LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Ralph Milbanke, Earl of Lovelace:
Astarte: a Fragment of Truth


I. Byron Characteristics
II. Three Stages of Lord Byron’s Life
III. Manfred
IV. Correspondence of Augusta Byron
V. Anne Isabella Byron
VI. Lady Byron’s Policy of Silence
VII. Informers and Defamers
VIII. “When We Dead Awake”
IX. Lady Byron and Mrs. Leigh (I)
X. Lady Byron and Mrs. Leigh (II)
XI. Byron and Augusta
Notes by the Editor

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In Ralph Earl of Lovelace: a Memoir (1920) the Countess of Lovelace recalls an evening in the winter of 1899-1900: “My husband was walking up and down the room trying to ease the fever of his soul by talking out the everlasting dilemma, how to hide the faults of one ancestor without doing black injustice to another, how to suppress truth without adding to a mountain of lies. I was listening for the hundredth time with indescribable weariness, and in secret revolt as the sacrifice of his life, at the constant waste of talents and energy in the effort to solve an insoluble problem and at the hateful atmosphere of the miserable story which he was compelled to have constantly in his thoughts. He wound up his complaints with ‘Oh! if I could have peace!’” pp. 142-43.
Ralph Milbanke, second earl of Lovelace (1839-1906) found peace by writing Astarte, the labor of his old age, published in 1905 in an edition of 200 copies. Lovelace was the grandson of Lord Byron and was raised by Lady Byron after the early death of his mother, Ada Byron King, in 1852. His grandmother’s ideas about education were peculiar, but he respected the willful old lady and upon her death in 1860 determined to vindicate her reputation from the injuries it had received from friends and foes alike. To that end, it was necessary for him to discover the truth about relations between Byron, Lady Byron, and Augusta Leigh that had been the subject of rumor and speculation for as long as he could remember. More than three decades of research went into the writing of Astarte.
Expecting a custody battle over Ada, Lady Byron early began gathering letters and documents to demonstrate the real grounds of her separation from her husband even as she remained studiously silent about the affair in public. She made common cause with Augusta Leigh, who was in an equally ticklish situation, depending on a legacy from the poet to support her improvident and impoverished family even as she depended on Lady Byron’s silence to protect her reputation and position at court. The possibility that a copy of Byron’s suppressed memoir might yet surface would have given both women cause for concern and reason to retain documents in their possession: it was important to Augusta Byron that she be perceived as being on good terms with Lady Byron, and important to Lady Byron, if called upon, to be able to demonstrate her husband’s unfitness as a father. Letters that would otherwise have been destroyed were thus carefully laid up, Lady Byron’s in a metal box placed under the guardianship of three trustees.
The incestuous relationship between Lord Byron and Augusta Leigh was something of an open secret: Lady Caroline Lamb had revealed it at the time, and of course Byron had alluded to it in his poetry. The charge of incest was first made in print by John Fox in an essay published in the Temple Bar in June 1869, followed almost immediately by the revelations of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Medora Leigh whose autobiography was posthumously published in 1869. Yet in the absence of documentary evidence people refused to accept the unthinkable. The Murray publishing house, which had a large financial stake in keeping Byron’s memory green, responded to Stowe’s article and book by publishing selections from Augusta Leigh’s correspondence in the Quarterly Review in a pair of articles by Abraham Hayward that cast Lady Byron in a bad light. Ralph Milbanke, then Lord Wentworth, who believed in the story of incest but despised Stowe’s betrayal of trust, redoubled his efforts to get at the family papers in order to demonstrate that his grandmother had been slandered by Byron’s defenders.
There began the real-life equivalent of the story that Henry James would fictionalize in the Aspern Papers (1888). The box was technically the property of Wentworth’s estranged father, but access was only to be had through the quarreling trustees, who denied it to all and sundry. Blocked in that direction, Wentworth obtained access to other Byron material, including Byron’s correspondence with Lady Melbourne owned by the daughter of John Cam Hobhouse, Lady Dorchester. There was a very real possibility that documents would be destroyed or mutilated, so he made careful copies, even copies of copies for greater security. In 1887 he summarized what he then knew in an unpublished book, Lady Noel Byron and the Leighs. Only after the deaths of the first earl of Lovelace and the last of the trustees in December 1893 did Wentworth obtain possession of the long-sought-after papers. But what to do with them?
In 1896, Lord Lovelace (as he had since become) agreed to become editor-in-chief of the Coleridge-Prothero edition of Byron’s works to be published by Murray, and almost immediately found himself crosswise with the publisher: John Murray IV sought to enhance Byron’s reputation; Lovelace, strictly concerned with family honor, sought to redeem Lady Byron’s. Murray was willing to suppress some Byron materials to gain access to others, but Lovelace’s ideas about control extended even to preventing republication of Byron letters that had been printed by Thomas Moore. He was appalled to discover copies he had lent to Murray for inspection set up in proof and in 1899 he resigned his position as editor. Things then reverted to where they had stood before; Murray and Prothero could and did publish the letters in their possession, but those did not include material directly bearing on the incest question.
