The True Story of Lady Byron's Life

Lady Byron has not spoken at all; her story has never been told.

In this letter she says, with regard to their separation:—

"The facts are: I left London for Kirby Mallory, the residence of my father and mother, on the 15th of January, 1816. LORD BYRON HAD SIGNIFlED TO ME IN WRITING, JANUARY 6TH, HIS ABSOLUTE DESIRE THAT I SHOULD LEAVE LONDON ON THE EARLIEST DAY THAT I COULD CONVENIENTLY FIX. It was not safe for me to undertake the fatigue of a journey sooner than the 15th. Previously to my departure it had been strongly impressed upon my mind that Lord Byron was under the influence of insanity. This opinion was derived, in a great measure, from the communications made me by his nearest relatives and personal attendant, who had more opportunity than myself for observing him during the latter part of my stay in town. It was even represented to me that he was in danger of destroying himself.

"With the concurrence of his family, I had consulted Dr. Baillie as a friend, January 8th, respecting the supposed malady. On acquainting him with the state of the case, and with Lord Byron's desire that I should leave London, Dr. Baillie thought that my absence might be advisable as an experiment, assuming the fact of mental derangement; for Dr. Baillie, not having had access to Lord Byron, could not pronounce a positive opinion on that point. He enjoined that, in correspondence with Lord Byron, I should avoid all but light and soothing topics. Under these impressions I left London, determined to follow the advice given by Dr. Baillie. Whatever might have been the conduct of Lord Byron toward me from the time of my marriage, yet, supposing him to be in a state of mental alienation, it was not for me, nor for any person of common humanity, to manifest at that moment a sense of injury."

Nothing more than this letter from Lady Byron is necessary to substantiate the fact that she did not leave her husband, but was driven from him,—driven from him that he might give himself up to the guilty infatuation that was consuming him, without being tortured by her imploring face and by the silent power of her presence and her prayers.

For a long time before this she had seen little of him. On the day of her departure she passed by the door of his room, and stopped to caress his favorite spaniel, which was lying there; and she confessed to a friend the weakness of feeling a willingness even to be something as humble as that poor little creature, might she only be allowed to remain and watch over him. She went into the room where he and the partner of his sins were sitting together, and said, "Byron, I come to say good bye," offering at the same time her hand.

Lord Byron put his hands behind him, retreated to the mantel-piece, and, looking round on the two that stood there with a sarcastic smile, said, "When shall we three meet again?" Lady Byron answered, "In Heaven, I trust," and those were her last words to him on earth.

Now, if the reader wishes to understand the real talents of Lord Byron for deception and dissimulation, let him read, with this story in his mind, the "Fare thee well," which he addressed to Lady Byron through the printer:—

"Fare thee well, and if forever,
  Still forever fare thee well.
Even though unforgiving, never
  ‘Gainst thee shall my heart rebel.

Would that breast were bared Before thee,
  Where thy head so oft hath lain,
While that placid sleep came o'er thee
  Thou canst never know again.

Though my many faults defaced me,
  Could no other arm be found
Than the one which once embraced me
  To inflict a cureless wound?"

The reaction of society against him at the time of the separation from his wife was something which he had not expected, and for which, it appears, he was entirely unprepared. It broke up the guilty intrigue, and drove him from England. He had not courage to meet or endure it. The world, to be sure, was very far from suspecting what the truth was, but the tide was setting against him with such vehemence as to make him tremble every hour lest the whole should be known; and henceforth it became a warfare of desperation to make his story good, no matter at whose expense.

He had tact enough to perceive at first that the assumption of the pathetic and the magnanimous, and general confessions of faults, accompanied with admissions of his wife's goodness, would be the best policy in his case. In this mood he thus writes to Moore:—

"The fault was not in my choice (unless in choosing at all), for I do not believe and I must say it, in the very dregs of all this bitter business, that there ever was a better, or even a brighter, a kinder, or a more amiable, agreeable being than Lady Byron. I never had, nor can have, any reproach to make her while with me. Where there is blame, it belongs to myself."

