IT is seldom that a woman becomes the world’s talk but by some great merit or fault of her own, or some rare qualification so bestowed by Nature as to be incapable of being hidden. Great genius, rare beauty, a fitness for noble enterprise, the venturous madness of passion, account for ninety-nine cases in the hundred of a woman becoming the subject of general conversation and interest. Lady Byron’s was the hundredth case. There was a time when it is probable that she was spoken of every day in every house in England where the family could read; and for years the general anxiety to hear anything that could be told of her was almost as striking in Continental society and in the United States as in her own country. Yet she had neither genius, nor conspicuous beauty, nor “ a mission,” nor any quality of egotism which could induce her to brave the observation of the world for any personal aim. She had good abilities, well cultivated for the time when she was young; she was rather pretty, and her countenance was engaging from its expression of mingled thoughtfulness and brightness ; she was as lady-like as became her birth and training; and her strength of character was so tempered with modesty and good taste that she was about the last woman that could have been supposed likely to become celebrated in any way, or, yet more, to be passionately disputed about and censured, in regard to her temper and manners: yet such was her lot. No breath of suspicion ever dimmed her good repute, in the ordinary sense of the expression : but to this day she is misapprehended, wherever her husband’s genius is adored; and she is charged with precisely the faults which it was most impossible for her to commit. For the original notoriety she was not answerable; but for the protracted misapprehension of her character she was. She early decided that it was not necessary or desirable to call the world into council on her domestic affairs ; her husband’s doing it was no reason why she should ; and for nearly forty years she preserved a silence, neither haughty nor sullen, but merely natural, on matters in which women usually consider silence appropriate. She never inquired what effect this silence had on public opinion in regard to her, nor countenanced the idea that public opinion bore any relation whatever to her private affairs and domestic conduct. Such independence and such reticence naturally quicken the interest and curiosity of survivors; and they also stimulate those who knew her as she was to explain her characteristics to as many as wish to understand them, after disputing about them for the lifetime of a whole generation.
Anne Isabella Noel Milbanke (that was her maiden name) was an only child. Her father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, was the sixth baronet of that name. Her mother was a Noel, daughter of Viscount and Baron Wentworth, and remotely descended from royalty, — that is, from the youngest son of Edward I. After the death of Lady Milbanke’s father and brother, the Barony of Wentworth was in abeyance between the daughter of Lady Milbanke and the son of her sister till 1856, when, by the death of that cousin, Lord Scarsdale, Lady Byron became possessed of the inheritance and title. During her childhood and youth, however, her parents were not wealthy ; and it was understood that Miss Miibanke would have no fortune till the death of her parents, though her expectations were great. Though this want of immediate fortune did not prove true, the report of it was probably advantageous to the young girl, who was sought for other things than her fortune. When Lord Byron thought of proposing, the friend who had brought him to the point of submitting to marriage objected to Miss Milbanke on two grounds,— that she had no fortune, and that she was a learned lady. The gentleman was as wrong in his facts as mischievous in his advice to the poet to marry. Miss Milbanke had fortune, and she was not a learned lady. Such men as the two who held a consultation on the points, whether a man entangled in intrigues and overwhelmed with debts should release himself by involving a trusting girl in his difficulties, and whether the girl should be Miss Milbanke or another, were not likely to distinguish between the cultivated ability of a sensible girl and the pedantry of a blue-stocking; and hence, because Miss Milbanke was neither ignorant nor silly, she was called a learned lady by Lord Byron’s associates. He bore testimony, in due time, to her agreeable qualities as a companion, — her brightness, her genial nature, her quiet good sense ; and we heard no more of her “learning” and “mathematics,” till it suited her enemies to get up a theory of incompatibility of temper between her and her husband. The fact was, she was well-educated, as education was then, and had the acquirements which are common in every house among the educated classes of English society.
She was born in 1792, and passed her early years chiefly on her father’s estates of Halnaby, near Darlington, Yorkshire, and Seaham, in Durham. She retained a happy recollection of her childhood and youth, if one may judge by her attachment to the old homes, when she had lost the power of attaching herself, in later life, to any permanent home. When an offer of service was made to her, some years since, by a person residing on the Northumberland coast, the service she asked was that a pebble might be sent her from the beach at Seaham, to be made into a brooch, and worn for love of the old place.
