Your barbarous and hard hearted Brother has I am too firmly persuaded broken the heart that was devoted to him – and I doubt not will have pleasure in the Deed. She will not long exist, so he may glory in the Success of his endeavors.
She is dreadfully ill and was last night and this day in a State which terrifys me – tell Lord Byron this if you please.
Wonder not that I write Strongly, who could see that Suffering Angel Sinking under such unmanly and despicable treatment, and not feel?
Ld Byron is sending her Parents also with Sorrow to the Grave – let him glory also in that – and that he had three Lives to answer for at that great account, as much as if he had plunged his Dagger in our hearts – indeed that would have been a short suffering compared to a broken Heart…
… Oh! my God! how has my poor Child been sacrificed! not only to a wicked, but unmanly Creature! her only Error, too strong an attachment to him, and how has he rewarded it!”
The agitated author of this letter was the Hon. Judith Noel to Augusta Leigh in the dying days of January 1816 as the marriage separation between her beloved only daughter and Lord Byron became increasingly acrimonious and as the latter prepared for a life in exile far away from the marital home of 13 Piccadilly Terrace in London.
Luckily for Byron’s ‘Dearest Sis’, this letter was never sent and also for Annabella as Judith had been quite mistaken in her distraught prediction about her ‘poor child’s’ imminent demise for not only did Annabella survive her estranged spouse by some 36 years but also that of both her parents, the Hon. Augusta Leigh by some 9 years and even that of her only daughter Ada who would die in her thirty-sixth year in November 1851, some 8 years previously.
One day before her sixty-eighth birthday and with her beloved granddaughter and namesake Anne Isabella Noel King by her side; Annabella died in the early morning hours of Wednesday May 16 1860 while staying at 11 St George’s Terrace in Primrose Hill, North London NOT from breast cancer as is commonly argued but from Bronchitis and Pleurisy after suffering from the effects of a prolonged illness throughout most of the Spring.
In a poignant letter to the ‘other’ Mrs Lamb, the ‘Caro George’ of the glittering season of 1812 and the last remaining member of the Melbourne clan; Annabella was to write: ‘My darling suffered very much, except the few hours before the end. The end was in sleep, which passed into the sleep of death – gently and calmly’
Interestingly, the house where Annabella died is also a house familiar to another troubled and brilliant genius, the poet and writer Sylvia Plath.
In the spring of 1961 Plath was to compose her only semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar in the study of 11 St George’s Place at the invitation of friends which tells of the story of Esther Greenwood who haunted by the presence of death becomes increasingly ill with depression and makes several attempts at suicide.
The Bell Jar is arguably a roman à clef as the protagonist’s struggle with mental illness with that of Plath’s own descent into clinical depression is strikingly apparent and in the month following the publication of this novel here in the UK and after several failed attempts; Plath would eventually take her own life in February 1963.
In a letter to her mother, Plath had justified the writing of The Bell Jar as the means in which to ‘picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar’ and when one considers the life that Annabella had lived through with the letters, journals and poetry that she and others have left us for posterity against a tide of hostility, ignorance and disparagement which she still meets with some 159 years after her death; I wonder if she would recognised herself through that ‘distorting lens of a bell jar’ and if she would have been sympathetic to that immortal line:
Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage…
That eye is beholding the waters roll,
It seems to give them a living soul;
That arm by mine is trembling prest,
I cherish the dream, he shall be blest!
O yet – tho’ the phantom melt in air,
The heart’s devotion may not despair!
‘On Seaham’ – 1817
Lord Byron’s Wife Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1974)
The Real Lady Byron Joan Pierson (London: Robert Hale 1992)