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Chapter 2

LADY BYRON'S STORY AS TOLD ME.


I now come to the particulars of that most painful interview which has
been the cause of all this controversy. My sister and myself were going
from London to Eversley to visit the Rev. C. Kingsley. On our way, we
stopped, by Lady Byron's invitation, to lunch with her at her summer
residence on Ham Common, near Richmond; and it was then arranged, that on
our return, we should make her a short visit, as she said she had a
subject of importance on which she wished to converse with me alone.

On our return from Eversley, we arrived at her house in the morning.

It appeared to be one of Lady Byron's well days. She was up and dressed,
and moved about her house with her usual air of quiet simplicity; as full
of little acts of consideration for all about her as if they were the
habitual invalids, and she the well person.

There were with her two ladies of her most intimate friends, by whom she
seemed to be regarded with a sort of worship. When she left the room for
a moment, they looked after her with a singular expression of respect and
affection, and expressed freely their admiration of her character, and
their fears that her unselfishness might be leading her to over-exertion.

After lunch, I retired with Lady Byron; and my sister remained with her
friends. I should here remark, that the chief subject of the
conversation which ensued was not entirely new to me. In the interval
between my first and second visits to England, a lady who for many years
had enjoyed Lady Byron's friendship and confidence, had, with her
consent, stated the case generally to me, giving some of the incidents:
so that I was in a manner prepared for what followed.

Those who accuse Lady Byron of being a person fond of talking upon this
subject, and apt to make unconsidered confidences, can have known very
little of her, of her reserve, and of the apparent difficulty she had in
speaking on subjects nearest her heart.

Her habitual calmness and composure of manner, her collected dignity on
all occasions, are often mentioned by her husband, sometimes with
bitterness, sometimes with admiration. He says, 'Though I accuse Lady
Byron of an excess of self-respect, I must in candour admit that, if ever
a person had excuse for an extraordinary portion of it, she has; as, in
all her thoughts, words, and deeds, she is the most decorous woman that
ever existed, and must appear, what few I fancy could, a perfectly
refined gentlewoman, even to her femme de chambre.'

This calmness and dignity were never more manifested than in this
interview. In recalling the conversation at this distance of time, I
cannot remember all the language used. Some particular words and forms
of expression I do remember, and those I give; and in other cases I give
my recollection of the substance of what was said.

There was something awful to me in the intensity of repressed emotion
which she showed as she proceeded. The great fact upon which all turned
was stated in words that were unmistakable:--

'He was guilty of incest with his sister!'

She here became so deathly pale, that I feared she would faint; and
hastened to say, 'My dear friend, I have heard that.' She asked quickly,
'From whom?' and I answered, 'From Mrs. ----;' when she replied, 'Oh,
yes!' as if recollecting herself.

I then asked her some questions; in reply to which she said, 'I will tell
you.'

She then spoke of her first acquaintance with Lord Byron; from which I
gathered that she, an only child, brought up in retirement, and living
much within herself, had been, as deep natures often were, intensely
stirred by his poetry; and had felt a deep interest in him personally, as
one that had the germs of all that is glorious and noble.

When she was introduced to him, and perceived his admiration of herself,
and at last received his offer, although deeply moved, she doubted her
own power to be to him all that a wife should be. She declined his
offer, therefore, but desired to retain his friendship. After this, as
she said, a correspondence ensued, mostly on moral and literary subjects;
and, by this correspondence, her interest in him was constantly
increased.

At last, she said, he sent her a very beautiful letter, offering himself
again. 'I thought,' she added, 'that it was sincere, and that I might
now show him all I felt. I wrote just what was in my heart.

'Afterwards,' she said, 'I found in one of his journals this notice of my
letter: "A letter from Bell,--never rains but it pours."'

There was through her habitual calm a shade of womanly indignation as she
spoke these words; but it was gone in a moment. I said, 'And did he not
love you, then?' She answered, 'No, my dear: he did not love me.'

'Why, then, did he wish to marry you?' She laid her hand on mine, and
said in a low voice, 'You will see.'

She then told me, that, shortly after the declared engagement, he came to
her father's house to visit her as an accepted suitor. The visit was to
her full of disappointment. His appearance was so strange, moody, and
unaccountable, and his treatment of her so peculiar, that she came to the
conclusion that he did not love her, and sought an opportunity to
converse with him alone.