Her father, as a Yorkshire baronet, spent his money freely. A good deal of it went in election-expenses, and the hospitality of the house was great. It was too orderly and sober and old-fashioned for Lord Byron’s taste, and he quizzed it accordingly ; but he admitted the kindliness of it, and the amiability which made guests glad to go there and sorry to come away. His special records of Miss Milbanke’s good-humor, spirit, and pleasantness indicate the source of subsequent misrepresentations of her Till he saw it, lie could not conceive that order and dutifulness could coexist with liveliness and great charms of mind and manners; and when the fact was out of sight, he went back to his old notion, that affectionate parents and dutiful daughters must be dull, prudish, and tiresome.
“ Bell ” was beloved as only daughters are, but so unspoiled as to be sought in marriage as eagerly as if she had been a merry member of a merry tribe. Lord Byron himself offered early, and was refused, like many other suitors. Her feelings were not the same, however, to him as to others. It is no wonder that a girl not out of her teens should be captivated by the young poet whom the world was beginning to worship for his genius as very few men are worshipped in their prime, and who could captivate young and old, man, woman, and child, when he chose to try. As yet, his habits of life and mind had not told upon his manners, conversation, and countenance as they did afterwards. The beauty of his face, the reserved and hesitating grace of his manner, and the pith and strength of such conversation as he was tempted into might well win the heart of a girl who was certainly far more fond of poetry than of mathematics. Yet she refused him. Perhaps she did not know him enough. Perhaps she did not know her own feelings at the moment. She afterwards found that she had always loved him. His renewed offers at the close of two years made her very happy. She was drawing near the end of her portion of life’s happiness ; and she seems to have had no suspicion of the baselessness of’ her natural and innocent bliss. It is probable that nobody about her knew, any more than herself, how and why Lord Byron offered to her a second time, till Moore published the facts in his "Life" of the poet. The thrill of disgust which ran through every gooil heart, on reading the story, made all sympathizers ask how she could bear to learn how she had been treated in the confidences of profligates. Perhaps she had known it long before, as her husband had repeatedly tried his powers of terrifying and depressing her; but, at all events, she could bear anything,—not only with courage and in silence, but with calmness and inexhaustible mercy. According to Moore’s account, a friend of Byron’s urged him to marry, as a remedy for the melancholy restlessness and disorder of his life ; “and, after much discussion, he consented.” The next proceedings were in character with this “consent.” Byron named Miss Milbanke : the friend objected, on the grounds of her possession of learning and supposed want of fortune ; and Byron actually commissioned his adviser to propose for him to the lady he did not prefer. She refused him; and then future proceedings were determined by his friend’s admiration of the letter he had got ready for Miss Milbanke. It was such a pretty letter, it would be a pity not to send it. So it was sent.
If she could have known, as she hung over that letter, what eyes had read lines that should have been her own secret property, and as what kind of alternative the letter had been prepared, what a different life might hers have been ! But she could not dream of being laid hold of as a speculation in that style, and she was happy, — as women are for once in their lives, and as she deserved to be. There was another alternative, besides that of two ladies to be weighed in the balance. Byron was longing to go abroad again, and he would have preferred that to marrying ; but the importunity of his friends decided him for marriage. In a short time, and for a short time, Miss Milbanke’s influence was too strong for his wayward nature and his pernicious friends to resist. His heart was touched, his mind was soothed, and he thought better of women, and perhaps of the whole human race, than he had ever done before. He wrote to Moore, who owned he had “ never liked her,” and who boded evil things from the marriage, that she was so good that he wished he was better,—that he had been quite mistaken in supposing her of “ a very cold disposition.” These gentlemen had heard of her being regarded as “a pattern lady in the North”; and they had made up an image of a prude and a blue in their own minds, which Byron presently set himself to work to pull down. He wrote against Moore’s notion of her as “strait-laced,” in a spirit of justice awakened by his new satisfactions and hopes: but there are in the narrative no signs of love on his part,—nothing more than an amiable complacency in the discovery of her attachment to him.
