In this dazzling literary mix of directness and metaphor, author Benjamin Markowits brings 19th-century England to life and in the process captures the centrifugal isolating forces that make up the tumultuous marriage between the infamous
so-called libertine Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbank (1792-1860), better known as Annabella.
Often described as cold and prim, Annabella seems an unlikely match for this man who would later become her ultimate obsession.
When she first sees Byron dancing with his half-sister Augusta, a pretty woman “though thought to be as shy as a wren,” at a summer waltzing party held at her aunt’s Melbourne House and hosted by Lady Caroline Lamb (whose affair with Lord Byron had begun to be talked about), the delicate seeds of Annabella’s obsession are gradually sown.
The talk of London society, the dramatically dark, "morally fractured" Lord Byron’s popularity has soared following the success of his poem
"Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." The main topic of dinner parties and of drawing room gossip, particularly that of the influential Lady Gosford, the conversation always seems to turn to Byon’s moral character - or lack thereof:
"He‘s nothing but a miserable libertine, whose various immoralities serve only the cause of his unhappiness.”
Byron is a man of giant appetites who keeps up an air of careless indifference to propriety. It’s not surprising, then, that he becomes obsessed with the pretty and demure Annabella, courting her almost to the point of exhaustion.
Through the machinations and the cozy interventions of Lady Caroline Lamb, which is not outside the scope of Lady Melbourne’s own design, a pattern of larger orchestration is eventually established with events carefully manipulated so that Annabella can court and later marry the poet.
The prospects before Annabella of love and beauty are enhanced by Byron’s wealth and fame and genius he has accomplished. She becomes determined to cast any aspersions about him aside, swept up by his largesse and his willful delusions of grandeur. Annabella doesn’t want to be thought of as a prude, and she is only too willing to step into the wifely shoes, even as she probably realizes that she will have to subjugate her own needs to promote the interests of the great poet.
Divided into three parts - their courtship, marriage, and eventual separation
- this dense but exquisitely written novel conveys a marriage that seems doomed from the start but quietly fades over the inevitable passage of time. It isn’t long before each word or touch from Byron begins to produce a slight imbalance in the way Annabella views her new husband and the situation that she has landed herself in.
Annabella’s story is undoubtedly fascinating, but Markowits keeps his portrait of the famous poet at a distance, his abuses, menaces, furies, neglects and infidelities always filtered through Annabella’s eyes. Surprisingly, it is Augusta
to whom Annabella is eventually drawn. Even when Byron relives his anxiety by tossing soda-bottles against the ceiling - a pastime he engages
in whenever he senses the two women conspiring and excluding him - Annabella and Augusta form an embattled intimacy, the two sisters having an ample sense of “confederate thrill.”
A marriage to a man with such a formidable reputation was scandalous for the period, the rigid morality of the time demanding that any divorce or separation be handled quietly with the minimum of fuss. Ironically, Augusta’s seemingly inappropriate relationship with her half-brother contributes to the shattering of the affair, eventually leading Annabella
in another direction, forcing her to tear aside the hypocritical veil but at least helping her survive the wider social scandal that inevitably follows.
The author paints a fascinating picture of a young woman forced to travel outside her sphere of influence, a
sphere that she has become accustomed to thinking of as the world itself. To escape this world
is, in many ways, the object of her marriage.
Throughout the novel, Annabella’s awakenings as a women and as a wife scorned are contrasted with the pain of her shattered personal life. Although her newfound friendship with Augusta offers some solace, she’s mostly left to pine away as a lonely, disconsolate and relieved widow, likely thankful that she will never have to live through such tortuous years again.