“MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW”
Four women drove George Gordon, Lord Byron from England forever: an obsessive playgirl, a naïve wife, a strange estranged sister, and an aspiring actress.
At 27, Lady Caroline Lamb was married and well-connected: her husband William, Lord Melbourne, would later become Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister. But she had a wild spirit—one of her youthful nicknames had been “Young Savage”—and marriage had done little to tame her. In an age when women grew their hair long and luxurious and wore elaborate dresses, Caro Lamb cropped her blonde hair as short as a boy’s and enjoyed dressing in trousers. The Young Savage also had a roving eye for men. When she came across some of Lord Byron’s poetry, she was determined to meet the man who’d written those provocative verses. They were introduced at a dinner. She pronounced him “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and turned her back on him. She was, of course, inviting him to pursue her. And, of course, he did. He sent her a carnation and a rose. When Caroline Lamb died sixteen years later, these flowers, carefully dried and preserved, were found in her room.
Their entanglement started out as a mutual flirtation. They moved in the same social circles—though if Byron happened to be at a party Caro wasn’t invited to, he would often find her waiting for him outside, with the coachmen and horses, sometimes disguised as a pageboy. Maybe it was just a rumor, maybe it had a shred of truth, but a story spread that Caro was once delivered to Lord Byron’s place at a dining room table on a silver serving tray. Beneath the tray’s cover, she lay stark naked. For Caro, the most irresistibly sexy thing about Byron was his “underlook,” the way he’d turn those inscrutable dark blue eyes up at a potential conquest from beneath his long, thick lashes.
The attraction was mutual. Byron wrote to Caroline:
Your heart, my poor Caro (what a little volcano!) pours lava through
your veins. . . . I have always thought you the cleverest, most agreeable,
absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being that
The affair with Caro Lamb gave Byron excitement and passion, but he found himself needing more—not true love, but money. He was not only a Lord, he was an extravagant Lord, with an expensive lifestyle. White linen trousers were his signature outfit; unfortunately, in those days before dry cleaning and washable linens, they were constantly getting dirty and were nearly impossible to clean, and so he wore each pair only once. He ordered them from his tailor in batches, two dozen at a time.
He could have made a comfortable living from his hugely popular poems, but he refused to accept payment for them: as a Lord, it would be beneath him. In fact, when Coleridge was desperately in need of money, Byron even tried to get his publisher to transfer his royalties to his fellow poet. He was hoping to sell Newstead Abbey, which was an acceptable way for a Lord to make money, but in its dilapidated condition it wasn’t exactly prime real estate. The only way out of his financial troubles, as Byron saw it, was to follow in the footsteps of his father and marry an heiress. And, conveniently, Caro Lamb had led him to just the girl.
Caro’s mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, had a twenty-year-old niece, Anne Isabella Milbanke—Annabella. Annabella was Caro’s opposite: a plump, serious, dark-haired little innocent with a passion for Jane Austen’s novels and, of all things, mathematics. Perhaps most attractive to Byron (after the money she would eventually inherit, of course) was the fact that she did not dance. A new fad, the waltz, was all the rage, and Caro drew perverse delight in dancing while Byron, self-conscious of his deformed foot, could only watch. Although he admitted, “I should like her more if she were less perfect,” Byron asked Lady Melbourne to inquire whether Annabella would consider him as a suitor. The scholarly Miss Milbanke promptly turned Byron’s offer down. Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne: “I thank you again for your efforts with my Princess of Parallelograms. . . . We are two parallel lines prolonged to infinity side by side, but never to meet.” But there is another sort of geometry in which parallel lines can intersect, and it would soon be working its mathematical magic for Byron and Annabella.
