June 5, 2012

Stowe and Lady Byron: like mist before the sun

Perhaps the strangest of literary friendships was that of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Anne Isabella Noel Byron, the wife of the British poet Lord Byron. The two had met during Stowe's European visit in 1853 (the year after the publication of her book Uncle Tom's Cabin). Stowe, in fact, was quickly enamored with the widow, nearly twenty years her elder. After continuing her travels, she wrote a letter to her new friend, dated June 5, 1853:

Dear Friend, — I left you with a strange sort of yearning, throbbing feeling; you make me feel quite as I did years ago, a sort of girlishness quite odd for me...

I often think how strange it is that I should know you — you who were a sort of legend of my early days; that I should love you is only a natural result. You seem to me to stand on the confines of that land where the poor formalities which separate hearts here pass like mist before the sun, and therefore it is that I feel the language of love must not startle you as strange or unfamiliar. You are so nearly there in spirit that I fear with every adieu that it may be the last; yet did you pass within the veil I should not feel you lost.

I have got past the time when I feel that my heavenly friends are lost by going there. I feel them nearer, rather than farther off. So good-by, dear, dear friend, and if you see morning in our Father's house before I do, carry my love to those that wait for me, and if I pass first, you will find me there, and we shall love each other forever. 

The two women maintained a friendship until Lady Byron's death. In those years, she had revealed the truth about her relationship with Lord Byron and his affairs. After Lady Byron's death, rumors spread about her sins and Stowe rose to her defense in a book, appropriately titled Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy (1869). In it, Stowe painted Lord Byron as a licentious, immoral man who had an affair with his half-sister. Lady Byron, Stowe wrote, was innocent of wrongdoing. The book was not well-received and Stowe was soon piled into her own controversy.

1 comment:

  1. Carolyn Lamb wrote that Byron was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Well, I can see that there is truth in that, though Byron was much more. After his death his friends burned his private papers, which is probably just as well for his reputation. The reputation remained that of a gifted rake, but not much more. I don't know how much truth we can assign to Stowe's book or how much vindictiveness colors it. Really, I don't think Byron would have given a damn.