The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour
Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality.

Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron removed both herself and her baby daughter from the marital home on Piccadilly Terrace in January 1816. She never went back.

George Hayter painted Annabella Milbanke in 1812, just before she met Byron

Few couples can have proved themselves to be more hopelessly ill-suited than Miss Milbanke and Lord Byron; she so virtuous, he so wild; she so rational, he so mercurial; she so earnestly faithful, he so brutally promiscuous. But why, precisely, did she choose to leave him? Rumours of sodomy, incest and even a historic murder ( it was whispered that Byron, when young, had killed one of his servants) swirled around the gaming clubs and assembly rooms of the day. Lord Byron had been both cruel and inconstant as a husband: this was established beyond any doubt.

Annabella’s need to establish the reasons for a separation at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman, no matter how shocking the circumstances, to abandon her spouse, stopped short of accusing her husband – in public, at least – of incest. Many assumed that Byron went into exile in order to avoid further scandal, although his debts – the poet was being hounded by creditors and bailiffs – provide just as plausible a reason for his flight. Annabella’s accounts of Byron’s cruelty helped to persuade her lawyer, Stephen Lushington, to support the case for separation. To this day, it remains uncertain just how much Byron’s intimate relationship with Augusta Leigh, his half-sister, contributed to Lady Byron’s decision never to return to the house that she herself had invited Mrs Leigh to inhabit for months on end.

Byron’s moving ‘Fare Thee Well’ – it was published a month before his departure to the Continent – was widely read and admired. Its tender sentiments bore scant relation to Lord Byron’s actual feelings for his wife and child as he bade farewell to the country which had idolised him for four heady years – and by which he was now publicly chastised. George Cruickshank’s caricature of ‘Lord Iron’ waving his blithe adieux from a boat laden with buxom admirers came nearer to the truth about Byron’s feelings


Cruickshank’s mischievous cartoon shows a far from heartbroken Lord Byron bidding farewell to England and his wife

Byron had already surrendered to the overtures of an eager young mistress (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, using quiet, clever Mary as her calling-card). For Lady Byron, singled out for attention by the uniqueness of her name, such reckless behaviour was beyond consideration.

The idea of flirting with another man, let alone sleeping with him, was anathema to Annabella, a young woman who never ceased to pine for the extraordinary husband whom she had chosen to renounce. Out of sight was never out of mind. My aim here is to demonstrate how powerfully, even after his death in 1824, Lord Byron would continue to influence and even appear to direct the lives of his wife – the couple never divorced – and their singular daughter.

Best known today for her uncannily prophetic description of the first universal computer, little Ada Byron was first defined to her contemporaries by the words with which an apparently grieving father addressed his unknown child in the 3rd Canto of Childe Harold:

Ada, sole child of my house and heart
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled
And then we parted, not as now we part,
But with a hope…. (1)

While her grief-stricken mother paid a secret visit to Byron’s ancestral home, recording in her diary for 1818 that she had almost fainted with emotion when she stood in his former rooms, young Ada remained remained endearingly unaware of just who Lord Byron might be.

Young Ada

Ada Byron’s life and spirit is wonderfully captured in this early portrait

Aged only seven when she was taken to see the Florida (the vessel in which her father’s embalmed corpse travelled back from Greece in 1824), Ada wrote about ‘Papa’s ship’ in a way that suggests she believed her late father to have been a naval captain. The mistake was understandable. The new Lord Byron, father to Ada’s favourite cousin George, had just set sail for the Sandwich Islands. Naval careers played a significant role in the history of the Byrons, a fact that she may well have learned from young George.

It’s probable that Ada’s first intimate acquaintanceship with her father came about through a painted image of Lord Byron in his glorious prime. Ada’s grandmother, Judith Noel, had celebrated her daughter’s marriage to the country’s best-known poet of the day by buying Thomas Phillips’ 1814 portrait of Byron, resplendent in the Albanian costume he had brought home from his travels in the Middle East. Following the separation, Lady Noel boxed the painting up and put it away in an attic. It was only after her mother’s death in 1822 that Annabella dared to bring the portrait downstairs and hang it in public view. Acutely conscious of the carping comments that would be made by sharp-tongued friends about such an act of homage, she concealed it behind a green velvet curtain.


Byron’s Albanian costume was cannily suited to his growing fame as the author of Eastern romances

It’s remarkable that biographers of the Byron family have never speculated whether Ada, a bold, inquiring and fiercely independent little girl, might have dared to twitch the green curtain aside. Ada, we are gravely informed, remained ignorant of her father’s appearance until the famous portrait was bestowed upon her for a wedding present in 1835. That idea is not only improbable, but incredible.

