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Chapter 4

THE CHARACTER OF THE TWO WITNESSES COMPARED.


It will be observed, that, in this controversy, we are confronting two
opposing stories,--one of Lord and the other of Lady Byron; and the
statements from each are in point-blank contradiction.

Lord Byron states that his wife deserted him. Lady Byron states that he
expelled her, and reminds him, in her letter to Augusta Leigh, that the
expulsion was a deliberate one, and that he had purposed it from the
beginning of their marriage.

Lord Byron always stated that he was ignorant why his wife left him, and
was desirous of her return. Lady Byron states that he told her that he
would force her to leave him, and to leave him in such a way that the
whole blame of the separation should always rest on her, and not on him.

To say nothing of any deeper or darker accusations on either side, here,
in the very outworks of the story, the two meet point-blank.

In considering two opposing stories, we always, as a matter of fact, take
into account the character of the witnesses.

If a person be literal and exact in his usual modes of speech, reserved,
careful, conscientious, and in the habit of observing minutely the minor
details of time, place, and circumstances, we give weight to his
testimony from these considerations. But if a person be proved to have
singular and exceptional principles with regard to truth; if he be
universally held by society to be so in the habit of mystification, that
large allowances must be made for his statements; if his assertions at
one time contradict those made at another; and if his statements, also,
sometimes come in collision with those of his best friends, so that, when
his language is reported, difficulties follow, and explanations are made
necessary,--all this certainly disqualifies him from being considered a
trustworthy witness.

All these disqualifications belong in a remarkable degree to Lord Byron,
on the oft-repeated testimony of his best friends.

We shall first cite the following testimony, given in an article from
'Under the Crown,' which is written by an early friend and ardent admirer
of Lord Byron:--


'Byron had one pre-eminent fault,--a fault which must be considered as
deeply criminal by everyone who does not, as I do, believe it to have
resulted from monomania. He had a morbid love of a bad reputation.
There was hardly an offence of which he would not, with perfect
indifference, accuse himself. An old schoolfellow who met him on the
Continent told me that he would continually write paragraphs against
himself in the foreign journals, and delight in their republication by
the English newspapers as in the success of a practical joke. Whenever
anybody has related anything discreditable of Byron, assuring me that
it must be true, for he heard it from himself, I always felt that he
could not have spoken upon worse authority; and that, in all
probability, the tale was a pure invention. If I could remember, and
were willing to repeat, the various misdoings which I have from time
to time heard him attribute to himself, I could fill a volume. But I
never believed them. I very soon became aware of this strange
idiosyncrasy: it puzzled me to account for it; but there it was, a
sort of diseased and distorted vanity. The same eccentric spirit
would induce him to report things which were false with regard to his
family, which anybody else would have concealed, though true. He told
me more than once that his father was insane, and killed himself. I
shall never forget the manner in which he first told me this. While
washing his hands, and singing a gay Neapolitan air, he stopped,
looked round at me, and said, "There always was madness in the
family." Then, after continuing his washing and his song, he added,
as if speaking of a matter of the slightest indifference, "My father
cut his throat." The contrast between the tenour of the subject and
the levity of the expression was fearfully painful: it was like a
stanza of "Don Juan." In this instance, I had no doubt that the fact
was as he related it; but in speaking of it, only a few years since,
to an old lady in whom I had perfect confidence, she assured me that
it was not so. Mr. Byron, who was her cousin, had been extremely
wild, but was quite sane, and had died very quietly in his bed. What
Byron's reason could have been for thus calumniating not only himself
but the blood which was flowing in his veins, who can divine? But,
for some reason or other, it seemed to be his determined purpose to
keep himself unknown to the great body of his fellow-creatures; to
present himself to their view in moral masquerade.'

Certainly the character of Lord Byron here given by his friend is not the
kind to make him a trustworthy witness in any case: on the contrary, it
seems to show either a subtle delight in falsehood for falsehood's sake,
or else the wary artifices of a man who, having a deadly secret to
conceal, employs many turnings and windings to throw the world off the
scent. What intriguer, having a crime to cover, could devise a more
artful course than to send half a dozen absurd stories to the press,
which should, after a while, be traced back to himself, till the public
should gradually look on all it heard from him as the result of this
eccentric humour?

