Byron’s life is revisited in a stylized fictional portrait that focuses less on the brilliant poet, more on the impossible husband.
Markovits (Imposture, 2007, etc.) shifts his scrutiny to Annabella Milbanke, Byron’s wife. How the perceptive 19-year-old, who has turned down five proposals and is blessed with youth, beauty and “an unimpeachable goodness,” comes to accept an approach from the newly famous author of Childe Harold, reputedly having an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, is lengthily recorded in debates about propriety, virtue, vanity and morality among Annabella’s friends, family and high-born confidantes. Once married and on honeymoon, Annabella finds herself more dependent on and less loved by her husband than she had expected, as well as shocked by his unhappiness, cruelty, debts and drinking. Worse is to follow during a visit to Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half sister, when Annabella comes to realize that an “unspeakable” (i.e. incestuous) relationship likely exists between the two. Despite her revulsion, she continues to try to be the best wife she can and a sister to Augusta, but after the birth of Byron and Annabella’s daughter, she leaves to visit her parents, reports the “menaces, furies, neglect and infidelities” she has suffered and files for separation. With gossip swirling, she later devotes herself to saving Augusta from ruin, a decision which eventually contributes to the burning of Byron’s memoirs.
Markovits’s delicate, painstaking, psychologically and socially acute examination of Byron’s women can seem overwhelmed by its length and stylistic devotion.