Sole Daughter of My House and Heart
You may well wonder how I, no more than seven weeks old when my mother left my father and launched the great scandal that came to be known throughout England as the Separation, can claim to have witnessed the tumultuous events that provoked so much curiosity and gossip. It is a fair question, since some of the incidents I have described occurred before my birth. Certainly, I have always possessed uncanny powers of perception, understanding, and synthesis, but not even I can see beyond the frame that encloses my own life.
Obviously I have no firsthand experience of the years that preceded my birth, and I will not pretend to remember the contentious events of my infancy. Instead this account of my parents' courtship, marriage, and separation and my own earliest years is comprised of facts I learned later: tantalizing details revealed by my mother, Lady Byron; glimpses of unattended papers not meant for my eyes; servants' gossip overheard in the corridors of my grandparents' palatial home of Kirkby Mallory; and detailed accounts Lady Byron painstakingly composed for her lawyers.
There were an exhausting number of the latter.
You may say I have borrowed other people's memories, and I will not deny it. I will see your challenge and raise you one confession: Sometimes it is difficult for me to distinguish between memories that are truly my own and stories that were inculcated by Lady Byron, her parents, and her friends, who perpetually hovered around me like a swarm of judgmental wasps.
Can you honestly say that you are any more certain of the origin of your own memories?
Though you may question their provenance, these are my memories, recorded here for posterity. And why should I not write my life? My father did so, although as far as I know, the only manuscript of his carefully crafted memoir was destroyed at my mother's command. Not that I claim my life merits memorializing as his did. Indeed, at this moment, my pride has been so battered that I believe the list of those who might wish to read my memoirs will be very short indeed. Perhaps admirers of my Great Work would be interested in learning about my life and education. Someday my children, if they are in a forgiving mood, might be curious about my youth and my consuming passions. They have shown little interest thus far, but someday, when they are much older and have learned firsthand that loving one's children does not guaranteed that one will never fail them, they may want to know me better.
I confess to a stirring of superstitious fear that I tempt Fate by setting down this memoir now, as if the story of my life is nearing its conclusion. I am but thirty-five; surely I have years left to fill with accomplishments and reflection. My health has not been particularly worse than usual, and yet something compels me to take pen in hand now rather than wait until I am white-haired and wizened. In recent months, I have been plagued by disturbing suspicions that I may draw my last breath sooner than my doctors will admit-but the future is even less certain than the past, so I will say nothing more of that here.
Instead I will return to my story, for it is unkind to leave my heroine and her child suspended in peril so long.
After my mother spirited me from my father's home at 13 Piccadilly Terrace on that cold winter morning, we stopped to change horses in Woborn and continued on to Leicestershire, arriving at Kirkby Mallory quite late at night. The servants, who had never met us, were perhaps confused by the late hour or by Lady Byron's exhaustion, for they led her to the kitchen rather than the drawing room, as would have befit her rank. Before long the mistake was corrected, Lord and Lady Noel were awakened, and there was, I imagine, a tearful reunion in the drawing room. My grandparents were shocked, no doubt, by their lovely daughter's gaunt frame and haggard features. Knowing my grandmother as I later would, I'm sure she wept at first, then dried her eyes, strengthened her resolve, and began planning how to restore her precious daughter to health-and how to punish her wicked son-in-law.
Until then, Lady Byron had been able to conceal the worst of her sufferings from her parents, but once she moved us into their home, the truth in all its horror came out. They were devastated, outraged, and filled with righteous indignation, and since strangling my father was out of the question, Lady Noel promptly contacted her lawyer. Even as my mother continued her correspondence with doctors and arranged from afar for my father to have a complete medical examination, my grandparents were consulting with Colonel Francis Doyle, a lawyer renowned as a mediator in marital affairs, to arrange for a legal separation, if Byron could be persuaded to consent to it.
But of course, I knew nothing of this. I knew only that the unpleasant scenes of shouting and weeping that had played in the background of my earliest days had faded, replaced by gentle laughter and tender endearments. I discovered that my mother's milk was sweeter, richer, and more abundant than ever, and as she regained her strength, I, too, flourished. Every day I sensed that I was warm and safe and loved.
As the months passed, I was happily ignorant of all that went on behind the scenes, of the meetings with lawyers, of the exhaustive measures taken to reach a just settlement and to keep the conflict out of the courts. I could not have understood that I had become a point of contention in the negotiations, as my mother wanted sole custody of me and my father refused to give up his rights.
As my mother traveled to and from London to meet with her legal advisors, or to various spas seeking remedies for her persistent illnesses, Colonel Doyle wrote to my grandparents warning them that Byron or his agents might attempt to abduct me. "It is of the utmost importance that Lord and Lady Noel never lose possession of their grandchild," he emphasized. "You must guard the infant with every possible vigilance."
Alarmed, Lady Noel purchased two pistols for defense and informed the groundskeepers that they would serve as my guards, patrolling the estate as they went about their usual duties and keeping a sharp watch for intruders. Her orders sent a thrill of excitement through the household staff, for nothing added interest to the tedious duty of looking after an elderly lord and lady than the threat of a kidnapping.
I have said that I have no memory of these events, and yet, perhaps an impression of my circumstances was etched upon my mind. When I was a very young child, I often felt a faint, persistent dread, as if I were being watched by a malicious intelligence. When I was a bit older, walking and talking and questioning everything, I was vaguely certain that at any moment, my wicked father might burst into Kirkby Mallory, snatch me up in a rough embrace, and spirit me off to parts unknown, far from everything I knew and everyone I loved. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand that although my father wanted to see me, he had no intention of burdening himself with a small child and making himself an outlaw in the process. Yet the whispers that he might do so and the preparations to stop him surely left their mark upon my fertile imagination.
