Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy
The interval since my publication of 'The True Story of Lady Byron's Life' has been one of stormy discussion and of much invective.
I have not thought it necessary to disturb my spirit and confuse my sense of right by even an attempt at reading the many abusive articles that both here and in England have followed that disclosure. Friends have undertaken the task for me, giving me from time to time the substance of anything really worthy of attention which came to view in the tumult.
It appeared to me essential that this first excitement should in a measure spend itself before there would be a possibility of speaking to any purpose. Now, when all would seem to have spoken who can speak, and, it is to be hoped, have said the utmost they can say, there seems a propriety in listening calmly, if that be possible, to what I have to say in reply.
And, first, why have I made this disclosure at all?
To this I answer briefly, Because I considered it my duty to make it.
I made it in defence of a beloved, revered friend, whose memory stood forth in the eyes of the civilised world charged with most repulsive crimes, of which I certainly knew her innocent.
I claim, and shall prove, that Lady Byron's reputation has been the victim of a concerted attack, begun by her husband during her lifetime, and coming to its climax over her grave. I claim, and shall prove, that it was not I who stirred up this controversy in this year 1869. I shall show who did do it, and who is responsible for bringing on me that hard duty of making these disclosures, which it appears to me ought to have been made by others.
I claim that these facts were given to me unguarded by any promise or seal of secrecy, expressed or implied; that they were lodged with me as one sister rests her story with another for sympathy, for counsel, for defence. Never did I suppose the day would come that I should be subjected to so cruel an anguish as this use of them has been to me. Never did I suppose that, – when those kind hands, that had shed nothing but blessings, were lying in the helplessness of death, – when that gentle heart, so sorely tried and to the last so full of love, was lying cold in the tomb, – a countryman in England could be found to cast the foulest slanders on her grave, and not one in all England to raise an effective voice in her defence.
I admit the feebleness of my plea, in point of execution. It was written in a state of exhausted health, when no labour of the kind was safe for me, – when my hand had not strength to hold the pen, and I was forced to dictate to another.
I have been told that I have no reason to congratulate myself on it as a literary effort. O my brothers and sisters! is there then nothing in the world to think of but literary efforts? I ask any man with a heart in his bosom, if he had been obliged to tell a story so cruel, because his mother's grave gave no rest from slander, – I ask any woman who had been forced to such a disclosure to free a dead sister's name from grossest insults, whether she would have thought of making this work of bitterness a literary success?
Are the cries of the oppressed, the gasps of the dying, the last prayers of mothers, – are any words wrung like drops of blood from the human heart to be judged as literary efforts?
My fellow-countrymen of America, men of the press, I have done you one act of justice, – of all your bitter articles, I have read not one. I shall never be troubled in the future time by the remembrance of any unkind word you have said of me, for at this moment I recollect not one. I had such faith in you, such pride in my countrymen, as men with whom, above all others, the cause of woman was safe and sacred, that I was at first astonished and incredulous at what I heard of the course of the American press, and was silent, not merely from the impossibility of being heard, but from grief and shame. But reflection convinces me that you were, in many cases, acting from a misunderstanding of facts and through misguided honourable feeling; and I still feel courage, therefore, to ask from you a fair hearing. Now, as I have done you this justice, will you also do me the justice to hear me seriously and candidly?
What interest have you or I, my brother and my sister, in this short life of ours, to utter anything but the truth? Is not truth between man and man and between man and woman the foundation on which all things rest? Have you not, every individual of you, who must hereafter give an account yourself alone to God, an interest to know the exact truth in this matter, and a duty to perform as respects that truth? Hear me, then, while I tell you the position in which I stood, and what was my course in relation to it.
A shameless attack on my friend's memory had appeared in the 'Blackwood' of July 1869, branding Lady Byron as the vilest of criminals, and recommending the Guiccioli book to a Christian public as interesting from the very fact that it was the avowed production of Lord Byron's mistress. No efficient protest was made against this outrage in England, and Littell's 'Living Age' reprinted the 'Blackwood' article, and the Harpers, the largest publishing house in America, perhaps in the world, re-published the book.