The engagement took place in September, 1814, and the marriage in the next January. Moore saw him in the interval, and had no remaining hope, from that time, that Byron could ever make or find happiness in married life. He was satisfied that love was, in Byron’s case, only an imagination; and he pointed to a declaration of Byron’s, that, when in the society of the woman he loved, even at the happiest period of his attachment, he found himself secretly longing to be alone. Secretly during the courtship, but not secretly after marriage.
“ Tell me, Byron,” said his wife, one day, not long after they were married, and he was moodily staring into the fire, — “ am I in your way ? ”
“ Damnably,” was the answer.
It will be remembered by all readers that the reason he assigned for the good terms on which he remained with his half-sister, Mrs. Leigh, was that they seldom or never saw each other.
When Moore saw him in London, he was in a troubled state of mind about his affairs. His embarrassments were so pressing that he meditated breaking off the match; but it was within a month of the wedding-day, and he said he had gone too far to retract. How it was that Sir Ralph Milbanke did not make it his business to ascertain all the conditions of a union with a man of Byron’s reputation it is difficult to imagine. Every movement of the idolized poet was watched, anecdotes of his life and ways were in all months; and a prudent father, if encouraging his addresses at all, should naturally have ascertained the chances of his daughter having an honorable and happy home. Sir Ralph probably thought so, when there were ten executions in the house in the first few months after the marriage. These difficulties, however, did not affect the happiness of the marriage unfavorably. The wife was not the less of the heroic temperament for being “a pattern young lady.” She was one whose spirit was sure to rise under pressure, and who was always most cheerful when trouble called forth her energies on behalf of others. Liberal with her own property, making light of privation, full of clear and practical resource in emergency, she won her husband’s admiration in the midst of the difficulties into which he had plunged her. For a time he was not ashamed of that admiration ; and his avowals of it are happily on record.
They were married on the second of January. The wedding-day was miserable. Byron awoke in one of his melancholy moods, and wandered alone in the grounds till called to be married. His wayward mind was full of all the associations that were least congenial with the day. His thoughts were full of Mary Chaworth, and of old scenes in his life, which he fancied he loved because he was now leaving them behind. He declared that his poem of “The Dream” was a true picture of his wedding-morning; and there are circumstances, not told in his “Life,” which render this probable. Alter the ceremony and breakfast, the young couple left Seaham for Sir Ralph’s seat at Halnaby. Towards dusk of that winter-day, the carriage drove up to the door, where the old butler stood ready to receive his young lady and her bridegroom. The moment the carriagedoor was opened, the bridegroom jumped out and walked away. When his bride alighted, the old servant was aghast. She came up the steps with the listless gait of despair. Her face and movements expressed such utter horror and desolation, that the old butler longed to offer his arm to the lonely young creature, as an assurance of sympathy and protection. Various stories got abroad as to the cause of this horror, one probably as false as another; and, for his own part, Byron met them by a false story of Miss Milbanke’s lady’s-maid having been stuck in, bodkin-wise, between them. As Lady Byron certainly soon got over the shock, the probability is that she satistied herself that lie had been suffering under one of the dark moods to which he was subject, both constitutionally and as the poet of moods.
