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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLady Byron Vindicated - Part 2 - Chapter 4. The Character Of The Two Witnesses Compared
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Lady Byron Vindicated - Part 2 - Chapter 4. The Character Of The Two Witnesses Compared Post by :add2it Category :Nonfictions Author :Harriet Beecher Stowe Date :May 2012 Read :3302

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Lady Byron Vindicated - Part 2 - 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} (Note: {205a} Hunt's Byron, p.77. Philadelphia, 1828.)

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?

(Note: {205b} From the Temple Bar article, October 1869. 'Mrs. Leigh, Lord Byron's sister, had other thoughts of Mrs. Clermont, and wrote to her offering public testimony to her tenderness and forbearance under circumstances which must have been trying to any friend of Lady Byron.'--Campbell, in the New Monthly Magazine, 183O, p.38O.)

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.

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