February 6 1816: Meddling Hobhouse


On February 6 1816, John Cam Hobhouse writes to Lady Byron. The letter is long, insulting and impertinent. It is almost designed to get her to leave Byron.

My dear Lady Byron – It was impossible to refrain the instant I heard the sad news at your house yesterday, from writing a few lines to save the post, and although they were so hastily penned, and let me say, in extreme agitation, that I fear they were scarcely decypherable, you will at least have been able to understand what were my feelings at receiving so unexpected so painful a piece of intelligence. I should, perhaps, have made more apology for intruding upon such an occasion, and I might also, it is more than probable, forbear from repeating that intrusion: but the hope, however faint, that a word from a person who cannot possibly have the least interest nor inclination to deceive, may arrest the progress of a measure fraught with such frightful consequences, has prompted me again to risk the hazard of your displeasure.

Perhaps, Lady Byron! the long friendship and entire love for the man, whom you have honoured by consenting to bear his name, may account to you for my presumption in interfering in a point so material to his happiness, without my being obliged to offer as an excuse the sincere interest which I take the liberty to feel in every thing that concerns yourself. I cannot be supposed, however, to be an adequate judge of the effect which the meditated event would have on your future life—I can only speak of the misery, which I know, which I saw yesterday, must be the consequence of such a transaction as far as my friend is concerned. If I had no other proof than that scene of yesterday, I should be sufficiently convinced that some misapprehension most unfounded must have arisen to give even a pretext for such a catastrophe. But I have other proofs, which on occasion I shall be most happy decidedly to produce, to show that mistake and nothing but mistake could be the foundation of those charges which have been made against my friend from a quarter, whence, I confess, it never entered into my conception they could possibly arise.

Were I to speak for five minutes to Sir Ralph Noel, I could convince him how exceedingly he has been misled or has misapprehended the exaggerations which alone could have induced him to the adoption of such a line of conduct270—exaggerations having no possible origins except in some malicious scandal271 of which the author not the object must be the subject of reprobation. I could also convince him that he must have been very much misinformed to suppose that he or any man has the least authority or power in any way to come to the conclusion which he insists upon—I could convince him that Lord Byron loves his wife too much to listen for a moment to his revolting proposition, and that as to any ability on the part even of a father to force a compliance such an attempt would come with as much effect from myself as from him, and would not be legally maintainable for a single moment.

Sir Ralph Noel’s letter to my friend accuses him of ill treatment, a term so vague as to have no meaning except to a person conscious of some great offense, and that no such pleasure could have existed, a letter written by yourself on the 16th of January272 last must be entirely and in every sense a complete proof. Were I before a tribunal more solemn than is to be found in this world I should aver that in every conversation which I have had with Lord Byron in which your Ladyship has been at all concerned he has invariably used words to the following effect and no other—“I cannot be supposed to be happy under my present embarrassments which are very much increased by the circumstances of my being a married man—I have no complaint to make against my wife, who is the best woman living—on the contrary with any other woman I should find my situation altogether intolerable”.

I repeat that in no moment of distress or irritation has he even hinted at the least want of regard or esteem for Lady Byron, and I know that if he had felt such diminution of affection he would have told me. I am certain that I know the very worst of any thing that can be said against my friend; and I am no less certain that in that very worst nothing is comprised which can bear out your friends in the extremity to which they seem inclined to proceed. Certainly your Ladyship has a very high character in the world, and from certain transactions too notorious before Lord Byron’s marriage,273 your friends may think that in any difference between such a couple, the censurers would be all on one side. But this neither can nor shall be the case whilst I have the power of showing how entirely those friends have been mistaken in the premises which they assume in order to justify their proceedings. What is expected by a woman from her husband, I cannot pretend to say—but if unvaried esteem, unmixed admiration, a regard the most tender and undiminished always expressed under any circumstance be not at least presumption of that sort of conduct which constitutes kindness in a man towards his wife, I know not what evidence is to be heard in the favour of any husband. You, of course, would feel no consolation in thinking, whatever your friends might, that the whole weight of blame should rest upon one whom you have once so loved, and whom, if I do not much mistake, you still so love—and yet this is the very lightest of the evils that must ensue from a formal separation between you and Lord Byron. What pleasure you could derive from the conviction that that by an act of yours, supposing it to be ever so just, you had stamped the character of such a man as Lord Byron with the indelible disgrace of domestic tyranny & ill usage of the most aimiable of the sex, I am totally at a loss to divine.