It is scarcely possible at onr time of day to make sufficient allowance for such a woman having entered upon such a marriage, in spite of the notoriety of the risks. Byron was then the idol of much more than the literary world. His poetry was known by heart by multitudes of men and women who read very little else; and one meets, at this day, elderly men, who live quite outside of the regions of literature, who believe that there never could have been such a poet before, and would say, if they dared, that there will never be such another again. He appeared at the moment when society was restless and miserable, and discontented with the Fates and the universe and all that it contained. The general sensibility had not for long found any expression in poetry. Literature seemed something quite apart from experience, and with which none but a particular class had any concern. At such a time, when Europe lay desolate under the ravage and incessant menace of the French Empire, — when England had an insane King, a profligate Regent, an atrocious Ministry, and a corrupt Parliament,— when the war drained the kingdom of its youth, and every class of its resources,—when there was chronic discontent in the manufacturing districts, and hunger among the rural population, with a perpetual extension of pauperism, swallowing up the working and even the middle classes,—when everybody was full of anxiety, dread, or a reactionary recklessness,—there suddenly appeared a new strain of poetry which seemed to express every man’s mood. Every man took up the song. Byron’s musical woe resounded through the land. People who had not known exactly what was the matter with them now found that life was what Byron said it was, and that they were sick of it. I can well remember the enthusiasm,—the better, perhaps, for never having shared it. At first I was too young, and afterwards I found too much of moods and too little of matter to create any lasting attachment to his poetry. But the music of it rang in all ears, and the rush of its popularity could not be resisted by any but downright churlish persons. I remember how ladies, in morning calls, recited passages of Byron to each other,—and how gentlemen, in water-parties, whispered his short poems to their next neighbor. If a man was seen walking with his head down and his lips moving, he was revolving Byron’s last romance ; and children who began to keep albums wrote, in double lines on the first page, some stanza which caught them by its sound, if they were not up to its sense. On some pane in every innwindow there was a scrap of Byron; and in young ladies’ portfolios there were portraits of the poet, recognizable, through all bad drawing and distortion, by the cast of the beautiful features and the Corsair style. Where a popularity like this sprang up, there must be sufficient reason for it to cause it to involve more or less all orders of minds ; and the wisest and most experienced men, and the most thoroughly trained scholars, fell into the general admiration, and keenly enjoyed so melodious an expression of a general state of feeling, without asking too pertinaciously for higher views and deeper meanings. Old Quakers were troubled at detecting hidden copies and secret studies of Byron among young men and maidens who were to be preserved from all stimulants to the passions; and they were yet more troubled, when, looking to see what the charm was which so wrought upon the youth of their sect, they found themselves carried away by it, beyond all power to forget what they had read. The idolatry of the poet, which marked that time, was an inevitable consequence of the singular aptness of his utterance. His dress, manners, and likings were adopted, so far as they could be ascertained, by hundreds of thousands of youths who were at once sated with life and ambitious of fame, or at least of a reputation for fastidious discontent ; young ladies declared that Byron was everything that was great and good ; and even our best literature of criticism shows how respectful and admiring the hardest reviewers grew, after the poet had become the pet and the idol of all England. At such a time, how should “ Bell ” Milbanke resist the intoxication,—even before the poet addressed himself particularly to her ? A great reader in the quietness of her home, where all her tastes were indulged, — a lover of poetry, and so genial and sympathizing as to be always sure to be filled with the spirit of her time,—how could she fail to idolize Byron as others did ? And what must have been her exaltation, when he told her that the welfare of his whole life depended upon her! Between her exaltation, her love, her sympathy, and her admiration, she might well make allowance for his eccentricities first, and for worse afterwards. Thus, probably, it was that she got over the shock of that wedding-drive, and was again the bright, affectionate, trusting and winning woman whom he had described before and was to describe again to his skeptical friend Moore.
Before six weeks were over, he wrote to Moore (after some previous hankerings) that he should go abroad soon, “ and alone, too.” He did not go then. In April the death of Lord Wentworth occurred, causing Sir Ralph and Lady Milbanke to take the name of Noel, according to Lord Wentworth’s will, and assuring the prospect of ultimate accession of wealth. Meantime, the new expenses of his married life, entered upon without any extrication from old debts, caused such embarrassment, that, after many other humiliations had been undergone, he offered his books for sale. As Lady Byron maintained a lifelong silence about the sufferings of her married life, little is known of that miserable year beyond what all the world saw : executions in the house; increasing gloom and recklessness in the husband ; a bright patience and resoluteness in the wife; and an immense pity felt by the poet’s adorers for his trials by a persecuting Fate. During the summer and autumn, his mention of his wife to his correspondents became less frequent and more formal. His tone about his approaching “ papaship ” tells nothing. He was not likely to show to such men any good or natural feelings on the occasion. In December, his daughter, Augusta Ada, was horn ; and early in January, he wrote to Moore so melancholy a “Heigho!” on occasion of his having been married a year, as to incite that critical observer to write him an inquiry about the state of his domestic spirits. The end was near, and the world was about to see its idol and his wife tested in moral action of a very stringent kind.
By means of the only publication ever made or authorized by Lady Byron on the subject of her domestic life, her vindication of her parents, contained in the Appendix of Moore’s “Life” of the poet, we know, that, during her confinement, Lord Byron’s nearest relatives were alarmed by tokens of eccentricity so marked, that they informed her, as soon as she was recovered, that they believed him insane. His confidential servant bore the same testimony ; and she naturally believed it, when she resumed her place in the household, and saw how he was going on. On the sixth of January, the day after he wrote the “ Heigho ! ” to Moore, he desired his wife, in writing, to go to her parents on the first day that it was possible for her to travel. Her physicians would not let her go earlier than the fifteenth ; and on that day she went. She never saw her husband again.