She told him that she saw from his manner that their engagement did not
give him pleasure; that she should never blame him if he wished to
dissolve it; that his nature was exceptional; and if, on a nearer view of
the situation, he shrank from it, she would release him, and remain no
less than ever his friend.

Upon this, she said, he fainted entirely away.

She stopped a moment, and then, as if speaking with great effort, added,
'Then I was sure he must love me.'

'And did he not?' said I. 'What other cause could have led to this
emotion?'

She looked at me very sadly, and said, 'Fear of detection.'

'What!' said I, 'did that cause then exist?'

'Yes,' she said, 'it did.' And she explained that she now attributed
Lord Byron's great agitation to fear, that, in some way, suspicion of the
crime had been aroused in her mind, and that on this account she was
seeking to break the engagement. She said, that, from that moment, her
sympathies were aroused for him, to soothe the remorse and anguish which
seemed preying on his mind, and which she then regarded as the
sensibility of an unusually exacting moral nature, which judged itself by
higher standards, and condemned itself unsparingly for what most young
men of his times regarded as venial faults. She had every hope for his
future, and all the enthusiasm of belief that so many men and women of
those times and ours have had in his intrinsic nobleness. She said the
gloom, however, seemed to be even deeper when he came to the marriage;
but she looked at it as the suffering of a peculiar being, to whom she
was called to minister. I said to her, that, even in the days of my
childhood, I had heard of something very painful that had passed as they
were in the carriage, immediately after marriage. She then said that it
was so; that almost his first words, when they were alone, were, that she
might once have saved him; that, if she had accepted him when he first
offered, she might have made him anything she pleased; but that, as it
was, she would find she had married a devil.

The conversation, as recorded in Lady Anne Barnard's Diary, seems only a
continuation of the foregoing, and just what might have followed upon it.

I then asked how she became certain of the true cause.

She said, that, from the outset of their married life, his conduct
towards her was strange and unaccountable, even during the first weeks
after the wedding, while they were visiting her friends, and outwardly on
good terms. He seemed resolved to shake and combat both her religious
principles and her views of the family state. He tried to undermine her
faith in Christianity as a rule of life by argument and by ridicule. He
set before her the Continental idea of the liberty of marriage; it being
a simple partnership of friendship and property, the parties to which
were allowed by one another to pursue their own separate individual
tastes. He told her, that, as he could not be expected to confine
himself to her, neither should he expect or wish that she should confine
herself to him; that she was young and pretty, and could have her lovers,
and he should never object; and that she must allow him the same freedom.

She said that she did not comprehend to what this was tending till after
they came to London, and his sister came to stay with them.

At what precise time the idea of an improper connection between her
husband and his sister was first forced upon her, she did not say; but
she told me how it was done. She said that one night, in her presence,
he treated his sister with a liberty which both shocked and astonished
her. Seeing her amazement and alarm, he came up to her, and said, in a
sneering tone, 'I suppose you perceive you are not wanted here. Go to
your own room, and leave us alone. We can amuse ourselves better without
you.'

She said, 'I went to my room, trembling. I fell down on my knees, and
prayed to my heavenly Father to have mercy on them. I thought, "What
shall I do?"'

I remember, after this, a pause in the conversation, during which she
seemed struggling with thoughts and emotions; and, for my part, I was
unable to utter a word, or ask a question.

She did not tell me what followed immediately upon this, nor how soon
after she spoke on the subject with either of the parties. She first
began to speak of conversations afterwards held with Lord Byron, in which
he boldly avowed the connection as having existed in time past, and as
one that was to continue in time to come; and implied that she must
submit to it. She put it to his conscience as concerning his sister's
soul, and he said that it was no sin, that it was the way the world was
first peopled: the Scriptures taught that all the world descended from
one pair; and how could that be unless brothers married their sisters?
that, if not a sin then, it could not be a sin now.

I immediately said, 'Why, Lady Byron, those are the very arguments given
in the drama of "Cain."'

