When Lady Byron left London AND her husband in January 1816 she sent him the following note:
‘Dearest B., We arrived here safely – the child is the best of travellers.
Now do leave off the abominable trade of versifying, and brandy, everything that is nau – –‘Lady Byron
Byron was always the first to admit with brutal honesty that he had NOT been the ‘most agreeable’ spouse having admitted as much in a letter to his father-in-law Ralph Milbanke in February 1816:
‘During the last year I have had to contend with distress without and disease within. Upon the former I have little to say – except that I have endeavoured to remove it by every sacrifice in my power; and the latter I should not mention if I had not professional authority for saying that the disorder that I have to combat, without much impairing my apparent health, is such as to induce a morbid irritability of temper…..‘Lord Byron
Throughout the autumn of 1815 and in early 1816 – Byron’s ‘disorder’ was a diagnosed liver complaint causing soreness in his face and head along with severe pain in his loins and the ‘distress’ to which he refers were his ‘pecuniary embarrassments’.
He was also probably admitting to being something of a drunk!
He had been juggling debts, money-lenders and extravagant expenditures from his precocious and wild teenage years as this frantic letter from his distressed mother in March 1806 to his inept attorney John Hanson beautifully illustrates:
‘That Boy will be the death of me and drive me mad!……Where can he get Hundreds? Has he got into the hands of money lenders? He has no feeling, no Heart….
He knows that I am doing everything in my power to pay his Debts and he writes to me about hiring Servants….God knows what is to be done with him, I much fear he is already ruined at eighteen!!!‘
At the time of his marriage to Annabella in January 1815, he was juggling debts amounting to an eye watering sum of £30,000 AND that’s in HIS time!
Now, in OUR time, that would be a debt of some trifling £2,670,000. However I digress.
In 1816 and as the Marriage Settlement was de rigeur for the settlement of a dowry and the agreement of the proposed marital income and pin money – Byron had agreed not only to the sale of the ancestral home of Newstead Abbey but he also settled the generous sum of £60,000 on his future wife.
With the offer from Annabella’s father Sir Ralph of £20,000, Byron would in addition settle £300 a year for Annabella’s exclusive use – her pin money.
However, during their brief 54 week marriage and as Newstead Abbey remained unsold and with no sight of Annabella’s promised Milbanke fortune – Byron’s settlement of £60,000 would only materialise with the eventual sale of the Byron ancestral pile in November 1817.
And with his marriage, Byron’s numerous creditors came a’knocking believing that as he had married a heiress, he would now be in a position to settle his debts particularly as this newly married couple had moved into the very grand house belonging to Elizabeth Cavendish Duchess of Devonshire at 13 Piccadilly Terrace.
However, their lifestyle could arguably be described in the words of one of JFK’s detractors, of ‘all style and no substance.’
By autumn 1815 and as the bailiff beckoned along with the sale of his precious library and several threatened executions – Byron in his worry and torment behaved as many have done before…
Yes, he got drunk AND frequently!
Throughout the Regency, the amount of alcohol consumed by Byron and his society would appear to be truly eye-watering amounts by today’s standards, however it would seems that in this winter of discontent he would take his alcohol intake to a new level.
With his finances in such a desperate state he probably drank himself to brandy oblivion as the means of escape and as such his moods became ever more erratic and violent.
His moods by all accounts were ‘ferocious’ and he was beside himself at the idea of a bailiff present at Piccadilly Terrace at the same time as Annabella’s midwife during her accouchement in early December.
As Annabella had never known what is was to be short of money, she seemed unable to understand his feelings of humiliation and horror with the demands for money he simply did not have:
‘When he did stay at home himself, it was to drink Brandy – & he would then dismiss me to my room in the most unkind manner. He told me he must either have his brandy or his mistress…
He had for many months professed his intention of giving himself up either to women or drinking and had asked me to sanction these courses, adding however that he should pursue them whether I gave him leave or not.
Accordingly for about three months before my confinement he was accustomed to drink Brandy & other liquors to intoxication, which caused him to commit many outrageous acts, as breaking & burning several valuable articles, and brought on paroxysms of rage or frenzy – not only terrifying but dangerous to me….‘
During the separation, Byron was to later admit to his friend Hobhouse and Scrope Davies that:
he may have been bereaved of reason during his paroxysms with his wife…
Evidently, he was often so drunk that he could not remember what he had said during these frequent brandy ramblings and Annabella, an assiduous note-taker, believed that they were convincing evidence that her husband was guilty of the following crimes:
‘insanity, dreadful crimes, flagrant infidelity, unnatural behaviour and unmitigated violence.‘
She was even said to have convinced herself that Byron was even guilty of murder!
‘Murder was the idea suggested to my mind. He said another time at Halnaby that many a man who had committed murder walked about unsuspected, & added with trembling horror & mystery, ‘I know some.’Lady Byron
During his brandy ramblings. Byron would drop not so subtle hints of his ‘hereditary madness’ and which the naive Annabella took to be the truth, which was all rather unfortunate for prior to his marriage Byron had received from Lady Melbourne a copy of Annabella’s wish list that one of the essential qualities required of her ideal husband must NOT include any hint of insanity!
Perhaps Byron’s brandy soaked ramblings were arguably rambled more in mischief than in reality and in the nightmare of mounting debts with little income AND shackled to a serious wife – he only served to stoke the flames of his notorious black humour.
For with outrageous confessions, wild theatrical gestures, ‘nau’ behaviour and copious bottles of brandy available with a captive audience of one, perhaps this was simply Byron’s way of reacting to his monetary difficulties?
However, despite this Byronic coping mechanism – his captive audience would stock-pile these brandy ramblings as the ammunition needed to justify her separation from him.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Lord Byron’s Wife, Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray, 1962)
My Amiable Mamma, Megan Bowes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd, 1991)