She had, in agreement with his family, consulted Dr. Balllie on her husband’s behalf; and he, supposing the insanity’ to be real, advised, before seeing Lord Byron, that she should obey his wish about absenting herself, as an experiment,—and that, in the interval, she should converse only on light and cheerful topics. She observed these directions, and, in the spirit of them, wrote two letters, on the journey, which bore no marks of the trouble which existed between them. These letters were afterwards used, even circulated, to create a belief that Lady Byron had been suddenly persuaded to desert her husband, though he at least was well aware that the fact was not so. It soon appeared that he was not insane. Such was the decision of physicians, relatives, and presently of Lady Byron herself. While there was any room for supposing disease to be the cause of his conduct, she and her parents were anxious to use all tenderness with him, and devote themselves to his welfare ; but when it became necessary to consider him sane, his wife declared that she could not return to him.
It is not necessary to dwell on the imputations Lord Byron spread abroad at the time, and his biographer afterwards, against the parents of his wife, and everybody belonging to them who could be supposed to have the slightest influence over Lady Byron’s views or feelings. Those allegations were publicly shown by her to be false, nearly thirty years ago. I refer to them now solely because they were the occasion of the only public disclosure Lady Byron ever voluntarily made on any part of the subject of her married life. It is needless to exhibit how different in this respect was the conduct of her husband and his friends.
It became known by that statement, after some years, that, when Lady Noel went to London, to see what could and ought to be done, she obtained good legal opinions on the case, so far as she knew if. Those opinions declared Lady Byron fully justified in refusing to rejoin her husband. The parents, however, never knew the whole ; and it was on yet more substantial grounds that Lady Byron formed her resolution. The facts were submitted, as the world has since known, as an A. B. case, to Dr. Lushington and Sir Samuel Romilly ; and those able lawyers and good men peremptorily decided, that the wife, whoever she might be, must never see her husband again. When they learned whose ease it was, they not only gave their full sanction to her refusal to return, but declared that they would never countenance in any way a change in that resolution. Dr. Lushington’s statement to this effect appears in the Appendix to Moore’s " Life, " as a part of Lady Byron’s vindication of her parents.
It was very hard on her to be compelled to speak at all. For six years she had kept silence utterly, bearing all imputations without reply. But when it was brought to her notice that her parents were charged with the gravest offences by her husband’s biographer, after the death of both, and when no other near relative was in existence, she had no choice. She must exonerate them. The testimony was, as she said, “ extorted ” from her. The respect which had been felt for her during the first years of silence was not impaired by this disclosure ; but it was by one which occurred a few years later. A statement on her domestic affairs was published, in her name, in a magazine of large circulation.1 It did not really explain anything, while it seemed to break through a dignified reserve which bad won a high degree of general esteem. It was believed that feminine weakness had prevailed at last; and her reputation suffered accordingly with many who had till then regarded her with lavor and even reverence.
This was the climax of the hardship of her case. 8he had no concern whatever with this act of publication. It was one of poor Campbell’s disastrous pranks. He could not conceive how he could have done such a thing, and was desperately sorry ; but there was little good in that. The mischief was done which could never be thoroughly repaired. She once more suffered in silence ; for she was not weak enough to complain of irremediable evils. Nine years afterwards she wrote to a friend, who had been no less unjustifiably betrayed,— “ I am grieved for you, as regards the actual position ; but it will come right, I was myself made to appear responsible for a publication by Campbell, most unfairly, some years ago ; so that, if I had not imagination enough to enter into your case, experience would have taught me to do so.”
Those who are old enough to remember the year 1816 will easily recall the fluctuations of opinion which took place as to the merits of the husband and the wife, whose separation was as interesting to ten thousand households as any family event of their own. Then, and for a few years after, was Lady Byron the world's talk, — innocently, most reluctantly, and unavoidably.
