he is my only comfort and the only thing that makes me wish to live..’

Catherine Gordon Byron

However, on Monday January 2 1815 Catherine’s ‘only comfort’ was to star in his own ill-starred marriage to Annabella Milbanke at Seaham Hall in County Durham having presented his bride with the wedding ring that had once belonged to his mother.

Clearly, the Gordon trait for fearing bad omens and superstition was ignored – AGAIN!

Sources used:

My Amiable Mamma A Biography of Catherine Gordon Byron Megan Boyes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd. 1991)