As there must be somewhere a scapegoat to bear the sin of the affair, Lord Byron wrote a poem called "A Sketch," in which he lays the blame of stirring up strife on a friend and former governess of Lady Byron's, but in this sketch he introduces the following just eulogy on Lady Byron:—

"Foiled was perversion by that youthful mind
Which flattery fooled not, baseness could not blind,
Deceit infect not, near contagion soil,
Indulgence weaken, nor example spoil,
Nor mastered science tempt her to look down
On humbler talents with a pitying frown,
Nor genius swell, nor beauty render vain,
Nor envy ruffle to retaliate pain,
Nor fortune change, pride raise, nor passion bow
Nor virtue teach austerity, —till now.
Serenely purest of her sex that live,
But wanting one sweet weakness, —to forgive.
Too shocked at faults her soul can never know,
She deemed that all could be like her below.
Foe to all vice, yet hardly virtue's friend,
For virtue pardons those she would amend."

In leaving England, Lord Byron first went to Switzerland, where he conceived and in part wrote out the tragedy of "Manfred." Moore speaks of his domestic misfortunes, and the sufferings which he underwent at this time, as having an influence in stimulating his genius, so that he was enabled to write with a greater power.

Anybody who reads the tragedy of "Manfred" with this story in his mind will see that it is true.

The hero is represented as a gloomy misanthrope, dwelling with impenitent remorse on the memory of an incestuous passion which has been the destruction of his sister for this life and the life to come; but which, to the very last gasp, he despairingly refuses to repent of, even while he sees the fiends of darkness rising to take possession of his departing soul. That Byron knew his own guilt well, and judged himself severely, may be gathered from passages in this poem, which are as powerful as human language can be made. For instance, this part of the "Incantation," which Moore says was written at this time:—

"Though thy slumber may be deep,
Yet thy spirit shall not sleep;
There are shades which will not vanish,
There are thoughts thou canst not banish;
By a power to thee unknown,
Thou canst never be alone;
Thou art rapt as with a shroud,
Thou art gathered in a cloud;
And forever shalt thou dwell
In the spirit of this spell

*     *      *     *

"From thy false tears I did distil
An essence which had strength to kill;
From thy own heart I then did wring
The black blood in its blackest spring;
From thy own smile I snatched the snake,
For there it coiled as in a brake
From thy own lips I drew the charm
Which gave all these their chiefest harm;
In proving every poison known
I found the strongest was thine own.

"By thy cold breast and serpent smile,
By thy unfathomed gulfs of guile,
By that most seeming virtuous eye,
By thy shut soul's hypocrisy,
By the perfection of thine art
Which passed for human thine own heart,
By thy delight in others' pain,
And by thy brotherhood of Cain,
I call upon thee ! and compel
Thyself to be thy proper hell!"

Again, he represents Manfred as saying to the old Abbot, who seeks to
bring him to repentance:—

"Old man, there is no power in holy men,
Nor charm in prayer, nor purifying form
Of penitence, nor outward look, nor fast,
Nor agony, nor, greater than all these,
The innate tortures of that deep despair,
Which is remorse without the fear of hell,
But all in all sufficient to itself,
Would make a hell of heaven, can exorcise
From out the unbounded spirit the quick sense
Of its own sins, wrongs, sufferance, and revenge
Upon itself; there is no future pang
Can deal that justice on the self-condemned
He deals on his own soul."

And when the Abbot tells him,

"All this is well,
For this will pass away, and be succeeded
By an auspicious hope, which shall look up
With calm assurance to that blessed place
Which all who seek may win, whatever be
Their earthly errors,"

he answers,

"It is too late."

Then the old Abbot soliloquizes:—

"This should have been a noble creature; he
Hath all the energy which would have made
A goodly frame of glorious elements,
Had they been wisely mingled; as it is,
It is an awful chaos,—light and darkness,
And mind and dust, and passions and pure thoughts
Mixed, and contending without end or order.

The world can easily see, in Moore's biography, what, after this, was the course of Lord Byron's life,—how he went from shame to shame, and dishonor to dishonor, and used the fortune which his wife brought him in the manner described in those private letters which his biographer was left to print. Moore, indeed, says Byron had made the resolution not to touch his lady's fortune, but adds that it required more self-command than he possessed to carry out so honorable a purpose.

