Books

After the Bad Boy

The wife and daughter Lord Byron left behind spent their entire lives dealing with his fame.

Annabella Milbanke surrounded by modern-day paparazzi.
Annabella Milbanke.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images, Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images.

Anyone who thinks that because of the internet, contemporary young female celebrities are subjected to an unprecedented degree of personal scrutiny and moral judgement might want to acquaint themselves with the lives of Annabella Milbanke and her daughter, Ada. Until fairly recently, neither woman (born in 1792 and 1815, respectively) was known for much more than her relationship to Annabella’s husband and Ada’s father: Lord Byron, the romantic poet. Ada, who married the Earl of Lovelace, was a talented and imaginative mathematician, and in the past few decades, she has been redeemed from obscurity and christened the first computer programmer. But during Ada’s life (she died of cervical cancer at the age of 36) and Annabella’s (who survived her by eight years), mother and daughter stood under a kind of shadow, both in the public’s eye and in their own. Ada was Byron’s only legitimate child, the product of a mismatched couple who lived together for only one year, then, to widespread disapproval, never saw each other again. So overwhelming was the gravitational pull of Byron’s fame that he made them both notorious, dominating Ada’s life as well as her mother’s, even after his death in Greece in 1824.

Byron was the first modern celebrity, a figure who enthralled and scandalized the Western world. Writers and artists had been revered before Byron. People collected engravings of fashionable socialites. A royal mistress with a ready wit could be enshrined as a beloved national personality. But with Byron, for the first time, an artist’s work and persona became indistinguishable and equally worshipable. The heroes (or, often, antiheroes) of his poems were always understood to be versions of Byron himself: a brooding, brilliant, passionate rule-breaker. One of his many married lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, famously described the poet as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” a quote perhaps more familiar today than any of Byron’s own verse. (Lamb emulated his shocking behavior by dressing up as a boy to sneak into his rooms and sending him a note containing a lock of her pubic hair.) Byron created a model of stormy, tormented male glamour familiar even to people who have never heard of him. He inspired, among many other things, the first literary vampire. Every moody singer-songwriter, every sardonic romantic hero from Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester to Rhett Butler and Christian Grey, has a little (or a lot) of Byron in him.

According to Miranda Seymour’s new mother-daughter biography, In Byron’s Wake, Annabella married this poor husband material because he presented himself as a man who needed to be rescued from himself, and she believed that she could do it. No blithely amoral libertine, the poet referred to himself as a “fallen spirit.” You can’t fall from grace unless you believe in grace to begin with, and when they were courting, Byron expressed the need for his fiancée to “control” his worst impulses. The nature of his wickedness seemed to consist of the usual rakish shenanigans: baldfaced whoring, adultery, drinking, and gambling. Byron had also conducted homosexual affairs as a boy at boarding school (considered more or less par for the course in a member of his class) and (less acceptably) traveled to the Levant as a young man seeking more of the same. But the sin that most tormented him was probably his relationship to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Hardcore Byron apologists maintain that incest between Byron and Augusta has never been conclusively proven, but rumors of it clung to the pair even before he married Annabella, who initially dismissed these “intimations” as mere scandalmongering.

Miranda Seymour.
Miranda Seymour.

Seymour treats the Byronic incest as a given and presents the poet’s proposal to Annabella as a mixture of genuine respect, hope that she could reform or at least moderate him, and opportunism given his multiple scandals and his mounting debts. Byron exchanged many breathtakingly cynical letters with Annabella’s aunt about the utility of the match and the intricacies of managing his own reputation. “I see nothing but a marriage and a speedy one can save me,” he wrote to Lady Melbourne. “If your Niece is attainable I should prefer her.”

No one could be surprised at the speedy failure of such a marriage, especially when the rich uncle Byron had been counting on left his money to Annabella’s mother instead of her. Despite a few interludes of happiness, he made her life a misery. His often violent moods changed by the hour, with the one constant being an attitude that the novelist Walter Scott described as “irritable to the point of mental disease.” He made suggestive remarks about his preference for his sister, who lived with them during much of their time together—that is, when she wasn’t living alone with Byron elsewhere. He also conducted public affairs with actresses and once reported to Annabella that he’d reclined between two naked prostitutes, debating which one to bring home to live with them. (This last story so shocked Annabella’s faithful attorney that he recalled it with horror to the end of his days.) When she complained, Byron told her, “You will remember I have neither beaten nor confined you.”

When she became pregnant with Ada, Annabella resorted to posting a guard at her bedroom door to keep her husband from bursting through it in a rage and triggering a miscarriage. So extreme was Byron’s behavior that Annabella and her parents began to engineer a plan to have him declared insane, but he left England, never to return, before they could execute it. Ada was 4 months old. The pro-Byron take on the couple’s separation holds that Annabella—a devout Unitarian who practiced a serene self-control—drove Byron mad with her cold, judgmental, and controlling behavior. This characterization has often repeated in accounts of Ada’s life. Seymour makes the case that Annabella, while decidedly on the prim side, deeply loved and successfully nurtured Ada, who reciprocated her mother’s devotion, even as, paradoxically, both women later came to cherish their connection to the legendary Byron himself.

