Co-Parenting with Lord Byron, As Weird As It Sounds
Miranda Seymour the Precociousness of the Poet's Daughter
“The little boy [Hugo, an orphaned nephew of Mary Montgomery] is a very nice child on the whole he speaks nothing but Italian and Spanish which I now perfectly understand.”
–Ada Byron, aged eight, to her mother. 7th December 1824.
Lord Byron was exceptionally angry to discover, early in 1817, that Annabella, advised by his own former legal counsel, Sir Samuel Romilly, had made their daughter a Ward of Chancery. (Formally, Ada remained in Chancery until 1825, a year after her father’s death.) Nevertheless, he never doubted that his estranged wife would make an excellent and conscientious parent to little Ada. “A girl is in all cases better with the mother,” Byron informed Augusta Leigh (by then the mother of seven) on 21 December 1820, “unless there is some moral objection.”
Claire Clairmont, having courageously decided to bring up Clara Allegra, her illegitimate child by Byron, as part of Percy Shelley’s bohemian household, was granted less respect. Byron liked Shelley and admired the poet’s wife, Mary, but the couple’s proclaimed aversion to monogamy presented the “moral objection” of which he disapproved (in anyone other than himself). While Annabella was threatened with a lawsuit if she dared to expose young Ada to the dangers of continental travel, the Shelleys, in 1818, were commanded to arrange for little Allegra’s transportation from England to Italy, where Claire was tearfully compelled to surrender her maternal rights. Byron’s caution about continental travel was well-founded. The Shelleys’ own baby daughter (another Clara) died of dysentery at Venice in September 1818. Their son William died of malaria in Rome the following summer. Clara Allegra—a child whose extraordinary resemblance to (of all people) Annabella was immediately noticed both by Byron and his valet, Fletcher—died of malaria or typhus in an Italian convent in 1822. She was five years old.
Byron, from afar, expressed an erratic but fatherly interest in his legitimate child. His parting gift to Ada had been one of his talismanic rings. Further small gifts were despatched while off upon his alpine travels in the summer of 1816, followed in due course by a locket, inscribed, in Italian: “Blood is thicker than water.” He asked for his daughter to be taught music (in which neither parent had any skill) and Italian (a language for which Annabella shared her husband’s deep love).
A taste for poetry, however, was to be discouraged in the child of the greatest poet of the age. Arriving in Greece in the autumn of 1823, and about to embark upon what would prove to be his last adventure, Byron made his feelings clear in a letter that entreated his wife (via Augusta) to provide him with a full report of their daughter, now almost seven years old.
Is the Girl imaginative?. . . Is she social or solitary—taciturn or talkative—fond of reading or otherwise? and what is her tic? I mean her foible—is she passionate? I hope that the Gods have made her anything save poetical—it is enough to have one such fool in a family.
Annabella delayed her response, possibly because Ada at the time was experiencing her first serious illness and her mother did not want to raise alarm. On 1 December, six weeks after her husband’s enquiry, Lady Byron sent him a miniature (the artist prided herself on having captured a perfect likeness of Ada’s profile), together with the details he required.
Her prevailing characteristic is cheerfulness and good-temper. Observation. Not devoid of imagination, but it is chiefly exercised in connection with her mechanical ingenuity—the manufacture of ships and boats etc. Prefers prose to verse. . . Not very persevering. Draws well. Tall and robust.
Annabella was never to receive Byron’s grateful response for a letter he described as her first kind action since the seemingly tender address to “dearest Duck” that she had written even as she left him, back in 1816. The letter in which he expressed his gratitude—while fondly noting the similarities to his own boyish self in his wife’s account of little Ada—was still lying, unsent, on the poet’s desk at Missolonghi at the time that he died.
Possibly, Lord Byron’s very last thoughts were of his unseen daughter. William Fletcher, conveying the news of his master’s death to John Murray on 21 April 1824, was anxious to stress that Byron’s “pertickeler wish” had been that his valet should carry a message to his wife and child. Lady Byron, so Fletcher later noted, had broken down in sobs during that harrowing visit, weeping until her whole body shook as she begged him—vainly—to recall what her husband’s final message to her had been. By the end of her own life, Annabella had convinced herself that some “unuttered” tender words had been thought, even if they had not been spoken.
The cheerful docility mentioned by Annabella in 1823 marked the emergence of an endearing trait in Ada’s nature. Squabbles lay ahead, especially with a mother whose authority she often opposed, but Ada, throughout her life, would win affection by her good humor, her kindness and—unlike either of her parents—her quickness to forgive.
Ada had not always been so equable. Back in November 1821, when Lord Byron was renting a palace in Pisa, he heard that his six-year-old daughter was thought to be “a fine child,” but one who possessed “a violent temper.” The news troubled him less than it did a mother who had witnessed her husband’s own ungovernable rages. What Byron began to fret about in Pisa was Ada’s isolation. Listing the members of her family who lacked siblings, he reached a disconcerting result. There were his own mother, Augusta’s mother, Augusta, he himself, Annabella and now young Ada: “Such a complication of only children. . . looks like fatality almost,” he brooded in his journal. Pride returned to comfort him. After all, “the fiercest Animals have the rarest number in their litters—as Lions—tigers—and even Elephants,” Byron could not help adding, “which are mild in comparison.”
Initially, once Ada was weaned, she served only to remind her unhappy mother of the final weeks of a disastrous marriage. “My Child! Forgive the seeming wrong / The heart with-held from thee,” Annabella wrote in a private poem dated 16 December 1819 and guiltily entitled “The Unnatural Mother.” A month earlier, Annabella confessed that the first real evidence of Ada’s affection had come as a huge relief: “I had a strange prepossession that she would never be fond of me.”
