The reading world of America has lately been presented with a book, which is said to sell rapidly, and which appears to meet with universal favor.
The subject of the book may be thus briefly stated: the mistress of Lord Byron comes before the world for the sake of vindicating his fame from slanders and aspersions cast on him by his wife. The story of the mistress versus wife may be summed up as follows:—
Lord Byron, the hero of the story, is represented as a human being endowed with every natural charm, gift, and grace, who by the one false step of an unsuitable marriage wrecked his whole life. A narrow-minded, cold-hearted precisian, without sufficient intellect to comprehend his genius or heart to feel for his temptations, formed with him one of those mere worldly marriages common in high life, and, finding that she could not reduce him to the mathematical proprieties and conventional rules of her own mode of life, suddenly and without warning abandoned him in the most cruel and inexplicable manner.
It is alleged that she parted from him in apparent affection and good-humor, wrote him a playful, confiding letter upon the way, but, after reaching her father's house, suddenly and without explanation announced to him that she would never see him again; that this sudden abandonment drew down upon him a perfect storm of scandalous stories, which his wife never contradicted; that she never in any way or shape stated what the exact reasons for her departure had been, and thus silently gave scope to all the malice of thousands of enemies. The sensitive victim was actually driven from England, his home broken up, and he doomed to be a lonely wanderer on foreign shores.
In Italy, under bluer skies and among a gentler people, with more tolerant modes of judgment, the authoress intimates that he found peace and consolation. A lovely young Italian countess falls in love with him, and breaking her family ties for his sake, devotes herself to him, and in blissful retirement with her he finds at last that domestic life for which he was so fitted.
Soothed, calmed, and refreshed, he writes Don Juan, which the world is at this late hour informed was a poem with a high moral purpose, designed to be a practical illustration of the doctrine of total depravity among young gentlemen in high life.
Under the elevating influence of love, he rises at last to higher realms of moral excellence, and resolves to devote the rest of his life to some noble and heroic purpose, becomes the savior of Greece, and dies untimely, leaving a nation to mourn his loss.
The authoress dwells with a peculiar bitterness on Lady Byron's entire silence during all these years, as the most aggravated form of persecution and injury. She informs the world that Lord Byron wrote his autobiography with the purpose of giving a fair statement of the exact truth in the whole matter, and that Lady Byron bought up the manuscript of the publisher and insisted on its being destroyed unread, thus inflexibly depriving her husband of his last chance of a hearing before the tribunal of the public.
As a result of this silent, persistent cruelty on the part of a cold, correct, narrow-minded woman, the character of Lord Byron has been misunderstood, and his name transmitted to after ages clouded with aspersions and accusations which it is the object of this book to remove.
Such is the story of Lord Byron's mistress,—a story which is going the length of this American continent and rousing up new sympathy with the poet, and doing its best to bring the youth of America once more under the power of that brilliant, seductive genius from which it was hoped they had escaped. Already we are seeing it revamped in magazine articles, which take up the slanders of the paramour and enlarge on them and wax eloquent in denunciation of the marble-hearted, insensible wife.
All this while it does not appear to occur to the thousands of unreflecting readers that they are listening merely to the story of Lord Byron's mistress and of Lord Byron, and that even by their own showing their heaviest accusation against Lady Byron is that she has not spoken at all; her story has never been told.
For many years after the rupture between Lord Byron and his wife, that poet's personality, fate, and happiness, had an interest for the whole civilized world, which we will venture to say was unparalleled. It is within the writer's recollection, how, in the obscure mountain town where she spent her early days, Lord Byron's separation from his wife was for a season the all-engrossing topic.
She remembers hearing her father recount at the breakfast-table the facts as they were given in the public papers, together with his own suppositions and theories of the causes.
Lord Byron's "Fare thee well," addressed to Lady Byron, was set to music and sung with tears by young schoolgirls, even in this distant America.
Madame de Staël said of this appeal, that she was sure it would have drawn her at once to his heart and his arms: she could have forgiven everything; and so said all the young ladies all over the world, not only in England, but in France and Germany,—wherever Byron's poetry appeared in translation.