Unfortunately, In Byron’s Wake is a taxing book, the sort of biography that feels enslaved by its source material—in this case, the many letters written by the various principals—into reporting all the numbing details of daily life. Every tutor hired, every change of address (19th-century aristocrats moved around a lot), every notable visitor or encounter, every minor illness as well as the major ones, it seems, must be mentioned. Seymour offers both too much information and not enough. She gushes over Ada’s personal charisma while providing only the most cursory account of her mathematical insights—Ada was the first person by more than 100 years to recognize that computing machines could be used to do more than calculate numbers. Annabella, for her part, was an indefatigable philanthropist and abolitionist who hired a black American couple who had escaped enslavement to teach in one of the schools she founded. Seymour clearly admires this but doesn’t meaningfully place Lady Byron in the larger context of 19th-century reform movements.

What makes In Byron’s Wake worth reading is its account of how reputation and public image worked in early Victorian England, particularly for women, and how little this minefield has changed despite the technological advances Ada’s work predicted. A gossipy writer herself, Seymour understands the workings of gossip better than most, and Annabella and Ada’s lives were shaped by celebrity and rumor. Annabella issued no public statements about her reasons for separating from Byron during her life. For his part, after leaving England, Byron published a lachrymose poem lamenting the loss of his family, “Fare Thee Well,” that, as Seymour puts it, portrayed the poet as “a martyred hero.” Byron’s effort to define the story of his marriage failed—at first. Satirists published cartoons of the poet bidding a tearful adieu to his baby daughter from a ship’s deck while surrounded by strumpets and floozies. Byron’s daring misbehavior suddenly looked like self-indulgent immorality.

Annabella, Seymour points out, understood just how quickly that disapproval could flip back again, and how easily she could be blamed even if it didn’t. At 24, to appear justified in leaving a husband who had treated her so cruelly and to protect her daughter from scandal, she was obliged to live a highly circumspect life. She never remarried or even came close to it. She abandoned fashionable London society for the company of irreproachably dull vicars and middle-aged maiden ladies devoted to good works in quiet country towns. Even so, people stared and pointed at her and her little daughter in public places when they traveled. Avoiding the infamy attached to her husband’s name became a lifelong project, even as both mother and daughter took pride in their connection to a poet many readers adored.

While Annabella succeeded in erecting a façade of flawless respectability during her life, after her death she was demonized by Byron partisans. A far-flung controversy surrounding her marriage began with the publication of the memoirs of Byron’s Venetian mistress, Countess Teresa Guiccioli. Intent on proving that only she had truly loved and understood the poet, the countess condemned Annabella as “a spoilt child, a slave to rule, to habits and ideas as unchanging and inflexible as the figure she loved to study.” Guiccioli uses Annabella’s mathematical aptitude, evident from childhood, to portray her as the natural enemy of Byron’s spontaneous, poetic soul. (Byron himself mockingly nicknamed his wife “the Princess of Parallelograms.”) While much has been made of the gifts Ada inherited from her father, it was her gift for abstract reasoning that finally made her famous in her own right. And that was her mother’s legacy, not his.

A glowing magazine review of Guiccioli’s book in 1869 set off a cavalcade of the Victorian equivalent of hot takes. The review’s author, John Paget, accused Annabella of enveloping her late husband’s character in a “poisonous miasma … raised by her breath, and which only her breath could have dispersed.” By some fascinating contortion of logic, Paget insisted that Annabella had slandered Byron by saying nothing at all against him. Silence, rather than offering up an explanation for the end of her marriage, was her crime, and in the hysterical Paget’s eyes, it made her tantamount to a murderess.

The attack infuriated Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the international best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a friend of Annabella’s. She published an indignant response to Paget’s review in which the allegations of incest between Byron and his sister were expressed publicly for the first time. This was a bona fide bombshell. More than 15,000 scandalized readers canceled their subscriptions to the Atlantic Monthly, which published the piece, and George Eliot herself scolded Stowe for violating the Byron family’s privacy. The whole affair provided the press with weeks of salacious fodder. Unfortunately, Stowe got several important facts wrong, creating the impression that Annabella had been, in Seymour’s words, a “complicit, knowing witness” to her husband’s affair with his half-sister. Instead of vindicating Lady Bryon, Stowe unwittingly ended up making a bad situation infinitely worse.

Those who challenged Stowe’s version of events chose to frame their responses as defenses of the “retired, gentle, pure and modest life” of Augusta Leigh. Tellingly, Byron himself almost seemed to drop out of the discussion. Either you believed Annabella was a monster or you believed that Augusta was, and Paget implored the female readers of Blackwood’s Magazine to repudiate Byron’s widow, as must every woman “who had not sunk into a state of degradation lower than that of the lowest prostitute that ever haunted the night-houses of the Haymarket.” Although Annabella was in no way responsible for the incest rumors, in the muddled mind of her detractors, the stories were written off as “the deluded fantasy of [Byron’s] jealous and consummately deceitful wife.”

As Ariana Grande can attest, blaming a woman for the self-destructive behavior of her partner or former partner remains a common response when fans discover the flaws in their idols. Even Annabella was guilty of it, convincing herself long after Byron’s death that she and her husband might have found happiness together had not his half-sister deliberately sabotaged her marriage, enticing Byron away from the connubial redemption for which he yearned. It’s a ridiculous scenario, given that Augusta was widely considered a sweet but foolish and spineless woman and Byron never needed much encouragement to play the bad boy. Seymour herself takes pains to point out Annabella’s fidelity to various requests Byron made of her when they separated, as if to defend her subject from a century and a half of accusations of disloyalty to a husband who had no right to expect anything else. A better book would have looked harder at this stubborn inclination to make excuses for famous and talented men as it took root during the birth of celebrity culture.

Book cover of In Byron’s Wake.