He made friends readily, for he was attractive in person and manners, fascinating in conversation, widely informed in literature and history, and more faithful to his friends than to his mistresses. He took rooms at 8 St. James’s Street, where he welcomed Thomas Moore, Thomas Campbell, Samuel Rogers, Hobhouse …; and they welcomed him in turn. Through Rogers and Moore he entered the famous circle at Holland House. There he met Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was declining in political influence, but had not lost his conversational flair. “When he talked,” Byron recalled, “we listened, without one yawn, from six till one in the morning …. Poor fellow! he got drunk very thoroughly and very soon. It occasionally fell to my lot to convey him home.”11
Stimulated by these Whiggish wits, Byron took up the cause of the “Luddite” frame–breakers of Nottinghamshire, his own county. On February 20, 1812, the Commons passed a bill condemning any captured frame-breaker to death. The measure moved to the House of Lords, and on February 27 Byron rose to speak against it. He had written his address in advance, in excellent English, and he began in a tone of modesty expected of a maiden speech. He admitted that some workers had been guilty of violence involving considerable losses to property, and that the shattered machines might in the long run have been a boon to the national economy; but meanwhile they had thrown out of work hundreds of men who had through time and labor acquired a skill suddenly made useless to them in supporting their families; they were now reduced to poverty and charity, and their despair and bitterness could be gauged from their violence. As he proceeded the young orator lost caution and support by attacking the war as the source of unprecedented misery among English laborers. The Lords frowned, and passed the bill. On April 21 Byron made a second speech, denouncing British rule in Ireland, and called for the emancipation of Catholics throughout the British Empire; the Lords praised his eloquence, rejected his plea, and set him down as a political innocent useless to his party. He abandoned politics, and decided to plead his case through poetry.
Twelve days after his maiden speech the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were offered to the public. Their almost unprecedented success—the first edition (five hundred copies) sold out in three days—encouraged the author to believe that he had found a medium more enduring than forensic speech. Now he made the exuberant remark “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”12 Even his old enemies at the Edinburgh Review praised him, and, in gratitude, he sent an apology to Jeffrey for having bruised him in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.
Almost every door was now opened to him; almost every prominent hostess invited him; a dozen women, warming to his handsome face, fluttered about him, hoping to snare the young lion in their varied charms. They were not repelled by his reputation for sexual voracity, and his lordly title made him seem a precious prize to those who did not know his debts. He enjoyed their attentions, being readily excited by their mysterious radiation. “There is,” he said, “something to me very softening in the presence of a woman—some strange influence, even if one is not in love with them—which I cannot account for, having no very high opinion of the sex.”13 Despite all his skeptical intelligence he succumbed again and again to the magnet that every healthy woman is to any healthy man.
One of his first conquerors was Lady Caroline Lamb (1785–1828). Daughter of the third Earl of Bessborough, she married, at twenty, William Lamb, second son of Lord and Lady Melbourne. After reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage she resolved to meet the author; but on being presented to him she took fright and quickly turned away from him as “dangerous to know.” The rejection stimulated him; when they met again “he begged permission to see me.” He came. She was three years his senior and already a mother; but she made herself pleasant and fragrant, and she was heiress to a great fortune. He came again, almost every day. Her husband, busy with his own affairs, accepted him as the British equivalent of an Italian cavaliere servente. She grew more and more attracted to him; went to his rooms, openly or dressed as a page; she wrote him passionately amorous letters. For a time his temperature rose with hers, until he proposed to elope with her;14 but when her mother and her husband took her off to Ireland (September, 1812), he readily resigned himself, and was soon entangled in a liaison with Lady Oxford.
Amid such exaltations Byron kept some stability by writing rapidly, in fluent verse, a series of Oriental tales of adventure, violence, and love. They made no pretense to greatness; they were romantic imaginations, echoing the poet’s travels in Albania, Epirus, and Greece; they required little thought from the author, and none from the reader, and sold excitingly well. First came The Giaour, in March, 1813; soon, in December, The Bride of Abydos, of which six thousand copies were bought in a month; better still, The Corsair(January, 1814), which shattered all precedents by selling ten thousand copies on the day of its publication; then Lara (1815) and The Siege of Corinth (1816). The publisher gathered his guineas, and offered a share to Byron, who, proud as a lord, refused to take payment for his poems.
Even while composing these tales of dashing outlaws, the author was wearying of his lawless life. He could not go on philandering until he had worn out his health, his welcome, and his funds. He and Hobhouse had vowed to shun marriage as a prison of the spirit as well as the flesh; now he wondered whether marriage might not be a necessary mooring for desires which, let loose, could derange not only the individual but society itself. He felt that he might be persuaded to surrender his freedom for stability and calm, or for a surer income than his crumbling Abbey could provide.
Annabella Milbanke seemed to meet all his requirements. She had beauty and education, and was the only child of a substantial fortune. When he first met her, March 25, 1812, at the home of her aunt, Lady Melbourne, he was favorably impressed: “Her features were small and feminine, though not regular. She had the fairest skin imaginable. Her figure was perfect for her height, and there was a simplicity, a retired modesty about her, … that interested me exceedingly.”15 He did not speak to her, for each waited for the other to take the initiative. But she too was interested, for in her diary and letters she spent some time analyzing his character: “Acrimony of spirit, … dissimulant, the violence of its scorn…. Sincere and independent…. It is said that he is an infidel, and I think it probable from the general character of his mind. His poem [Childe Harold] sufficiently proves that he can feel nobly, but he has discouraged his own goodness.”16 This was a perceptive phrase; perhaps the thought came to her how interesting, though dangerous, it would be to try to save this sensitive man from his senses, to release his shy virtues, and, incidentally, to capture the young lion of London from all those women who were enthralled by his scandalous reputation.
