April 8th 1816. Byron has almost completed his preparations for leaving England. The terms of the legal separation from his wife have been agreed, signed and sealed. His beloved books have been sold at auction, raising £723 (add a couple of zeroes for a rough modern equivalent) and now he is effectively camping out in a bare and spartan Piccadilly Terrace with his friend John Hobhouse. Hobhouse has moved in to keep an eye on his friend due to concerns about his mental health.
The Society gossips have been having a field-day; the separation of Lord and Lady Byron has kept tongues wagging and malice flowing. Byron’s refusal to make any criticism of his wife, coupled with her determination to make sure her side of the story is spread as widely as possible, means that he has become something of a social pariah so that – as his earliest biographer puts it,
… it required no small degree of courage, even among that class who are supposed to be the most tolerant of domestic irregularities, to invite him into their society.
In fact, there seems to be only one lady with a great enough degree of courage, Lady Jersey. A leader of fashion and with friends in high places (her mother-in-law was once one of the Prince Regent’s many mistresses) she is well-known for her kindness. And so she signals her support for Byron by giving a farewell party in his honour on Monday April 8th, 1816.
Byron attends the party in the company of both Hobhouse and his sister Augusta. Most of the guests, no doubt having gone along only to sniff out more gossip, take the opportunity to snub him. However, both Lady Jersey herself and one other guest, Miss Mercer Elphinstone, go out of their way to offer him warmth and friendship.
This is itself is grist to the gossip mill, so that ten years later, by which time Miss Elphinstone is the wife of the French Ambassador to Berlin, William Hazlitt and his friend James Northcote are still talking about
… a little red-haired girl, who, when countesses and ladies of fashion were leaving the room where he was in crowds (to cut him after his quarrel with his wife), stopped short near a table against which he was leaning, gave him a familiar nod, and said, “You should have married me and then this would not have happened to you!
Byron pretends to be unaffected by his reception at Lady Jersey’s party, though the atmosphere can doubtless be cut with a knife. However, once safely back home he entertains himself by writing viciously funny character-assassinations of his fellow-guests, and by writing to thank Miss Elphinstone for her kindness and
… wishing you a much happier destiny – not than mine is – for that is nothing – but than mine ever could have been.
His reception at Lady Jersey’s has given him final confirmation, if any were needed, that it is time to shake the dust of England from his shoes, and in two weeks he will leave London for the last time.