As promised, here is the first in my series of blogs about 1816: the year in which Byron travelled to Venice.
1816 didn’t get off to a bright start for Byron, despite the birth of his daughter, Augusta Ada, who had arrived towards the end of the old year, on 10th December 1815. By the time January arrived, his marriage was in tatters.
If ever two people should never have married each other, those two people were George Gordon, Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. If Annabella is to be believed, the marriage –which had taken place in January 1815 – started to collapse from the moment they set out on their honeymoon.
Marriage led to huge expenses, including an enormous rent for the imposing marital residence in Piccadilly Terrace. When these new expenses were added to the mountain of existing debts from his bachelor days, his creditors had had enough. As word spread of Byron’s marriage “to an heiress” they began to close in.
The problem was that Annabella Milbanke was just that: an heiress, not yet an inheritor: an (admittedly elderly) uncle and her mother were the barriers to her own path to a fortune. Her marriage settlement barely paid the rent on Piccadilly Terrace, and soon the creditors were threatening foreclosure. By November 1815 there was a resident bailiff in the kitchen.
Byron’s mental health, ever-fragile, now collapsed. He was drinking far too much, and prowled the house at night, or took pot-shots at his growing collection of empty bottles. These were hardly ideal living conditions for a woman about to give birth, and they were made far worse by poisonous tittle-tattle fed to Annabella Byron by her companion Mrs Clermont.
So, when Byron, at the end of his tether and truly desperate (only the fact that he had taken his seat in the House of Lords and was an active parliamentarian was preventing his arrest for debt) suggested that, as a temporary money-saving measure he should go and live cheaply abroad and she should live for a time with her parents, Annabella didn’t ask for explanations or reassurance: she immediately convinced herself that her husband no longer loved her and their marriage was over.
Annabella’s mother had sent an invitation for both Lord and Lady Byron and the baby to pay a visit to the new grandparents at their home at Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire (the modern Mallory Park motor-racing circuit). And so Annabella made her plans. On 15th January 1816, Lady Byron left her husband in Piccadilly Terrace, pretending that she was paying a short visit to her parents.
Byron was never to see his wife or his daughter again.