'The very same,' was her reply. 'He could reason very speciously on this
subject.' She went on to say, that, when she pressed him hard with the
universal sentiment of mankind as to the horror and the crime, he took
another turn, and said that the horror and crime were the very
attraction; that he had worn out all ordinary forms of sin, and that he
'longed for the stimulus of a new kind of vice.' She set before him the
dread of detection; and then he became furious. She should never be the
means of his detection, he said. She should leave him; that he was
resolved upon: but she should always bear all the blame of the
separation. In the sneering tone which was common with him, he said,
'The world will believe me, and it will not believe you. The world has
made up its mind that "By" is a glorious boy; and the world will go for
"By," right or wrong. Besides, I shall make it my life's object to
discredit you: I shall use all my powers. Read "Caleb Williams," {161}
and you will see that I shall do by you just as Falkland did by Caleb.'

I said that all this seemed to me like insanity. She said that she was
for a time led to think that it was insanity, and excused and pitied him;
that his treatment of her expressed such hatred and malignity, that she
knew not what else to think of it; that he seemed resolved to drive her
out of the house at all hazards, and threatened her, if she should
remain, in a way to alarm the heart of any woman: yet, thinking him
insane, she left him at last with the sorrow with which anyone might
leave a dear friend whose reason was wholly overthrown, and to whom in
this desolation she was no longer permitted to minister.

I inquired in one of the pauses of the conversation whether Mrs. Leigh
was a peculiarly beautiful or attractive woman.

'No, my dear: she was plain.'

'Was she, then, distinguished for genius or talent of any kind?'

'Oh, no! Poor woman! she was weak, relatively to him, and wholly under
his control.'

'And what became of her?' I said.

'She afterwards repented, and became a truly good woman.' I think it was
here she mentioned that she had frequently seen and conversed with Mrs.
Leigh in the latter part of her life; and she seemed to derive comfort
from the recollection.

I asked, 'Was there a child?' I had been told by Mrs. ---- that there
was a daughter, who had lived some years.

She said there was one, a daughter, who made her friends much trouble,
being of a very difficult nature to manage. I had understood that at one
time this daughter escaped from her friends to the Continent, and that
Lady Byron assisted in efforts to recover her. Of Lady Byron's kindness
both to Mrs. Leigh and the child, I had before heard from Mrs. ----, who
gave me my first information.

It is also strongly impressed on my mind, that Lady Byron, in answer to
some question of mine as to whether there was ever any meeting between
Lord Byron and his sister after he left England, answered, that she had
insisted upon it, or made it a condition, that Mrs. Leigh should not go
abroad to him.

When the conversation as to events was over, as I stood musing, I said,
'Have you no evidence that he repented?' and alluded to the mystery of
his death, and the message be endeavoured to utter.

She answered quickly, and with great decision, that whatever might have
been his meaning at that hour, she felt sure he had finally repented; and
added with great earnestness, 'I do not believe that any child of the
heavenly Father is ever left to eternal sin.'

I said that such a hope was most delightful to my feelings, but that I
had always regarded the indulgence of it as a dangerous one.

Her look, voice, and manner, at that moment, are indelibly fixed in my
mind. She looked at me so sadly, so firmly, and said,--

'Danger, Mrs. Stowe! What danger can come from indulging that hope, like
the danger that comes from not having it?'

I said in my turn, 'What danger comes from not having it?'

'The danger of losing all faith in God,' she said, 'all hope for others,
all strength to try and save them. I once knew a lady,' she added, 'who
was in a state of scepticism and despair from belief in that doctrine. I
think I saved her by giving her my faith.'

I was silent; and she continued: 'Lord Byron believed in eternal
punishment fully: for though he reasoned against Christianity as it is
commonly received, he could not reason himself out of it; and I think it
made him desperate. He used to say, "The worst of it is I do believe."
Had he seen God as I see him, I am sure his heart would have relented.'

She went on to say, that his sins, great as they were, admitted of much
palliation and excuse; that he was the child of singular and ill-matched
parents; that he had an organisation originally fine, but one capable
equally of great good or great evil; that in his childhood he had only
the worst and most fatal influences; that he grew up into manhood with no
guide; that there was everything in the classical course of the schools
to develop an unhealthy growth of passion, and no moral influence of any
kind to restrain it; that the manners of his day were corrupt; that what
were now considered vices in society were then spoken of as matters of
course among young noblemen; that drinking, gaming, and licentiousness
everywhere abounded and that, up to a certain time, he was no worse than
multitudes of other young men of his day,--only that the vices of his day
were worse for him. The excesses of passion, the disregard of physical
laws in eating, drinking, and living, wrought effects on him that they
did not on less sensitively organised frames, and prepared him for the
evil hour when he fell into the sin which shaded his whole life. All the
rest was a struggle with its consequences,--sinning more and more to
conceal the sin of the past. But she believed he never outlived remorse;
that he always suffered; and that this showed that God had not utterly
forsaken him. Remorse, she said, always showed moral sensibility, and,
while that remained, there was always hope.

She now began to speak of her grounds for thinking it might be her duty
fully to publish this story before she left the world.

First she said that, through the whole course of her life, she had felt
the eternal value of truth, and seen how dreadful a thing was falsehood,
and how fearful it was to be an accomplice in it, even by silence. Lord
Byron had demoralised the moral sense of England, and he had done it in a
great degree by the sympathy excited by falsehood. This had been pleaded
in extenuation of all his crimes and vices, and led to a lowering of the
standard of morals in the literary world. Now it was proposed to print
cheap editions of his works, and sell them among the common people, and
interest them in him by the circulation of this same story.

She then said in effect, that she believed in retribution and suffering
in the future life, and that the consequences of sins here follow us
there; and it was strongly impressed upon her mind that Lord Byron must
suffer in looking on the evil consequences of what he had done in this
life, and in seeing the further extension of that evil.

'It has sometimes strongly appeared to me,' she said, 'that he cannot be
at peace until this injustice has been righted. Such is the strong
feeling that I have when I think of going where he is.'

These things, she said, had led her to inquire whether it might not be
her duty to make a full and clear disclosure before she left the world.

Of course, I did not listen to this story as one who was investigating
its worth. I received it as truth. And the purpose for which it was
communicated was not to enable me to prove it to the world, but to ask my
opinion whether she should show it to the world before leaving it. The
whole consultation was upon the assumption that she had at her command
such proofs as could not be questioned.

Concerning what they were I did not minutely inquire: only, in answer to
a general question, she said that she had letters and documents in proof
of her story. Knowing Lady Byron's strength of mind, her
clear-headedness, her accurate habits, and her perfect knowledge of the
matter, I considered her judgment on this point decisive.

I told her that I would take the subject into consideration, and give my
opinion in a few days. That night, after my sister and myself had
retired to our own apartment, I related to her the whole history, and we
spent the night in talking of it. I was powerfully impressed with the
justice and propriety of an immediate disclosure; while she, on the
contrary, represented the painful consequences that would probably come
upon Lady Byron from taking such a step.

Before we parted the next day, I requested Lady Byron to give me some
memoranda of such dates and outlines of the general story as would enable
me better to keep it in its connection; which she did.

On giving me the paper, Lady Byron requested me to return it to her when
it had ceased to be of use to me for the purpose indicated.

Accordingly, a day or two after, I enclosed it to her in a hasty note, as
I was then leaving London for Paris, and had not yet had time fully to
consider the subject.

On reviewing my note, I can recall that then the whole history appeared
to me like one of those singular cases where unnatural impulses to vice
are the result of a taint of constitutional insanity. This has always
seemed to me the only way of accounting for instances of utterly
motiveless and abnormal wickedness and cruelty. These my first
impressions were expressed in the hasty note written at the time:--


'LONDON, Nov. 5, 1856.

'DEAREST FRIEND,--I return these. They have held mine eyes waking!
How strange! how unaccountable! Have you ever subjected the facts to
the judgment of a medical man learned in nervous pathology?

'Is it not insanity?

"Great wits to madness nearly are allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

'But my purpose to-night is not to write you fully what I think of
this matter. I am going to write to you from Paris more at leisure.'


The rest of the letter was taken up in the final details of a charity in
which Lady Byron had been engaged with me in assisting an unfortunate
artist. It concludes thus:--

'I write now in all haste, en route for Paris. As to America, all is
not lost yet. {168} Farewell! I love you, my dear friend, as never
before, with an intense feeling I cannot easily express. God bless
you!