The third woman in Byron’s romantic pentagram was Augusta Leigh, his half-sister. Catherine Gordon arranged for her son to meet Augusta when he was 17 and she was 20—and Augusta’s protective grandmother, who had kept her away from the Byrons all her life, was dead. The old woman had been wiser than she’d known. Before long, Augusta was calling her younger brother “Baby Byron;” to the poet, his sister was “Gus” or “Goose.” Augusta married Colonel George Leigh, had three daughters, and moved to Cambridge, but grew closer and closer to her brother. Augusta was a grown woman, a mother, but she carried on conversations with her brother in a peculiar sort of baby-talk he called her “crinkum-crankum.” Rumors flew that the relationship between Lord Byron and his sister was a little more than “close,” especially after Augusta’s daughter Elizabeth Medora was born in 1814 and the busybodies who counted off the months couldn’t quite get the timing to work in George Leigh’s favor. For her part, Medora would always claim Lord Byron as her father.
Nothing calms down a scandal like the appearance of respectability. Byron renewed his pursuit of Annabella Milbanke. When he proposed a second time, again through Lady Melbourne, the Princess of Parallelograms accepted. Whatever was happening between Byron and his sister, they were being discreet enough for it to continue, if they wanted it to, even if he were married. Caroline Lamb, however, was another story.
What had begun as a flirtation turned into an obsession for Caro. Byron wrote her a letter to tell her that their six-month relationship had to come to an end. After reading the news, Caro grabbed a razor, threatening to kill herself. She only let go when her mother tried to get the razor away from her and looked likely to get hurt herself. Caro wrote back to Byron: “You have told me how foreign women revenge; I will show you how an Englishwoman can.”
More than once, at social occasions both Caro and Byron were attending, Caro approached her former lover with a dinner knife clutched in her hand. She threatened to stab herself. Melodramatically, Byron said, “Do, my dear. But . . . mind which way you strike with your knife—be it at your own heart, not mine—you have struck there already.” Pressing the knife into her palm, she drew blood.
On another occasion, she aimed her knife at Byron’s hand. At the last moment, she hesitated. “I mean to use this,” she whispered.
“Against me, I presume,” he replied nonchalantly. Caro’s hand sank to her side.
But there were other incidents with broken glass, with scissors.
When physical violence, self-mutilation, and suicide threats wouldn’t convince Byron of her undying love, Caro threw herself at him—literally. She ran away into the night dressed as a boy, her husband’s father calling into the street that her lover had had enough of her. She arrived at Byron’s door and refused to leave. The poet’s faithful friend Hobhouse had to pick her up and carry her away, squirming and screaming. Caro sold her jewelry and ran away again, this time to the docks, intending to book passage on a ship, any ship, no matter where it was going. Byron managed to track her down and return her to her mother, who promptly suffered a stroke. One day Byron opened an envelope and discovered a lock of curly blonde hair—obviously cut from a part of the body other than the head—and a note from “Your Wild Antelope.”
Unrequited love soon turned to bitterness. Her husband was the master of a large estate bordering a farming village. One night Caro asked the local people to build a huge bonfire. In the middle of an eerie ceremony, flames and smoke rising high into the sky, an effigy of Lord Byron was thrown onto the pyre and burned to ashes. Meanwhile, back at the Lamb home, the servants were busy sewing new metal buttons onto their uniforms. Embossed on the buttons were the words “Ne crede Biron”—“Don’t trust Byron.” The phrase was a mocking parody of the Byron motto, “Crede Byron.” Caro then set a literary goal of her own: she would write a steamy novel. The names may have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent, but the book was clearly about her affair with Byron and their messy breakup.
Ever the stalker, Caro left one last memento in Byron’s copy of a popular Gothic novel called Vathek, something far less disturbing than most of her mementos: the simple words “Remember me.” After finding the note, Byron wrote:
Remember thee: remember thee!
Till Lethe quench life’s burning streams
Remorse of shame shall cling to thee
And haunt thee like a feverish dream.
Remember thee! Ay, doubt it not,
Thy husband too shall think of thee,
By neither shalt thou be forgot,
Thou false to him, thou fiend to me.
