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.