Although much has been written about the so-called infamous libertine Lord Byron, less is known of his long suffering wife Anne Isabella Milbank (1792-1860), better known as Annabella. Daughter to Sir Ralph Milbanke and his wife Lady Judith Milbanke, Annabella was very aware of propriety, yet her youth was defined by a diffidence and naivety that caused her to be heavily swayed by the attentions of the devilish Lord Byron. Often described as cold and prim, Annabella seems an unlikely match for this man who would become her ultimate obsession. Even as Annabella first sees Byron at a summer waltzing party at her aunt's Melbourne House and hosted by Lady Caroline Lamb, (whose affair with Lord Byron had begun to be talked about), Annabella is intrigued by his dark and foreboding presence and the image of him dancing with his half-sister Augusta, a pretty woman "though thought to be as shy as a wren."
The talk of London society, the dramatically dark and "morally fractured" Lord Byron's popularity has soared following the success of his poem Childe Harold. A man of giant appetites, who keeps an air of indifference to propriety, he becomes obsessed with Annabella, courting her almost to the point of exhaustion. But it is through the machinations and a cozy intervention from Lady Caroline Lamb which is not outside the scope of Lady Melbourne's own design that a pattern of larger orchestration is eventually established. The impressionable nineteen-year-old Annabella who doesn't want to be thought of as a prude is only too willing to step into the wifely shoes even as she probably realizes subconsciously that she will have to put aside and subjugate her own needs to promote the interests of the great poet.
Through dinner parties and drawing room talk, particularly that of the gossipy 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." But with the prospects opening before Annabella of love and beauty, and enhanced by all of Byron's wealth, the fame and genius could accomplish, she becomes determined to cast any aspersions about him aside. Annabella sets out a game for him to play, determined to beat him and show him that she can just as well act the misanthrope as he. In the end, Byron challenges his muse to dare to look deep into herself, while also setting out to charm her parents. It isn't long, however, before each word or touch begins to produce a slight imbalance. Their relationship lacks love and without it they could only keep their course by little adjustments. The failure perhaps is his, although she had offered to break off the engagement.
Divided into three parts: courtship, marriage and the eventual separation, Benjamin Markowitz's portrait of the famous poet is always kept at a distance, his abuses, menaces, his furies, neglects, and infidelities are always filtered through Annabella's eyes. It is a fascinating story. Surprisingly it is Augusta whom Annabella is eventually drawn to, entering into an intimate correspondence. Even when Byron relives his anxiety by tossing soda-bottles against the ceiling - a pastime he tended to engage him whenever he sensed the two women conspiring and excluding him - Annabella and Augusta form an embattled intimacy, two sisters having an ample sense of "confederate thrill."
Certainly the marriage by a girl like Annabella to a man with such a formidable reputation was scandalous for the period. The author paints a fascinating picture of a young woman who is forced to travel outside her sphere of influence, that she had been accustomed to thinking as the world itself. To escape this world had been in many ways the object of her marriage. It is her parents, the unassuming Ralph and the drunken Judy, and also by association Augusta, whose relationship with her brother was rumored to be somehow inappropriately intimate, who further inflames the marital situation, eventually leading Annabella into another direction, forcing her to tear aside the hypocritical veil, but at least helping her survive the death of her hopes of a happy marriage. Throughout the novel, Annabella's awakenings as a women, and as a wife scorned, are contrasted with the pain of her shattered marriage. Although her new-found friendship with Augusta offers some solace, she's mostly left to pine away as a widow, thankful that she would never have to live though such years again. Mike Leonard September 2008.