Shakespeare’s Sister

Shakespeare’s Sister

IN BYRON’S WAKE: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter: Annabella Milbanke & Ada Lovelace, Miranda Seymour, Simon & Schuster, 2018, £25, reviewed by STODDARD MARTIN

What is it about Bryon that provokes such fascination? His self-possession, his wit, his self-destructive daring? Certainly the women touched by him lived duller lives once he had vanished. Miranda Seymour’s new book testifies to this, coming to life when the lame poet arrives on stage and ebbing towards inanition in what she aptly calls his ‘wake’ – except of course when questions surrounding his character or career would resurface, as they often did. It is a bold stroke for a woman of our generation to grant key focus to a man in what is essentially a gallery of miniatures of his women and issue. But Miranda Seymour is confident enough of her powers as person and scholar not to let her portraits be disfigured by partisanship for gender.

She writes as a frank, un-shockable, intelligent female rather than as a feminist. The Byron saga, told so frequently by men, is reviewed through her eyes to show its protagonist’s frailties, rumbling the mask of machismo his type tends to wear, if in this case more flamboyantly than most. Seymour neither mocks nor resents him, though at one point she chastises a previous woman writer for ‘excessive devotion to the man and his work’[1]. Byron in her hands is less hero than wayward young man, a correction that in some moods the mercurial poet might have welcomed. Byron the legend becomes Byron the crossed husband and then, once offstage and spun via memory of his estranged wife and child, a legend again, though not quite of the style favoured by Pushkin or Hugo or Verdi, more related to some monstre sacre of an English public schoolgirl’s reflections – Byron house-brokenly situated in a feminized order of rank.

Seymour herself comes of a grand family. She inherits from the best of her tradition a tolerant and inclusive Whig point of view. Her grandfather was a hopeful writer turned generous patron to numerous cultural celebrities of the first half of the past century, from Bernard Shaw to Thomas Beecham to Dylan Thomas, whose forename was inspired by a libretto he wrote for an opera on Welsh heroic themes mounted at Covent Garden on the eve of the World War I. Cousin and ex-wife to prominent literary figures of our own day-before-yesterday, Seymour has enjoyed a career of penning fêted works on, among others, Mary Shelley, Ottoline Morrell and ‘the Bugatti queen’, as well as an arresting memoir about her own formative years. She has helped to refresh 19th and early 20th century literary perspectives by directing our attention to women related to or standing alongside great men. Her undertaking in this book carries on in that vein.

This endeavour to expand our view of prior eras is assisted in this case by the fact that communication was based then mainly on letters, and copious archives exist when it comes to those of education and status. Given vast source material on which to draw, an author is obliged to judge how much is enough. The ‘non-fiction novellas’ on various figures of the Byron epoch by Seymour’s near contemporary Linda Kelly have long seemed to this reader to constitute a relative ideal. The pith of the matter can be consumed and digested in a short space; one need not linger at table too long or be forced through too many courses. The judicious author lets the recipient of her fare avoid surfeit: an embarras de richesse of material may be tempting to serve up in full, but best not to do so, especially if the matter is not wholly of the first rank.

In the case of Byron – one of the great letter writers of all time – indulgence may be extended. In the cases of Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace, specialists may be hungry for more than the general reader is likely to want. Lives of women of their class in their times were for better or worse filled with considerations that the more liberated and thrusting women of our era would find fluffy. Denied a determinative place in the great world, they jostled to establish dominion over the quotidian, the domestic, the psychological, the vaporous, in what might now be called ‘displacement activity’. Their letters often involve descent into gossip, thence to recrimination or self-pity. Such conditions deserve sympathy, up to a point; thereafter attention may stray. What is important finally is the question. What merits our focus on them now?

Filling the idleness beyond managing country houses and caring (or not) for offspring, the grand dames focused on education – new schools for the underprivileged in the case of the widow Lady Byron; mathematics in that of her daughter, who, on marriage, acquired the bespoke title Lady Lovelace[2]. Claims are made for both: that the mother was a doughty pioneer for uplift of the masses and the daughter a visionary in development of what currently so affects our lives: computer and internet. There is perforce a shadow of agenda behind this: to show that women in that unenlightened epoch could accomplish more than is normally thought, struggling and winning vs gender prejudice and neglect. Such an assertion must be qualified in these cases by status, as Seymour amply demonstrates: i.e., their ladyships would have accomplished much less were it not for money and connections, the latter not least to a major star of the age.

