Brought to book at Harewood: Lord Byron and the scandal that rocked polite society

Volunteer Maria Dowie with some of the books donated to Harewood House
Volunteer Maria Dowie with some of the books donated to Harewood House
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INFAMOUSLY “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, Lord Byron remains as notorious for his scandalous lifestyle as he is for his literary brilliance as the quintessential Romantic poet.

Now, 19th century treasures have been discovered in a donation to Harewood House’s second-hand book shop that have sparked a search into his family history and how it rocked Georgian society.

Some of the books donated to the Harewood House second-hand shop.

Some of the books donated to the Harewood House second-hand shop.

Inscriptions reveal the volumes belonged to Byron’s half-sister and purported love interest Augusta Leigh, his rumoured incestuous liason with whom was behind his decision to flee the country, never to return.

Volunteers who run the book shop at the stately home traced the tomes’ origins after they were donated by a local woman who inherited them with the purchase of a London house in the 1970s.

Byron and Augusta, five years his elder, shared a father, Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, who died when the poet was three.

The pair were not raised together and did not meet until around 1803, when Byron was at Harrow School.

Then began an intimate correspondence, with a teenage Byron urging her in one letter to consider him “not only as a brother”, but as her “warmest and most affectionate friend”.

Augusta, who was married to her cousin, Colonel George Leigh, was the poet’s closest relative after his mother died in 1811.

Rumours began to fly about the nature of their relationship in 1813, when Augusta arrived to stay with him in London without her husband and children.

Byron’s letters from that year to another confidante, Lady Melbourne, strongly suggest an incestuous connection.

The following year, Augusta gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth Medora Leigh, who is widely speculated to have been Byron’s lovechild.

Byron married Anne Isabella “Annabella” Milbanke in 1815 and they had a child, Augusta Ada, later that year.

Their marriage was short-lived, and Annabella left when their daughter was little over a month old, taking the girl with her and citing incest alongside charges of adultery and cruelty when she filed for separation.

Scandalised and plagued by debt from his hedonistic lifestyle, Byron exiled himself to Europe, never to see Augusta again.

He died of a fever in 1824 after travelling to join Greek insurgents fighting against the Ottoman Empire. He was 36.

Augusta was left at the mercy of her spendthrift husband, who had already brought shame on their family when, as equerry to the Prince of Wales, he cheated the Royal over the sale of a horse and fiddled his own regimental expenses, leading to his dismissal.

The family was condemned to poverty but for the last 33 years of her life, Augusta was granted residence in a grace and favour apartment at St James’ Palace.

One of the donated books, The Literary Life and Correspondence of the Countess of Blessington, had been inscribed ‘Augusta Leigh, St James’ Palace’.

It was this royal connection that piqued the curiosity of volunteers at Harewood and inspired them to delve into the volumes’ history.

Another book, Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories, is inscribed lovingly by Augusta to one of her seven children, ‘Henry Francis Leigh from his dear Mamma on his birthday, January 28th 1828’.

Henry Francis died aged 33, leaving a widow, Mary, and daughter, Geraldine. Mary remarried and had two more children, Letitia and Herman.

When volunteers realised the books’ significance they told the donor, who was delighted and gave them a further two Lilliputian Library books dating from 1864 - inscribed by all three of Mary’s children.

The books will all be auctioned to raise money for educational projects at Harewood.

Volunteer Audrey Kingsnorth said: “It has been a thrilling exercise to learn so much about this family through their treasured books and we are continuing with our research.

“I consulted an expert seller who advised that the Lilliputian Library books are rare in such good condition.”

“We eventually intend to put the collection as a whole up for sale but have decided to display them for the time being in the bookshop for everyone to enjoy.”