The dawn of little joys, to sit and see
Almost thy very growth, to view thee catch
Knowledge of objects, – wonders yet to thee, —
And print on thy soft cheek a parent's kiss, —
This it should seem was not reserved for me.
Yet this was in my nature, – as it is,
I know not what there is, yet something like to this.
'Yet though dull hate as duty should be taught,
I know that thou wilt love me; though my name
Should be shut out from thee as spell still fraught
With desolation and a broken claim,
Though the grave close between us, – 't were the same,
I know that thou wilt love me, though to drain
My blood from out thy being were an aim
And an attainment, – all will be in vain.'
To all these charges against her, sent all over the world in verses as eloquent as the English language is capable of, the wife replied nothing.
'Assailed by slander and the tongue of strife,
Her only answer was, – a blameless life.'
She had a few friends, a very few, with whom she sought solace and sympathy. One letter from her, written at this time, preserved by accident, is the only authentic record of how the matter stood with her.
We regret to say that the publication of this document was not brought forth to clear Lady Byron's name from her husband's slanders, but to shield him from the worst accusation against him, by showing that this crime was not included in the few private confidential revelations that friendship wrung from the young wife at this period.
Lady Anne Barnard, authoress of 'Auld Robin Grey', a friend whose age and experience made her a proper confidante, sent for the broken-hearted, perplexed wife, and offered her a woman's sympathy.
To her Lady Byron wrote many letters, under seal of confidence, and Lady Anne says: 'I will give you a few paragraphs transcribed from one of Lady Byron's own letters to me. It is sorrowful to think that in a very little time this young and amiable creature, wise, patient, and feeling, will have her character mistaken by every one who reads Byron's works. To rescue her from this I preserved her letters, and when she afterwards expressed a fear that anything of her writing should ever fall into hands to injure him (I suppose she meant by publication), I safely assured her that it never should. But here this letter shall be placed, a sacred record in her favour, unknown to herself.
'I am a very incompetent judge of the impression which the last Canto of "Childe Harold" may produce on the minds of indifferent readers.
'It contains the usual trace of a conscience restlessly awake, though his object has been too long to aggravate its burden, as if it could thus be oppressed into eternal stupor. I will hope, as you do, that it survives for his ultimate good.
'It was the acuteness of his remorse, impenitent in its character, which so long seemed to demand from my compassion to spare every semblance of reproach, every look of grief, which might have said to his conscience, "You have made me wretched."
'I am decidedly of opinion that he is responsible. He has wished to be thought partially deranged, or on the brink of it, to perplex observers and prevent them from tracing effects to their real causes through all the intricacies of his conduct. I was, as I told you, at one time the dupe of his acted insanity, and clung to the former delusions in regard to the motives that concerned me personally, till the whole system was laid bare.
'He is the absolute monarch of words, and uses them, as Bonaparte did lives, for conquest, without more regard to their intrinsic value, considering them only as ciphers, which must derive all their import from the situation in which he places them, and the ends to which he adapts them, with such consummate skill.
'Why, then, you will say, does he not employ them to give a better colour to his own character? Because he is too good an actor to over-act, or to assume a moral garb, which it would be easy to strip off.
'In regard to his poetry, egotism is the vital principle of his imagination, which it is difficult for him to kindle on any subject with which his own character and interests are not identified; but by the introduction of fictitious incidents, by change of scene or time, he has enveloped his poetical disclosures in a system impenetrable except to a very few; and his constant desire of creating a sensation makes him not averse to be the object of wonder and curiosity, even though accompanied by some dark and vague suspicions.
'Nothing has contributed more to the misunderstanding of his real character than the lonely grandeur in which he shrouds it, and his affectation of being above mankind, when he exists almost in their voice. The romance of his sentiments is another feature of this mask of state. I know no one more habitually destitute of that enthusiasm he so beautifully expresses, and to which he can work up his fancy chiefly by contagion.
'I had heard he was the best of brothers, the most generous of friends, and I thought such feelings only required to be warmed and cherished into more diffusive benevolence. Though these opinions are eradicated, and could never return but with the decay of my memory, you will not wonder if there are still moments when the association of feelings which arose from them soften and sadden my thoughts.
'But I have not thanked you, dearest Lady Anne, for your kindness in regard to a principal object, – that of rectifying false impressions. I trust you understand my wishes, which never were to injure Lord Byron in any way; for, though he would not suffer me to remain his wife, he cannot prevent me from continuing his friend; and it was from considering myself as such that I silenced the accusations by which my own conduct might have been more fully justified.