At first, while her influence left its impression on his mind, Lord Byron did her some sort of justice, — fitful and partial, but very precious to her then, no doubt,— and almost as precious now to the friends who understood her. It was not till he was convinced that she would never return, not till he began to quail under the world’s ill opinion, and especially, not till he felt, secure that he might rely on his wife’s fidelity and mercy, her silence and magnanimity, that he changed his tone to one ot aspersion and contempt, and his mode of attack to that of charming, amusing, or inflaming the public with verses against her and her friends. We have his own testimony to her domestic merits in the interval between the parting and his lapse into a state of malignant feeling. In March, 1816, within two months after her leaving him, Byron wrote thus to Moore : — “ I must set you right in one point, however. The fault was not — no, nor even the misfortune — 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 and agreeable being than Lady B. I never had, nor can have, any reproach to make her, while with me. Where there is blame, it belongs to myself; and, if I cannot redeem, I must bear it.”
To us, this is enough; and nothing that he wrote afterwards, in angry and spiteful moods, can have the slightest effect on our impression of her: but the case was otherwise at the time. Lord Byron's praise of her to Moore was not known till the " Life " appeared ; whereas pieces like “ The Charity Ball,” coming out from time to time, made the world suppose that Lady Byron was one of those people, satirized in all literatures, who violate domestic duty, and make up for it by philanthropic effort and display.
It is the prevalence of this impression to this day which makes it necessary to present the reality of the case after the lapse of many years. During Lady Byron’s life, no one had a right to speak, it she chose to be silent ; but the more modest and shrinking she was in regard to her own vindication, the stronger is the appeal to the fidelity of her friends to see that her reputation does not suffer through her magnanimity. We have guidance here in her own course in the case of her parents. Abhorrent as all publicity was to her, she felt and avowed the obligation to publish those facts of her life in which their reputation was concerned. The duty is far more easy, but not less imperative, to practise the same fidelity in regard to her, now that the truth can be told of her without shocking her modesty. We may hear some commonplaces about the feelings of the dead and the sensibilities of survivors, as always happens in such cases : but the sensibilities of survivors ought to relate, in the first place, to the fair fame of the dead ; and the feelings of the dead, having been duly respected during life, merge after death into the general beauty of the self-sacrificing character which would not utter the word by which the adverse judgment of the world might have been reversed in a moment. While, at this day, she is regarded as the cause of her husband’s sins, by her coldness, formality, and what not,—fidelity and love to her memory absolutely require, not fresh disclosures of a private character, but a new presentment ot the evidence long ago given to the world by herself and by "her husband s very partial biographer. This is what I have done, after thirty years more of life have proved the quality of her mind and heart.
As she loved early, she loved steadily and forever. It was through that love that her magnanimity was so transcendent. When Lord Byron was dying, he said to his confidential servant, Fletcher, “ Go to Lady Byron,—you will see her, and say—and here his voice faltered, and for nearly twenty minutes he muttered words which it was impossible to catch. The man was obliged to tell him that he had not understood a syllable. Byron’s distress was great; but, as he said, it was too late. Fletcher, on his return to England, did “go to Lady Byron,” and did see her ; but she could only pace the room in uncontrollable agitation, striving to obtain voice to ask the questions which were surging in her heart. She could not speak, and he was obliged to leave her. To those with whom she conversed freely, and to whom she wrote familiarly, it was strangely interesting to hear, or to read, lines and phrases from Byron’s poems dropped, like native speech, from her tongue or her pen. Those well-remembered lines or phrases seemed new, and were wonderfully moving, when coming from her to whom they must have been so much more than to any one else. How she surmounted such acts as the publication of “Fare thee well!” and certain others of his safe appeals to the public, no one could exactly understand. That she forgave them, and loved him to the end, is enough for us to know ; for our interest is in the greatness of her heart, and not in the littleness of his.
