Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron: A Fatal Charm

The tenth Jane Austen Mystery, Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron, throws together two of history's literary greats--and the two who seem least likely to have met.  Yes, they were contemporaries; but Jane was "retiring" and George Gordon, Lord Byron, outrageous.  No doubt their conversations, had they encountered one another, must have been compelling.  But would the occasion ever have arisen?

I began to wonder about six degrees of separation in Jane Austen's world when I was researching and writing a very different book, A Flaw in the Blood, which is set in 1864 and concerns Queen Victoria.  In the course of learning about her world, I naturally read David Cecil's excellent biography Melbourne.  Victoria's first prime minister--already aging when she ascended the throne, but a Regency Buck of the First Stare, a remarkable personality and intellect--utterly bewitched the young queen, whose partiality for William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, was so marked that raucous crowds heckled her with cries of "Mrs. Melbourne!" when she rode abroad in Rotten Row.  She was perhaps 18 when this "grand pash" occurred, and not yet married to Albert; and she seems not to have cared one whit for public opinion.  I'd have swooned over Melbourne, too.

Caro dressed as a page
The real Mrs. Melbourne, of course, was long since dead; but Lady Caroline Lamb's storied reputation lived on long after her time.  The author of Glenarvon, she was most famous for her brief affair with Lord Byron, which ended in public scandal because she refused to give up her obsession--becoming possibly the first recorded Celebrity Stalker.  Regency fans will always be fascinated by Caro Lamb--she was a Ponsonby by birth, the daughter of the unfortunate Countess of Bessborough, who was a victim of domestic violence, a friend of Sheridan and Charles James Fox, and sister of that Georgian Incomparable, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.  Caroline Ponsonby grew up in the hectic atmosphere of her aunt Georgiana's Devonshire House and Chatsworth.  Ironically, Byron would eventually marry Caro's cousin, Annabella--his sole disastrous foray into marriage.

Researching Melbourne, reading about Caro, and thinking about Regency personalities inevitably led me to a biography of Byron himself.  Naturally, it's littered with love affairs and remarkable women, none of whom--not even his half-sister, with whom he had an incestuous child--appears to have been able to resist him.  A gallery of some of them may be viewed below.
Annabella, Lady Byron, mother of Byron's
legitimate daughter

Augusta Leigh, Byron's half-sister,
mother of an incestuous daughter

Jane Elizabeth, Lady Oxford

Claire Claremont, Mary Shelley's step-sister,
mother of an illegitimate daughter

A single fact at the end of Byron's life gave me pause: he was refused a public funeral or burial in Westminster Abbey in 1824 due to his scandalous life.  Instead, his biographer tells us, he was laid out for viewing at the London home of  Sir Edward Knatchbull.  Yes, Janeites--Byron's wake was held in Fanny Austen Knight Knatchbull's London house.  How did George Gordon end up in with Jane Austen's niece?  I have never been able to find out.  But the link between the two families was all the permission I needed.  I decided Jane MUST encounter some madness in Brighton in 1813.

One more interesting degree of separation: Byron was always in Dun Territory--always at the mercy of his creditors--and when he finally sold his birthright, a crumbling estate called Newstead Abbey, he sold it to the brother of Fanny Austen Knight's Kentish neighbor, James Wildman, of Chilham Castle.  (For more about the Wildman family, see Jane and the Canterbury Tale.)

Happy Winter Reading!



  1. Stephanie, It is with a little sadness that I am starting Jane and The Canterbury Tale...sadness since this is the last one of the Jane Mysteries that's available to read. I can not tell you how much I have enjoyed these series - wonderful, wonderful books!! I think I enjoy especially learning about the real people and and all the weaving together of their lives...(the Melbourne of Queen Victoria is THE Melbourne of Caro.....OHHHHHH!!!....light bulbs going off.... How fascinating!!) Since Canterbury ends in Nov. 1813, I beg you to please consider at least one or two more books - after all, there is 3 1/2 more years of her life to work with!! And how about the mystery surrounding Jane's own death....(do you tire of people telling you what you maybe could write about?!?!?!) I have loved your books so much, I just hate to see them end! By the way - if you do anymore, and need a research assistant - I am a most willing applicant!! Thank you so, so much again!!!

  2. Dear Angela:
    Here's another fascinating Melbourne fact. I just wrote a book (as Francine Mathews, my married name) about a young Jack Kennedy on the eve of World War II, titled JACK 1939. It's due out in July. Jack was a voracious reader at age 22, and his favorite book in the spring of 1939 was...YOUNG MELBOURNE, by David Cecil. The same book I used for my research. It had just come out that year, and he met Cecil socially in London; Jack's sister Kick was dating Cecil's cousin Billy Hartington, heir to the Devonshires, whom she eventually married. I find these kinds of coincidences unbelievably amazing.

    I never rule out writing any book. There may be another Jane. There's certainly one in my head titled JANE AND THE CARLTON HOUSE SET, but we'll have to see. I'm so glad you've enjoyed the series.

    Happy Holidays!

  3. Oh my goodness - This is SO cool!! I love this stuff Stephanie! "Unbelievably amazing" are my words exactly!! I will DEFINITELY be on the look out for JACK 1939 this summer!! Is this the same Lord David Cecil that wrote A PORTRAIT OF JANE AUSTEN in 1978? I am just "wallowing" with glee about all of these connections and interrelations! (Sorry about all the hyphens, exclamations and capitals - my grown kids are always teaasing me about my texts that are full of the same -- but how else does one express their excitement?!?!)

    Very blessed Christmas to you and your family!

  4. Yes, he wrote the Austen bio. Among many other things. One of those people you'd like to invite to a Fantasy Dinner, although he died in the 80s.

  5. There is nothing so intriguing as history :)Who needs "reality" TV? :)

  6. JANE AND THE CARLTON HOUSE SET??? Oh Stephanie, please don't tease me! Putting this title under my pillow.

  7. It begins, of course, with the Rev. James Stanier Clarke leading Jane through Carlton House after the EMMA dedication, and stumbling over a body in the library...LOL! Happy New Year!

  8. It begins, of course, with the Rev. James Stanier Clarke leading Jane through Carlton House after the EMMA dedication, and stumbling over a body in the library...LOL! Happy New Year!

  9. I stumbled accidentally on to your "Jane" books and, oh, what a treat they are. I am at No. 6, so it was with delight that I found your website and then your blog. Such an interesting blog and I have made a note of your "stories are maps discarded on the road....." As a reader for some 66 years, that certainly speaks to me.

    I just hope the greedy idiot publishers who want to capitalise on an erotic book "50 Shades of Grey" (not read, won't read) don't start tinkering around with Austen's books and sexing up some scenes - as has been suggested. What is the world coming to! (I hear my grumpy ole woman kicking in here!)

    Thank you Stephanie for the hours of pleasure and reflection your books and your recommendations are giving me.