Lady Byron's obdurate cold-heartedness in refusing even to listen to his prayers or to have any intercourse with him which might lead to reconciliation, was the one point conceded on all sides.
The stricter moralists defended her, but gentler hearts throughout all the world regarded her as a marble-hearted monster of correctness and morality, a personification of the law unmitigated by the gospel.
Literature in its highest walks busied itself with Lady Byron. Wilson, in the character of the Ettrick Shepherd, devotes several eloquent passages to expatiating on the conjugal fidelity of a poor Highland shepherd's wife, who, by patience and prayer and forgiveness, succeeds in reclaiming her drunken husband and making a good man of him; and then paints his moral by contrasting with this touching picture the cold-hearted, pharisaical correctness of Lady Byron.
Moore, in his "Life of Lord Byron," when beginning the recital of the series of disgraceful amours which formed the staple of his life in Venice, has this passage:—
"Highly censurable, in point of morality and decorum, as was his course of life while under the roof of Madame ***, it was (with pain, I am forced to confess) venial in comparison with the strange, headlong career of license to which, when weaned from that connection, he so unrestrainedly and, it may be added, defyingly abandoned himself. Of the state of his mind on leaving England, I have already endeavored to convey some idea, and among the feelings that went to make up that self-centred spirit of resistance which he then opposed to his fate, was an indignant scorn for his own countrymen for the wrongs he thought they had done him. For a time the kindly sentiments which he still harbored toward Lady Byron, and a sort of vague hope, perhaps, that all would yet come right again, kept his mind in a mood somewhat more softened and docile, as well as sufficiently under the influence of English opinions to prevent his breaking out into open rebellion against it, as he unluckily did afterward.
"By the failure of the attempted mediation with Lady Byron, his last link with home was severed; while, notwithstanding the quiet and unobstrusive life which he led at Geneva, there was as yet, he found, no cessation of the slanderous warfare against his character; the same busy and misrepresenting spirit which had tracked his every step at home, having, with no less malicious watchfulness, dogged him into exile."
We should like to know what the misrepresentations and slanders must have been, when this sort of thing is admitted in Mr. Moore's justification. It seems to us rather wonderful how anybody, unless it were a person like the Countess Guiccioli, could misrepresent a life such as even Byron's friend admits he was leading.
During all these years, when he was setting at defiance every principle of morality and decorum, the interest of the female mind all over Europe in the conversion of this brilliant prodigal son was unceasing, and reflects the greatest credit upon the faith of the sex.
Madame de Staël commenced the first effort at evangelization immediately after he left England, and found her catechumen in a most edifying state of humility. He was metaphorically on his knees in penitence, and confessed himself a miserable sinner in the loveliest manner possible. Such sweetness and humility took all hearts. His conversations with Madame de Staël were printed and circulated all over the world, making it to appear that only the inflexibility of Lady Byron stood in the way of his entire conversion.
Lady Blessington, among many others, took him in hand five or six years afterward, and was greatly delighted with his docility and edified by his frank and free confessions of his miserable offences. Nothing now seemed wanting to bring the wanderer home to the fold, but a kind word from Lady Byron. But, when the fair Countess offered to mediate, the poet only shook his head in tragic despair; "he had so many times tried in vain; Lady Byron's course had been from the first that of obdurate silence."
Any one who would wish to see a specimen of the skill of the honorable poet in mystification will do well to read a letter to Lady Byron, which Lord Byron, on parting from Lady Blessington, enclosed for her to read just before he went to Greece. He says:—
"The letter which I enclose I was prevented from sending, by my despair of its doing any good. I was perfectly sincere when I wrote it, and am so still. But it is difficult for me to withstand the thousand provocations on that subject which both friends and foes have for seven years been throwing in the way of a man whose feelings were once quick, and whose temper was never patient.
"PISA, NOVEMBER, 17, 1821.
"I have to acknowledge the receipt of 'Ada's hair,' which is very soft and pretty, and nearly as dark already as mine was at twelve years old, if I may judge from what I recollect of some in Augusta's possession, taken at that age. But it don't curl, —perhaps from its being let grow.