No mention of the Byron portrait appears in the diary of Ada’s first governess, but the careful detail with which Miss Lamont reported upon her wilful, charming charge shows how conscious this young Irishwoman was of Ada’s heritage. We think of Ada as Lady Lovelace, a farsighted predicter of the universal computer. To her contemporaries, and to herself, Ada was always defined first and last by her position as Lord Byron’s daughter.

Aged fourteen, Ada caught measles. That illness was followed by – but seemingly unconnected to – a severe form of paralysis which turned a vigorous little girl who had been planning to build a flying machine into a bed-bound and often tearful invalid. Towards the end of this sad period – it lasted for over two years – Lady Byron, to whom all new volumes of her husband’s poetry were sent from Murray’s at her own request – introduced Ada to her father’s poetry. The poems she chose included the ‘Fare Thee Well’ which Byron’s widow now regarded as a genuine expression of the dignified grief with which her spouse had accepted the terms of separation.

Ada, at a very young age, learned that mysterious forces had put an end to her parents’ happiness. Later, she was taught to identify her own good-natured but chaotic aunt, Augusta Leigh, as the destroying angel of her mother’s marriage – and as her enduring enemy. It’s likely that Lady Byron also passed along to her daughter the advice that she would later give to her grandson about Lord Byron: admire the poetry; distrust the personality.

The first sign that Miss Byron not only admired her father but planned to emulate him came in 1833, when she attempted to elope from her mother’s home in Ealing. The abrupt dismissal of William Turner, a young man who had been recruited to teach her shorthand – for taking lecture notes – is suggestive. Years later, Ada boasted that her intimacy with this young man had stopped just short of full penetration. A report in the New York Times upon the disgraceful character of Lord Byron’s daughter doubtless spurred Annabella’s eagerness to find naughty Ada a suitable mate and settle her into a respectable marriage.

The choice of Lord King as the ideal husband – it’s clear that both Lady Byron and Ada’s tutor, Mary Somerville, advocated the match – provides clear evidence of the degree to which Lord Byron’s ghost hovered above their lives. William King was wild about Byron. Employed in the Ionian Islands by an obliging relative until 1833, young William had himself painted in a pose and local costume which so conscientiously echoed his idol’s that Ada would always refer to it as William’s ‘Albanian’ dress.

In Albanian dress

Lord King prided himself upon looking Byronic

Returning to England in 1833, following the death of his father, William named the fields of his Surrey estate after Byron’s poems: Chillon, Lara, Corsair and even ‘Ali’. For such a Byron worshipper, Ada herself was the ultimate trophy. They married in 1835. Several years later, the proudly upgraded William, Earl of Lovelace (Annabella had secured the title for a beloved son-in-law through her close family connection to Victoria’s adored Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne) inscribed a mighty beam in his new Surrey house with a new family motto: Crede Byron.

Examples of this enduring obsession with the dead poet abound. Invited to bestow names upon Ada’s firstborn son and daughter, Lady Byron asked that they should be called Byron and Annabella. (The anxiety with which these two children were watched, reported upon and kept apart suggests that both their mother and grandmother feared a repetition of Byron’s relationship with Augusta Leigh.) In Ada’s new home, the great Thomas Phillips’ portrait of her father was given a place of honour, alongside one of her mother (painted in the year she first met Byron) and another of herself, painted in the first year of her marriage and designed – the commissioner was Annabella – to show off Ada’s most strikingly Byronic feature, a forceful, jutting jaw. It takes no great stretch of imagination to see William’s extravagant Somerset home, Ashley Combe, built by him on the actual cliffside where the young Coleridge had imagined Kubla Khan’s palace to arise, as a further homage to Byron. William and Ada were fully aware that it was Ada’s father who had provided the funds for the poem’s first publication.

The most powerful indication of the attachment Ada felt to her father came in 1850, when she and her husband paid their first visit to Newstead Abbey.

Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey as it looked when Byron first saw it

Annabella herself had paid an anonymous visit to the Abbey back in 1818. She was disconcerted when Ada declared that she herself had now fallen in love with ‘the old place and all my wicked forebears’. Before she left Newstead, Ada secured a promise from the Abey’s devoted new owner, Thomas Wyldman, that he would allow her body a resting place within the family vault, at her father’s side. Plans were discussed with Lady Byron – they were never executed – to buy the Abbey back.

Two years later, in 1852, Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer. She was thirty-six, the age at which the father she never knew had ended his own hectic career. She was buried, as she had asked, beside her father. Annabella consoled herself with a private shrine to her daughter, erected in the churchyard of her own family estate at Kirkby Mallory in Northamptonshire. The fact that she never visited it is apparent from the fact that the tablet’s engraver has mistaken the year of Ada’s birth.