Lady Byron made but one condition with him. She had him in her power, and she exacted that the unhappy partner of his sins should not follow him out of England, and that the ruinous intrigue should be given up. Her inflexibility on this point kept up that enmity which was constantly expressing itself in some publication or other, and which drew her and her private relations with him before the public.

The story of what Lady Byron did with the portion of her fortune which was reserved to her is a record of noble and skillfully administered charities. Pitiful and wise and strong, there was no form of human suffering or sorrow that did not find with her refuge and help. She gave not only systematically, but also impulsively.

Miss Martineau claims for her the honor of having first invented practical schools, in which the children of the poor were turned into agriculturists, artisans, seamstresses, and good wives for poor men. While she managed with admirable skill and economy permanent institutions of this sort, she was always ready to relieve suffering in any form. The fugitive slaves, William and Ellen Crafts, escaping to England, were fostered by her protecting care.

In many cases, where there was distress or anxiety from poverty among those too self-respecting to make their sufferings known, the delicate hand of Lady Byron ministered to the want with a consideration which spared the most refined feelings.

As a mother, her course was embarrassed by peculiar trials. The daughter inherited from the father not only brilliant talents, but a restlessness and morbid sensibility which might be too surely traced to the storms and agitations of the period in which she was born. It was necessary to bring her up in ignorance of the true history of her mother's life, and the consequence was that she could not fully understand that mother.

During her early girlhood, her career was a source of more anxiety than of comfort. She married a man of fashion, ran a brilliant course as a gay woman of fashion, and died early of a lingering and painful disease.

In the silence and shaded retirement of the sick-room, the daughter came wholly back to her mother's arms and heart; and it was on that mother's bosom that she leaned, as she went down into the dark valley. It was that mother who placed her weak and dying hand in that of her Almighty Saviour.

To the children left by her daughter she ministered with the faithfulness of a guardian angel; and it is owing to her influence that those who yet remain are among the best and noblest of mankind.

The person whose relations with Byron had been so disastrous, also, in the latter years of her life, felt Lady Byron's loving and ennobling influences, and in her last sickness and dying hours looked to her for consolation and help.

There was an unfortunate child of sin, born with the curse upon her, over whose wayward nature Lady Byron watched with a mother's tenderness. She was the one who could have patience when the patience of every one else failed; and though her task was a difficult one, from the strange, abnormal propensities to evil in the object of her cares, yet Lady Byron never faltered and never gave over, till death took the responsibility from her hands.

During all this trial, strange to say, her belief that the good in Lord Byron would finally conquer was unshaken.

To a friend who said to her, "O, how could you love him!" she answered, briefly, "My dear, there was the angel in him." It is in us all.

It was in this angel that she had faith. It was for the deliverance of this angel from degradation and shame and sin that she unceasingly prayed. She read every work that Byron wrote, —read it with a deeper knowledge than any human being but herself could possess. The ribaldry and the obscenity and the insults, with which he strove to make her ridiculous in the world, fell at her pitying feet unheeded.

When he broke away from all this unworthy life to devote himself to a manly enterprise for the redemption of Greece, she thought that she saw the beginning of an answer to her prayers. Even although one of his latest acts concerning her was to repeat to Lady Blessington the false accusation which made Lady Byron the author of all his errors, she still had hopes, from the one step taken in the right direction.

In the midst of these hopes came the news of his sudden death. On his death-bed, it is well known that he called his confidential English servant to him, and said to him, "Go to my sister—tell her—go to Lady Byron—you will see her and say"—

Here followed twenty minutes of indistinct mutterings, in which the names of his wife, daughter, and sister frequently occurred. He then said, "Now, I have told you all."

"My Lord," replied Fletcher, "I have not understood a word your Lordship has been saying."

"Not understand me!" exclaimed Lord Byron with a look of the utmost distress, "what a pity!—then it is too late—all is over! He afterwards, says Moore, tried to utter a few words, of which none were intelligible except "my sister—my child."

When Fletcher returned to London, Lady Byron sent for him, and walked the room in convulsive struggles to repress her tears and sobs, while she over and over again strove to elicit something from him which should enlighten her upon what that last message had been; but in vain,—the gates of eternity were shut in her face, and not a word had passed to tell her if he had repented.