"I also thank you for the inscription of the date and name, and I will tell you why; —I believe that they are the only two or three words of your hand-writing in my possession. For your letters I returned, and except the two words, or rather the one word, 'Household,' written twice in an old account book, I have no other. I burnt your last note, for two reasons: firstly, it was written in a style not very agreeable; and, secondly, I wished to take your word without documents, which are the worldly resources of suspicious people.
"I suppose that this note will reach you somewhere about Ada's birthday—the 10th of December, I believe. She will then be six, so that in about twelve more I shall have some chance of meeting her;—perhaps sooner, if I am obliged to go to England by business or otherwise. Recollect, however, one thing, either in distance or nearness;—every day which keeps us asunder should, after so long a period, rather soften our mutual feelings, which must always have one rallying-point as long as our child exists, which I presume we both hope will be long after either of her parents.
"The time which has elapsed since the separation has been considerably more than the whole brief period of our union, and the not much longer one of our prior acquaintance. We both made a bitter mistake; but now it is over, and irrevocably so. For, at thirty-three on my part and a few years less on yours, though it is no very extended period of life, still it is one when the habits and thought are generally so formed as to admit of no modification; and as we could not agree when younger, we should with difficulty do so now.
"I say all this, because I own to you, that, notwithstanding everything, I considered our reunion as not impossible for more than a year after the separation;—but then I gave up the hope entirely and forever. But this very impossibility of reunion seems to me at least a reason why, on all the few points of discussion which can arise between us, we should preserve the courtesies of life, and as much of its kindness as people who are never to meet may preserve perhaps more easily than nearer connections. For my own part, I am violent, but not malignant; for only fresh provocations can awaken my resentments. To you, who are colder and more concentrated, I would just hint, that you may sometimes mistake the depth of a cold anger for dignity, and a worse feeling for duty. I assure you that I bear you now (whatever I may have done) no resentment whatever. Remember that, if you have injured me in aught, this forgiveness is something; and that, if I have injured you, it is something more still, if it be true, as the moralists say, that the most offending are the least forgiving.
"Whether the offence has been solely on my side, or reciprocal, or on yours chiefly, I have ceased to reflect upon any but two things, viz. that you are the mother of my child, and that we shall never meet again. I think if you also consider the two corresponding points with reference to myself, it will be better for all three.
The artless Thomas Moore introduces this letter in the "Life," with the remark:—
"There are few, I should think, of my readers, who will not agree with me in pronouncing that, if the author of the following letter had not right on his side, he had at least most of those good feelings which are found in general to accompany it."
The reader is requested to take notice of the important admission that the letter was never sent to Lady Byron at all. It was, in fact, never intended for her, but was a nice little dramatic performance, composed simply with the view of acting on the sympathies of Lady Blessington and Byron's numerous female admirers; and the reader will agree with us, we think, that in this point of view it was very neatly done and deserves immortality as a work of high art. For six years he had been plunging into every kind of vice and excess, pleading his shattered domestic joys, and his wife's obdurate heart, as the apology and the impelling cause; filling the air with his shrieks and complaints concerning the slanders which pursued him, while he filled letters to his confidential correspondents with records of new mistresses. During all these years the silence of Lady Byron was unbroken, though Lord Byron not only drew in private on the sympathies of his female admirers, but employed his talents and position as an author in holding her up to contempt and ridicule, before thousands of readers. We shall quote at length his side of the story, which he published in the first Canto of Don Juan, that the reader may see how much reason he had for assuming the injured tone which he did in the letter to Lady Byron quoted above. That letter never was sent to her, and the unmanly and indecent caricature of her, and the indelicate exposure of the whole story on his own side which we are about to quote, were the only communications that could have reached her solitude.
In the following verses, Lady Byron is represented as Donna Inez, and Lord Byron as Don Jose; but the incidents and allusions were so very pointed, that nobody for a moment doubted whose history the poet was narrating.
"His mother was a learned lady, famed
For every branch of science known—
In every Christian language ever named,
With virtues equalled by her wit alone:
She made the cleverest people quite ashamed,
And even the good with inward envy groaned, Finding themselves so very much exceeded
In their own way, by all the things that she did.
