Monday, March 22, 2010

Lord Byron's Honeymoon by Edna O'Brien

After the Ceremony, Lady Judith gave her son-in-law a tepid kiss, then to his annoyance there was a rowdy carillon of bells from the nearby Saxon church, muskets were fired and local miners in pantaloons enacted a version of a sword dance in which a fool figure was beheaded. Hobhouse presented Annabella with a set of Byron's poems bound in Moroccan leather, wishing her many years of happiness. With naivete, she said if she were not happy it would be her own fault.

Melancholy and worse characterized the forty-mile journey to Halnaby, another of the Milbanke houses, in Yorkshire, which Sir Ralph had loaned them for their honeymoon. Snow and rain outside and inside the carriage an eruption. Bare of all reason and even sanity, Byron embarked on a singing spree, then turned to her, saying he was a devil and that he would prove it, that he had committed crimes which she, for all her catechising, could not redeem him of and that she would pay for the insult of having refused him two years earlier. Moreover, her dowry was a pittance. At Durham, as joy bells rang out to honor their passing, the execration grew worse, presaging the three bizarre, unhinging weeks that in his blither moments he referred to as 'the treacle moon.'

Their arrival has the suspense and thrall of gothic fiction- a sprawling mansion, a fall of snow, servants holding lit tapers, noting that the bride looked listless and frightened and that her husband did not help her down from the carriage. And so began the most public marriage of any poet, so infamous in its own time that it was lampooned in John Bull magazine and the subject of endless scrutiny, helped by the confessions of Byron himself in his Memoirs, as Tom Moore recalled it, and by Lady Byron's numerous and increasingly incriminating testaments to her lawyers and afterwards for her own 'Histoire. Though professing to Moore a reluctance to 'profane the chaste mysteries of the Hymen', Byron, according to Moore, 'had' Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner.

His tenets regarding sleeping arrangements were categoric. Inquiring if she meant to sleep with him, he claimed to have an aversion to sleeping with any woman, but that she could if she wished, one animal being the same as the next, provided it was young. She who in her charter for a suitable husband ( in a letter to Lady Melbourne) had recoiled from insanity was to have her fill of it. Their wedding night has its literary correlation in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a crimson curtain catching fire, a hallucinating bridegroom believing he was in hell, then pacing the long ghostly gallery with his loaded pistols.

By morning Annabella would say that 'the deadliest chill' had fallen on her heart. By morning also she was to conceive of her first suspicion of Augusta ( Byron's half-sister), 'transient as lightning, but no less blasting.' Meeting her in the library, Byron waved a letter from Augusta in which she had addressed him as 'Dearest first and best of all human beings.' Augusta described being clairvoyantly at one with his agitation at the precise moment the marriage vows were exchanged in Seaham, likening it to a sea trembling when the earth shakes. The letter, as Annabella noted, affected him strangely and sent him ' into a kind of fierce and exalting transport.' There were many portents, such as a chance remark of hers on Dryden's Don Sebastian, the story of a sinning brother and sister, sent him into a violent rage as he took up his dagger, which was on the table next to his loaded pistols and disappearing to the gallery next to gallery that adjoined his bedroom.

In those black moods he hinted at unspeakable crimes that preyed upon him, saying that he had already fathered two natural children and that they were fools to have married. He then set about her re-education, telling her that right and wrong were merely conventional phrases. Morality was one thing in Constantinople and quite another in Durham or London. Yet his letters to the outside world were filled with his customary banter; to Lady Melbourne, not 'waxing confidential' any more, he said that Bell and he got along extremely well and so far she had not bored him.

His moods would run the whole gamut from taunts to savagery, to hallucination and even to momentary contriteness when he said she should have a softer pillow than his heart to rest on, and she retaliating by asking whose heart would break first, his or hers. She describes the tears that would suffuse his eyes, then freezing there and giving the appearance of an icy coldness. Soon she was writing to Augusta, her one solace, craven letters, asking that this sister-in-law be 'her only friend' and the crooked reply, 'Oh yes I will indeed be your only friend. Augusta's letters to her 'dearest sis' are masterpieces of ambivalence. Annabella is deemed the most sagacious person to have discovered the art of bringing B back to good humor an giggles and when Annabella, in glaring contradiction to her reserved nature, admits to her tireless enthusiasm for sex, even when menstruating, Augusta retaliates with a rapier thrust- 'I'm glad B's spirit does not decrease with the moon. I rather suspect he rejoices at the discovery of your ruling passions for mischiefs in private'

Before returning to London, Byron decided he would visit Six Mile Bottom, encouraging Bell to stay with her parents or go on to London, something she bridled at, what with her suspicions aroused.

When she crossed the threshold of that 'most inconvenient dwelling', she was to step into a sexual labyrinth. Augusta came from upstairs, her ringlets carefully coiled, and while in her letters sisterly sentiment at brimmed over, she shook Anabella's hand 'in a manner sedate and guarded', then embraced Byron, who was in great perturbation.

'We can amuse ourselves without you, my charmer' Annabella was told after supper, as Byron dispatched her to bed and so initiated the hideous game in which she would lie awake each night listening to their laughter in the room below and then hours later, 'his terrible step' as he arrived to bed drunk, swearing at Fletcher, who had the job of undressing him, then taunting her, 'Now I have her, you will find I can do without you as well in all ways.'

The fifteen days that followed were enough to send any young woman, let alone a bride who had scarcely left the cocoon of her family, into the throes of hysteria, but Annabella kept her composure, this self-command driving Byron to worse furies... cruel pantomimes and drunken ridicule. Yet Guss complied because Goose must not be driven to a tantrum or worse, a silent rage in which he might even stab himself. Lying on the sofa he insisted that both women embrace him so that he could then, in the grossest language, compare their ardor. He wrote to Hobhouse that he was 'working both women well', his own perfidy not dilated upon, except to had that it was tumblers of brandy at night and magnesia in the morning.

There were no confrontations, no showdowns, each playing her or his part in this macabre ritual. Just as Byron had lied to himself during the courtship, a lie that he was now exacting vengeance for, Annabella would construct her own edifice of lies. She was present when Byron arose at dawn and went across to Augusta's room and she was made barbarously aware of Augusta refusing him during her menstruation and then returning to make gross professions of desire for her. Yet she never questioned. She rationalized, equivocated, convinced herself that Augusta was a victim just as she herself was, that both were instruments of his brutishness. She even told herself that although Augusta submitted to his affections, 'she never appeared gratified by them.' Byron perhaps did not love her, but with perseverance and habit, to which he was susceptible, she might win over his affections.

The presence of children did not seem to intrude at all on the various and infernal parlor games, but according to Annabella's biographer, Byron did once point to Augusta's Medora and say 'You know that is my child,' then went on to calculate the time of Colonel Leigh's absence from the family home, proving that it could not be the husband's.

It was Augusta, ultimately, who instigated their departure, Byron reluctant to leave and as his wife noted, waving his handkerchief passionately, straining for a last glimpse; then sinking down beside her, he asked her what she thought of the other A.

To Tom Moore he was proud to announce that Bell was showing 'gestatery symptoms' but for her part, Annabella in her commonplace book wrote, 'My heart is withered away so I forgot my bread'...

For Lord Byron marriage was 'the graveyard of love.'

1 comment:

  1. "Byron In Love; A Short Daring Life" by Edna O'Brien; W.W. Norton & Co., 2009