FEBRUARY 4, 2016
A GLANCE AT THE LONG LIST of biographies published each year will show any casual observer that the lion’s share tell the stories of men’s lives, and the small number of women profiled are usually related to famous men. Writers of such biographies face the challenge of convincing readers that their subjects deserve biographical treatment for their own sake, not simply because they were the wives, sisters, or perhaps friends of some man we already know. Jean Strouse famously met this challenge in her Bancroft Prize–winning biography of Alice James, sister to William and Henry James, despite the fact that Alice did almost nothing in her life but perfect the art of invalidism. More recently, Jill Lepore also proved what could be done with scant source materials in her biography of the virtually unknown Jane Franklin, sister of Benjamin.
A new biography of Lady Byron, wife of the notorious Romantic poet Lord Byron, again raises issues of what it means to write the life of a woman who has been overshadowed, perhaps even to the point of total eclipse, by her male relative. But it wasn’t the scantiness of the archive that stood in the way of telling Lady Byron’s story. Instead, it was almost 200 years of mythologizing and misunderstanding, not to mention the powerful forces of an academic industry invested in the stature of Lord Byron as a poetic genius. In Lady Byron and Her Daughters, Julia Markus stands up to the romantic cult of those for whom “the poet was the only god who hadn’t yet failed.” She clarifies: “The male poet, that is, though one wished one didn’t have to emphasize the obvious.”
Anne Isabella Milbanke, who went by the name Annabella, married Lord Byron in 1815, after a tumultuous three-year courtship. She was drawn to his tortured nature by the belief that she could save him; he was attracted to her — an exceptionally intelligent woman who excelled in everything from linguistics to mathematics — for a perhaps surprising quality: her seeming lack of interest in marriage or sex. She had turned down numerous offers before Byron and appeared, unlike most other women of his acquaintance, more interested in his soul than his body. Their marriage, which produced one child, Ada, lasted only a year before Annabella, famously and scandalously, left her famous husband. He would die within nine years, after which Lady Byron lived on, an independent woman who mothered one daughter and virtually adopted another, devoting herself to the cause of education and social activism. Yet the public uproar caused by her decision to leave Lord Byron dogged her the rest of her life.
When, in 1869, Harriet Beecher Stowe came to the defense of Lady Byron, telling Annabella’s side of the story of her disastrous marriage to the poet Lord Byron in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, Stowe was pilloried in the press, her reputation as America’s foremost novelist tarnished. Byron’s posthumous reputation was so powerful that it stymied all efforts to bring his former wife’s story to the fore. Now, 146 years later, Markus reprises Stowe’s role and vindicates the memory of the woman who dared to separate from her sadistic husband and remain silent about her motives for the rest of her life, despite the legions of Byron’s adorers who had insisted she was nothing but a cold, prudish, spiteful woman.
We live in another age than the one Stowe wrote in, of course. While Stowe felt she had to make Lady Byron an angel and Lord Byron a fiend in order to gain her audience’s sympathy, Markus provides more complex portraits. She points to the ways Lady Byron refused to look into her own darkness, even while she was understanding of it in others. And she peers into Byron’s own dark past, which included being the victim of childhood sexual abuse and covering up the shame of his homosexual affairs, to understand his later violent moods and disdain for women.
With understanding, however, does not necessarily come forgiveness. Byron emerges from the pages of Markus’s book as thoroughly bad, a man capable of great cruelty and deceit. Markus doesn’t address that larger question here of what we are to think of the art of famous men who reportedly abused women (whether we should stop reading Byron or watching the films of Woody Allen or listening to the music Chris Brown). But she does ask us to reconsider our worship of male genius to the exclusion of all else and to listen to the voices of women that have been silenced by it.
Markus sets out to contradict what she calls “the bizarro world of Lady Byron–bashing,” which began with “Lord Byron’s brilliant poetic spite” and continued with “later critics’ overwhelming devotion to genius.” Pausing from her riveting story to dispute the cult of romantic genius that perceives the artist’s misery, and the misery he inflicts on others, as a necessary companion to great achievement, Markus sounds a bit like her Victorian precursor, Stowe, or Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, about whom Markus has written a previous biography. Nonetheless, she strikes a powerful note when she declares that the mild defects in Lady Byron’s character — such as her inability to see her own faults — have not been forgiven by critics and biographers who have not only forgiven Lord Byron his faults but have raised them to the status of the “glorious madness of male poets.” While Lady Byron has had earlier biographers, Markus laments that they too were blinded by Byron’s status and sought to diminish her significance so that his poetic light could shine all the brighter.
The view of Lord and Lady Byron’s marriage that emerges from Markus’s pen, drawing upon the letters and journals of Lady Byron herself, is nothing short of hellish. Byron, who had already become a famous poet with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, notoriously told his new wife as they drove away from their wedding ceremony, that “she would find she had married a devil.” His fascination with Annabella, which Markus attributes to his desire (and failure) to corrupt her, could not compete with the love he felt for his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. It became clear to Annabella that he had married her primarily to cover up his incestuous love affair and the fact that Augusta had borne his child. Byron proceeded to treat Annabella with contempt, threatened violence with the dagger and guns always near him, drank excessively and abused laudanum, sent her to bed so he could stay up alone with Augusta, and routinely tormented Annabella with evidence of his affairs with other women, blaming all on his own cosmically tortured soul.