'It is not necessary to speak ill of his heart in general; it is sufficient that to me it was hard and impenetrable, – that my own must have been broken before his could have been touched. I would rather represent this as my misfortune than as his guilt; but, surely, that misfortune is not to be made my crime! Such are my feelings; you will judge how to act.
'His allusions to me in "Childe Harold" are cruel and cold, but with such a semblance as to make me appear so, and to attract all sympathy to himself. It is said in this poem that hatred of him will be taught as a lesson to his child. I might appeal to all who have ever heard me speak of him, and still more to my own heart, to witness that there has been no moment when I have remembered injury otherwise than affectionately and sorrowfully.
'It is not my duty to give way to hopeless and wholly unrequited affection; but, so long as I live, my chief struggle will probably be not to remember him too kindly. I do not seek the sympathy of the world, but I wish to be known by those whose opinion is valuable and whose kindness is dear to me. Among such, my dear Lady Anne, you will ever be remembered by your truly affectionate
On this letter I observe Lord Lindsay remarks that it shows a noble but rather severe character, and a recent author has remarked that it seemed to be written rather in a 'cold spirit of criticism.' It seems to strike these gentlemen as singular that Lady Byron did not enjoy the poem! But there are two remarkable sentences in this letter which have escaped the critics hitherto. Lord Byron, in this, the Third Canto of 'Childe Harold,' expresses in most affecting words an enthusiasm of love for his sister. So long as he lived he was her faithful correspondent; he sent her his journals; and, dying, he left her and her children everything he had in the world. This certainly seems like an affectionate brother; but in what words does Lady Byron speak of this affection?
'I had heard he was the best of brothers, the most generous of friends. I thought these feelings only required to be warmed and cherished into more diffusive benevolence. These opinions are eradicated, and could never return but with the decay of memory.' Let me ask those who give this letter as a proof that at this time no idea such as I have stated was in Lady Byron's mind, to account for these words. Let them please answer these questions: Why had Lady Byron ceased to think him a good brother? Why does she use so strong a word as that the opinion was eradicated, torn up by the roots, and could never grow again in her except by decay of memory?
And yet this is a document Lord Lindsay vouches for as authentic, and which he brings forward in defence of Lord Byron.
Again she says,'Though he would not suffer me to remain his wife, he cannot prevent me from continuing his friend.' Do these words not say that in some past time, in some decided manner, Lord Byron had declared to her his rejection of her as a wife? I shall yet have occasion to explain these words.
Again she says, 'I silenced accusations by which my conduct might have been more fully justified.'
The people in England who are so very busy in searching out evidence against my true story have searched out and given to the world an important confirmation of this assertion of Lady Byron's.
It seems that the confidential waiting-maid who went with Lady Byron on her wedding journey has been sought out and interrogated, and, as appears by description, is a venerable, respectable old person, quite in possession of all her senses in general, and of that sixth sense of propriety in particular, which appears not to be a common virtue in our days.
As her testimony is important, we insert it just here, with a description of her person in full. The ardent investigators thus speak: —
'Having gained admission, we were shown into a small but neatly furnished and scrupulously clean apartment, where sat the object of our visit. Mrs. Mimms is a venerable-looking old lady, of short stature, slight and active appearance, with a singularly bright and intelligent countenance. Although midway between eighty and ninety years of age, she is in full possession of her faculties, discourses freely and cheerfully, hears apparently as well as ever she did, and her sight is so good that, aided by a pair of spectacles, she reads the Chronicle every day with ease. Some idea of her competency to contribute valuable evidence to the subject which now so much engages public attention on three continents may be found from her own narrative of her personal relations with Lady Byron. Mrs. Mimms was born in the neighbourhood of Seaham, and knew Lady Byron from childhood. During the long period of ten years she was Miss Milbanke's lady's-maid, and in that capacity became the close confidante of her mistress. There were circumstances which rendered their relationship peculiarly intimate. Miss Milbanke had no sister or female friend to whom she was bound by the ties of more than a common affection; and her mother, whatever other excellent qualities she may have possessed, was too high-spirited and too hasty in temper to attract the sympathies of the young. Some months before Miss Milbanke was married to Lord Byron, Mrs. Mimms had quitted her service on the occasion of her own marriage with Mr. Mimms; but she continued to reside in the neighbourhood of Seaham, and remained on the most friendly terms with her former mistress. As the courtship proceeded, Miss Milbanke concealed nothing from her faithful attendant; and when the wedding-day was fixed, she begged Mrs. Mimms to return and fulfil the duties of lady's-maid, at least during the honeymoon. Mrs. Mimms at the time was nursing her first child, and it was no small sacrifice to quit her own home at such a moment, but she could not refuse her old mistress's request. Accordingly, she returned to Seaham Hall some days before the wedding, was present at the ceremony, and then preceded Lord and Lady Byron to Halnaby Hall, near Croft, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, one of Sir Ralph Milbanke's seats, where the newly married couple were to spend the honeymoon. Mrs. Mimms remained with Lord and Lady Byron during the three weeks they spent at Halnaby Hall, and then accompanied them to Seaham, where they spent the next six weeks. It was during the latter period that she finally quitted Lady Byron's service; but she remained in the most friendly communication with her ladyship till the death of the latter, and for some time was living in the neighbourhood of Lady Byron's residence in Leicestershire, where she had frequent opportunities of seeing her former mistress. It may be added that Lady Byron was not unmindful of the faithful services of her friend and attendant in the instructions to her executors contained in her will. Such was the position of Mrs. Mimms towards Lady Byron; and we think no one will question that it was of a nature to entitle all that Mrs. Mimms may say on the subject of the relations of Lord and Lady Byron to the most respectful consideration and credit.'
