I began to wonder about six degrees of separation in Jane Austen's world when I was researching and writing a very different book, A Flaw in the Blood, which is set in 1864 and concerns Queen Victoria. In the course of learning about her world, I naturally read David Cecil's excellent biography Melbourne. Victoria's first prime minister--already aging when she ascended the throne, but a Regency Buck of the First Stare, a remarkable personality and intellect--utterly bewitched the young queen, whose partiality for William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, was so marked that raucous crowds heckled her with cries of "Mrs. Melbourne!" when she rode abroad in Rotten Row. She was perhaps 18 when this "grand pash" occurred, and not yet married to Albert; and she seems not to have cared one whit for public opinion. I'd have swooned over Melbourne, too.
|Caro dressed as a page|
Researching Melbourne, reading about Caro, and thinking about Regency personalities inevitably led me to a biography of Byron himself. Naturally, it's littered with love affairs and remarkable women, none of whom--not even his half-sister, with whom he had an incestuous child--appears to have been able to resist him. A gallery of some of them may be viewed below.
|Annabella, Lady Byron, mother of Byron's|
|Augusta Leigh, Byron's half-sister,|
mother of an incestuous daughter
|Jane Elizabeth, Lady Oxford|
|Claire Claremont, Mary Shelley's step-sister,|
mother of an illegitimate daughter
A single fact at the end of Byron's life gave me pause: he was refused a public funeral or burial in Westminster Abbey in 1824 due to his scandalous life. Instead, his biographer tells us, he was laid out for viewing at the London home of Sir Edward Knatchbull. Yes, Janeites--Byron's wake was held in Fanny Austen Knight Knatchbull's London house. How did George Gordon end up in with Jane Austen's niece? I have never been able to find out. But the link between the two families was all the permission I needed. I decided Jane MUST encounter some madness in Brighton in 1813.
One more interesting degree of separation: Byron was always in Dun Territory--always at the mercy of his creditors--and when he finally sold his birthright, a crumbling estate called Newstead Abbey, he sold it to the brother of Fanny Austen Knight's Kentish neighbor, James Wildman, of Chilham Castle. (For more about the Wildman family, see Jane and the Canterbury Tale.)
Happy Winter Reading!