In spite of Caroline Lamb’s scenes and the rumors surrounding Augusta Leigh, and beset by one postponement after another, Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke were married the day after New Year’s Day, 1815. Almost immediately, Annabella must have suspected that “happily ever after” was not in the cards. As the couple rode away from the ceremony, the new husband was singing a song he’d picked up on his travels to the East—not a joyful wedding song, but a funeral dirge from Albania. Later, he would tell friends that, on his wedding night, he awoke to see the drapes surrounding the bed weirdly lit by flickering red candlelight. “Good God, I am surely in hell,” was his reaction.
Among the love letters Byron sent his bride is one with the ironic sentiment: “I have great hopes that we shall love each other all our lives as much as if we had never married at all.” But it was not complete unhappiness. Byron wrote one of his most beautiful love poems, “She Walks in Beauty,” on his honeymoon, setting it to the tune of one of composer Isaac Nathan’s “Hebrew Melodies.” The newlyweds affectionately called each other “Pippin” (Byron’s nickname for his young wife) and “Dear Duck” (hers for him).
Giving Byron the benefit of the doubt isn’t easy, but to be fair, Annabella wasn’t exactly prepared for marriage. When her new husband explained that they would need to economize, she agreed to find ways to save money—such as making do with just one house and one carriage, far less than most young couples in their social position owned. And she had led a very sheltered life; she probably knew next to nothing about sex. She was not exactly the partner Byron, whose conquests included live wires like Caro Lamb, perhaps his own half-sister, and assorted young men, was accustomed to.
Byron’s little private idiosyncrasies quickly surfaced: He disliked watching women eat, and would not join his wife at the dinner table. He’d discovered fad diets and bulimia to control his weight. He began collecting exotic animals, starting with a macaw and a parrot. He kept loaded guns throughout Newstead Abbey. Most disturbing, he flew into screaming rages at the slightest provocation. The servants began to fear for their new young mistress’s life, and secretly made certain that Annabella was never alone.
The wedding ring Byron gave his wife had originally been his mother’s. Catherine Gordon had been a large woman, much larger than tiny Annabella, so, in those days before ring sizing was an option, she tied a length of black ribbon around it to make it fit better, which her new husband considered an unlucky omen. One evening, when Byron exploded into one of his rages, Annabella pulled the ring off—and it flew across the room and into the fireplace. That didn’t exactly calm Byron down.
The marriage was doomed from the start, but it went downhill when Byron invited a long-term houseguest to stay with him and his new wife: his sister Augusta. (Her children were also invited, but Byron wasn’t wild about babies. He suggested that his nieces and nephews be confined to cages during the visit.)
Annabella might have been sheltered and naïve, but even she knew that something wasn’t right in the relationships at Newstead, especially when Byron wrote up his will and left almost everything to his sister and her children. But in the 1800s, it was a wife’s duty to submit to her husband’s every desire and bear her husband’s children; less than three months after the wedding, Annabella announced that she was pregnant. Throughout the pregnancy, Byron grew more and more violent and unstable; he even pointed one of his loaded pistols at Annabella. When she went into labor, the expectant father expressed a hope that both mother and child would die.
Annabella gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada, on December 10, 1815. Almost exactly one month later, in the middle of the night—and after just a year of marriage—Annabella and the baby fled Newstead Abbey. At first, her parents thought it was just a misunderstanding that would be quickly patched up, but as Annabella described the scenes and abuse she’d endured, they agreed that they could not send their daughter and her baby back to such perversion.
A legal separation was the only solution. A divorce was out of the question. In England in the early 1800s, it took an Act of Parliament, literally, to be granted a divorce, and only a man could request one. Annabella was also afraid that Byron would get custody of little Ada. In those days, the law was on the side of the father unless he could be proven an unfit parent. Fortunately for Annabella, there was plenty of dirt to be had on Byron—and Caroline Lamb gladly provided her with much of it. In April, Annabella was granted a legal separation from Lord Byron on the grounds of adultery, life-threatening cruelty, incest, and homosexuality. He never again saw his wife or his baby daughter Ada (there was no way Annabella would call her daughter by Byron’s sister’s name!).