The commencement of Lady Byron’s relationship with her daughter was not made easier by the first of many breakdowns in Annabella’s health. Back in 1816, following the tremendous strain imposed by her marital separation, she became nervous, unhappy and ill. It was a relief, then, after taking Ada off to Lowestoft to meet up with Mary Gosford and her own little girls during that summer, to bequeath her daughter to the care of Nurse Grimes and Lady Noel at Kirkby. Meanwhile, Annabella went to London to seek an independent abode in Hampstead, close to the sympathetic Baillie sisters and the intelligent, motherless daughters of their neighbor, a prosperous and pious Mr. Carr. In the summer of 1817, Annabella made just one brief halt at Kirkby Mallory before setting off on a tour of the Lake District with Miss Sarah Carr.
In September, following another hasty visit from her daughter, Judith Noel decided it was time to tweak her maternal conscience. Ada was declared to be missing her mamma. “She looked round the Bed and on the Bed, and then into the Closet—seemed disappointed and said ‘gone-gone!'”Squabbles lay ahead, especially with a mother whose authority she often opposed, but Ada, throughout her life, would win affection by her good humor, her kindness and—unlike either of her parents—her quickness to forgive.
The prod worked. Annabella returned home, to be rewarded with a scolding. Lady Noel possessed a notoriously sharp tongue, and it was one that Judith had not restrained on this occasion. Where would her daughter have been without Lady Noel’s support in her time of need? Did she ever pause to consider the pain her separation had caused, or the social embarrassment which had compelled Judith to remove from public view Phillips’s magnificently showy portrait of Lord Byron in order to nail it up in a box designated for the attic?
Her mother’s reproaches struck home. Filled with remorse, Annabella vowed to change her ways. It had become, so she guiltily wrote to Sarah Siddons’s widowed daughter-in-law, Harriet, her “dearest wish to prove a better child than she [Lady Noel] has yet found me.”
Most biographers and historians have adopted a stern view of Annabella’s behavior during the first years after her separation from Byron. A fondness for mutton (“divine mutton!”) has been cited by Doris Langley Moore as evidence, not only of her gluttony, but of her heartless greed. Her ever-increasing dependence on doctors—often while visiting agreeable spas—has been ascribed to self-indulgent hypochondria. More seriously, Lady Byron stands reproached, not simply of being an absent mother, but also of being a neglectful and ungrateful daughter.
The indictments are unjust. Through 1818 until Lady Noel’s death in 1822, Annabella spent at least a third of every year living with her parents at the isolated Leicestershire estate where Ada, spoiled by adoring grandparents and an indulgent household of servants, enjoyed a cherished country childhood. For Annabella, however, imprisoned at Kirkby, the life of a dutiful daughter offered little solace beyond the admiring company of the vicar’s daughter (rudely referred to by Lady Noel as “the Anna”).
Anna Jones offered a sympathetic audience to a frustrated young woman who was eager to be of use in the world beyond Kirkby’s confining walls. Escaping briefly to Seaham in the summer of 1818, and enjoying the company of Harriet Siddons’s young daughter, Lizzie, as her guest, Annabella rushed through her pet project for a much-needed local school, modelled after one that Harriet had successfully established in Edinburgh.
Back at Kirkby, and at her mother’s mercy, she was powerless. Driving out in her carriage with Miss Jones, an ardent young social reformer, she noticed evidence everywhere of the need for enlightened philanthropy. Several of the villages on the Wentworth estate were entirely dependent upon weaving for a living. The weavers were the people for whom Byron had spoken out in his first political speech, and now they were starving, put out of work by the thriving new mills of Derbyshire and of the North. Here, surely, was a way to bury her sadness through offering help to others while—it was always important to Annabella—undertaking something of which Byron would approve. But the estate belonged to Judith, and Lady Noel had grown too old and self-absorbed to concern herself with good works. Lady Byron, like her father, was Lady Noel’s dependent. Until her mother’s death, Annabella’s hands were tied.
Only an infrequent departure by Judith for an occasional health cure at Leamington Spa or Tunbridge Wells could open up a rare window of freedom. In January 1820, Annabella briefly joined the friendly Carrs and Baillies in Hampstead and, while there, found herself a future home: Branch Lodge. In May, she took Ada to Hastings, where the now intensely religious Mary Gosford was spending a quiet summer by the sea. “Hastings will be good for me,” Annabella wrote to Harriet Siddons, before wistfully revealing her reason. “The place will be retired.” Brighton, not Hastings, was where smart society spent its summer months. Four years after the separation, Lady Byron still shrank from placing herself anywhere that she might be noticed.
Towards the end of that year, Judith gradually declined into senility. Physically, however, she remained strong. By May 1821, Annabella had resigned herself to what threatened to become a lifetime of duty as a nurse-companion. But it was the news that her beloved Seaham was to be sold that seemed to break her heart. Writing to the always sympathetic Harriet Siddons, Annabella sounded near to tears. No more visits to help keep her little school in order; no more nostalgic strolls along that beloved beach; no more connection to the only place in which she and Byron had been, however briefly, alone and happy together. Contemplating the dreary years ahead of enacting “a calm performance of duty” towards a decrepit parent, Annabella preserved just enough humor to smile at the doleful image she had conjured up of herself. While resolved to turn herself into a model of “sober-minded” devotion, she feared it was too late for “a probability of complete success.”
From In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter. Courtesy of Pegasus Books. Copyright 2018 by Miranda Seymour.