The easy, trifling air with which Lord Byron made to this friend a false
statement in regard to his father would lead naturally to the inquiry, on
what other subjects, equally important to the good name of others, he
might give false testimony with equal indifference.

When Medwin's 'Conversations with Lord Byron' were first published, they
contained a number of declarations of the noble lord affecting the honour
and honesty of his friend and publisher Murray. These appear to have
been made in the same way as those about his father, and with equal
indifference. So serious were the charges, that Mr. Murray's friends
felt that he ought, in justice to himself, to come forward and confront
them with the facts as stated in Byron's letters to himself; and in vol.
x., p.143, of Murray's standard edition, accordingly these false
statements are confronted with the letters of Lord Byron. The
statements, as reported, are of a most material and vital nature,
relating to Murray's financial honour and honesty, and to his general
truthfulness and sincerity. In reply, Murray opposes to them the
accounts of sums paid for different works, and letters from Byron exactly
contradicting his own statements as to Murray's character.

The subject, as we have seen, was discussed in 'The Noctes.' No doubt
appears to be entertained that Byron made the statements to Medwin; and
the theory of accounting for them is, that 'Byron was "bamming" him.'

It seems never to have occurred to any of these credulous gentlemen, who
laughed at others for being 'bammed,' that Byron might be doing the very
same thing by themselves. How many of his so-called packages sent to
Lady Byron were real packages, and how many were mystifications? We
find, in two places at least in his Memoir, letters to Lady Byron,
written and shown to others, which, he says, were never sent by him. He
told Lady Blessington that he was in the habit of writing to her
constantly. Was this 'bamming'? Was he 'bamming,' also, when he told
the world that Lady Byron suddenly deserted him, quite to his surprise,
and that he never, to his dying day, could find out why?

Lady Blessington relates, that, in one of his conversations with her, he
entertained her by repeating epigrams and lampoons, in which many of his
friends were treated with severity. She inquired of him, in case he
should die, and such proofs of his friendship come before the public,
what would be the feelings of these friends, who had supposed themselves
to stand so high in his good graces. She says,--


'"That," said Byron, "is precisely one of the ideas that most amuses
me. I often fancy the rage and humiliation of my quondam friends in
hearing the truth, at least from me, for the first time, and when I am
beyond the reach of their malice. . . . What grief," continued Byron,
laughing, "could resist the charges of ugliness, dulness, or any of
the thousand nameless defects, personal or mental, 'that flesh is heir
to,' when reprisal or recantation was impossible? . . . People are in
such daily habits of commenting on the defects of friends, that they
are unconscious of the unkindness of it. . . Now, I write down as well
as speak my sentiments of those who think they have gulled me; and I
only wish, in case I die before them, that I might return to witness
the effects my posthumous opinions of them are likely to produce in
their minds. What good fun this would be! . . . You don't seem to
value this as you ought," said Byron with one of his sardonic smiles,
seeing I looked, as I really felt, surprised at his avowed
insincerity. "I feel the same pleasure in anticipating the rage and
mortification of my soi-disant friends at the discovery of my real
sentiments of them, that a miser may be supposed to feel while making
a will that will disappoint all the expectants that have been toadying
him for years. Then how amusing it will be to compare my posthumous
with my previously given opinions, the one throwing ridicule on the
other!"'

It is asserted, in a note to 'The Noctes,' that Byron, besides his
Autobiography, prepared a voluminous dictionary of all his friends and
acquaintances, in which brief notes of their persons and character were
given, with his opinion of them. It was not considered that the
publication of this would add to the noble lord's popularity; and it has
never appeared.

In Hunt's Life of Byron, there is similar testimony. Speaking of Byron's
carelessness in exposing his friends' secrets, and showing or giving away
their letters, he says,--


'If his five hundred confidants, by a reticence as remarkable as his
laxity, had not kept his secrets better than he did himself, the very
devil might have been played with I don't know how many people. But
there was always this saving reflection to be made, that the man who
could be guilty of such extravagances for the sake of making an
impression might be guilty of exaggeration, or inventing what
astonished you; and indeed, though he was a speaker of the truth on
ordinary occasions,--that is to say, he did not tell you he had seen a
dozen horses when he had seen only two,--yet, as he professed not to
value the truth when in the way of his advantage (and there was
nothing he thought more to his advantage than making you stare at
him), the persons who were liable to suffer from his incontinence had
all the right in the world to the benefit of this consideration.'
{205a}

With a person of such mental and moral habits as to truth, the inquiry
always must be, Where does mystification end, and truth begin?

