Annabella Milbanke was still a very young women when she met Lord Byron, but she wasn’t going to throw herself at him the way many others in her set did. Independent, highly intelligent, and well educated, she actually felt a little sorry for the poet. After hearing him complain once about loneliness, she wrote him a letter offering to be his friend, but no more. That started their courtship, but it took several years for Byron to convince her to marry him. Reading about their romance in this fascinating, eye-opening, multi-generational biography, I wanted to leap through the pages, grab her by the shoulders, and shout, “No! Don’t do it!” But even after everything that happened in the short time they managed to live together as husband and wife, and all the ways her eyes were eventually opened to the kind of man Bryon really was, it sounds like she didn’t regret her decision to wed the original Byronic “hero”.
My previous encounters with Lord Byron usually left me with a feeling of good-natured indulgence toward him, “Oh, that crazy poet!” But while reading about him in this book I experienced a rising sense of horror–was he rabidly abusive because he was insane, as other members of his family were rumored to have been, was he “just” a cruel, self-indulgent beast of a man warped by a difficult childhood? Regency era morality may have been part of the problem, but his actions went well beyond even those norms.
Byron berated and threatened Annabella from the first days of their marriage. She had no idea then why his behavior toward her changed so quickly, and she didn’t know that part of the reason Byron wanted to marry her was to cover up the incestuous relationship he had with his sister, Augusta Leigh. He also had affairs with many other married women including Annabella’s aunt, Lady Melbourne, and her sister-in-law, Caroline Lamb. After learning all this Annabella still hoped to “save” him, but following the birth of their daughter he threw her out, never saw his daughter Ada again, happily used Annabella’s family money to fund his expensive eccentric lifestyle and adventures on the Continent–including outfitting a Greek band of freedom fighters–and then died overseas with Annabella’s name on his lips, unable to complete whatever last message he had for her, leaving her once again distraught.
Unknown and surprising to me, Annabella has been castigated and considered a villain by many of Byron’s biographers, a viewpoint Julia Markus counters forcefully in this book. According to her research many of their facts were wrong, and the “genius excuses cruelty” defense of Byron is a foul argument in any case.
After her separation from Byron, Annabella became a politically liberal philanthropist, funding and setting up schools, assisting and advocating for the poor, and opposing slavery. The “daughters” in the title refers to both Ada, the brilliant child of Annabella and Byron, but also to Medora, Byron’s daughter by his sister. Medora was a troubled young lady and Annabella unofficially adopted her after she was essentially abandoned by her own mother. Ada became famous because of her computer science insights, long before there were any computers to be had, and she can probably thank her mother for those abilities because Annabella was also drawn to and gifted in mathematics–early in their relationship Byron called Annabella “my Princess of Parallelograms”.
In addition to Annabella, her two daughters and her three grandchildren, this multi-person biography also has interesting side trips into into the lives of a number of other notable people of the nineteenth century, including Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Annabella’s first biography.
I was initially put off by the writing style of this book–it felt choppy and sometimes awkward to me–a fact I mention only because that sense didn’t last much longer than the first chapter. If other readers feel the same way and consider putting the book down after a few pages I would advise sticking with it in case their experience continues to mirror mine. I soon became enthralled, so either the writing style changed, or I adjusted to its flow, or there wasn’t much problem with it to begin with.
I read an ebook advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through Edelweiss. Review opinions are mine.