Was Gordon, Lord Byron, mad?

At one point, as their brief marriage came to an end, Byron’s wife Annabelle Millbanke (or her mother) sought the opinion of his doctor whether the tempestuous poet was insane.

In a tepid endorsement of his patient’s mental state, the doctor replied that he had not observed any “settled lunacy.”

Still… his dissolute father, who deserted him, “Mad Jack” Byron was allegedly unstable (he may have slit his won throat after a bout of heavy drinking in France). Then, there was his Grand-father, Admiral “Foul Weather, Jack” Byron, who had a reputation for stormy tempers as well as bad luck with storms at sea…

Annabelle was deeply unhappy in the marriage; as was Byron. She hated London and disliked Byron’s acquaintance with theatre people, pugilists, godless intellectual liberals and political skeptics. She was in love with her husband, however, and foolishly attempted to attach herself to him through a close friendship with his half-sister Augusta whose incestuous relations with Byron she refused to acknowledge, even when presented with the child of that liaison, Medora Leigh.

He was drinking too much and taking laudanum (an opiate syrup). He was loud, irresponsible and angrily unhappy — with himself as much as with Annabelle —. especially when his wife insisted on having his sister Augusta stay with them. He drunkenly teased and insulted Annabelle in front of his sister and forced her to take refuge, for a while, in Augusta’s simple-minded friendship and her own half-mystical religious determination somehow to ‘save’ them both. Finally as the birth of their first child approached and Byron became still more erratic, with fits of temper in which he smashed decanters or clocks or furniture. Annabelle came to depend on Augusta, despite Byron’s evident preference for his sister’s company over hers.

Still, his doctor was very likely right; there was an element of hysteria and play-acting in Byron’s behaviour around this time. Perhaps a juvenile pique at his hopeless financial situation and his foolish marriage. He was beset by debts whose interest he was unable to pay (a bailiff moved into the elaborate Piccadilly townhouse — rented with Annabelle’s money — sleeping on the stair and selling up whatever he could move). Byron was unable to realize any value from his main asset, Newstead Abbey, and now surrounded in London society by rumours of immorality and cruelty, probably spread by his neurotic former lover — and now notorious “stalker” — Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of his friend William (later Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne).

He could have offered — his friends did offer — plausible explanations, if not excuses for his actions. He, too, was unhappy with marriage to a woman whom he did not respect; who probably loved some ideal image of him and disapproved of the rest. He had lost the freedom of his glittering London literary life, and gained in place of the parents who had been absent all through his youth, boring, censorious parents-in-law.

He and Annabelle could settle briefly into quiet habits while he was distracted by work. During these times she, at first, did everything to please him and was rewarded briefly by Byron’s sentimental affection. But it would never last.

Published by


Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *