Stepping Out of Byron’s Shadow

New York Public Library
Ada Lovelace; painting by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1835

On March 20, 1816, Annabella, Lady Byron, received a poem in the mail. In fifteen stanzas, Byron’s “Fare Thee Well” was a cascade of brokenhearted loss and love:

All my faults perchance thou
      All my madness none can
All my hopes, where’er thou goest,
      Wither, yet with
thee they go.

It was quickly published in a limited edition of fifty copies. Yet within a few days Byron was attacking Annabella for blackening his name, “as if it were branded on my forehead,” and sending her a vicious sketch of her former governess and loyal friend Mrs. Clermont, whom he accused of destroying their marriage. On April 23 he left for Dover and the Continent.

Reading the poem, Byron fans wept over a martyred genius condemned to exile by a coldhearted wife. But when the poem and sketch appeared together in The Champion, many readers simply laughed. Isaac Cruikshank’s cartoon The Separation, a Sketch of the private life of Lord Iron, showed Byron saluting cheerily as he left his house with his arm around a bosomy actress. George Cruikshank went further in a drawing of the poet waving his hat to the mother and child left on shore while declaiming “Fare Thee Well” to a boatful of whores. In an instant the satires gave the “heroic” Byron the status of an ogre. Annabella was relieved, if astonished at the speed at which public opinion could be reversed. And what about her own name—had that escaped blackening? What would history say?

In Byron’s Wake, Miranda Seymour’s meticulously researched study of Anne Isabella Milbanke—always shortened to Annabella—and her daughter, Ada Lovelace, shows how concern for reputation dogged their lives at every step. A skilled and experienced biographer, Seymour weaves her way through cobwebby curtains of rumor and gossip, showing how tabloid intrusions are nothing new, privacy has always been won at a price, and reputation—the judgment of the public—remains a slippery, fragile thing. At her death in 1860, Lady Byron’s public reputation was that of a determined education reformer, added to the names on the Reformers’ Memorial in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, along with John Stuart Mill, Joseph Priestley, and Elizabeth Fry. Ada, who had died eight years earlier at the age of thirty-six, won no such tribute. Today, however, her star shines brightest: she is hailed as the “mother of the computer” and is the subject of books and documentaries, courses and conferences. Yet both women are still often identified first as “Byron’s wife” or “Byron’s daughter.”

Annabella Milbanke met Byron in March 1812 at a morning waltz party given by Caroline Lamb at the house of Lady Melbourne, who was not only Caroline’s mother-in-law (she was married to Lady Melbourne’s son William, later, as Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s…

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