If a man is careless about his father's reputation for sanity, and
reports him a crazy suicide; if he gaily accuses his publisher and good
friend of double-dealing, shuffling, and dishonesty; if he tells stories
about Mrs. Clermont, {205b} to which his sister offers a public
refutation,--is it to be supposed that he will always tell the truth
about his wife, when the world is pressing him hard, and every instinct
of self-defence is on the alert?

And then the ingenuity that could write and publish false documents about
himself, that they might reappear in London papers,--to what other
accounts might it not be turned? Might it not create documents, invent
statements, about his wife as well as himself?

The document so ostentatiously given to M. G. Lewis 'for circulation
among friends in England' was a specimen of what the Noctes Club would
call 'bamming.'

If Byron wanted a legal investigation, why did he not take it in the
first place, instead of signing the separation? If he wanted to cancel
it, as he said in this document, why did he not go to London, and enter a
suit for the restitution of conjugal rights, or a suit in chancery to get
possession of his daughter? That this was in his mind, passages in
Medwin's 'Conversations' show. He told Lady Blessington also that he
might claim his daughter in chancery at any time.

Why did he not do it? Either of these two steps would have brought on
that public investigation he so longed for. Can it be possible that all
the friends who passed this private document from hand to hand never
suspected that they were being 'bammed' by it?

But it has been universally assumed, that, though Byron was thus
remarkably given to mystification, yet all his statements in regard to
this story are to be accepted, simply because he makes them. Why must we
accept them, any more than his statements as to Murray or his own father?

So we constantly find Lord Byron's incidental statements coming in
collision with those of others: for example, in his account of his
marriage, he tells Medwin that Lady Byron's maid was put between his
bride and himself, on the same seat, in the wedding journey. The lady's
maid herself, Mrs. Mimms, says she was sent before them to Halnaby, and
was there to receive them when they alighted.

He said of Lady Byron's mother, 'She always detested me, and had not the
decency to conceal it in her own house. Dining with her one day, I broke
a tooth, and was in great pain; which I could not help showing. "It will
do you good," said Lady Noel; "I am glad of it!"'

Lady Byron says, speaking of her mother, 'She always treated him with an
affectionate consideration and indulgence, which extended to every little
peculiarity of his feelings. Never did an irritating word escape her.'

Lord Byron states that the correspondence between him and Lady Byron,
after his refusal, was first opened by her. Lady Byron's friends deny
the statement, and assert that the direct contrary is the fact.

Thus we see that Lord Byron's statements are directly opposed to those of
his family in relation to his father; directly against Murray's accounts,
and his own admission to Murray; directly against the statement of the
lady's maid as to her position in the journey; directly against Mrs.
Leigh's as to Mrs. Clermont, and against Lady Byron as to her mother.

We can see, also, that these misstatements were so fully perceived by the
men of his times, that Medwin's 'Conversations' were simply laughed at as
an amusing instance of how far a man might be made the victim of a
mystification. Christopher North thus sentences the book:--


'I don't mean to call Medwin a liar . . . The captain lies, sir, but
it is under a thousand mistakes. Whether Byron bammed him, or he, by
virtue of his own egregious stupidity, was the sole and sufficient
bammifier of himself, I know not; neither greatly do I care. This
much is certain, . . . that the book throughout is full of things that
were not, and most resplendently deficient quoad the things that
were.'

Yet it is on Medwin's 'Conversations' alone that many of the magazine
assertions in regard to Lady Byron are founded.

It is on that authority that Lady Byron is accused of breaking open her
husband's writing-desk in his absence, and sending the letters she found
there to the husband of a lady compromised by them; and likewise that
Lord Byron is declared to have paid back his wife's ten-thousand-pound
wedding portion, and doubled it. Moore makes no such statements; and his
remarks about Lord Byron's use of his wife's money are unmistakable
evidence to the contrary. Moore, although Byron's ardent partisan, was
too well informed to make assertions with regard to him, which, at that
time, it would have been perfectly easy to refute.

All these facts go to show that Lord Byron's character for accuracy or
veracity was not such as to entitle him to ordinary confidence as a
witness, especially in a case where he had the strongest motives for
misstatement.

