George Gordon, Lord Byron

  (1788 - 1824)

Catherine Gordon Byron, the poet's mother

Catherine Gordon Byron Lord Byron scholar

With regard to the character of Catherine Byron, Tom Moore writes:

It was not long before Dr Glennie began to discover - what instructors of youth must too often experience - that the parent was a much more difficult subject to deal with than the child. Though professing entire acquiescence in the representations of this gentleman, as to the propriety of leaving her son to pursue his studies without interruption, Mrs Byron had neither sense nor self-denial enough to act up to these professions; but, in spite of the remonstrances of Dr Glennie, and the injunctions of Lord Carlisle, continued to interfere with and thwart the progress of the boy's education in every way that a fond, wrong-headed, and self-willed mother could devise. In vain was it stated to her that, in all the elemental parts of learning which are requisite for a youth destined to a great public school, young Byron was much behind other youths of his age, and that, to retrieve this deficiency, the undivided application of his whole time would be necessary. Though appearing to be sensible of the truth of these suggestions, she not the less embarrassed and obstructed the teacher in his task. Not content with the interval between Saturday and Monay, which, contrary to Dr Glennie's wish, the boy generally passed at Sloane Terrace, she would frequently keep him at home a week beyond his time, and, still further to add to the distraction of such interruptions, collected around him a numerous circle of young acquaintances, without exercising, as may be supposed, much discrimination in her choice. 'How indeed could she?' asks Mr Glennie - 'Mrs Byron was a total stranger to English society and English manners; with an exterior far from pre-possessing, an understanding where nature had not been more bountiful, a mind almost wholly without cultivation, and the peculiarities of northern opinions, northern habits, and northern accent. I trust I do no great prejudice to the memory of my country-woman, if I say Mrs Byron was not a Madame de Lambert, endowed with powers to retrieve the fortune, and form the character and manners, of a young nobleman, her son.' (TMLJ, p16)

The interposition of Lord Carlisle was requested on several occasions, but, clearly exacerbated, in the end he told Dr Glennie:

I can have nothing more to do with Mrs Byron - you must now manage her as you can. (TMLJ, p16)

Byron writes to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, from Burgage Manor, Southwell on 18 August 1804 (16):

I seize this interval of my amiable mother's absence this afternoon, again to inform you, or rather to desire to be informed by you, of what is going on. For my own part I can send nothing to amuse you, excepting a repetition of my complaints against my tormentor, whose diabolical disposition (pardon me for staining my paper with so harsh a word) seems to increase with age, and to acquire new force with Time. The more I see of her the more my dislike augments; nor can I so enterely conquer the appearance of it, as to prevent her from perceiving my opinion; this, so far from calming the Gale, blows it into a hurrcane, which threatens[ to destroy everything, till exhausted by ts own violence, it is lulled into a sullen topor, which, after a short period, is again roused into fresh and revived phrenzy, to me most terrible, and to every other Specator astonishing. She then declares that she plainly sees I hate her, that I am leagued wih her bitter enemies, viz. Yourself, L'd C[arlisle] and Mr H[anson], and, as I never Dissemble or contradict her, we are all honoured with a multiplicity of epithets, too numerous, and some of them too gross, to be repeated. (TMLJ, p37)

On 23 April 1805, he again writes to Augusta:

... I have never been so scurrilously abused by any person, as by that woman, whom I think I am to call mother, by that being who gave me birth, to whom I ought to look up with veneration and respect, but whom I am sorry I cannot love or admire. Within one little hour, I have not only heard myself, but have heard my whole family, by the father's side, stigmatized in terms that the blackest malevolence would perhaps shrink from, and that too in words you would be shocked to hear. (RPLJ1, p63)

On 4 December 1805, he writes from Cambridge to John Hanson:

I know Mrs Byron too well to imagine that she would part with a Sous, and if by some Miracle she was prevailed upon, the Details of her Generosity in allowing me part of my own property would be continually thundering in my ears, or launched in the Lightening of her letters, so that I had rather encounter the Evils of Embarrassment than lie under an obligation to one who would continually reproach me with her Benevolence, as if her Charity had been extended to a Stranger to the Detriment of her own Fortune. My opinion is perhaps harsh for a Son, but it is justified by experience, it is confirmed by Facts, it was generated by oppression, it has been nourished by Injury. (RPLJ1, p90-91)

On 13 December 1805, he again writes from Cambridge to John Hanson:

