The Cleric and the Lady: The Affair of Lady Byron and F.W. Robertson

Article excerpt

I thought I knew all the world would ever know about Lady Byron when I heard a rumor while on sabbatical at Oxford University. The rumor was not about her, but about a man who would reveal himself as having been an intimate friend of hers, F.W. Robertson, a once-prominent Victorian cleric. According to the rumor, he, a married man with two children, confessed in his diary, which was supposedly written in secret code, to having "affairs with the women of Brighton." I was conducting my search for this diary when I found a letter penned in 1846, a letter that remains in private hands, a letter that corrects all biographical accounts regarding when Robertson met Lady Byron, he a charismatic public speaker, a man of God, a man who was so handsome that women were known to faint if he so much as smiled at them, (1) a man whom the Dictionary of National Biography describes as follows: "There is perhaps no parallel in English church history to the influence of Robertson's six years' ministry at a small proprietary chapel." The Dictionary account continues: "Robertson, whose character in all parts that were comprehended within the region of morality, was not only stainless but exalted, nevertheless suffered from some minor defects disastrous in his public position--fiery vehemence, exaggerated sensitiveness, and an entire lack of humour." (2)

With regard to the charismatic appeal of Robertson, the local newspaper for Brighton, The Brighton Gazette, carried the following statement in 1926, 73 years after his death: "Miss Anderson [daughter of the proprietor of Robertson's chapel] preserves a vivid impression of Robertson's beautifully clear voice, his dark blue eyes, his thoughtfulness for children and his wonderful truthfulness. She possesses an engraving from a water-colour by an artist of the period picturing his rich brown curly hair, mutton-chop whiskers and clean-shaven mouth and chin" (3)

But there was much more to Robertson than his striking good looks and charisma as is indicated by his funeral, the largest in Brighton's history. A procession of 3,000, whose number included a thousand members of the Mechanics' Institute, which he co-founded, Oxford dons, fellow clergymen, aristocrats, the poor, and members of his parish, followed a cortege of five horse-drawn carriages to the extra-mural cemetery. The Brighton Gazette reported that men of every religious persuasion and none were in the crowd: Jews, Unitarians, Roman Catholics, Quakers, and Churchmen of High, Broad, and Low persuasion. All lined the streets to honor his memory as the procession passed. The whole city closed up shop for the occasion, their shades drawn (4) They followed behind the funeral cortege because they admired Robertson as a promoter of universal education regardless of gender or social class at a time when only the male gender and only those of the upper class were formally educated. He was a Scripture scholar as well as a linguist. He was one of those far-seeing social reformers responsible for preventing in England the kind of violent political revolutions that were going on all over the continent at the time.

But what about his moral character? Given the rumor of a diary, was his moral character "not only stainless but exalted" as the Dictionary proclaims? If the rumor of his extra-marital affairs proved to be true, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the man alone with himself, recording his inner struggle [if there was one] to be what he had publicly professed to be: a man of God. I also wanted to know if there was more to the friendship between him and Lady Byron than history reports.

After six years of searching, I found not only his diary, which was indeed written in secret code as the rumor suggested, but a briefcase full of papers, including personal correspondence. A letter that contains mention of Lady Byron was sent from Nanders in the Tyrolean Alps on October 4, 1846. Robertson was 30 years old at the time, alone, and depressed. …