And if we consider that the celebrated Autobiography was the finished,
careful work of such a practised 'mystifier,' who can wonder that it
presented a web of such intermingled truth and lies that there was no
such thing as disentangling it, and pointing out where falsehood ended
and truth began?

But in regard to Lady Byron, what has been the universal impression of
the world? It has been alleged against her that she was a precise,
straightforward woman, so accustomed to plain, literal dealings, that she
could not understand the various mystifications of her husband; and from
that cause arose her unhappiness. Byron speaks, in 'The Sketch,' of her
peculiar truthfulness; and even in the 'Clytemnestra' poem, when accusing
her of lying, he speaks of her as departing from


'The early truth that was her proper praise.'

Lady Byron's careful accuracy as to dates, to time, place, and
circumstances, will probably be vouched for by all the very large number
of persons whom the management of her extended property and her works of
benevolence brought to act as co-operators or agents with her. She was
not a person in the habit of making exaggerated or ill-considered
statements. Her published statement of 1830 is clear, exact, accurate,
and perfectly intelligible. The dates are carefully ascertained and
stated, the expressions are moderate, and all the assertions firm and
perfectly definite.

It therefore seems remarkable that the whole reasoning on this Byron
matter has generally been conducted by assuming all Lord Byron's
statements to be true, and requiring all Lady Byron's statements to be
sustained by other evidence.

If Lord Byron asserts that his wife deserted him, the assertion is
accepted without proof; but, if Lady Byron asserts that he ordered her to
leave, that requires proof. Lady Byron asserts that she took counsel, on
this order of Lord Byron, with his family friends and physician, under
the idea that it originated in insanity. The 'Blackwood' asks, "What
family friends?' says it doesn't know of any; and asks proof.

If Lord Byron asserts that he always longed for a public investigation of
the charges against him, the 'Quarterly' and 'Blackwood' quote the saying
with ingenuous confidence. They are obliged to admit that he refused to
stand that public test; that he signed the deed of separation rather than
meet it. They know, also, that he could have at any time instituted
suits against Lady Byron that would have brought the whole matter into
court, and that he did not. Why did he not? The 'Quarterly' simply
intimates that such suits would have been unpleasant. Why? On account
of personal delicacy? The man that wrote 'Don Juan,' and furnished the
details of his wedding-night, held back from clearing his name by
delicacy! It is astonishing to what extent this controversy has
consisted in simply repeating Lord Byron's assertions over and over
again, and calling the result proof.

Now, we propose a different course. As Lady Byron is not stated by her
warm admirers to have had any monomania for speaking untruths on any
subject, we rank her value as a witness at a higher rate than Lord
Byron's. She never accused her parents of madness or suicide, merely to
make a sensation; never 'bammed' an acquaintance by false statements
concerning the commercial honour of anyone with whom she was in business
relations; never wrote and sent to the press as a clever jest false
statements about herself; and never, in any other ingenious way, tampered
with truth. We therefore hold it to be a mere dictate of reason and
common sense, that, in all cases where her statements conflict with her
husband's, hers are to be taken as the more trustworthy.

The 'London Quarterly,' in a late article, distinctly repudiates Lady
Byron's statements as sources of evidence, and throughout quotes
statements of Lord Byron as if they had the force of self-evident
propositions. We consider such a course contrary to common sense as well
as common good manners.

The state of the case is just this: If Lord Byron did not make false
statements on this subject it was certainly an exception to his usual
course. He certainly did make such on a great variety of other subjects.
By his own showing, he had a peculiar pleasure in falsifying language,
and in misleading and betraying even his friends.

But, if Lady Byron gave false witness upon this subject, it was an
exception to the whole course of her life.

The habits of her mind, the government of her conduct, her life-long
reputation, all were those of a literal, exact truthfulness.

The accusation of her being untruthful was first brought forward by her
husband in the 'Clytemnestra' poem, in the autumn of 1816; but it never
was publicly circulated till after his death, and it was first formally
made the basis of a published attack on Lady Byron in the July
'Blackwood' of 1869. Up to that time, we look in vain through current
literature for any indications that the world regarded Lady Byron
otherwise than as a cold, careful, prudent woman, who made no assertions,
and had no confidants. When she spoke in 1830, it is perfectly evident
that Christopher North and his circle believed what she said, though
reproving her for saying it at all.

