The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
Shakespeare’s famous words about Julius Caesar are true for many people but it seems to me that it more often applies to women than to men. Or perhaps we should say that rather than evil, women are more often remembered for their romantic attachments than for their accomplishments. Shakespeare may have started the trend when he wrote Caesar and Cleopatra, which reduces a powerful ruler of Egypt into merely another lovesick woman. As Cleopatra’s biographer Stacy Schiff writes: “It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.”
Another woman to whom this has happened is Lady Annabella Byron, wife of the wildly popular 19th century poet George Gordon (Lord) Byron and mother of Ada Lovelace who is often credited with writing the world’s first computer program. I have blogged about Ada Lovelace before, but only recently discovered what an interesting and productive life her mother, Lady Byron, led.
Born in 1792 to parents who had worried that they were too old to have a child, Annabella Byron was raised in luxury and provided with all the attention that could be given by doting parents, servants and tutors.(One thing that Annabella Byron had in abundance was names—she inherited several titles from various branches of the family—so for convenience I will just call her Lady Byron, the name by which she is best known and the one she preferred.) She grew into a beautiful and intelligent girl who was sought after by the sons of aristocratic families looking for a wealthy and pleasing wife. For several years she lingered in the marriage market turning down eligible suitors that she deemed dull.
When she met Lord Byron, she did not find him dull. He was already a famous poet, and not only for his writing but also for his love affairs and his flamboyant lifestyle. Because of the limited contact that Annabella had with him, she probably did not know that among his friends he was also known for his hot temper, his heavy drinking, and his gambling. Like so many sheltered young women of the time, Annabella probably thought she could bring peace and serenity into his life.
Their marriage was brief. By the end of the first year, Byron’s erratic behavior, his continued infidelities, and his rudeness to Annabella and her parents, led the young bride to flee to her parents’ home. She gave birth to their only child, Ada, a daughter Byron never saw.
Their separation led to a scandal that dominated the rest of Lady Byron’s life and had serious repercussions on her daughter and the rest of the family. Lord Byron left England for the continent, but he lived only six more years, dying in Greece in 1824 at the age of 36. His poetry and his reputation, however, kept his fame alive for the rest of the century.
The aristocrats of English society at this time seemed to be a small circle with many overlapping relationships. Lady Byron was able to raise her daughter in this circle where she was tutored by famous mathematicians and scientists. And Lady Byron herself decided to spend the rest of her life doing good for society. She became a fervent anti-slavery advocate and also expended much of her energy on establishing schools for children of the working class.
During the first half of the 19th century, more than half the women in England were not literate enough to sign their names to a wedding contract, and only about 70 percent of men could. As a committed Unitarian, Lady Byron supported an education based on science and rational thinking rather than on the dogma of the established church, so she set out to establish a network of schools. Her work was influential and caused more support for public education that would prepare working class children for jobs in factories and workshops.
Lady Byron’s social activism was recognized widely enough to earn her a place as one of the few women listed on the Reformers Memorial at Kensal Green. although she did not live long enough to know that. Her work to improve society continued until the end of her life, but she is still remembered by most people only for her short marriage to Lord Byron. For a more balanced picture of her life, I highly recommend Miranda Seymour’s new biography In Byron’s Wake, a double biography of Annabella and her daughter, Ada Lovelace. It is a fascinating book and gives us a new perspective on several well-known figures.