In your extenuation of Mrs Byron's Conduct you use as a plea, that, by being my Mother, greater allowance ought to be made for those little Traits in her Disposition, so much more energetic than elegant. I am afraid (however good your intention) that you have added to rather than diminished my Dislike, for independent of the moral Obligaitons she is under to protect, cherish, and instruct her offspring, what can be expected of that Man's heart and understanding who has continually (from Childhood to Maturity) beheld so pernicious an Example? His nearest relation is the first person he is taught to revere as his Guide and Instructor; the perversion of Temper before him leads to a corruption of his own, and when that is depraved, vice quickly becomes habitual, and, though timely Severity may sometimes be necessary and justifiable, surely a peevish harassing System of Torment is by no means commendable, and when that is interrupted by ridiculous Indulgence, the only purpose answered is to soften the feelings for a moment which are soon after to be doubly wounded by the recal of accustomed Harshness. (RPLJ1, p92)

On 16 February 1806, he writes to his Mother from 16 Picadilly:

Notwithstanding your sage and economical advice I have paid my Harrow debts, as I can better afford to wait for the Money than the poor devils who were my creditors. I have also discharged my college Bills amounting to 231, - 75 of which I shall trouble Hanson to repay, being for Furniture, and as my allowance is 500 per annum, I do not chuse to lose the overplus as it makes only 125 per Quarter. I happen to have a few hundreds in ready Cash by me, so I have paid the accounts; but I find it inconvenient to remain at College, not for the expence, as I could live on my allowance (only I am naturally extravagant); however the mode of going on does not suit my constitution. Improvement at an English University to a Man of Rank is, you know, impossible, and the very Idea ridiculous. Now I sincerely desire to finish my Education and, having been sometime at Cambridge, the Credit of the University is as much attached to my Name, as if I had pursued my Studies there for a Century; but, believe me, it is nothing more than a Name, which is already acquired. I can now leave it with Honour, as I have paid everything, and wish to pass a couple of years abroad, where I am certina of employing my time to far more advantage and at much less expence, than at our English Seminaries. 'Tis true I cannot enter France; but Germany and the Courts of Berlin, Vienna and Petersburg are still open, I shall lay the Plan before Hanson and Lord C[arlisle]. I presume you will all agree, and if you do not, I will, if possible, get away without your Consent, though I should admire it more in the regular manner and with a Tutor of your furnishing. This is my project, at present I wish you to be silent to Hanson about it. Let me have your Answer. I intend remaining in Town a Month longer, when perhaps I shall bring my Horses and myself down to your residence in that execrable Kennel. I hope you have engaged a Man Servant, else it will be impossible for me to visit you, since my Servant must attend chiefly to his horses; at the same Time you must cut an indifferent Figure with only maids in your habitation.

His mother writes to Hanson on 1 March 1806:

I beg you will not mention to my son, having heard from me, but try to get out of him his reason for wishing to leave England, and where he got the money. I much fear he has fallen into bad hands, not only in regard to Money Matters, but in other respects. My idea is that he has inveigled himself with some woman that he wishes to get rid of and finds it difficult. But whatever it is, he must be got out of it.

And again on 4 March 1806.

That Boy will be the death of me, and drive me mad! I never will consent to his going Abroard. Where can he get hundreds? Has he got into the hands of the moneylenders? He has no feeling, no Heart. This I have long known; he has behaved as ill as possible to me for years back. The bitter Truth I can no longer conceal; it is wrung from me by heart-rending agony. I am well rewarded. I came to Nottinghamshire to please him, and now he hates it. He knows that I am doing everything in my power to pay his Debts, and he writes to me about hiring servants!

He did his utmost from this point to avoid her company. He writes to his half-sister, Augusta, on 30 November:

Mrs Byron I have shaken off for two years, and I shall not resume her yoke in future, I am afraid my disposition will suffer in your estimation, but I never can forgive that woman, or breathe in comfort under the same roof. - I am a very unlucky fellow, for I think I had naturally not a bad heart, but it has been so bent, twisted, and trampled on, that it is now become as hard as a Highlander's heel-piece. (LMLB, vI, p179-80)

 

 

Abbreviations:

BECP Eisler, Benita, Byron, Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, first published Hamish Hamilton, 1999

LCGL Crompton, Louis, Byron and Greek Love, University of California Press, 1985

MBLW Boyes, Megan, Love Without Wings, Derby, 1988

TMLJ Moore, Thomas, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, first published J.Murray, London, 1832

RPLJ1 Protheroe, Rowland, The Works of Lord Byron, Letter and Journals Vol 1, Free Plain Vanilla Electronic Texts, September 2005 

 

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