The 'Quarterly' goes on to heap up a number of vague assertions,--that
Lady Byron, about the time of her separation, made a confidant of a young
officer; that she told the clergyman of Ham of some trials with Lord
Ockham; and that she told stories of different things at different times.

All this is not proof: it is mere assertion, and assertion made to
produce prejudice. It is like raising a whirlwind of sand to blind the
eyes that are looking for landmarks. It is quite probable Lady Byron
told different stories about Lord Byron at various times. No woman could
have a greater variety of stories to tell; and no woman ever was so
persecuted and pursued and harassed, both by public literature and
private friendship, to say something. She had plenty of causes for a
separation, without the fatal and final one. In her conversations with
Lady Anne Barnard, for example, she gives reasons enough for a
separation, though none of them are the chief one. It is not different
stories, but contradictory stories, that must be relied on to disprove
the credibility of a witness. The 'Quarterly' has certainly told a great
number of different stories,--stories which may prove as irreconcilable
with each other as any attributed to Lady Byron; but its denial of all
weight to her testimony is simply begging the whole question under
consideration.

A man gives testimony about the causes of a railroad accident, being the
only eye-witness.

The opposing counsel begs, whatever else you do, you will not admit that
man's testimony. You ask, 'Why? Has he ever been accused of want of
veracity on other subjects?'--'No: he has stood high as a man of probity
and honour for years.'--'Why, then, throw out his testimony?'

'Because he lies in this instance,' says the adversary: 'his testimony
does not agree with this and that.'--'Pardon me, that is the very point
in question,' say you: 'we expect to prove that it does agree with this
and that.'

Because certain letters of Lady Byron's do not agree with the
'Quarterly's' theory of the facts of the separation, it at once assumes
that she is an untruthful witness, and proposes to throw out her evidence
altogether.

We propose, on the contrary, to regard Lady Byron's evidence with all the
attention due to the statement of a high-minded conscientious person,
never in any other case accused of violation of truth; we also propose to
show it to be in strict agreement with all well-authenticated facts and
documents; and we propose to treat Lord Byron's evidence as that of a man
of great subtlety, versed in mystification and delighting in it, and who,
on many other subjects, not only deceived, but gloried in deception; and
then we propose to show that it contradicts well-established facts and
received documents.

One thing more we have to say concerning the laws of evidence in regard
to documents presented in this investigation.

This is not a London West-End affair, but a grave historical inquiry, in
which the whole English-speaking world are interested to know the truth.

As it is now too late to have the securities of a legal trial, certainly
the rules of historical evidence should be strictly observed. All
important documents should be presented in an entire state, with a plain
and open account of their history,--who had them, where they were found,
and how preserved.

There have been most excellent, credible, and authentic documents
produced in this case; and, as a specimen of them, we shall mention Lord
Lindsay's letter, and the journal and letter it authenticates. Lord
Lindsay at once comes forward, gives his name boldly, gives the history
of the papers he produces, shows how they came to be in his hands, why
never produced before, and why now. We feel confidence at once.

But in regard to the important series of letters presented as Lady
Byron's, this obviously proper course has not been pursued. Though
assumed to be of the most critical importance, no such distinct history
of them was given in the first instance. The want of such evidence being
noticed by other papers, the 'Quarterly' appears hurt that the high
character of the magazine has not been a sufficient guarantee; and still
deals in vague statements that the letters have been freely circulated,
and that two noblemen of the highest character would vouch for them if
necessary.

In our view, it is necessary. These noblemen should imitate Lord
Lindsay's example,--give a fair account of these letters, under their own
names; and then, we would add, it is needful for complete satisfaction to
have the letters entire, and not in fragments.

The 'Quarterly' gave these letters with the evident implication that they
are entirely destructive to Lady Byron's character as a witness. Now,
has that magazine much reason to be hurt at even an insinuation on its
own character when making such deadly assaults on that of another? The
individuals who bring forth documents that they suppose to be deadly to
the character of a noble person, always in her generation held to be
eminent for virtue, certainly should not murmur at being called upon to
substantiate these documents in the manner usually expected in historical
investigations.

We have shown that these letters do not contradict, but that they
perfectly confirm the facts, and agree with the dates in Lady Byron's
published statements of 1830; and this is our reason for deeming them
authentic.

These considerations with regard to the manner of conducting the inquiry
seem so obviously proper, that we cannot but believe that they will
command a serious attention.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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