- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

David Crane is one of the apparently inexhaustible succession of Byronists since Thomas Moore in his 1830 biography of the poet, published six years after Byron died as Missolonghi. Readers will remember Mr. Crane's "Lord Byron's Jackal: A Life of Edward John Trelawny," who was another friend and hanger-on, which came out here a few years ago.
His new book, "The Kindness of Sisters," relates the oft-told tale of the complex and "unstable" relationship running to 40 years between Byron's wife and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, whose third daughter, Elizabeth Medora, was widely, and scandalously, reckoned to be the poet's child (though the author reminds that there is no proof of this being so).
Much depends on a book's organization, and Mr. Crane indulges a risky maneuver in the second of his narrative's three parts by reconstructing the conversation between the two star-crossed women in their final meeting, after an estrangement of 20 years, at the White Hart Hotel, Reigate (near Brighton) on April 8, 1851.
Mr. Crane stresses that his reconstruction, while speculative, is based entirely on existing evidence in the form of letters, court records and the rest of it. His picture of the two, by then elderly, women verbally grappling in the Victorian hotel room this is no longer the Regency England of their youth, but not insignificantly there is a framed picture of Manfred on the Jungfrau hanging from the wall is graphic:
Annabella slight and barely over five feet tall, is wearing a lavender-colored dress, clutching and unclutching her hands in tension as she moves to the window and back again, concealing her prepared notes under a sleeve. Augusta, slightly taller and more filled-out, is dressed in mourning and looks ill. (Annabella has brought with her the young church minister Frederick Robertson, said to be the greatest orator in England, but at Augusta's request he is off in another room).
The real test of the author's device, of course, is in the conversation itself, and I am not sure that Mr. Crane's effort works that well. Byronists already will know the material, and readers less familiar with it may not catch all the elliptical and broken-off remarks which, while the stuff of conversation in life, are, in the book, not explicated until later in part three. This applies, for example, to passages concerning persons on the periphery of the main story, such as Medora and her feckless conduct in adult life.
Coming back to the book as a whole and this is not intended as any complaint Mr. Crane's title is competed with by his subtitle, "Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons." Augusta, crucial to the story as she was, at the same time was of such a pliant and self-surrendering nature as not to leave much of a mark. It is hard to find much to say about her, save that she was there and did the things she did (invariably intended kindly if sometimes catastrophic in their effect). The real fight is between Lord Byron and his wife.
The two should never have married, and probably wouldn't had Byron not been on the run from Lady Caroline Lamb, with whom he had his gaudy and publicly embarrassing affair during the summer of 1812, and if Lady Melbourne, Byron's "corbeau blanc" and older friend, had not played mischievous matchmaker between the poet and her niece. In the event, the foundation of the Byrons' marriage was mutual misunderstanding; Annabella believed she could redeem the sinner, and Byron reckoned, mistakenly, that he could allow it.
The couple's one year of wedded life was turbulent in the extreme, with Byron indulging bouts of cruelty and rage during Annabella's confinement with their daughter, Ada, the poet fired his pistols underneath the expectant woman's bedroom. Meantime, there were the visits with Augusta at the Leighs' house near Newmarket and then in London's Piccadilly at Annabella's invitation during which Byron's exclusive intimacy with his sister was shoved down Annabella's throat.
At the same time, the year was more complicated and mixed than its extremes suggest, with implications for the two women's roles in the years and decades following the Byrons' separation early in 1816. Annabella possessed in addition to her Milbanke reason a passionate and Romantic streak, and in correspondence with her sister-in-law, the new wife boasted of her sexual life. She certainly was complicitous in turning a blind eye to the obvious goings-on between her husband and his sister.
After the separation, the recklessly kind Augusta she had every reason to fear the Byrons' splitting up for fear of the scandal to which it could expose her went to great pains to help Annabella in her trouble. This was until Annabella turned on her sister-in-law, and Augusta went off on her own track of loneliness, poverty (her husband was always losing money at the racetrack) and two sons who threatened to follow in their father's footsteps.
In the bitter aftermath, Annabella, having failed to redeem the poetwhose genius and poetry developed in ways it never could have done in England during the years of exile he had brought on himself intentionally set out to redeem his family, first Augusta, then Medora. Along the way she tried to train the Byron out of the couple's daughter Ada. The latter went on to become the mathematician Lady Lovelace, another gambler and big loser on the horses, and to decide that she wanted to be buried beside her father in the family vault in Hucknall Church near Newstead Abbey, the former Byron family home.
In every one of these moral rescue campaigns Annabella failed, and Mr. Crane's accounts of how each took its course despite Lady Byron's obsessive efforts and frequent dirty tricks (all in the name of Christian righteousness) are among his best pages. Augusta's sad life in the aftermath of losing her brother and lover offers less to tell, but what there is of it Mr. Crane lays out in different but equally tragic detail.
A third aspect of Mr. Crane's tale and where he brings his threads together is Byron's one-man war against England and its institutions starting with the family. After living in straitened circumstances with his mother in Aberdeen, he inherited the Byron title at age nine, and on his first visit to Newstead a Romantic pile to visitors today, but a neglected wreck (the Byrons were an awful bunch) in his dayhe began to resent a fate that included a ruined estate, money complications and deformity (club foot).
By 1812 when he was 24, and the first cantos of "Childe Harold" were published to immense acclaim, the young lord was famous but lonely in the upper reaches of London society where he did not feel comfortable. He had seen something of the alternative to living in England on his extended European journey with his friend John Cam Hobhouse, and was getting ready to explode into one social affront after another to societal norms.
In his war against England, Augusta was Byron's "perfect weapon," and the poet's marriage to, and separation from Annabella the means of forcing his departure to, first Switzerland, then Italy. He had disgraced himself but also had revealed to his countrymen a subversive side which the English possess but are loath to acknowledge. From there he went on to become the most famous Romantic of them all, and his death during the Greek War of Independence from the Turks, metamorphosed him into a hero. Sir Walter Scott caught the national mood with:
"We have been stunned from another quarter, by one of those deaths … as from an archangel's trumpet to awaken the soul of a whole people at once." Today, pilgrims still are making their way to Hucknall Church and to Newstead.
Annabella's role, until her death on May 16, 1860, was the opposite to her former husband's, that of defender of English reasonableness, piety and respectability against the influence of the man she had loved and lost and never got over. He and she are the principal antagonists, surrogates for a far larger conflict between ideas, in Mr. Crane's version of the history. It is hard to write about the Byrons, if only because they have been written about so much. Mr. Crane succeeds by explicating this familiar material from a fresh angle.


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