Her life thenceforth was one of unremitting bounty to society, administered with as much skill and prudence as benevolence. As we have seen, her parents died a few years after her return to them for protection. She lived in retirement, changing her abode frequently, partly for the benefit of her child’s education and the promotion of her benevolent schemes, and partly from a restlessness which was one of the few signs of injury received from the spoiling of associations with home. She felt a satisfaction which her friends rejoiced in, when her daughter married Lord King, at present the Earl of Lovelace, in 1835; and when grief upon grief followed in the appearance of mortal disease in her only child, her quiet patience stood her in good stead, as before. She even found strength to appropriate the blessings of the occasion, and took comfort, as did her dying daughter, in the intimate friendship which grew closer as the time of parting drew nigh. Lady Lovelace died in 1852 ; and for her few remaining years, Lady Byron was devoted to her grandchildren. But nearer calls never lessened her interest in remoter objects. Her mind was of the large and clear quality which could comprehend remote interests in their true proportions, and achieve each aim as perfectly as if it were the only one. Her agents used to say that it was impossible to mistake her directions; and thus her business was usually well done. There was no room, in her case, for the ordinary doubts, censures, and sneers about the misapplication of bounty. Her taste did not lie in the "Charity Ball" direction; her funds were not lavished in encouraging hypocrisy and improvidence among the idle and worthless; and the quality of her charity was, in fact, as admirable as its quantity. Her chief aim was the extension and improvement of popular education; but there was no kind of misery that she heard of that she did not palliate to the utmost, and no kind of solace that her quick imagination and sympathy could devise that she did not administer. In her methods, she united consideration and frankness with singular success. For one instance among a thousand : — A lady with whom she had had friendly relations some time before, and who became impoverished in a quiet way by hopeless sickness, preferred poverty, with an easy conscience, to a competency attended by some uncertainty about the perfect rectitude of the resource. Lady Byron wrote to an intermediate person exactly what she thought of the case. Whether the judgment of the sufferer was right or mistaken was nobody’s business but her own : this was the first point. Next, a voluntary poverty could never be pitied by anybody: that was the second. But it was painful to others to think of the mortification to benevolent feelings which attends poverty ; and there could be no objection to arresting that pain. Therefore she, Lady Byron, had lodged in a neighboring bank the sum of one hundred pounds, to be used for benevolent purposes; and in order to preclude all outside speculation, she had made the money payable to the order of the intermediate person, so that the sufferer’s name need not, appear at all. Fiveand-thirty years of unremitting secret bounty like this must make up a great amount of human happiness: but this was only one of a wide variety of methods of doing good. It was the unconcealable magnitude of her beneficence, and its wise quality, which made her a second time the theme of English conversation in all honest households within the four seas. Years ago, it was said far and wide, that Lady Bvron was doing more good than anybody else in England; and it was difficult to imagine how anybody could do more. Lord Byron spent every shilling that the law allowed him out of her property, while he lived, and left away from her every shilling that he could deprive her of by his will; yet she had eventually a large income at her command. In the management of it she showed the same wise consideration that marked all her practical decisions. She resolved to spend her whole income, seeing how much the world needed help at the moment. Her care was for the existing generation, rather than for a future one, which would have its own friends. She usually declined trammelling herself with annual subscriptions to charities, preferring to keep her freedom from year to year, and to achieve definite objects by liberal bounty, rather than to extend partial help over a large surface which she could not herself superintend.
It was her first industrial school that awakened the admiration of the public, which had never ceased to take an interest in her, while sorely misjudging her character. We hear much now — and everybody hears it with pleasure — of the spread of education in “ common things.” But, long before Miss Coutts inherited her wealth, long before a name was found for such a method of training, Lady Byron had instituted the thing, and put it in the way of making its own name. She was living at Haling, in Middlesex, in 1834; and there she opened one of the first industrial schools in England, if not the very first. She sent out a master to Switzerland, to be instructed in De Fellenburg's method. She took on lease five acres of land, and spent several hundred pounds in rendering the buildings upon it fit for the purposes of the school. A liberal education was a Horded to the children of artisans and laborers, during the half of the day when they were not employed in the field or garden. The allotments were rented by the boys, who raised and sold produce which afforded them a considerable yearly profit, if they were good workmen. Those who worked in the field earned wages,—their labor being paid by the hour, according to the capability of the young laborer. They kept their accounts of expenditure and receipts, and acquired good habits of business, while learning the occupation of their lives. Some mechanical trades were taught, as well as the arts of agriculture. Part of the wisdom of the management lay in making the pupils pay. Of one hundred pupils, half were boarders. They paid little more than half the expense of their maintenance ; and the day-scholars paid threepence per week. Of course, a large part of the expense was borne by Lady Byron, besides the payments she made for children who could not otherwise have entered the school. The establishment flourished steadily till 1852, when the owner of the land required it back for building-purposes. During the eighteen years that the Ealing schools were in action, they did a world of good in the way of incitement and example. The Poor-Law Commissioners pointed out their merits. Land-owners and other wealthy persons visited them, and went home and set up similar establishments. During those years, too, Lady Byron had herself been at work in various directions, to the same purpose.