Its statements – with those of the 'Blackwood,' 'Pall Mall Gazette,' and other English periodicals – were being propagated through all the young reading and writing world of America. I was meeting them advertised in dailies, and made up into articles in magazines, and thus the generation of to-day, who had no means of judging Lady Byron but by these fables of her slanderers, were being foully deceived. The friends who knew her personally were a small select circle in England, whom death is every day reducing. They were few in number compared with the great world, and were silent. I saw these foul slanders crystallising into history uncontradicted by friends who knew her personally, who, firm in their own knowledge of her virtues and limited in view as aristocratic circles generally are, had no idea of the width of the world they were living in, and the exigency of the crisis. When time passed on and no voice was raised, I spoke. I gave at first a simple story, for I knew instinctively that whoever put the first steel point of truth into this dark cloud of slander must wait for the storm to spend itself. I must say the storm exceeded my expectations, and has raged loud and long. But now that there is a comparative stillness I shall proceed, first, to prove what I have just been asserting, and, second, to add to my true story such facts and incidents as I did not think proper at first to state.
THE ATTACK ON LADY BYRON
In proving what I asserted in the first chapter, I make four points: 1st. A concerted attack upon Lady Byron's reputation, begun by Lord Byron in self-defence. 2nd. That he transmitted his story to friends to be continued after his death. 3rd. That they did so continue it. 4th. That the accusations reached their climax over Lady Byron's grave in 'Blackwood' of 1869, and the Guiccioli book, and that this re-opening of the controversy was my reason for speaking.
And first I shall adduce my proofs that Lady Byron's reputation was, during the whole course of her husband's life, the subject of a concentrated, artfully planned attack, commencing at the time of the separation and continuing during his life. By various documents carefully prepared, and used publicly or secretly as suited the case, he made converts of many honest men, some of whom were writers and men of letters, who put their talents at his service during his lifetime in exciting sympathy for him, and who, by his own request, felt bound to continue their defence of him after he was dead.
In order to consider the force and significance of the documents I shall cite, we are to bring to our view just the issues Lord Byron had to meet, both at the time of the separation and for a long time after.
In Byron's 'Memoirs,' Vol. IV. Letter 350, under date December 10, 1819, nearly four years after the separation, he writes to Murray in a state of great excitement on account of an article in 'Blackwood,' in which his conduct towards his wife had been sternly and justly commented on, and which he supposed to have been written by Wilson, of the 'Noctes Ambrosianæ.' He says in this letter: 'I like and admire W – n, and he should not have indulged himself in such outrageous license… When he talks of Lady Byron's business he talks of what he knows nothing about; and you may tell him no man can desire a public investigation of that affair more than I do.'[1 - The italics are mine.]
He shortly after wrote and sent to Murray a pamphlet for publication, which was printed, but not generally circulated till some time afterwards. Though more than three years had elapsed since the separation, the current against him at this time was so strong in England that his friends thought it best, at first, to use this article of Lord Byron's discreetly with influential persons rather than to give it to the public.
The writer in 'Blackwood' and the indignation of the English public, of which that writer was the voice, were now particularly stirred up by the appearance of the first two cantos of 'Don Juan,' in which the indecent caricature of Lady Byron was placed in vicinity with other indecencies, the publication of which was justly considered an insult to a Christian community.
It must here be mentioned, for the honour of Old England, that at first she did her duty quite respectably in regard to 'Don Juan.' One can still read, in Murray's standard edition of the poems, how every respectable press thundered reprobations, which it would be well enough to print and circulate as tracts for our days.
Byron, it seems, had thought of returning to England, but he says, in the letter we have quoted, that he has changed his mind, and shall not go back, adding: 'I have finished the Third Canto of "Don Juan," but the things I have heard and read discourage all future publication. You may try the copy question, but you'll lose it; the cry is up, and the cant is up. I should have no objection to return the price of the copyright, and have written to Mr. Kinnaird on this subject.'
One sentence quoted by Lord Byron from the 'Blackwood' article will show the modern readers what the respectable world of that day were thinking and saying of him: —
'It appears, in short, as if this miserable man, having exhausted every species of sensual gratification – having drained the cup of sin even to its bitterest dregs – were resolved to show us that he is no longer a human being even in his frailties, but a cool, unconcerned fiend, laughing with detestable glee over the whole of the better and worse elements of which human life is composed.'
The defence which Lord Byron makes, in his reply to that paper, is of a man cornered and fighting for his life. He speaks thus of the state of feeling at the time of his separation from his wife: —
'I was accused of every monstrous vice by public rumour and private rancour; my name, which had been a knightly or a noble one since my fathers helped to conquer the kingdom for William the Norman, was tainted. I felt that, if what was whispered and muttered and murmured was true, I was unfit for England; if false, England was unfit for me. I withdrew; but this was not enough. In other countries – in Switzerland, in the shadow of the Alps, and by the blue depth of the lakes – I was pursued and breathed upon by the same blight. I crossed the mountains, but it was the same; so I went a little farther, and settled myself by the waves of the Adriatic, like the stag at bay, who betakes him to the waters.
