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Excerpt from In Byron's Wake by Miranda Seymour, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In Byron's Wake

The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron's Wife and Daughter: Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace

by Miranda Seymour

In Byron's Wake by Miranda Seymour X
In Byron's Wake by Miranda Seymour
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2018, 560 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 3, 2020, 568 pages

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"The little boy [Hugo, an orphaned nephew of Mary Montgomery] is a very nice child on the whole he speaks nothing but Italian and Spanish which I now perfectly understand."

–Ada Byron, aged eight, to her mother. 7th December 1824.

Lord Byron was exceptionally angry to discover, early in 1817, that Annabella, advised by his own former legal counsel, Sir Samuel Romilly, had made their daughter a Ward of Chancery. (Formally, Ada remained in Chancery until 1825, a year after her father's death.) Nevertheless, he never doubted that his estranged wife would make an excellent and conscientious parent to little Ada. "A girl is in all cases better with the mother," Byron informed Augusta Leigh (by then the mother of seven) on 21 December 1820, "unless there is some moral objection."

Claire Clairmont, having courageously decided to bring up Clara Allegra, her illegitimate child by Byron, as part of Percy Shelley's bohemian household, was granted less respect. Byron liked Shelley and admired the poet's wife, Mary, but the couple's proclaimed aversion to monogamy presented the "moral objection" of which he disapproved (in anyone other than himself). While Annabella was threatened with a lawsuit if she dared to expose young Ada to the dangers of continental travel, the Shelleys, in 1818, were commanded to arrange for little Allegra's transportation from England to Italy, where Claire was tearfully compelled to surrender her maternal rights. Byron's caution about continental travel was well-founded. The Shelleys' own baby daughter (another Clara) died of dysentery at Venice in September 1818. Their son William died of malaria in Rome the following summer. Clara Allegra - a child whose extraordinary resemblance to (of all people) Annabella was immediately noticed both by Byron and his valet, Fletcher - died of malaria or typhus in an Italian convent in 1822. She was five years old.

Byron, from afar, expressed an erratic but fatherly interest in his legitimate child. His parting gift to Ada had been one of his talismanic rings. Further small gifts were despatched while off upon his alpine travels in the summer of 1816, followed in due course by a locket, inscribed, in Italian: "Blood is thicker than water." He asked for his daughter to be taught music (in which neither parent had any skill) and Italian (a language for which Annabella shared her husband's deep love).

A taste for poetry, however, was to be discouraged in the child of the greatest poet of the age. Arriving in Greece in the autumn of 1823, and about to embark upon what would prove to be his last adventure, Byron made his feelings clear in a letter that entreated his wife (via Augusta) to provide him with a full report of their daughter, now almost seven years old.

Is the Girl imaginative?... Is she social or solitary - taciturn or talkative - fond of reading or otherwise? and what is her tic? I mean her foible - is she passionate? I hope that the Gods have made her anything save poetical - it is enough to have one such fool in a family.

Annabella delayed her response, possibly because Ada at the time was experiencing her first serious illness and her mother did not want to raise alarm. On 1 December, six weeks after her husband's enquiry, Lady Byron sent him a miniature (the artist prided herself on having captured a perfect likeness of Ada's profile), together with the details he required.

Her prevailing characteristic is cheerfulness and good-temper. Observation. Not devoid of imagination, but it is chiefly exercised in connection with her mechanical ingenuity - the manufacture of ships and boats etc. Prefers prose to verse... Not very persevering. Draws well. Tall and robust.

Annabella was never to receive Byron's grateful response for a letter he described as her first kind action since the seemingly tender address to "dearest Duck" that she had written even as she left him, back in 1816. The letter in which he expressed his gratitude - while fondly noting the similarities to his own boyish self in his wife's account of little Ada - was still lying, unsent, on the poet's desk at Missolonghi at the time that he died.

From In Byron's Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron's Wife and Daughter. Courtesy of Pegasus Books. Copyright 2018 by Miranda Seymour.

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