A more extensive industrial scheme was instituted on her Leicestershire property; and not far off, she opened a girls’ school, and an infant school; and when a season of distress came, as such seasons are apt to befall the poor Leicestershire stocking-weavers, Lady Byron fed the children for months together, till they could resume their payments. These schools were opened in 1840. The next year, she built a school-house on her Warwickshire property; and five years later, she set up an iron school-house on another Leicestershire estate. By this time, her educational efforts were costing her several hundred pounds a year in the mere maintenance of existing establishments; but this is the smallest consideration in the case. She has sent out tribes of boys and girls into life fit to do their part there with skill and credit and comfort. Perhaps it is a still more important consideration, that scores of teachers and trainers have been led into their vocation, and duly prepared for it, by what they saw and learned in her schools. As for the best and the worst of the Ealing boys,— the best have, in a few cases, been received into the Battersea Training School, whence they could enter on their career as teachers to the greatest advantage; and the worst found their school a true reformatory, before reformatory schools were heard of. At Bristol she bought a house for a reformatory for girls; and there her friend, Miss Carpenter, faithfully and energetically carries out her own and Lady Byron’s aims, which were one and the same.
There would be no end, if I were to catalogue the schemes of which these are a specimen. It is of more consequence to observe that her mind was never narrowed by her own acts, as the minds of benevolent people are so apt to be. To the last, her interest in great political movements, at borne and abroad, was as vivid as ever. She watched every step won in philosophy, every discovery in science, every token of social change and progress, in every shape. Her mind was as liberal as her heart and hand. No diversity of opinion troubled her; she was respectful to every sort of individuality, and indulgent to all constitutional peculiarities. It must have puzzled those who kept up the notion of her being “ strait-laced,” to see how indulgent she was even to epicurean tendencies,— the remotest of all from her own.
But I must stop; for I do not wish my honest memorial to degenerate into panegyric. — Among her latest known acts were her gifts to the Sicilian cause, and her manifestations on behalf of the antislavery cause in the United States. Her kindness to William and Ellen Craft must be well known there; and it is also related in the newspapers that she bequeathed a legacy to a young American, to assist him under any disadvantages he might suffer as an abolitionist.
All these deeds were done under a heavy burden of ill-health. Before she had passed middle life, her lungs were believed to he irreparably injured by partial ossification. She was subject to attacks so serious, that each one for many years was expected to be the last. She arranged her affairs in correspondence with her liabilities; so that the same order would have been found, whether she died suddenly or after long warning.
She was to receive one more accession of outward greatness before she departed. She became Baroness Wentworth in November, 1856. This is one of the facts of her history ; but it is the least interesting to us, as probably to her. We care more to know that her last days were bright in honor, and cheered by the attachment of old friends, worthy to pay the duty she deserved. Above all, it is consoling to know that she who so long outlived her only child was blessed with the unremitting and tender care of her granddaughter. She died on the sixteenth of May, 1860.
The portrait of Lady Byron, as she was at the time of her marriage, is probably remembered by some of my readers. It is very engaging. Her countenance afterwards became much worn ; but its expression of thoughtfulness and composure was very interesting. Her handwriting accorded well with the character of her mind. It was clear, elegant, and womanly. Her manners differed with circumstances. Her shrinking sensitiveness might embarrass one visitor, while another would be charmed with her easy, significant, and vivacious conversation. It depended much on whom she talked with. The abiding certainty was, that she had strength for the hardest of human trials, and the composure which belongs to strength. For the rest, it is enough to point to her deeds, and to the mourning of her friends round the chasm which her departure has made in their life, and in the society in which it is spent. All that could be done in the way of personal love and honor was done while she lived ; it only remains now to see that her name and fame are permitted to shine forth at last in their proper light.
- New Monthly Magazine, 1836.↩