Despite the domestic drama that was Byron’s life, he managed to find opportunities to write. In fact, the more conflict in his life, the more he found to write about: “All convulsions end with me in rhyme.” In the midst of the rumors of incest between him and Augusta, for instance, he was writing a poem called “The Bride of Abydos,” about cousins in love. He was the sort of poet who could dash off clever rhymes and phrases quickly and easily—he finished The Corsair, which the composer Giuseppe Verdi later turned into an opera, in just ten days. And that dashed-off story-poem was a hit, selling over ten thousand copies the first day it hit the booksellers’ shelves. Wordsworth had called poetry “a spontaneous overflow of emotion,” and for Lord Byron, that was exactly what writing was. “I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?” Grinding out poetry was “a torture, which I must get rid of, but never . . . a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain.”
But Byron’s long narrative poems, full of adventure and often featuring the Middle Eastern settings so popular at the time, drew an enthusiastic audience, especially among women and young people. His heroes were almost always dark, brooding, solitary young men, hiding deep, painful, personal secrets, who went on adventures to try to escape their own melancholy. It wasn’t long before any person or character who fit that description was being referred to as “Byronic.”
The writer of such dramatic stuff would surely be interested in theater, and Byron found himself on the committee that managed London’s Drury Lane Theatre, primarily reading plays being considered for performance. Among the five hundred or so manuscripts Byron flipped through was one by a familiar name: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Byron had appreciated Coleridge’s peculiar genius, especially when it came to poetry with more than a hint of the supernatural. Byron learned that the aging, troubled poet was having difficulties with money—
among other things—and he wanted to help. The men set up a meeting; Byron was shocked at how “shabby” his fellow poet looked, but he couldn’t deny the power of his work as Coleridge recited line after line of unpublished material. Byron contacted a publisher, showed him Coleridge’s “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan,” and convinced him to print them and find them a paying audience, even if they weren’t quite finished pieces. He produced at least one of Coleridge’s forgettable plays. Coleridge in turn provided him with information about werewolves.
One of the percs of Byron’s work with the Drury Lane Theatre was getting to meet the actors and actresses, who had a reputation—sometimes well-earned—for being promiscuous. Among them was 17-year-old Claire Clairmont. Like Caroline Lamb, Claire became obsessed with the handsome author of so many popular poems. In fact, there was someone she wanted him to meet, almost a relative of hers by more-or-less marriage, also a poet. She tempted him with the poetry—a copy of “Queen Mab”—before she introduced him to the man. And it didn’t hurt her pursuit that her stepfather was the philosopher William Godwin, someone Byron admired. But first she had to meet Byron, and it would be through a letter:
If a woman, whose reputation has yet remained unstained, if without
guardian or husband to control she should throw herself upon your
mercy, with a beating heart she should confess the love she has borne
you many years . . . could you betray her or would you be as silent as
Claire would need to act quickly, though, if she wanted to get to Lord Byron. He was in the middle of preparations to leave England: selling off some of his possessions, purchasing a huge traveling coach that was a copy of one once owned by Napoleon (it cost 500 pounds—far more than he could afford), and filling it with luxuries to replace the ones he’d sold. He had barely reached the English coast before his creditors entered Newstead and repossessed everything in it, right down to Byron’s tame squirrel.
As he left his homeland forever, Byron said, “I felt that, if what was whispered and muttered and murmured was true—I was unfit for England,--if false—England was unfit for me.”
But before Byron fled, Claire got what she wanted from him. When she finally caught up with him again, the final piece of his love-life pentagram would fall into place.
Copyright © 2007 Catherine M. Andronik