Behold the blessings of a lucky lot!
My play is damned – and Lady Noel not.Lord Byron
In the summer of 1821 in a letter to his sister, Augusta Leigh, as Lord Byron lamented the failure of his drama about Marino Faliero, the controversial Doge of Venice who had been executed in 1355 – he was also less than sympathetic to the news that his mother-in-law had recovered from an illness:
‘I had no wish to nourish my detestation of her and her family, but they pursue me like an Evil Genius. I send you an Elegy on Lady Noel’s recovery…
I will reserve my tears for the demise of Lady Noel – but the old b—h will live forever because she is so amiable and useful…‘
As we know that no one lives forever – the Lady Noel was no exception for a mere seven months after Lord B’s most facetious letter – his Mamma-At-Law died on Monday January 28 in 1822.
Byron was not to receive the news of Judith Noel’s death until early March from Augusta and true to his detestation of ‘cant’, his response was brutally frank:
I regret the pain which the privation must occasion to Sir R N & to Ly. B – but I shall not pretend to any violent grief for one with whom my acquaintance was neither long nor agreeable. Still I bear her memory no malice…Lord Byron
Although Byron’s estranged spouse had been with her mother during this final illness at their ancestral pile in Kirkby Mallory in the company of Judith’s devoted husband of over forty years and that her health had long been a ‘source of anxiety and distress’, her death at the age of 71 was undoubtedly a personal tragedy for Annabella and her father Sir Ralph, who was to survive his wife by three years.
In reading through their correspondence, it is obvious that mother and daughter enjoyed something of an uneasy and at times a tempestuous relationship and although Judith would bristle at Annabella’s patronising behaviour, she appears as an astute and formidable character whose absolute loyalty to those whom she loved could easily get her into trouble!
She described herself as a ‘passionate little Devil’ who would broke no quarter with those who threatened the security of her loved ones as Byron was to find to his cost in the tumultuous months of the separation drama in the spring of 1816.
‘I see that Ld B. is playing a deep Game, that he is supported in his schemes by the advice of Lady M. and that Mrs. Leigh will decidedly do all She can for him – and from the basest motives – profit. I think as ill of her as possible…
Ld. B has been for sometime I am convinced acting the part of derrrangement to shield his iniquity – he is no more Mad than I am – but if that pretence is held out, does it follow that his Wife is to be committed to the custody of a Madman, and dangerous and brutal in his madness!
Or is that Madman to have care of the Child?
I am convinced that it is plotted for Mrs. Leigh to take it with an allowance which will be of assistance to her poverty…
The Way in which this letter was sent proves that he either believes, or chuses to imply he believes, that You and I have urged her to Separation…‘
Unfortunately for Sir Ralph, his outspoken spouse also now took aim at his youngest sibling, the indomitable Lady Melbourne, although no shrinking violet herself and who having found herself the target of Judith’s indignation on more than one occasion in the years previously, was now firmly in the cross-hairs of her outraged sister-in-law:
I have further to add that Lady B. saw – Ld B. shewed it her – a letter from the Viscountess written to the Lord, in which are these Words, after speaking well of Lady B.
She adds – “but She has always been used to have her own way and has been flattered into a high opinion of herself – but You must break her of this and subdue her.”
What an infamous Woman She is – if the Lord is to be believed, She sent for him to the House in Wll, expressly to visit Ldy CL and each Lady knew the conduct of the other.
Malcolm Elwin in his fabulous book Lord Byron’s Wife writes that for the Lady Noel, ‘the gloves were off and she was prepared to fight for her daughter and grandchild with tooth and claw.’
I confess to a fondness for the character of Judith Noel with her charming energy, fierce loyalty and her ruthless determination to reverse the fortunes of the badly mismanaged Noel ancestral abode in Kirkby Mallory well into her sixth decade when most would be happy to put their feet up and enjoy the fruits of their hard-earned retirement:
‘I think Money matters are destined to torment us, and at least at present to interfere with all our comforts and happiness – tho’ if we can parry the present evils, better prospects present for future days…
Now I am old and You are Young, and may look forward I hope and pray to a long life – and will profit be the amazing advance in these Estates – which I have reason to believe may be more than doubled.
Every day something comes out to that effect – and I am anxious to investigate the truth, because if so, it will enable us to assist those we most love – during my life and afterwards it will be their own.
I have a good deal of fag on my hands for You Know, every thing rests on my shoulders, both to decide and to execute.‘
However, her willingness to tarnish the reputation of Lady M with an eye to blackmail as she trampled over the memory of Sir Ralph’s deceased brother and that of his blameless nephew affords her no credit.
‘For Godsake do not let any consideration for her influence You – for it is owing in a great degree to the settled hatred She has long born to You and Yours…
the Viscountess never forgave Annabella the involuntary Act of coming into the World – which injur’d her dearly beloved Brother & Nephew – and it has been a regular Wish to injure ever since‘
‘but I can get no information from You… and am rather inclined to believe You have shrunk from exposing this wretch…
God bless you! my Dear. I shall only add – that from the time we married, the only unhappiness You have occasioned me, has been from seeing the Sway Lady M. has at times had over You – and that before I was able to oppose it, or had courage to do so.
She has pillaged You of tens of thousands – recollect this – and now despise her.‘
And it wasn’t only to Sir Ralph that she let fly about the ‘Viscountess’ for even though Annabella had begged Judith to ‘hold your tongue’ as the separation proceedings were at a delicate stage; she too was not immune to another vituperative outburst from her ‘Mam’ about the increasingly battle-weary Lady M:
‘I think it incumbent on You to break with her, that is, cut her intirely – not from resentment so much, as to enable You and Your Friends to contradict the Lies and aspersions She has held out lately…
Now I think it best You should openly alledge this part of her conduct, as a reason why You and Your Parents cannot notice her, hinting at the same time on past conduct. In this Cut, I include Lady C and GL.‘
Ouch! But before we commiserate with the Lady M, it’s just as well to remember that she too was an adroit combatant and was more than capable of fending off the slurs that had been pelted in her direction by her provincial sister-in-law.
‘I only write now that you may fully understand that I am determined not to dispute or quarrel with either of you about any thing that has past, as I should think myself extremely absurd if I did – & as I know that there has been no Coldness on my part or the most distant intention to show either of you any Slight
I feel that I am just as good friends with both of you as I ever have been & if you are not the same it is not my fault.‘
Even though Judith had said of her son-in-law in 1816 that it was ‘not fit such men should live’, she had no difficulty in warming to his only daughter Augusta Ada who having been born at 13 Piccadilly Terrace the previous December AND as her Mama headed off to London to devote the time and energy needed to ensure their separation of ‘bed and board’ from Lord B – the devoted ‘GrandMama’ was once more up in arms – literally!
‘What can He be aiming at? it comes into my head that he thinks me in a bad state, I wish he could see me – he would fear I had taken a new Lease…
I am not very easy about Mrs. Fr returning here with You.She may do some mischief about the Child – by admitting people into the House, perhaps in the night..
I have bought a pair of Pistols, which I shall have in the Room with me – for defence, not Offence – but I am apprehensive of Fraud than Force – tho’ guarded against both.‘
Now, this is ONE GrandMama NOT even Lord Byron was prepared to mess with!
What a gal!
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 8 1821 Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1978)
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 9 1821-1822, Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1979)
Lord Byron’s Wife, Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1974)