Every person with whom he became acquainted, with any degree of intimacy, was made familiar with his side of the story. Moore's biography is from first to last, in its representations, founded upon Byron's communicativeness and Lady Byron's silence; and the world at last settled down to believing that the account so often repeated and never contradicted must be substantially a true one.
The true history of Lord and Lady Byron has long been perfectly understood in many circles in England, but the facts were of a nature that could not be made public. While there was a young daughter living, whose future might be prejudiced by its recital, and while there were other persons on whom the disclosure of the real truth would have been crushing as an avalanche; Lady Byron's only course was the perfect silence in which she took refuge, and those sublime works of charity and mercy to which she consecrated her blighted earthly life.
But the time is now come when the truth may be told. All the actors in the scene have disappeared from the stage of mortal existence, and passed, let us have faith to hope, into a world singular concurrence of circumstances, all the facts of the case, in the most undeniable and authentic form, were at one time placed in the hands of the writer of this sketch, with authority to make such use of them as she should judge best. Had this melancholy history been allowed to sleep, no public use would have been made of them; but the appearance of a popular attack on the character of Lady Byron calls for a vindication, and the true story of her married life will, therefore, now be related.
Lord Byron has described, in one of his letters, the impression left upon his mind by a young person whom he met one evening in society, and who attracted his attention by the simplicity of her dress, and a certain air, of singular purity and calmness, with which she surveyed the scene around her.
On inquiry, he was told that this young person was Miss Milbanke, an only child, and one of the largest heiresses in England.
Lord Byron was fond of idealizing his experiences in poetry, and the friends of Lady Byron had no difficulty in recognizing the portrait of Lady Byron, as she appeared at this time of her life, in his exquisite description of Aurora Raby.
Indeed a certain fair and fairy one,
Of the best class, and better than her class,—
Aurora Raby, a young star who shone
O'er life, too sweet an image for such glass,
A lovely being scarcely formed or moulded,
A rose with all its sweetest leaves yet folded.
* * * *
"Early in years, and yet more infantine
In figure, she had something of sublime
In eyes which sadly shone, as seraphs' shine.
All youth, but with an aspect beyond time;
Radiant and grave, as pitying man's decline;
Mournful, but mournful of another's crime,
She looked as if she sat by Eden's door,
And grieved for those who could return no more.
* * * *
"She gazed upon a world she scarcely knew,
As seeking not to know it; silent, lone,
As grows a flower, thus quietly she grew
And kept her heart serene within its zone.
There was awe in the homage which she drew;
Her spirit seemed as seated on a throne,
Apart from the surrounding world, and strong
In its own strength, most strange in one so young!"
Some idea of the course which their acquaintance took, and the manner in which he was piqued into thinking of her is given in a stanza or two.
"The dashing and proud air of Adeline
Imposed not upon her; she saw her blaze
Much as she would have seen a glow-worm shine;
Then turned unto the stars for loftier rays.
Juan was something she could not divine,
Being no sibyl in the new world's ways;
Yet she was nothing dazzled by the meteor,
Because she did not pin her faith on feature.
"His fame, too, for he had that kind of fame
Which sometimes plays the deuce with womankind,
A heterogeneous mass of glorious blame,
Half virtues and whole vices being combined;
Faults which attract because they are not tame;
Follies tricked out so brightly that they blind;
These seals upon her wax made no impression,
Such was her coldness or her self-possession.
* * * *
"Aurora sat with that indifference
Which piques a preux chevalier, —as it ought.
Of all offences that's the worst offence,
Which seems to hint you are not worth a thought. * * * *
"To his gay nothings, nothing was replied,
Or something which was nothing, as urbanity
Required. Aurora scarcely looked aside,
Nor even smiled enough for any vanity.
The Devil was in the girl! Could it be pride?
Or modesty, or absence, or inanity?
* * * *
"Juan was drawn thus into some attentions,
Slight, but select, and just enough to express,
To females of perspicuous comprehensions,
That he would rather make them more than less.
Aurora at the last (so history mentions,
Though probably much less a fact than guess)
So far relaxed her thoughts from their sweet prison,
As once or twice to smile, if not to listen.
* * * *
"But Juan had a sort of winning way,
A proud humility, if such there be,
Which showed such deference to what females say,
As if each charming word were a decree.
His tact, too, tempered him from grave to gay,
And taught him when to be reserved or free.
He had the art of drawing people out,
Without their seeing what he was about.
"Aurora —who, in her indifference,
Confounded him in common with the crowd
Of flatterers, though she deemed he had more sense
Than whispering foplings, or than witlings loud—
Commenced (from such slight things will great commence)
To feel the flattery which attracts the proud,
Rather by deference than compliment,
And wins even by a delicate dissent.
"And then he had good looks; that point was carried
Nem. con. amongst the women, . . . .
Now though we know of old that looks deceive,
And always have done somehow, these good looks
Make more impression than the best of books.
"Aurora, who looked more on books than faces,
Was very young, although so very sage,
Admiring more Minerva than the Graces,
Especially upon a printed page.
But virtue's self, with all her tightest laces,
Has not the natural stays of strict old age;
And Socrates, that model of all duty,
Owned to a penchant, though discreet, for beauty."
The presence of this high-minded, thoughtful, unworldly woman is described through two cantos of the wild, rattling "Don Juan," in a manner that shows how deeply the poet was capable of being affected by such an appeal to his higher nature.
For instance, when Don Juan sits silent and thoughtful amid a circle of persons who are talking scandal, the poet says: —
"'T is true he saw Aurora look as though
She approved his silence; she perhaps mistook
Its motive for that charity we owe,
But seldom pay, the absent.
* * * *
"He gained esteem where it was worth the most,
And certainly Aurora had renewed
In him some feelings he had lately lost
Or hardened; feelings which, perhaps ideal,
Are so divine that I must deem them real.
"The love of higher things and better days,
The unbounded hope and heavenly ignorance
Of what is called the world and the world's ways,
The moments when we gather from a glance
More joy than from all future pride or praise,
Which kindled manhood, but can ne'er entrance
The heart is an existence of its own
Of which another's bosom is the zone.
"And full of sentiments sublime as billows
Heaving between this world and worlds beyond,
Don Juan, when the midnight hour of pillows
Arrived, retired to his...
In all these descriptions of a spiritual, unworldly nature, acting on the spiritual and unworldly part of his own nature, every one who ever knew Lady Byron intimately must have recognized the model from which he drew and the experience from which he spoke, even though nothing was further from his mind than to pay this tribute to the woman he had injured, and though, before these lines, which showed how truly he knew her real character, had come one stanza of ribald, vulgar caricature, designed as a slight to her.
"There was Miss Millpond, smooth as summer's sea,
That usual paragon, an only daughter,
Who seemed else cream of equanimity
Till skimmed,—and then there was some milk and water.
With a slight shade of blue too, it might be
Beneath the surface; but what did it matter?
Love's riotous, but marriage should have quiet,
And, being consumptive, live on a milk diet."
The result of Byron's intimacy with Miss Milbanke and the enkindling of his nobler feelings was an offer of marriage, which she, though at the time deeply interested in him, declined with many expressions of friendship and interest. In fact, she already loved him, but had that doubt of her power to be to him all that a wife should be, which would be likely to arise in a mind so sensitively constituted and so unworldly. They however continued a correspondence as friends; on her part the interest continually increased, on his the transient rise of better feelings was choked and overgrown by the thorns of base, unworthy passions.