For all that, Lady Byron never doubted his salvation. Ever before her, during the few remaining years of her widowhood, was the image of her husband, purified and ennobled, with the shadows of earth forever dissipated, the stains of sin forever removed,—"the angel in him," as she expressed it, "made perfect, according to its divine ideal."

Never has more divine strength of faith and love existed in woman. Out of the depths of her own loving and merciful nature, she gained such views of the Divine love and mercy as made all hopes possible. There was no soul of whose future Lady Byron despaired. Such was her boundless faith in the redeeming power of love.

After Byron's death, the life of this delicate creature—so frail in body that she seemed always hovering on the brink of the eternal world, yet so strong in spirit and so unceasing in her various ministries of mercy—was a miracle of mingled weakness and strength.

To talk with her seemed to the writer of this sketch the nearest possible aproach to talking with one of the spirits of the just made perfect.

She was gentle, artless, approachable as a little child, with ready, outflowing sympathy for the cares and sorrows and interests of all who approached her, with a naïve and gentle playfulness, that adorned, without hiding, the breadth and strength of her mind, and, above all, with a clear, divining, moral discrimination, never mistaking wrong for right in the slightest shade, yet with a mercifulness that made allowance for every weakness and pitied every sin.

There was so much of Christ in her, that to have seen her seemed to be to have drawn near to heaven. She was one of those few whom absence cannot estrange from friends, whose mere presence in this world seems always a help to every generous thought, a strength to every good purpose, a comfort in every sorrow.

Living so near the confines of the spiritual world, she seemed already to see into it. Hence the words of comfort which she addressed to a friend who had lost a son:—

"Dear friend, remember, as long as our loved ones are in God's world, they are in ours."

It has been thought by some friends who have read the proof-sheets of the foregoing, that the author should state more specifically her authority for these statements.

The circumstances which led the writer to England at a certain time originated a friendship and correspondence with Lady Byron, which was always regarded as one of the greatest acquisitions of that visit.

On the occasion of a second visit to England, in 1856, the writer received a note from Lady Byron, indicating that she wished to have some private, confidential conversation upon important subjects, and inviting her for that purpose to spend a day with her at her country-seat near London.

The writer went and spent a day with Lady Byron alone, and the object of the invitation was explained to her. Lady Byron was in such a state of health that her physicians had warned her that she had very little time to live. She was engaged in those duties and retrospections which every thoughtful person finds necessary, when coming deliberately and with open eyes to the boundaries of this mortal life.

At that time there was a cheap edition of Byron's works in contemplation, intended to bring his writings into circulation among the masses, and the pathos arising from the story of his domestic misfortunes was one great means relied on for giving it currency.

Under these circumstances, some of Lady Byron's friends had proposed the question to her, whether she had not a responsibility to society for the truth; whether she did right to allow these writings to gain influence over the popular mind, by giving a silent consent to what she knew to be utter falsehoods.

Lady Byron's whole life had been passed in the most heroic self-abnegation and self-sacriflce, and she had now to consider whether one more act of self-denial was not required of her before leaving this world, —namely, to declare the absolute truth, no matter at what expense to her own feelings.

For this reason it was her desire to recount the whole history to a person of another country, and entirely out of the sphere of personal and local feelings which might be supposed to influence those in the country and station in life where the events really happened, in order that she might be helped by such a person's views in making up an opinion as to her own duty.

The interview had almost the solemnity of a death-bed avowal. Lady Byron stated the facts which have been embodied in this article, and gave to the writer a paper containing a brief memorandum of the whole, with the dates affixed.

We have already spoken of that singular sense of the reality of the spiritual world which seemed to encompass Lady Byron during the last part of her life, and which made her words and actions seem more like those of a blessed being detached from earth than of an ordinary mortal. All her modes of looking at things, all her motives of action, all her involuntary exhibitions of emotion were so high above any common level, and so entirely regulated by the most unworldly causes, that it would seem difficult to make the ordinary world understand exactly how the thing seemed to lie before her mind. What impressed the writer more strongly than anything else was Lady Byron's perfect conviction that her husband was now a redeemed spirit; that he looked back with pain and shame and regret on all that was unworthy in his past life; and that, if he could speak or could act in the case, he would desire to prevent the farther circulation of base falsehoods, and of seductive poetry, which had been made the vehicle of morbid and unworthy passions.