This arrangement was not satisfactory to Lovelace, who unlike Murray wanted the incest matter proven beyond doubt. Hence his decision to compose Astarte, written to address the “the everlasting dilemma, [of] how to hide the faults of one ancestor without doing black injustice to another.” Astarte is a difficult, contorted book, as much about the Earl of Lovelace as it is about his ancestors whose actions and motives were, goodness knows, complicated enough. It was not written for public consumption and assumes a knowledge of nineteenth century discussions of “The Byron Mystery” that modern readers are unlikely to possess; indeed it was written with a sovereign contempt for the broader public Murray was trying to reach.
Lovelace devotes much of Astarte to wreaking revenge on persons he regarded as hostile to Lady Byron, a group that included the House of Murray and all who were ever associated with it; not only Augusta Leigh, but Thomas Moore and Byron’s coterie of friends and defenders. But neither does he represent Lady Byron as the saintly victim her defenders had been wont to invoke. He knew her well and had studied her carefully, and above all else wished to clarify the rational motives behind her actions. To that end he goes into minute detail about what she knew, and when, and how. On other matters he was less than forthcoming, publishing only a bare minimum of the copious material at his disposal. Private matters ought not to be shared with booksellers and their clientell:
Upon his [Byron’s] death, faithless and thankless informers turned to the letters they had of his, or their notes of his conversation, for the money that might be in them. A batch of books thus began to be shot into circulation, and to infect a certain public with morbid curiosity. The earliest in the field made little pretence of disinterestedness. Others lay low for a time, watching for some more or less decent pretext. The parasites on Lord Byron who brought out books worked upon imperfect information with little accuracy. Their insight was small; they were wanting in good faith. The “Conversation with Lady Blessington” was the only comparatively creditable book—but she was not a parasite. Astarte (1921) 127-28.
Lovelace refers to R. C. Dallas, Thomas Medwin, and Thomas Moore (who “laid low” until 1830). He elsewhere rips into the pecuniary motivations of William Gifford, John Murray II, and even Sir Walter Scott. Leigh Hunt, the ultimate parasite, is, oddly enough, given a pass. The exemption extended to Lady Blessington appears to be pure snobbery, the tacit assumption being that it took an aristocrat to understand an aristocrat.
As intended, Astarte did not create a great stir in the world. The incest story was, after all, old news. Lovelace, who despised the Byron industry and commercial publishing, promotes the idea that Byron was more aristocrat than poet in a book written in a manner that presents formidable obstacles to semi-educated readers. His extensive critical remarks about Byron and his associates retain a kind of interest since Lovelace knew people who knew the Byrons and had conversed with the descendants of others in his quest for documents. Astarte was well received by the select few who had access to the it, among them Henry James, who had previously been given access to the forbidden documents. James wrote a letter worthy of the occasion, commenting:
On the one hand the miscellany is extraordinarily rich and entertaining—and I can but admire and envy you the magnificence of your Fund, on which you so royally draw—I mean your fund of reading and historic saturation. Likewise it’s interesting to encounter so many vivid and dauntless personal opinions, and so competent a defence of them. I nevertheless think I should have ventured to contend with you on the literary connection, into which, in some places, you expand, and am not sure, in short, that I wouldn’t rather have argued for your bundle of precious relics wrapped in a plain white napkin—instead of in your cloth of gold. Ralph Earl of Lovelace: a Memoir (1920) 152
It is, after all, the precious letters and not the commentary that draws readers to Astarte. Lady Lovelace, fifteen years after her husband’s death, generously published a second edition (1921—the text given here) that supplies carefully transcribed copies of over a hundred letters written by Byron, Augusta Leigh, Lady Byron, and Theresa Villiers. (The correspondence between Byron and Lady Melville read by the Lovelaces was still under ban.) She also reorganized the sequence of chapters, presenting them in a more chronological sequence, and appended notes and appendices supplying context necessary for making sense of Lovelace’s remarks. Yet the second edition remains a challenging book; readers might find it useful to consult Lady Lovelace’s 1920 memoir and 1921 appendices before proceeding to the book proper—the back-story of Astarte is nearly as compelling as the scandal it chronicles.
Apart from establishing facts in the case, Astarte did little to resolve the controversies that first erupted in the Spring of 1816. The letters written by the principals in the Byron separation are often opaque, elusive, or misleading, the writers’ ostensible motives compromised by urgent self-interest. It is thus not surprising that pro- and anti-Isabella factions have left matters pretty much where they began. For example, in Lord Byron’s Wife (1963) Malcolm Elwin drew upon the very material so carefully catalogued and transcribed by Lord Lovelace to present a damning portrait of Annabella Milbanke as the cold, manipulative woman familiar from Byron’s satires. To that view of the matter, Astarte continues to provide a useful qualification.

David Hill Radcliffe