'H. B. S.'


The next letter is as follows:--

'Paris, Dec. 17, 1856.

'DEAR LADY BYRON,--The Kansas Committee have written me a letter
desiring me to express to Miss ---- their gratitude for the five
pounds she sent them. I am not personally acquainted with her, and
must return these acknowledgments through you.

'I wrote you a day or two since, enclosing the reply of the Kansas
Committee to you.

'On that subject on which you spoke to me the last time we were
together, I have thought often and deeply.

'I have changed my mind somewhat. Considering the peculiar
circumstances of the case, I could wish that the sacred veil of
silence, so bravely thrown over the past, should never be withdrawn
during the time that you remain with us.

'I would say, then, Leave all with some discreet friends, who, after
both have passed from earth, shall say what was due to justice.

'I am led to think this by seeing how low, how unjust, how unworthy,
the judgments of this world are; and I would not that what I so much
respect, love, and revere should be placed within reach of its harpy
claw, which pollutes what it touches.

'The day will yet come which will bring to light every hidden thing.
"There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed, neither hid that
shall not be known;" and so justice will not fail.

'Such, my dear friend, are my thoughts; different from what they were
since first I heard that strange, sad history. Meanwhile, I love you
ever, whether we meet again on earth or not.

'Affectionately yours,

'H. B. S.'


The following letter will here be inserted as confirming a part of Lady
Byron's story:--

TO THE EDITOR OF 'MACMILLAN'S MAGAZINE.'

'SIR,--I trust that you will hold me excused from any desire to be
troublesome, or to rush into print. Both these things are far from my
wish. But the publication of a book having for its object the
vindication of Lord Byron's character, and the subsequent appearance
in your magazine of Mrs. Stowe's article in defence of Lady Byron,
having led to so much controversy in the various newspapers of the
day, I feel constrained to put in a few words among the rest.

'My father was intimately acquainted with Lady Byron's family for many
years, both before and after her marriage; being, in fact, steward to
Sir Ralph Milbanke at Seaham, where the marriage took place; and, from
all my recollections of what he told me of the affair (and he used
often to talk of it, up to the time of his death, eight years ago), I
fully agree with Mrs. Stowe's view of the case, and desire to add my
humble testimony to the truth of what she has stated.

'Whilst Byron was staying at Seaham, previous to his marriage, he
spent most of his time pistol-shooting in the plantations adjoining
the hall, often making use of his glove as a mark; his servant being
with him to load for him.

'When all was in readiness for the wedding-ceremony (which took place
in the drawing-room of the hall), Byron had to be sought for in the
grounds, where he was walking in his usual surly mood.

'After the marriage, they posted to Halnaby Lodge in Yorkshire, a
distance of about forty miles; to which place my father accompanied
them, and he always spoke strongly of Lady Byron's apparent distress
during and at the end of the journey.

'The insulting words mentioned by Mrs. Stowe were spoken by Byron
before leaving the park at Seaham; after which he appeared to sit in
moody silence, reading a book, for the rest of the journey. At
Halnaby, a number of persons, tenants and others, were met to cheer
them on their arrival. Of these he took not the slightest notice, but
jumped out of the carriage, and walked away, leaving his bride to
alight by herself. She shook hands with my father, and begged that he
would see that some refreshment was supplied to those who had thus
come to welcome them.

'I have in my possession several letters (which I should be glad to
show to anyone interested in the matter) both from Lady Byron, and her
mother, Lady Milbanke, to my father, all showing the deep and kind
interest which they took in the welfare of all connected with them,
and directing the distribution of various charities, etc. Pensions
were allowed both to the old servants of the Milbankes and to several
poor persons in the village and neighbourhood for the rest of their
lives; and Lady Byron never ceased to take a lively interest in all
that concerned them.

'I desire to tender my humble thanks to Mrs. Stowe for having come
forward in defence of one whose character has been much
misrepresented; and to you, sir, for having published the same in your
pages.

'I have the honour to be, sir, yours obediently,

'G. H. AIRD.

'DAOURTY, NORTHAMPTONSHIRE, Sept. 29, 1869.'

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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