All the world knows that the marriage of Lord Byron and Miss Milbanke was a very unhappy one. He was the spoiled child of fame and fortune; she the spoiled child of her own family. His weakness was to be thought strong; hers to be prim and prudish. It was written of them, long: after their union had been broken up for ever: — “He morbidly exaggerated his vices, and she her virtues; his monomania lay in being an impossible sinner, and hers an impossible saint. In the decorous world’s eye, he was the faulty, and she the fault-less monster of romantic fiction. He in his mad moods did his best to blacken his own reputation, while her self-delusions invariably tended to foster the fond persuasion that the strict pharisaical principles in which her mother had brought her up obliged her to suppress her natural feelings, whenever these would have prompted her to comply with the world’s fashions.”
While leading a thoughtless, dissipated life, too common among those of his age and rank, Byron’s inner life was distressingly lonely. He was as conscious as any one could be that the path he was treading was the road to ruin; and, in a passage in his journal, speaking in admiration of some lady whose name he left blank, he wrote — “A wife would be the salvation of me.” Under this conviction, which not only himself, but all his real friends entertained of the prudence of his taking timely refuge in matrimony from those perplexities (to call them by the gentlest name) which form the sequel of all less regular ties, he began to turn his thoughts seriously to marriage, at least, says Moore, as seriously as his thoughts were ever capable of being so turned. But ever and again new entanglements, in which his heart was the willing dupe of his fancy and vanity, came to engross for a time the young poet, and still as the usual penalties of such illicit pursuits followed, he found himself once more sighing for the sober yoke of wedlock as some security against their recurrence. Two or three women of rank at different times formed the subject of his confused matrimonial dreams.
The lot at length fell on Anne Isabella, only child of Sir Ralph Milbanke, of Halnaby, county York, and of the Hon. Judith Noel, daughter of Sir Edward Noel, Viscount Wentworth. The first time Byron saw his future wife was at Lady Melbourne’s in London. He told Captain Medwin long afterwards that in going upstairs on that occasion he stumbled, and remarked to Moore, who accompanied him, that it was a bad omen. On entering the room, he observed a young lady, more simply dressed than the rest of the assembly, sitting alone upon a sofa. He took her for a humble companion, and asked quietly if he was right in his conjecture. “She is a great heiress,” said his friend, in a whisper, that became lower as he proceeded; “you had better marry her and repair the old place, Newstead.” There was something piquant and what we term pretty, about Miss Milbanke. Her features were small and feminine, though not regular. She had the fairest skin imaginable. Her figure was perfect for her height and there was a simplicity, a retired modesty, about her, which was very characteristic. She interested the young poet-peer exceedingly. It is unnecessary to detail the progress of their acquaintance. He became daily more attached to her, and ended in making her a proposal of marriage, which, however, was not accepted, though every assurance of friendship and regard accompanied the refusal, and a wish was even expressed that they should continue to write to each other. A correspondence, somewhat singular between two young persons of different sexes, consequently ensued, but love was not the subject of it.
Meanwhile, a person unnamed, but said to have been Sheridan, who had for some time stood high in Byron’s confidence, observing how cheerless and unsettled was the state both of his mind and prospects – his family estates being heavily mortgaged, and his matutinal reflections, intensified by headaches, very distressing-advised him strenuously to get married. After much discussion, he consented. The next point for consideration was- Who was to be the object of his choice? While his friend mentioned one lady, he himself named Miss Milbanke. To this, however, his adviser strongly objected, remarking that Miss Milbanke, though niece to Lady Melbourne, cousin to Lady Cowper, and heir presumptive to old Lord Wentworth, had at present no fortune; that his embarrassed affaire would not allow him to marry without one; that she was, moreover, a learned lady, which would not at all suit him. In consequence of these representations, he agreed half in jest, half in earnest — that his friend should write a proposal for him to another lady named, which was accordingly done; and one morning shortly afterwards, as they were once more sitting together, an answer from her arrived, containing a refusal “You see,” said Lord Byron, “that after all, Miss Milbanke is to be the person; — I will write to her.” He accordingly wrote on the moment, and, as soon as he had finished, his friend, remonstrating still strongly against his choice, took up the letter, but, on reading it over, observed, “Well, really, this is a very pretty letter; it is a pity it should not go. I never read a prettier one.” “Then it shall go,” said Lord Byron; and, so saying, he sealed and sent off on the instant what proved to be the fiat of his destiny.
This time he was accepted, and there could be no drawing back, whatever misgivings he might have as to the sequel. On the day the answer arrived be was sitting at dinner, when his gardener came in and presented him with his mother’s marriage ring, which she had lost many years before, and which the gardener had just found in digging up the mould under her window. Almost at the same moment the letter from Miss Milbanke was handed in, and Lord Byron exclaimed, “If it contains a consent, I will be married with this very ring!” It did contain a very flattering acceptance, and the omen was hailed as a happy one, though his mother’s experience would not have borne that out.