Had you all the cause for complaint which is assumed by your friends but which I know you do not assume, is it possible that you should wish to come at once to that step which is the last instead of the first resource, and by so doing (allowing yourself to be quite secure from all imputation) to injure irrevocably the character of Lord Byron—of him against whom your sole charge must be that you love him more than he loves you—to prove which superiority of affection in your side, you contribute to his complete ruin? The position is absurd in every point of view. State however the case simply, as the case, when the truth is known, must be stated by the World.

Lord and Lady Byron married in January 1815—they separate in February 1816.

Was it ever heard that they quarrelled during their marriage?—NO—on the contrary, the most intimate friends of Lord Byron always at least gave out that he was very happy in his wife, for which they stated his own authority, and his nearest relation, who lived many months in the house with them, constantly expressed the same opinion as coming not only from her brother but from the lady herself. Who then proposed the separation?—Lady Byron’s family. Why and on what grounds?—Her Ladyship’s family say that he ill-treated his wife—that he talked of going abroad and of living in London as a single man. Did his wife say she was illtreated whilst she lived with him? Not as has been heard. Did Lord Byron go abroad and live in London as a single man?—He could not do both; but he did neither. It is meant then to be concluded that his wife would not live any longer with him, because he talked of going abroad or living in lodgings without her—in other words she was determined to strike the first blow and leave him for fear he should leave her—a very spirited and provident person indeed but did she ever care a farthing about Lord Byron whilst she consulted her suspicion or her pride? Why one would think not and yet every body said she married him for love. Did Lord Byron ever leave her?—No—they lived together as man and wife up to the day of her retiring into the country for her health. Did Lady Byron ever complain of any personal neglect or preference of another to herself? Never—Lord Byron never was absent from her but once and that only for a day or two except during her confinement. Did Lord and Lady Byron part when her Ladyship went into the country for her health on friendly terms? Yes—quite so—and she corresponded with him since on the most fond and affectionate terms. What then is Lord Byron charged with?—Why, the truth is—he got up late—dined alone—was generally out of spirits and occasionally out of humour. Did he direct the ill humour against his wife? It is not pretended that he did, except perhaps in being more silent than some husbands, and in refusing any intimacy with his wife’s friends – Had he any excuse for the said ill-humours? Some little excuse—he has had from one to four executions in his house at a time; to say nothing of a complaint of a very dangerous tendency.274 Is Lord Byron a man whose propensity it is to quarrel with his associates? Those who have known him longest like him best; and he has a power of making and retaining attachments such as has rarely been seen in any man. Simply then why did Lady Byron leave Lord Byron for it appears that she left him & not he her? It may be supposed merely because she persuaded herself she could not be happy with him; there being a difference of taste between them and some irritability of temper which was a source of much uneasiness. Was it not her business to know his Lordship’s sentiments & peculiar modes of thinking and action before she married and did she not know them? It was her business to know them—and she did know them—at least if she did not—it was her own fault275—for his whole character was long before the world and he took no pains to conceal it from her. Is it usual for a mere difference of taste and irritability even on both sides to occasion separation between man & wife?

Such things have happened but not after the parties have lived together only a year and that in the greatest apparent harmony. Did the lady do this of her good will or was she persuaded into it by her friends? Why—Lord Byron’s friends tell one story and her friends tell another—but if a letter said to be written by her only a fortnight before the separation be authentic the conclusion is inevitable in any court whether moral or legal, and the whole statement admits only of one interpretation. —————————————————————————————————————— Here ends my dialogue, which as it is what must arise from the simplest position of that which your Ladyship knows to be true, is I think a fair representation of what ought to be said on the event now so fatally contemplated and of what will be said by every unprejudiced person before whom the question may be discussed. If I could, for an instant, suppose that you did not love my friend as much as when we parted at Seaham, I should spare you all I have written: for I should then conclude the whole proceeding to be only a decent way of dissolving your alliance with Lord Byron, and, according to the laudable custom of the world, leaving all the benefit of the separation to one party and all the odium of it to the other. Had I no other reason for repulsing such a suspicion, your letter of the 16th of January would at once disperse every sinister doubt, and I intreat you to believe that all I have said is merely directed to show how completely those, who, from a zeal for your welfare doubtless, have persuaded you such an extreme measure, have founded all their conclusions upon premises altogether untenable. Condescend then, my dear Lady Byron, to write me only one line, stating that you are coming up to London, or are expecting Lord Byron and are ready to receive him at Kirkby—one of these two steps is absolutely necessary to form an explicit negative to the story which I am most sorry to say has some chance of being put into circulation, and which, unless I am the most deceived man alive, you will not hesitate to adopt the readiest means to bring into immediate discredit. Repeating my apologies for this intrusion I beg to subscribe myself Your Ladyship’s faithful servant John Hobhouse

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