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The Scandal of Lady Byron

In 1869, while Atlantic editor James Thomas Fields was away on a six month journey through Europe, a submission arrived from Harriet Beecher Stowe. By this time, Stowe was already a celebrated writer, well known for her 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, and she had written for the magazine before. Her new article, however, gave the magazine's staff pause. It was a detailed exposé of George Gordon, Lord Byron, including an allusion to the poet's widely rumored but then-unspeakable affair with his half sister.

Stowe was moved to write the article after striking up a friendship with Annabella Milbanke, Byron's wife. While Lady Byron was on her deathbed, she had called Stowe to her country estate near London for a "private, confidential conversation upon important subjects." It was then that Stowe learned Lady Byron's side of the tumultuous marriage: the lies, the abandonment, the violent outbursts of temper and the "secret adulterous intrigue with a blood relation, so near in consanguinity that discovery must have been utter ruin and expulsion from civilized society."

As Stowe explained to William Dean Howells, who was standing in for Fields during his absence, Lady Byron's story deserved to be told. Byron's mistress, Countess Teresa Guiccioli, had recently published a memoir that painted Lady Byron as a cold, calculating, prudish woman. The book, according to Stowe, was rousing new sympathy for Byron and "bringing the youth of America once more under the power of that brilliant, seductive genius from which it was hoped they had escaped.... But the time is now come when the truth may be told."

Unsure of how to proceed, Howells turned to the Atlantic founders for advice. James Russell Lowell warned him not to print Stowe's steamy article, but Oliver Wendell Holmes urged him to go ahead with publication, pointing out that it would "attract considerable attention."

Holmes's prediction was correct, but the article ended up causing irreparable damage to the magazine's relationship with its Victorian audience. The issue itself sold out quickly, but in the months that followed, The Atlantic's circulation dropped by as much as 15,000. While increasing competition from newer magazines certainly contributed to this decline, it was agreed that Stowe's article had alienated thousands of readers.

Stowe herself was defiant. The following year, she expanded her article into a full-length book entitled Lady Byron Vindicated. In the introduction, she addressed those who had condemned her Atlantic piece:

Why have I made this disclosure at all? To this I answer briefly, because I considered it my duty to make it. I made it in defence of a beloved, revered friend, whose memory stood forth in the eyes of the civilized world charged with most repulsive crimes, of which I certainly knew her innocent.... My fellow-countrymen of America, men of the press, I have done you one act of justice,—of all your bitter articles, I have read not one.... What interest have you or I, my brother and my sister, in this short life of ours, to utter anything but the truth?