Contemplating his approaching union, Byron wrote – “I must, of course, reform thoroughly; and, seriously, if I can contribute to her happiness, I shall secure my own. She is so good a person that — that, in short, I wish I was a better.” Again:— “I certainly did not address Miss Milbanke with mercenary views, but it is likely she may prove a considerable parti. All her father can give, or leave her, he will; and from her childless uncle, Lord Wentworth, whose barony, it is supposed, will devolve on Lady Milbanke (his sister), she has expectations. But these will depend upon his own disposition, which seems very partial towards her. She is an only child, and Sir Ralph’s estates, though dipped (?) by electioneering, are considerable. Part of them are settled on her; but whether that will be dowered now I do not know — though from what has been intimated to me, it probably will. The lawyer will settle this among them.”
Byron had the satisfaction of being told that Miss Milbanke had refused six suitors in the mean time which certainly was a salve for his lordship’s not unnatural vanity; for be had now given to the world the first two cantos of “Childe Harold,” “The Giaour,” “The Bride of Abydos,” and “The Corsair,” and had gained for himself the very highest name among the poets of the day. In due course he received Sir Ralph’s invitation to proceed to Seaham, the worthy baronets seat in North Durham, in his capacity as an accepted lover. Somehow or other he had still misgivings. Though Miss Milbanke had “great expectations.” she was possessed at the time of but little money, while the poet stood in need of a great deal. He declared that his head was in a state of confusion; only, having made the venture, he was willing to take the risk; and so his “mind was made up -positively fixed, determined.” “Of course,” continued he, “I am very much in love, and as silly as all single gentlemen must be in that sentimental situation.” Adverting to his approaching marriage, “it should have been two years earlier,” said he, “and if it had, it would have saved a deal of trouble. But. as it is, I wish it were well over, for I hate bustle, and there is no marrying without some; and then, one must not marry in a black coat, and I hate a blue one.”
The affianced couple were now only waiting lawyers, and settlements, and other formalities, all necessary when the parties to be made one have worldly wealth, or the prospect of it, either on the one side or the other. At this time Byron wrote of Miss Milbanke : — “She is a very superior woman, and very little spoiled, which is strange in an heiress — a girl of twenty — a peeress that is to be, in her own right — an only child, and a savante, who has always had her own way. She is a poetess — a mathematician — a metaphysician, and yet, withal, very kind, generous, and gentle, with very little pretension. Any other head would be turned with half her acquisitions and a tenth of her advantages.” There need be little doubt that this high-flown praise was somewhat deserved in the young lady’s case. Byron, on another occasion, long afterwards, said “there never wais a better, or even a brighter, a kinder, or a more amiable being.” Miss Milbanke herself unquestionably dreamed, and was taught perhaps by her mother to expect, that she would wean Byron from his evil courses, and convert him into a good Christian, or at least a reputable member of society, and a staunch adherent of the Established Church, like her father.
A walk is still pointed out in Seaham Dene which the bridegroom expectant used to frequent, probably to court the Muses. It is a very retired spot, and is still known as “Byron’s Walk.” The only thing he wrote, so far as we know, while waiting for the tying of the nuptial knot, was the piece commencing — “When some brisk youths a tenant of a stall ” — referring to Joseph Blackett, an unfortunate child of genius, dubbed by Byron “Cobbler Joe,” whose last days were soothed by the generous attention of the Milbanke family, and whose orphan daughter, whom he styled “the shoemaking Sappho,” Miss Milbanke used to visit in what she sentimentally styled the “Cottage of Friendship.”
The marriage was performed by special license, on the 2nd of January, 1815, in the drawing-room of Seaham Hall. No sooner was the ceremony over than the happy pair set out for Halnaby, Sir Ralph’s country seat in Yorkshire. Lord Byron long afterwards told Captain Medwin he was surprised at the arrangements for the journey, and somewhat out of humour to find a lady’s maid stuck between him and his bride. “But it was rather too early,” added he, “to assume the husband; so I was forced to submit, but it was not with a very good grace. Put yourself,” he went on to say, “in a similar situation, and tell me if I had not some reason to be in the sulks. I have been accused of saying, on getting into the carriage, that I had married Lady Byron out of spite, and because she had refused me twice. Though I was for a moment vexed at her prudery, or whatever you may choose to call it, if I had made so uncavalier, not to say brutal, a speech, I am convinced Lady Byron would instantly have left the carriage to me and the maid (I mean the lady’s). She had spirit enough to have done so, and would properly have resented the affront.” This seems to be the true version of the affair. But we are likewise told that, when the newly wedded pair were on the point of setting off for Halnaby, Lord Byron said to his bride, to the horror of the lady’s confidential attendant, who pronounced it to be a bad omen — “Miss Milbanke, are you ready?” And of evil omen, it truly was, though a mere natural misadvertence.
