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  • Four Letters by Annabella and Lucy Byron
  • Yasmin Solomonescu

What was it like for Anne Isabella Milbanke (1792–1860), later Lady Byron, to live in the shadow of the famous poet? The question is no less compelling today than it was some 200 years ago, when the Byrons separated after a yearlong marriage amid rumors of his conjugal cruelties and an incestuous relationship with half-sister Augusta Leigh. But the answer to it is rapidly changing. Notwithstanding Harriet Beecher Stowe's early portrayal of Lady Byron as the silent victim of her husband's vices, many biographers have been highly disparaging of her character, echoing Lord Byron's satirical portrait of her in Don Juan as Donna Inez, "an allin-all sufficient self-director" excessively proud of her moral and intellectual perfections.1 Malcolm Elwin in Lord Byron's Wife (1962) describes his subject as "an intellectual prig of impregnable self-complacency," while Doris Langley Moore in her 1977 biography of the Byrons' daughter emphasizes the "positive hunger for dominance" that Lady Byron concealed behind a façade of composure.2 As gaps in the received picture have become apparent, scholars have returned to the archive to bring greater nuance to our understanding of Lady Byron's life and character.3 The most recent result is Julia Markus's 2015 biography, Lady Byron and Her Daughters, which compellingly portrays "a misunderstood yet difficult woman of genius" who struggled [End Page 29] to raise and mentor two wayward daughters while establishing England's first infants' and co-operative schools, supporting women's rights, and advocating the abolition of slavery.4

Markus's main source is the Lovelace Byron papers, a vast collection, in the Bodleian Library, which constitutes the single most important archive relating to Lady Byron.5 Now, however, both our picture of Lady Byron and the documentary record can be further enhanced with the emergence of four newly discovered letters—three by Lady Byron herself and one by a relative, Lucy Byron—in the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana.6 How the letters came there is unknown, and until now two were misattributed and three undated. Yet for reasons explained hereafter they contribute to our understanding of some key moments in an eventful sixty years, from the early 1810s when young Annabella debuted in Regency high society and met her future husband, to the 1870s when the Byrons' marriage again scandalized public opinion, even though he had been dead for fifty years and she for more than ten. The four letters are published here by courtesy of the Hesburgh Library as a small but important addition to the body of Lady Byron's correspondence, much of it unpublished, and to the ongoing re-evaluation of her life and legacy.7 [End Page 30]

In Letter 1 "Miss Milbanke" addresses an unidentified "Mr Kingston," apologizing for her in delay in sending him some promised "lines" because they had been "in the possession of a friend who has only just returned them." The letter is undated but bears a partial watermark reading "ows / 12." That it was likely composed in 1812 is corroborated by the writer's address, 63 Portland Place, the London residence of Annabella's father, progressive Whig MP Sir Ralph Milbanke, who by autumn 1812 had relocated to Richmond.8 (The Milbankes' family home remained at Seaham, in County Durham.) Further support for the 1812 dating comes from the fact that Annabella seems, by the time of the letter's composition, to have established a circle of London friends with whom she shared her poetry. Although she had spent a full season in London with her mother as early as 1810, it was only in February 1812 that she visited alone, staying with family friends Lord and Lady Gosford and hosting a dinner for fourteen guests at her parents' house in April.9 On March 2 she called on her aunt, the fashionable Lady Melbourne, a confidante of Lord Byron's, and thereafter began dining regularly at Melbourne House, where her cousin William Lamb lived with his wife Caroline.10 There, at a morning waltzing ball on March 25, Annabella first saw...


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