Annabella’s own devotion to her husband’s memory is most movingly apparent in the way that she channelled her enormous fortune into causes of which she believed Lord Byron would have approved. Byron had spoken up for the rebel weavers of Nottinghamshire when they smashed the new frames that threatened to extinguish their livelihood. Generous help was extended to the indigent frameworkers on Lady Byron’s own large estate. Byron had supported the Greeks in their fight for independence. Annabella saw to it that a large tract of land in Greece was purchased from a Turkish owner and benevolently run on her behalf by a member of her family whom she had taken under her wing. According to Florence Nightingale, one of Lady Byron’s most ardent admirers, she quietly continued to pay her husband’s debts and to meet his obligations, long after his death.

More controversially, Annabella took under her wing Medora Leigh, the troubled young woman whom she believed to be the secret love-child of her husband and his manipulative older half-sister.

Medora Leigh

Medora Leigh was believed by herself, her aunt Annabella and by Byron himself to be the poet’s own child

Medora, who would die obscurely in France in 1849 at the age of 35, was the chief culprit in convincing an all-too willing Annabella that it was Augusta Leigh who had finally persuaded Byron to hate his wife, even resorting to the forging of letters during his life in exile. ‘She-monster!’ was loyal Ada’s indignant description of Mrs Leigh. Annabella did not challenge the description.

It was Annabella’s growing belief that Augusta Leigh had both seduced her husband and destroyed her marriage that led to the most ignoble episode of Lady Byron’s long life. In 1851, the ageing and indigent Augusta Leigh was summoned to an interview at which she was interrogated and found wanting. (She had failed to supply Lady Byron with the desired confession of her sins.) The fact that Annabella sent a last healing message of affection to Augusta’s deathbed later that same year does not exonerate her from the charge of having betrayed Lord Byron’s most urgent request, that she should always care for his beloved but feckless sister.

An unexpected twist of fate gave Augusta the last laugh. In 1860,  respectful panegyrics were offered at Lady Byron’s death. (She was hailed by Harriet Martineau as a dedicated reformer whose death would be lamented ‘wherever our language is spoken’.) In 1868, Byron’s last mistress published a book in which Theresa Guiccioli, Marquise de Boissy condemned Lady Byron as a cold, unloving wife who had destroyed the reputations of both Byron and his innocent sister by her refusal to provide a public reason for leaving her husband.

The book was first published in Paris. In Britain, the press devoured it with glee. In Blackwood’s, The Athenaeum and The Quarterly Review, Lady Byron was now denounced as a calculating, cold-blooded fiend. What a hypocrite stood here! Lady Byron was a woman (so Blackwood‘s declared with uninhibited relish), whom the saintly Marquise had shown to be unfit to touch the tainted hem of even the most depraved member of her sex.

And Augusta Leigh? Most improbably, Augusta was transformed by a flurried sweep of Victorian pens into a perfect angel of the hearth, a loving sister and maligned madonna, a gentle wife around whom a brood of devoted children knelt to lisp their evening prayers. Lord Byron, much to the gratification of his media-savvy publishers, was meanwhile recast as a misunderstood paragon. Teetotal by preference, a model of chivalry, kindness and forbearance, Lord Byron was declared by one ardent admirer to represent above all, the spirit and manners of a thoroughgoing British gentleman.

Charting the stormy passage of these remarkable people in In Byron’s Wake, I hope that a fair sense of their strengths and weaknesses has been achieved. But the fact that Lady Byron is today still viewed by many as a repressed and vindictive prude, while the charismatic and lovably fallible Ada Lovelace is celebrated only for her remarkably prophetic account of Babbage’s unbuilt machine flags up the enduring problem. Gaining a true estimate of these women’s achievements requires as much of us, their judges, as it did of them. In a timeworn phrase, it’s still too early to tell.

(1) The 3rd canto was written in 1816, en route from Dover to the house on Lake Geneva at which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived, while Byron’s adoring mistress (Claire Clairmont was the instigator of the Shelleys’ own journey out to Switzerland) also discovered that she was pregnant. Cynics might question the depth of Lord Byron’s yearnings for his own daughter. He had counted upon a son.

Miranda Seymour is a novelist, biographer and critic.  She has been a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she lives both in London and at her family’s ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, Thrumpton Hall. Miranda
Miranda  has written an acclaimed biography of Mary Shelley, and a prize-winning memoir, My Father’s House. Her latest work is In Byron’s Wake, a study of Annabella Milbanke and her daughter Ada Lovelace.