Lady Byron's experience had led her to apply the powers of her strong philosophical mind to the study of mental pathology, and she had become satisfied that the solution of the painful problem which first occurred to her as a young wife was, after all, the true one,—namely, that Lord Byron had been one of those unfortunately constituted persons in whom the balance of nature is so critically hung that it is always in danger of dipping towards insanity, and that in certain periods of his life he was so far under the influence of mental disorder as not to be fully responsible for his actions.

She went over, with a brief and clear analysis, the history of his whole life as she had thought it out during the lonely musings of her widowhood. She dwelt on the ancestral causes that gave him a nature of exceptional and dangerous susceptibility. She went through the mismanagements of his childhood, the history of his schooldays, the influence of the ordinary school course of classical reading on such a mind as his. She sketched boldly and clearly the internal life of the young men of the time as she with her purer eyes had looked through it, and showed how habits, which with less susceptible fibre and coarser strength of nature were tolerable for his companions, were deadly to him, unhinging his nervous system, and intensifying the dangers of ancestral proclivities. Lady Byron expressed the feeling, too, that the Calvinistic theology, as heard in Scotland, had proved in his case, as it often does in certain minds, a subtle poison. He never could either disbelieve or become reconciled to it, and the sore problems it proposes embittered his spirit against Christianity.

"The worst of it is, I do believe," he would often say with violence, when he had been employing all his powers of reason, wit, and ridicule upon these subjects.

Through all this sorrowful history was to be seen, not the care of a slandered woman to make her story good, but the pathetic anxiety of a mother who treasures every particle of hope, every intimation of good, in the son whom she cannot cease to love. With indescribable resignation, she dwelt on those last hours, those words addressed to her never to be understood till repeated in eternity.

But all this she looked upon as forever past; believing that, with the dropping of the earthly life, these morbid impulses and influences ceased, and that higher nature which he often so beautifully expressed in his poems became the triumphant one.

While speaking on this subject her pale, ethereal face became luminous with a heavenly radiance; there was something so sublime in her belief in the victory of love over evil, that faith with her seemed to have become sight. She seemed so clearly to perceive the divine ideal of the man she had loved and for whose salvation she had been called to suffer and labor and pray, that all memories of his past unworthiness fell away and were lost.

Her love was never the doting fondness of weak women; it was the appreciative and discriminating love by which a higher nature recognized godlike capabilities under all the dust and defilement of misuse and passion; and she never doubted that the love, which in her was so strong that no injury or insult could shake it, was yet stronger in the God who made her capable of such a devotion, and that in Him it was accompanied by power to subdue all things to itself.

The writer was so impressed and excited by the whole scene and recital that she begged for two or three days to deliberate, before forming any opinion. She took the memorandum with her, returned to London and gave a day or two to the consideration of the subject. The decision which she made was chiefly influenced by her reverence and affection for Lady Byron. She seemed so frail, she had suffered so much, she stood at such a height above the comprehension of the coarse and common world, that the author had a feeling that it would almost be like violating a shrine, to ask her to come forth from the sanctuary of a silence where she had so long abode and plead her cause. She wrote to Lady Byron that while this act of justice did seem to be called for, and to be in some respects most desirable, yet, as it would involve so much that was painful to her, the writer considered that Lady Byron would be entirely justifiable in leaving the truth to be disclosed after her death, and recommended that all the facts necessary should be put in the hands of some person, to be so published.

Years passed on. Lady Byron lingered four years after this interview, to the wonder of her physicians and all her friends.

After Lady Byron's death the writer looked anxiously, hoping to see a memoir of the person whom she considered the most remarkable woman that England has produced in the century. No such memoir has appeared on the part of her friends; and the mistress of Lord Byron has the ear of the public, and is sowing far and wide unworthy slanders, which are eagerly gathered up and read by an undiscriminating community.

There may be family reasons in England which prevent Lady Byron's friends from speaking; but Lady Byron has an American name and an American existence, and reverence for pure womanhood is, we think, a national characteristic of the American; and, so far as this country is concerned, we feel that the public should have this refutation of the slanders of the Countess Guiccioli's book.

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