The English literary critic and novelist talks us through the legacy of the historical figures...
In 2018, Newstead Abbey remains the county’s greatest literary treasure. Our own direct link to the boldly transgressive Lord Byron and his only legitimate child, Ada Lovelace; the brilliant woman who predicted the universal computer in 1843, and who was buried, at her wish, beside her father, close to their beautiful family home.
“I will never sell Newstead,” a 21-year-old Lord Byron told his lawyer John Hanson in April 1809. “The Abbey and I shall stand and fall together, and were my head as grey and defenseless as the Arch of Priory, I would abide by this Resolution.”
The Abbey was uninhabitable when young Byron and his mother first arrived there in August 1798. Cattle were being kept within the crypt; hay was stored in the refectory; the verdant woods had been devastated to pay for the extravagant lifestyle of Byron’s great-uncle, named “The Wicked Lord” after he killed his cousin in a duel.
A fortune would be required for Newstead’s restoration, but a fortune was not to be found. Byron’s mother, a former heiress, had been left penniless when her fickle husband, “Mad Jack” Byron, left her to bring up their little boy alone in Aberdeen. Since then, Jack Byron had died and his son’s affairs were being looked after by a lawyer whose tricky job it would be to keep an impetuous youth from living as he believed a nobleman had the right to do; it irked a status-conscious young man that he lacked a personal coach.
Nobody, neither a worried mother nor a negligent and crooked lawyer, ever succeeded in keeping the sixth Lord Byron on the straight and narrow. Newstead was rented out in 1803 – the only alternative to selling the place – to a young Lord Grey de Ruthyn, while Byron’s mother went to live in nearby Southwell, at Burgage Manor. Byron had a difficult relationship with his emotional mother. He may not have enjoyed his school days at Harrow, but at least they kept the loquacious Mrs Byron at a safe distance.
Byron arrived at Cambridge in 1805, where he dieted his naturally plump self into a fashionably wraithlike shape through fierce exercise, hot baths and the uncomfortable practice of wearing seven waistcoats at once. Byron fell in with a clever circle who encouraged his spendthrift ways; holidaying with them at Newstead, he hired a set of monk’s robes from a fancy dress shop so that he and his friends could play at being wicked while drinking wine from skulls; one thing the fifth Lord had left behind him at the Abbey was a cellar-full of splendid claret.
It was during this period that the 21-year-old Byron had a son by Lucy, one of the Newstead laundry-maids. The child’s fate remains an intriguing mystery, but Byron did manage to borrow £100, enough to cover poor Lucy’s dismissal and the baby’s care.
Today, visitors to Newstead can see the splendid set of rooms on which Byron lavished a small fortune during the last of his years at Cambridge. It was typical that, while ordering gorgeous hangings for his own four-poster bed, Newstead’s young owner forgot to repair the abbey’s roof, which leaked. Mrs Byron, left in charge of Newstead while her son went travelling on the continent for three years, found herself sharing a damp, semi-ruined house with two dogs and the pet bear her son had acquired at Cambridge.
The bills for the new furnishings remained unsettled, and so did the cost of Byron’s years at Cambridge. Before long, the menage at Newstead was joined by four determined bailiffs. Meanwhile, Byron sent reports from Turkey, Albania and Greece of his new friendship with Ali Pasha and of the glorious costumes he’d purchased as a keepsake to bring home.
“I awoke and found myself famous!” Byron wrote in 1812. A year earlier, he had returned from his continental travels with a manuscript stuffed in his pocket and without the means to reach Newstead before the death of his long-suffering mother. After watching her funeral cortege set off from Newstead for Hucknall, Byron vented his feelings in a ferocious boxing match with his cherished page, Robert Rushton, before returning to London.
George Anson Byron, a beloved young cousin destined to become the seventh Lord, was directed to keep an eye on the Nottinghamshire estate while Byron worked on his manuscript. Early in 1812, the first two cantos of Childe Harold were published by John Murray. Their romantic account of a haughty young aristocrat who owned a ruined abbey and disdained society made Byron into an instant celebrity. The first 500 copies of Childe Harold sold in just three days. Still broke – he refused payment for his work – Byron became the most desirable young man in London.
Among the numerous ladies of all ages who pursued him, Byron swiftly embarked upon a scandalous affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb while flirting with her cousin, the clever, pretty and allegedly wealthy Miss Annabella Milbanke. Far more dangerously, he began a relationship in 1813 with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh. They summered together by the seaside, with Byron's young cousin, George. In the depths of the early winter of 1814, Byron, Augusta and her children spent a long secluded holiday at Newstead. Walking through the gardens, the lovers entwined their initials on a tree. In the early summer of 1814, Augusta gave birth to a daughter whom both she and her half-brother believed to be their child.
Byron’s marriage to Annabella Milbanke was undertaken in part to save Augusta’s reputation, in part, because Annabella was an heiress and in part, because Byron honestly liked, admired and respected this alarmingly innocent and direct young woman. The marriage, of which Ada was the sole product, ended after a year. In March 1816, Byron went abroad. Annabella never forgot him. In 1818, she paid her first, secret visit to Newstead and walked alone through the deserted suite of private rooms. Emotion overwhelmed her. She never returned.
Byron himself came back to Newstead in a coffin. Dead at 36, having joined forces with the Greeks in their war against the Turks, his embalmed remains were given a hero’s welcome in his native land. 43 empty carriages escorted his coffin onto the road leading north from London. Silent crowds gathered to see him laid to rest at Hucknall, where an absent Augusta had provided the memorial tablet for the brother she never ceased to adore.
Ada, brought up in London and at Kirkby Mallory, Leicestershire, was nine years old when her famous father died in 1824. She paid her first visit to Newstead in 1850, when she was just short of 35. The abbey had been bought by Byron’s Harrow schoolmate, Thomas Wildman, a wealthy admirer of the poet’s who had used his fortune to restore the abbey to all its original splendour.
Visiting Newstead from Thrumpton Hall, Ada was overwhelmed by emotion. For a time, she held discussions with her husband and mother about trying to buy Newstead back. “I do love the venerable place and all my wicked forefathers,” she told Lady Byron on 15 September 1850.
Before she left Newstead, Ada obtained Colonel Wildman’s promise that she might be buried there, together with her father. Two years later, aged 36, Ada was laid in the family vault at his side. Today, her fame as the visionary genius who predicted the coming of the modern universal computer rivals her father’s. The heads of the Byron family moved from Newstead Abbey to Thrumpton Hall, and they lived there until 1950.
While Newstead preserves Byron’s legacy, Nottinghamshire historians also remember Lord Byron as the man who, making his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812, spoke up for the rights of the Nottinghamshire Frameworkers who had been imprisoned for breaking the new machines that threatened their livelihood. What Byron, who became increasingly reactionary during his later years in exile, would have thought about a daughter who fought for the advent of a mechanised world is anybody’s guess. Today, we can pay honour to them both as heroes in our county’s great literary history.
Miranda Seymour’s In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lady Byron and her daughter Ada Lovelace is published in March 2018. Her definitive Mary Shelley biography is also being republished.
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