Months passed, during which Lady Caroline Lamb held the stage. Then that flame was cooled by the Irish Channel; and on September 13, 1812, Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne a strange letter that opened a fatal direction in his life: “I was, am, and shall be, I fear, attached to … one to whom I never said much, but have never lost sight of; … one whom I wished to marry, had not this [Lamb] affair intervened…. The woman I mean is Miss Milbanke …. I never saw a woman whom I esteemed so much.”17 Lady Melbourne, well pleased, told her niece of Byron’s confession, and asked would she consider a proposal. On October 12 Miss Milbanke sent a reply worthy of Talleyrand:
Believing that he never will be the object of that strong affection which would make me happy in domestic life, I should wrong him by any measure that might, even indirectly, confirm his present impressions. From my limited observation of his conduct, I am predisposed to believe your strong testimony in his favour, and I willingly attribute it more to the defect of my own feelings than of his character, that I am not inclined to return his attachment. After this statement, which I make with real sorrow from the idea of its giving pain, I must leave our future intercourse to his judgement. I can have no reason for withdrawing from an acquaintance that does me honour and is capable of imparting so much rational pleasure, except the fear of involuntarily deceiving him.18
Byron, who had not felt any basic urge toward this learned and conscientious lady, took the refusal amiably, and readily found comfort in the arms of the Countess of Oxford, then of Lady Frances Webster, and, concurrently, of his half sister Augusta Leigh. Born in 1783, she was her half brother’s elder by five years. She had now (1813) been six years married to her first cousin, Colonel George Leigh, and had three children. At this juncture she came to London from her home in Six Mile Bottom, Cambridgeshire, to ask Byron’s financial help in difficulties caused by her husband’s losses, and prolonged absences, at racetracks. Byron could not give her much, for his income was precarious, but he entertained her with genial conversation, and discovered that she was a woman.
She was thirty; not quite the femme de trente ans that Balzac praised, for she lacked intellectual background and vivacity; but she was affectionate, accommodating, perhaps a bit awed by her brother’s fame, and inclined to give him whatever she could command. Her long separation from him, added to her husband’s neglect, left her emotionally free. Byron, who had rashly discarded any moral taboo that had not met the test of his young reason, wondered why he should not mate with his sister, as the Pharaohs had done. Later developments indicate that he now, or soon, had sexual relations with Augusta.19 In August of this year 1813 he thought of taking her with him on a Mediterranean voyage.20 That plan fell through, but in January he took her to Newstead Abbey. When, on April 15, 1814, Augusta gave birth to a daughter, Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne that “if it is an ape, that must be my fault”; the child herself, Medora Leigh, came to believe herself his daughter.21 In May he sent Augusta three thousand pounds to clear her husband’s debts. In July he was with her in Hastings. In August he took her to his Abbey.
While he was becoming more and more deeply involved with his half sister, Miss Milbanke was sending him letters whose rising cordiality prompted him to write in his journal under December 1, 1813:
Yesterday a very pretty letter from Annabella, which I answered. What an odd situation and friendship is ours!—without one spark of love on either side…. She is a very superior woman, and very little spoiled, which is strange in an heiress—a girl of twenty—a peeress that is to be, in her own right—an only child, and a savante, who has always had her own way. She is a poetess—a mathematician, a metaphysician, and yet, withal, very kind, generous, and gentle, with very little pretension. Any other head would be turned with her acquisitions, and a tenth of her advantages22
As if she had read this astonishing tribute, her letters in 1814 became increasingly tender, assuring him that she was heart-free, asking for his picture, and signing herself “Affectionately.” Melting in her epistolary warmth, he wrote to her on August 10: “I did—do—always still love you.” She answered that she was unfit for marriage, being absorbed in philosophy, poetry, and history.23 Responding to this challenge, he sent her, on September 9, a second proposal, rather dispassionate, as in a game of chess. If she again refused he planned to leave with Hobhouse for Italy. She accepted.
He approached his fate in alternating order: fear that he was losing the liberty that he had become accustomed to in friendship, sex, and ideas; hope that marriage would rescue him from an entangling web of dangerous and degrading alliances. He explained to his friends: “I must, of course, reform, reform thoroughly …. She is so good a person.” And to his fiancée: “I wish to be good …. I am whatever you please to make me.”24 She accepted her task piously. To Emily Milner she wrote, about October 4, 1814:
It is not in the great world that Lord Byron’s true character must be sought; but ask of those nearest to him—of the unhappy whom he has consoled, of the poor whom he has blessed, of the dependents to whom he has been the best of masters. For his despondency I fear I am too answerable for the last two years. I have a calm and deep security—a confidence in God and man.25
As the time came for Byron to go to Annabella’s family at Seaham (near Durham) and claim her in marriage, his courage sank. He tarried on the way at Augusta’s home, and there wrote a letter to his fiancée withdrawing from the engagement. Augusta persuaded him to destroy the letter,26 and to accept marriage as a saving tie. On October 29 he continued to Seaham, with Hobhouse, who noted in his diary: “Never was lover less in haste.” The bridegroom found the bride’s family cordial, put on his best manners to please them, and, on January 2, 1815, led her to the altar.