Such is the chronicler's account of the faithful creature whom nothing but intense indignation and disgust at Mrs. Beecher Stowe would lead to speak on her mistress's affairs; but Mrs. Beecher Stowe feels none the less sincere respect for her, and is none the less obliged to her for having spoken. Much of Mrs. Mimms's testimony will be referred to in another place; we only extract one passage, to show that while Lord Byron spent his time in setting afloat slanders against his wife, she spent hers in sealing the mouths of witnesses against him.
Of the period of the honeymoon Mrs. Mimms says: —
'The happiness of Lady Byron, however, was of brief duration; even during the short three weeks they spent at Halnaby, the irregularities of Lord Byron occasioned her the greatest distress, and she even contemplated returning to her father. Mrs. Mimms was her constant companion and confidante through this painful period, and she does not believe that her ladyship concealed a thought from her. With laudable reticence, the old lady absolutely refuses to disclose the particulars of Lord Byron's misconduct at this time; she gave Lady Byron a solemn promise not to do so.
'So serious did Mrs. Mimms consider the conduct of Lord Byron, that she recommended her mistress to confide all the circumstances to her father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, a calm, kind, and most excellent parent, and take his advice as to her future course. At one time Mrs. Mimms thinks Lady Byron had resolved to follow her counsel and impart her wrongs to Sir Ralph; but on arriving at Seaham Hall her ladyship strictly enjoined Mrs. Mimms to preserve absolute silence on the subject – a course which she followed herself; – so that when, six weeks later, she and Lord Byron left Seaham for London, not a word had escaped her to disturb her parents' tranquility as to their daughter's domestic happiness. As might be expected, Mrs. Mimms bears the warmest testimony to the noble and lovable qualities of her departed mistress. She also declares that Lady Byron was by no means of a cold temperament, but that the affectionate impulses of her nature were checked by the unkind treatment she experienced from her husband.'
We have already shown that Lord Byron had been, ever since his separation, engaged in a systematic attempt to reverse the judgment of the world against himself, by making converts of all his friends to a most odious view of his wife's character, and inspiring them with the zeal of propagandists to spread these views through society. We have seen how he prepared partisans to interpret the Fourth Canto of 'Childe Harold.'
This plan of solemn and heroic accusation was the first public attack on his wife. Next we see him commencing a scurrilous attempt to turn her to ridicule in the First Canto of 'Don Juan.'
It is to our point now to show how carefully and cautiously this Don Juan campaign was planned.
Vol. IV. p. 138, we find Letter 325 to Mr. Murray: —
'Venice: January 25, 1819.
'You will do me the favour to print privately, for private distribution, fifty copies of "Don Juan." The list of the men to whom I wish it presented I will send hereafter.'
The poem, as will be remembered, begins with the meanest and foulest attack on his wife that ever ribald wrote, and puts it in close neighbourhood with scenes which every pure man or woman must feel to be the beastly utterances of a man who had lost all sense of decency. Such a potion was too strong to be administered even in a time when great license was allowed, and men were not over-nice. But Byron chooses fifty armour-bearers of that class of men who would find indecent ribaldry about a wife a good joke, and talk about the 'artistic merits' of things which we hope would make an honest boy blush.
At this time he acknowledges that his vices had brought him to a state of great exhaustion, attended by such debility of the stomach that nothing remained on it; and adds, 'I was obliged to reform my way of life, which was conducting me from the yellow leaf to the ground with all deliberate speed.'[13 - Vol. iv. p 143.] But as his health is a little better he employs it in making the way to death and hell elegantly easy for other young men, by breaking down the remaining scruples of a society not over-scrupulous.