'If I may judge by the statements of the few friends who gathered round me, the outcry of the period to which I allude was beyond all precedent, all parallel, even in those cases where political motives have sharpened slander and doubled enmity. I was advised not to go to the theatres lest I should be hissed, nor to my duty in parliament lest I should be insulted by the way; even on the day of my departure my most intimate friend told me afterwards that he was under the apprehension of violence from the people who might be assembled at the door of the carriage.'
Now Lord Byron's charge against his wife was that SHE was directly responsible for getting up and keeping up this persecution, which drove him from England, – that she did it in a deceitful, treacherous manner, which left him no chance of defending himself.
He charged against her that, taking advantage of a time when his affairs were in confusion, and an execution in the house, she left him suddenly, with treacherous professions of kindness, which were repeated by letters on the road, and that soon after her arrival at her home her parents sent him word that she would never return to him, and she confirmed the message; that when he asked the reason why, she refused to state any; and that when this step gave rise to a host of slanders against him she silently encouraged and confirmed the slanders. His claim was that he was denied from that time forth even the justice of any tangible accusation against himself which he might meet and refute.
He observes, in the same article from which we have quoted: —
'When one tells me that I cannot "in any way justify my own behaviour in that affair," I acquiesce, because no man can "justify" himself until he knows of what he is accused; and I have never had – and, God knows, my whole desire has ever been to obtain it – any specific charge, in a tangible shape, submitted to me by the adversary, nor by others, unless the atrocities of public rumour and the mysterious silence of the lady's legal advisers may be deemed such.'
Lord Byron, his publishers, friends, and biographers, thus agree in representing his wife as the secret author and abettor of that persecution, which it is claimed broke up his life, and was the source of all his subsequent crimes and excesses.
Lord Byron wrote a poem in September 1816, in Switzerland, just after the separation, in which he stated, in so many words, these accusations against his wife. Shortly after the poet's death Murray published this poem, together with the 'Fare thee well,' and the lines to his sister, under the title of 'Domestic Pieces,' in his standard edition of Byron's poetry. It is to be remarked, then, that this was for some time a private document, shown to confidential friends, and made use of judiciously, as readers or listeners to his story were able to bear it. Lady Byron then had a strong party in England. Sir Samuel Romilly and Dr. Lushington were her counsel. Lady Byron's parents were living, and the appearance in the public prints of such a piece as this would have brought down an aggravated storm of public indignation.
For the general public such documents as the 'Fare thee well' were circulating in England, and he frankly confessed his wife's virtues and his own sins to Madame de Staël and others in Switzerland, declaring himself in the wrong, sensible of his errors, and longing to cast himself at the feet of that serene perfection,
'Which wanted one sweet weakness – to forgive.'
But a little later he drew for his private partisans this bitter poetical indictment against her, which, as we have said, was used discreetly during his life, and published after his death.
Before we proceed to lay that poem before the reader we will refresh his memory with some particulars of the tragedy of Æschylus, which Lord Byron selected as the exact parallel and proper illustration of his wife's treatment of himself. In his letters and journals he often alludes to her as Clytemnestra, and the allusion has run the round of a thousand American papers lately, and been read by a thousand good honest people, who had no very clear idea who Clytemnestra was, and what she did which was like the proceedings of Lady Byron. According to the tragedy, Clytemnestra secretly hates her husband Agamemnon, whom she professes to love, and wishes to put him out of the way that she may marry her lover, Ægistheus. When her husband returns from the Trojan war she receives him with pretended kindness, and officiously offers to serve him at the bath. Inducing him to put on a garment, of which she had adroitly sewed up the sleeves and neck so as to hamper the use of his arms, she gives the signal to a concealed band of assassins, who rush upon him and stab him. Clytemnestra is represented by Æschylus as grimly triumphing in her success, which leaves her free to marry an adulterous paramour.
'I did it, too, in such a cunning wise,
That he could neither 'scape nor ward off doom.
I staked around his steps an endless net,
As for the fishes.'
In the piece entitled 'Lines on hearing Lady Byron is ill,' Lord Byron charges on his wife a similar treachery and cruelty. The whole poem is in Murray's English edition, Vol. IV. p. 207. Of it we quote the following. The reader will bear in mind that it is addressed to Lady Byron on a sick-bed: —