Magazine article The Spectator

Can You Forgive Her?

Magazine article The Spectator

Can You Forgive Her?

Article excerpt

THE KINDNESS OF SISTERS by David Crane HarperCollins, 19.99, pp. 286, ISBN 00025 70521

This book, like steak-and-kidney pudding, must be consumed with circumspection. Its substance, the long deteriorating relationship between Augusta, Byron's sister, and Annabella, his wife, is spread decoratively around, like pastry, whilst in the middle is the two-act meaty section which, according to the publicity, is being developed `for a West End play'. Put aside, for one moment, the thought that this tender passage should in terms of period (it occurs in April 1851) be placed at the end. Put aside also the notion that Byron, who left England in 1816 to perish at Missolonghi eight years later, had been dead for almost 30 years. This 'play', so-called, is almost entirely static, a two-hander in which two elderly ladies, one in her late sixties, the other slightly younger, exchange lengthy sentiments culled from their various letters. The substance of their dialogue may be true. It may be dramatic, even melodramatic. In her twenties Augusta may have set Europe (or at least Piccadilly) agog with her dangerous reputation. But this, alas, is the 1850s, and our subjects are both Victorian ladies, much advanced in years. They sob, stare out of windows, look up at a portrait of Manfred on the Jungfrau, but remain, above all things, aware of their respective reputations.

Annabella Milbanke's marriage to Byron, which effectively lasted for just a year, was characterised by almost daily outbursts, of rage on his side and of tears on hers. From the first day of their 'treaclemoon' to the day she stormed out of their Piccadilly house clutching their five-week-old daughter, Ada, in her arms there were constant rows. Summoned to gaze upon the infant, Byron let out a terrible cry: `Oh! What an instrument of torture I have acquired in you!' The reason for his rage against both wife and daughter was his illicit sexual passion for his sister Augusta. This relationship, despite his various affairs, was the dominating love of his life. Both he and Augusta married in attempts to control their intemperate lust; yet it still had power to consume them. When the married Augusta was brought to bed with an infant, Byron remarked to Lady Melbourne that the child would be `an Ape' and `his fault' - a reference, Crane assumes, to mediaeval incest superstitions. Luckily the child was not an ape, but a baby girl named Medora, apparently after the winning filly in the Oaks of 1813. However, it was not she but Byron's legitimate offspring, Ada, who went on to be an addict of the turf, betting heavily on Voltigeur who won the St Leger and the Doncaster Cup in 1850. …

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