Readership in our times may be less put off by this qualification than put on by the ‘modernising’ urge to reshape history (and biography) from a woman’s perspective. In the period since this has arrived into vogue, there are some really useful examples: Brenda Maddox’s studies on the wives of Joyce, Lawrence and Yeats come to mind; also work on the author of Frankenstein to which Seymour has contributed. Whether the mother and daughter who struggled to achievement through decades ‘in Byron’s wake’ merit similar attention is a question this book leaves one to ponder. Did Annabella’s contribution to education really represent much more than a de haut en bas dabbling, impelled by desire to feel great and good in the midst of too many otherwise idle hours? As for Ada’s proclaimed central role in envisaging artificial intelligence – was it more than another inspired strand in the longings of a dilettante to distinguish herself as poet, harp-player, singer, musical composer, aeronauticist and so on, moved in large part by desire to live up to a mythos of imaginative pre-eminence she felt belonged to her by virtue of inheritance from a father who had disappeared from her life mere months after she was born?

The ‘extravagance of all the thoughts and schemes that coursed unchecked through her shifting, skimming mind’ could not prevent Ada from lapsing into folly and expiring like her ‘quicksilver’ progenitor at age thirty-six. Annabella lived on to be known as something of a saint by some and a tyrant by others; shrewd and powerful as she aged, she became a noble benefactress or monster after her death, depending on who was taking the view. Seymour herself is generous to both figures, if never blind to their faults. She is acute too on the affect and effect of the hovering presences of Byron’s half-sister Augusta and their probable incestuous daughter Medora, Annabella’s alliances and rivalries with the first, Ada’s openness to and subsequent rage at the second (who also, as from a congenital curse, died following a career of folly in her mid-thirties). Here is a realm of familial stress that few male authors would be likely to map out with quite the same acuity; and again, Seymour is impressive for the sophisticated tolerance of her delineations, even if their exhaustiveness sometimes borders on the exhausting.

A Bildungsroman rarely runs to the dimensions of Buddenbrooks nowadays, and for style as for scope Seymour’s approach may at turns seem a touch old-fashioned. That said, many will be happy to be seated in furniture more Biedermeier than Deco, reading in weighty hardback sentences propelled by liberal use of adjective and adverb. Seymour herself is chatelaine of a stately home, and it would be prodigious for such a berceau to produce a literary work that is not best consumed in a capacious armchair. Some readers might be lulled into wanting to lounge there on and on, no longer quite noting the tedium of the vitae being described. Others may rise up uncomfortably on learning that Ada Lovelace could accede to separating her sons indefinitely from their sister out of fear of recrudescence of her father’s alleged incest, or that Annabella Byron could so airily neglect to provide lunch for her undernourished grandchildren or that family elders could so easily deem it desirable to exile the eldest to Tasmania, aged 13, not to see home again for three years, and to ostracise him for the ‘irregularity’ of his ambitions ever after.

Within the mores of the English ruling class of the day, such conduct may have seemed barely culpable or even strange. Seymour, whether consciously always or not, enables us to observe how essentially connected this class was, its interrelations stretching between earls and prime ministers, poetasters and countesses, gatekeepers of universities and editors of journals, ever with such affections and rivalries as that most telling of adjectives ‘familial’ connotes. While in general not disloyal to this class, Seymour is too clear-eyed to prevent us from discerning how, when harassed or traduced, the collectivity might close in, operating as a kind of Cosa Nostra: a mafia employing its own subtle forms of omertà – the muffling, the marginalising, the suppressing, the suffocating. Byron of course felt this, not least at the hands of his wife and her people, and, ever the dissident, adopted Milton’s renegade’s ‘Non serviam’. He fled, suffered for it and did not return. Those who wonder how he grew to hold such a mystique over a century prey to what Mario Praz dubbed ‘the romantic agony’ need search little further for an answer.


[1] Doris Langley Moore
[2] Lady Byron prevailed on her cousin the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to ‘upgrade’ her daughter and husband to an earldom. The role played in this by Melbourne’s earlier cuckholding by Byron is untold. He had been married to the mad, bad and dangerous Caroline Lamb

Dr Stoddard Martin is an academic, author and publisher

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