Despite their best attempts, my mother and grandparents could not keep the scandal out of the press, especially after my father published two poems about the Separation, "Fare Thee Well" and "A Sketch from Private Life." He published them privately, intending to circulate them only among his most intimate friends, but the printer leaked a copy to a newspaper editor, and one morning my mother was shocked to discover them featured prominently in the paper beneath the headline "Lord Byron's Poems on His Own Domestic Circumstances."
You may recall that soon after my birth my father declared me "an instrument of torture," and in this he proved prescient, for he wielded me against my mother to win sympathy for himself. "Fare Thee Well" offered the sort of romantic overtures that never failed to make the ladies swoon, for although my father lamented his estrangement from my mother, he reminded her and all the world of their eternal bond, which would endure beyond all suffering. I made my poetic debut in the ninth stanza when he appealed to my mother to reconcile for my sake:
And when thou would solace gather,
When our child's first accents flow,
Wilt thou teach her to say 'Father!'
Though his care she must forgo?
Any sympathy he might have won from the public with those tender lines was likely ruined by the second poem. In nasty, satirical strokes, "A Sketch from Private Life" unkindly skewered Mrs. Clermont, my mother's erstwhile governess and longtime faithful servant, and blamed her for turning my mother against him. The poem was brilliantly wicked, but it was an unwarranted attack on a woman utterly unable to defend herself, and a gentleman simply did not treat a loyal member of his household that way. He called her the "hag of hatred," for heaven's sake. The poem also included an unflattering portrait of my mother as a pure, pious, unfeeling, unforgiving, heartless machine-a figment, I regret to say, that made an impression on the public that lingers to this day, despite her many accomplishments and charitable endeavors in all the years since.
Even so, the publication of the poems ultimately served Lady Byron well, for they portrayed my father as vicious and hypocritical, deserving of the strong condemnation that soon bombarded him. The press vilified him, and as the scandal grew and increased its frenzy, he received the worst punishment London society could inflict upon a man: the cut direct.
The cut took place in early April at the home of Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey, one of the few women of fashion who sympathized with Byron in his ordeal. Perhaps because her own illicit affairs-appropriately discreet and tolerated by her husband-were numerous, she had invited her besieged friend to attend her ball, a daring act of kindness and loyalty. Lady Jersey could not compel her guests to embrace him, however, and when my father entered the ball with my aunt Augusta on his arm, they were met with cold glares and hostile silence. Gentlemen whom Byron knew well met his greetings with wordless, stony looks before deliberately turning their backs; ladies who had once simpered and swooned held his gaze for a moment to acknowledge they had seen him, then turned their heads and pretended not to know him; well-matched couples left the room when the siblings entered, as if Byron's marital discord were contagious. Even Lady Jersey, who treated Byron with the utmost courtesy up to the moment his sister's distress compelled him to escort her home from the ball early, later called on my mother to assure her that my father's presence at the gathering had been "most unexpected."
Then, as now, the cut direct was an established social custom with specific rules of etiquette and one unmistakable purpose: It announced that all ties of friendship between the parties had been irrevocably severed. Lord Byron was no longer welcome in London society.
Ten days after his public humiliation, my father, who thus far had adamantly resisted my mother's appeals for a legal separation, finally acquiesced. He did not relinquish his paternal rights, but he insisted upon, and was granted, a stipulation that my mother could not take me abroad out of fear that we would settle in a foreign land where absent fathers had no legal rights whatsoever. He wrote to Augusta to ask her to serve as an intermediary between him and his estranged wife, watching out for me and writing to him often about my health and looks and habits, but never to mention my mother's name to him or to allude to her "in any shape-or on any occasion-except indispensable business." He then composed one last letter to my mother, entreating her to be kind to his sister and to permit her to visit me, and he enclosed a small emerald ring, a family heirloom, which he begged her to give to me. She complied, but not until many years later, when I was of an age to be safely entrusted with it. The ring became one of my most treasured possessions, and I intend to pass it on to my own daughter upon my death.
With the bitter legal squabbling of the Separation complete, my father decided to go abroad, but although he was hounded by creditors and ostracized from society, he was determined to leave England with a grand, defiant flourish that his enemies would never forget. He ordered an extravagant new carriage fashioned after one belonging to Napolon Bonaparte, who the year before had escaped exile on the island of Elba and had been welcomed by cheering crowds in Paris only to face defeat three months later at the Battle of Waterloo. I suppose if one must go into exile like a deposed emperor, once might as well depart in imperial style. What parallels, if any, my father wanted observers to draw between his own downfall and that of the erstwhile French emperor, we can only imagine.
Into that spectacular carriage Byron loaded his beloved Newfoundlands, his pet peacock, his personal physician, his friends Hobhouse and Scrope Davies, and what clothing and possessions he had managed to fling into trunks before the avaricious bailiffs and creditors descended upon 13 Piccadilly Terrace. Early in the morning on 23 April, he and his companions set out for Dover, where the carriage was immediately loaded onto the ship out of fear that the bailiffs might attempt to seize it too.
Capricious winds and foul weather kept my father on British soil for another two days, but on 25 April, he bade Hobhouse farewell at the pier, boarded the ship, and set sail for Ostend, Belgium, a seventy-five-mile crossing that ordinarily took about eight hours. Instead the rough seas made it a horrible, stomach-churning, sixteen-hour ordeal, but my father distracted himself from the wretched conditions and bouts of seasickness by working on the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. I know I was in his thoughts then, and that he grieved to part from me, for he preserved his thoughts in timeless verses, perhaps hoping that someday I would read them. Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!
ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled, And then we parted,— not as now we part, But with a hope.— Awaking with a start, The waters heave around me; and on high The winds lift up their voices: I depart, Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by, When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.
My father never returned to England.
Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Chiaverini. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.