Byron and his Half-Sister
Byron’s promiscuity with both men and women is legendary. Amongst his innumerable conquests, the most notorious by far was his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. After finding fame in 1812 with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a semi-autobiographical poetic account of his travels around the continent after leaving Cambridge, Byron became a sought-after fixture on the London party scene. However, despite apparently having his pick of the ladies and gentlemen of London Society, possessing as he did the dangerous mixture of an intoxicating personality and great beauty, for one reason or another Byron was chiefly attached to Augusta after meeting her again in 1813.
They were paternal step-siblings, who had first met in around 1802. Though there can be no justification for incest, it is still surprising to learn that Augusta was no great beauty. She had a maternal manner and a simple way of dressing, characteristics of no obvious appeal to a man who had slept with some of the most beautiful men and women in the country, but it was this very quality that made Augusta so irresistible to Byron. In Augusta, he saw the qualities that his own mother did not have, and that his tempestuous childhood sorely needed.
Five years Byron’s senior, Augusta (or âGoose’, as he called her) was fond of referring to her half-brother as âBaby Byron’, as if including him amongst her own brood of children, whom Byron adored despite publically claiming antipathy to kids. At some point in 1813, their relationship disturbingly turned from maternal to sexual, as Byron himself confessed in a letter to his friend, Tom Moore, on August 22nd: âthe fact is, I am, at this moment, in a far more serious, and entirely new, scrape than any of the last months, – and that is saying a great deal’.
Rumours circulated about the step-siblings’ incestuous relationship, and when Augusta gave birth to a baby girl, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, it was suspected that Byron was the real father. Eventually, such whispers began to impact Byron’s life, along with his rising debts, and so in 1815 he married Annabella Millbanke, niece of Lady Melbourne. Annabella left Byron a year later, taking their daughter with her, citing Byron’s incest with Augusta as her motivation. Public horror at Byron’s relationship with Augusta reached fever pitch with the separation, and he was forced to leave England for the continent, ostracised and embittered.
Byron was characteristically unremorseful about the affair, later writing to Augusta that, âI repent of nothing except that cursed marriage’. At the affair’s height, Byron pretentiously explained to his future wife, Annabella, that âthe great object of life is Sensation – to feel that we exist – even though in pain – it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming – to Battle – to Travel – to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment’. There’s something deeply profound in those words, but it’s still gross to have sex with your sister.