We are told in Mrs. Beecher Stowe’s wholly unreliable narrative of a hideous confession made by his lordship, as soon as the carriage doors were shut, and of its terrible effect upon the poor lady. Miss Milbanke’s former lady’s maid, Mrs. Minns, who had the close confidence of her mistress during the long period of ten years, who had quitted her service only some months before on the occasion of her own marriage, and who had been asked to return and fulfil once more the duties of lady’s maid, at least during the honeymoon, preceded Lord and Lady Byron to prepare for their reception at Halnaby Hall. She was present when they arrived at that mansion in the afternoon of the day, and saw them alight from the carriage. At that moment, according to Mrs. Minns’s testimony. Lady Byron was as buoyant and cheerful as a bride should be, and kindly and gaily responded to the greetings of welcome which poured upon her from the pretty numerous group of servants and tenants of the Milbanke family who had assembled about the entrance to the mansion. And Lord Byron’s confidential servant, Fletcher, who was the only other person that accompanied the newly married pair from Seaham to Halnaby, but who, of course, sat upon the box, not inside, informed Mrs. Minns that a similar scene had occurred at Darlington, at the hotel where they changed horses.
The happiness of Lady Byron, however, was of brief duration. Even during the short three weeks they spent at Halnaby, the irregularities of her husband occasioned her the greatest distress, and it is said she even contemplated returning to her father. Mrs. Minns was her constant companion and confidante during this painful period, and she did not believe that her ladyship concealed a thought from her. With laudable reticence, the old lady, when interviewed by a correspondent of the Newcastle Chronicle in her eighty-fifth year, absolutely refused to disclose the particulars of Lord Byron’s misconduct at the time. She gave Lady Byron, she said, a solemn promise not to do so; but language, adds the interviewer, would be wanting to express the indignation with which she repudiated the gross explanation which Mrs. Stowe has given of the matter. So serious, however, did Mrs. Minns consider the conduct of Lord Byron, that she recommended her mistress to confide all the circumstances to her father — “a calm, kind, and most excellent parent” — and take his advice as to her future course. At one time Mrs. Minns thought Lady Byron had resolved to follow her counsel, and impart her wrongs to Sir Ralph Milbanke; but, on arriving at Seaham Hall, her ladyship strictly enjoined Mrs. Minns to preserve absolute silence on the subject — a course which she followed herself, so that when, six weeks later, she and Lord Byron left Seaham for London, not a word had escaped her to disturb her parent’s tranquillity as to their daughter’s domestic happiness. Lord Byron, conversing with Captain Medwin, allowed that his honeymoon was not all sunshine.
On the 2nd February, Byron wrote as follows to Moore: — “I have been transferred to my father-in-law’s domicile, with my lady and my lady’s maid, &c, &c., &c, and the treacle moon is over, and I am awake, and find myself married. My spouse and I agree to — and in — admiration. Swift says “no wm man ever married ;’ but, for a fool, I think it the most ambrosial of all future states. I still think one ought to marry upon lease; but am very sure I should renew mine at the expiration, though next term were for ninety and nine years.”
It was after their return to Seaham, that the humdrum sort of life they were expected to lead there tried Lord Byron’s mercurial temper beyond endurance, and rendered him more than ever perversely rebellious against conventional restraint. He wrote to a correspondent : — “Upon this dreary coast, we have nothing but country meetings and shipwrecks; and I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the late gales. My papa, Sir Ralph, has recently made a speech at a Durham tax meeting; and not only at Durham, but here, several times since, after dinner. He is now, I believe, speaking it to himself (I left him in the middle) over various decanters, which can neither interrupt him nor let him fall asleep, as might possibly have been the case with some of his audience.” And he adds in a postscript: — “I must go to tea — damn tea.”
In another letter he says: — ” What an odd situation and friendship is ours! — without one spark of love on either side, and produced by circumstances which in general lead to coldness on one side, and aversion on the other.”
A great quarrel occurred in the sixth week of their marriage. During a jealous mood, superinduced by her husband’s actual or imagined infidelities, Lady Byron fearfully resented a hasty remark of his. “I deeply regret to know,” he said, “that my beloved Mary Chaworth was very unhappy in her marriage. Ah, it might have been different had we married!” Upon hearing this remark. Lady Byron instantly arose, and in great anger uttered the fatal words, “Mary Chaworth rejected you for your deformity, as I did once, and it had been better if I had still rejected a man with a devil’s foot” And with these words she left the apartment. To Lord Byron, sensitive as the quivering aspen leaf upon that very fact of his deformity—his “curse of life,” as he once said to Trelawney — the words were as daggers. From that moment there ceased all marital intercourse between the newly-wedded pair. Both kept their own apartments, and communed only with their own friends, brooding over their respective wrongs; and thenceforward, though the forms of outward decency might be observed before strangers, a fixed determination to part, at least for a time, perhaps for ever, was entertained by each.
But into the particulars of their actual separation, which took place in London, on the 15th of January, 1816, we have no intention to enter here. Their married life had lasted only one year and thirteen days.