Markus leaves no sensible reader with any doubt that Lady Byron’s decision to seek a separation from her husband was infinitely warranted. Furthermore, she sets out to counter portraits of Annabella as cold, unforgiving, or too pious. On the contrary, she loved her husband passionately, enjoyed sex, and tried hard to save Byron from himself. Only after the birth of their child and Byron’s insistence that mother and daughter move out of their home did she decide to pursue a separation agreement. Divorce, of course, was not an option. As Markus explains, a man could petition Parliament for a dissolution of his marriage, based on charges of adultery. But there was no recourse for a woman save “legal separation of bed and board,” based on either charges of adultery or physical cruelty. However, if a wife stayed in the house or wrote to her husband after learning of his adultery, this was legally deemed “condonation.” Annabella had done both. Nonetheless, she was able to achieve a private settlement, after months of negotiation and intense pressure from Byron, that divided their property and secured her independence.
The story of Lord and Lady Byron’s meeting, their horrific one year of marriage, and their separation is told in the first third of Lady Byron and Her Daughters. The aftershocks of that time reverberate throughout the biography — with the 1835 publication of Thomas Moore’s biography of Byron demonizing his former wife, Byron’s alleged illegitimate daughter’s reliance on her help, or their own daughter Ada’s request to be buried in Byron’s family tomb. However, Markus’s goal is to show us a more complete picture of the woman who emerged from that disaster. It is in her relationships to her two “daughters,” Markus says, that we can see her most fully. Her child with Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, is today relatively well known as the inventor of computer programming. The other child alluded to in the biography’s title is the daughter of Byron and Augusta, Medora Leigh, whom Lady Byron more or less adopted when she discovered that her mother had forsaken her. Neither young woman’s story turns out happily. But despite the maternal emphasis of the title, Markus is after higher game in her portrait of Lady Byron. As the jacket copy promises, we will also get to know a woman who was “a leading light in her century.”
Biographies of the wives of famous men often shed more light on the male than on the female half of the pair. Such was the case, for instance, in Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov. The perfect emblem of the self-sacrificial literary wife, Vera seemed to have virtually no separate existence from the man whose career she managed, whose works she typed, and whose very existence seemed to depend on her support. Even the photo on the cover of that book shows Vera looking up at her husband, his profile just visible on the book’s edge.
In the case of Lady Byron, there was very little opportunity to play the role of the literary wife. After her husband’s early death nine years after their separation, the aristocratic and wealthy Lady Byron became a philanthropist, devoting her life to good works and becoming a silent benefactor of mistreated women and escaped slaves. Markus insists that Lady Byron’s “own genius” lay in her progressive vision of education, which she implemented in cooperative schools meant to provide an education for the poor but also to counter the depravity rampant in the public school system that had produced her husband. However, Markus glides over the fact that Lady Byron did not make this progressive education available to girls, who were schooled at home, as she and her daughter, Ada, were. Lady Byron apparently never lamented that girls were relegated to a separate education, even when they were as brilliant as Ada and herself, both of whom excelled at mathematics. Nor did she believe women needed the right to vote or the other rights (such as to divorce) that she herself so patently lacked.
Only one chapter in the biography is devoted to Lady Byron’s work “educating England,” however, and three chapters to her “daughters.” Another chapter tells of Lady Byron’s attempts to tell her own side of the story, ineffectually, in a privately published pamphlet, and her strange meeting with Augusta Leigh before the latter’s death. The last three chapters detail Lady Byron’s final years and her difficulties deciding what to do with her papers, which documented her failed marriage. She needed a collaborator to write her memoirs. Her close friend Frederick Robertson died before he could assist her, and she had a falling out with her friend Anna Jameson. Stowe at first advised Lady Byron to remain silent but nine years after Annabella’s death wrote her vindication. Finally, her grandson, who told the story of the sealed-up papers to Henry James (who would use it as the basis of The Aspern Papers), wrote about his grandfather’s incest and his grandparents’ failed marriage in Astarte in 1905. The book, however, went to a few libraries and friends but otherwise achieved little notice, seemingly by design.
The question then arises: how does Markus finally succeed in accomplishing the long-delayed task of telling Lady Byron’s story? While Markus’s claims for Lady Byron’s importance in her own right are marginally compelling, the story she has to tell of a woman caught in the snares of her famous husband’s sadism and then in the blind adoration of his multitudes of followers is a gripping page-turner. (Markus is, after all, also a novelist.) Ultimately Lady Byron does not emerge fully from her husband’s shadow, but that makes sense, considering how completely a woman’s identity was determined by whom she married.
And if Lady Byron was no feminist, she need not have been in order for her story to be worth telling — even as the same feminist impulse that motivated Stowe, who saw a larger story of woman’s wrongs in Lady Byron’s life, seems to motivate Markus as well. Markus ends her book with the words: “Perhaps the time has come to realize that history is also her story.” She means Lady Byron’s story, but in those words is also a statement about the importance of excavating the lives of women who have been eclipsed by the more powerful men in their lives and misunderstood by those who have written (male) history. Insisting that the female relatives of famous men be accomplished players on the world stage in their own right in order to warrant biographical treatment is perhaps asking too much. Telling silenced women’s stories from their own points of view is justification enough.