That eye which had gleam’d as in flashed from Heav’n, –
Whose glances by angles and demons seem’d given. –
It anxiously gaz’d, but its language and lights
As they faded were seal’d from mortality’s sights.
In the days following the news of Lord Byron’s death in Greece on April 19 1824; his young widow had written a poem which tells of her sorrow that on his death bed her exiled spouse had asked that a message be brought to her – a message the faithful valet William Fletcher had been unable to understand.
The effort was made, but all, all, was in vain
And dark is that page which he sought to explain…
And some 36 years later on the day before her 68th 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 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; she had been told that ‘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’
It is at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London that Annabella was laid to rest and despite the incorrect spelling of her first name and that she had been born in the home of her mother’s great friend Isabella Baker at Elemore Hall, her simple and elegant grave can be discovered in the shadow of the enormous Dissenter’s Chapel.
And it was on a glorious afternoon in October as I took a stroll through this fabulous cemetery as the Graveyard Squirrel that I would finally find my way to the grave of Byron’s spouse.
I say finally as this grave was not one of the easiest to find, hidden as it is by an impressive display of several large obelisks and some rather flamboyant monuments.
The grave itself is in very good condition despite the blanket of bramble and the scourge of every cemetery which threatened to overwhelm it and some rather nice ferns who were struggling to make themselves seen.
As I was making my way carefully around the grave trying to avoid the large holes in the ground while trying not to trip over the odd piece of broken monument which lay scattered about; I was surprisingly affected by the lonely appearance of this grave despite it’s beauty when I thought of how she is buried far away from her devoted parents Judith and Ralph and that of her only daughter Ada who had been reunited with her father some 8 years previously in the Byron Vault at the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
But far from the scenes of his birth and his youth,
that breath of sweet song died away in the south.
And silent and lone was the vale of the graves
There were none to divine the last tokens he gave! –
However despite having no family near, Annabella is by no means alone as her good friend the author and art critic Anna Jameson is near and she is surrounded by various members of the Lushington clan including Sophia, Mary and Amelia sisters to the ‘Gentlemanlike, clear-headed and clever’ attorney Dr. Stephen Lushington who had acted so decisively for her during the separation saga of 1816.
Reminders of her place in the Byron orbit are everywhere throughout the 72 acres of this cemetery as both the poet’s chum John Cam Hobhouse and his publisher John Murray are buried here along with a Byron servant and niece or three who are scattered nearby.
Byron’s ‘Dearest Sis’ the Hon. Augusta Mary Leigh is also resident here, however her remains along with those of her spouse are enclosed in a lead lined coffin within the huge vaulted catacomb beneath the Dissenter’s Chapel; which has a delicious touch of irony when you consider her sorry tale of debt, feckless children and scandal.
As a spot in the catacombs has always been more expensive and prestigious than a burial within the grounds of a cemetery, they have long been considered to be the most exclusive resting place for those in the higher echelon of the social strata; however, I was astounded upon reading the final paragraph of The Kindness of Sisters by David Crane who making no secret of his hostility toward Lady B writes of her ‘crusade against the Byrons’ and that the very style of her grave both visible and proud indicates her triumph against the hapless Augusta Leigh who finds herself ‘tucked away on the bottom shelf’ in the darkness of the catacombs.
As I can really find no answer to this absurd contretemps which appears indicative of the misunderstanding surrounding the poet’s spouse and which still dominates some 157 years later; I am more than happy to let the Lady have the last word:
The one truth then reveal’d, that might save and might bless, –
That hallowed last link ‘twixt, the living and dead. –
‘Twas all speechless and void; – and that word was not said.
Until next time…
The Kindness of Sisters Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons David Crane (London: HarperCollins 2002)
The Real Lady Byron Joan Pierson (London: Robert Hale 1988)