* * * *
"Her favorite science was the mathematical,
Her noblest virtue was her magnanimity,
Her wit (she sometimes tried at wit) was Attic all,
Her serious sayings darkened to sublimity;
In short, in all things she was fairly what I call
A prodigy,—her morning-dress was dimity,
Her evening, silk, or in the summer, muslin
And other stuffs, with which I won't stay puzzling.
* * * *
"Some women use their tongues,—she looked a lecture,
Each eye a sermon, and her brow a homily,
And all in all sufficient self-director,
Like the lamented late Sir Samuel Romilly;
* * * *
"In short she was a walking calculation—
Miss Edgeworth's novels stepping from their covers,
Or Mrs. Trimuser's books on education,
Or Coeleb's wife set out in quest of lovers.
Morality's prim personification,
In which not envy's self a flaw discovers.
To others' share 'let female errors fall,'
For she had not even one,—the worst of all.
"O, she was perfect, past all parallel
Of any modern female saint's comparison;
So far above the cunning powers of hell
Her guardian angel had given up his garrison
Even her minutest motions went as well
As those of the best time-piece made by Harrison.
In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her
Save thine 'incomparable oil,' Macassar.
"Perfect she was, but as perfection is
Insipid in this naughty world of ours,—
* * * *
Don Jose like a lineal son of Eve
Went plucking various fruits without her leave.
"He was a mortal of the careless kind,
With no great love for learning or the learn'd,
Who chose to go where'er he had a mind,
And never dreamed his lady was concerned;
The world, as usual, wickedly inclined
To see a kingdom or a house o'erturned,
Whispered he had a mistress, some said two,
But for domestic quarrels one will do.
"Now Donna Inez had, with all her merit,
A great opinion of her own good qualities,
Neglect indeed requires a saint to bear it,
And such indeed she was in her moralities;
But then she had a devil of a spirit,
And sometimes mixed up fancies with realities,
And let few opportunities escape
Of getting her liege lord into a scrape.
"This was an easy matter with a man
Oft in the wrong, and never on his guard,
And even the wisest, do the best they can,
Have moments, hours, and days so unprepared,
That you might 'brain them with their lady's fan,'
And sometimes ladies hit exceeding hard,
And fans turn into falchions in fair hands,
And why and wherefore no one understands.
"'T is a pity learned virgins ever wed
With persons of no sort of education;
Or gentlemen, who, though well-born and bred,
Grow tired of scientific conversation.
I don't choose to say much upon this head;
I'm a plain man, and in a single station,
But oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?
* * * *
"Don Jose and the Donna Inez led
For some time an unhappy sort of life,
Wishing each other not divorced, but dead;
They lived respectably as man and wife,
Their conduct was exceedingly well-bred,
And gave no outward sign of inward strife,
Until at length the smothered fire broke out,
And put the business past all kind of doubt.
"For Inez called some druggists and physicians,
And tried to prove her loving lord was mad;
But as he had some lucid intermissions,
She next decided he was only bad.
Yet when they asked her for her depositions,
No sort of explanation could be had,
Save that her duty both to man and God
Required this conduct, which seemed very odd.
"She kept a journal where his faults were noted,
And opened certain trunks of books and letters,
All which might, if occasion served, be quoted.
And then she had all Seville for abettors,
Besides her good old grandmother (who doted);
The hearers of her case became repeaters,
Then advocates, inquisitors, and judges,
Some for amusement, others for old grudges.
"And then this best and meekest woman bore
With such serenity her husband's woes;
Just as the Spartan ladies did of yore,
Who saw their spouses killed, and nobly chose
Never to say a word about them more.
Calmly she heard each calumny that rose,
And saw his agonies with such sublimity,
That all the world exclaimed, 'What magnanimity!'
This is the longest and most elaborate version of his own story that Byron ever published; but he busied himself with many others, projecting at one time a Spanish Romance, in which the same story is related in the same transparent manner; but this he was dissuaded from printing. The booksellers, however, made a good speculation in publishing what they called his domestic poems,—that is, poems bearing more or less relation to this subject.