Mary Ann Chaworth (1788-1832), aged 19.
Mary Ann Chaworth (1788-1832), aged 19.

Few men write so charmingly as Washington Irving of such incidents as the life-long love of Lord Byron for the heiress of Annesley. More than a hundred years have gone by since the poet met Mary Chaworth; and, when Irving, thirty years afterwards, was on a visit to Colonel Wildman at Newstead, he was told that Annesley was shut up, neglected, and almost in a state of desolation, that Mr. Musters rarely visited it, residing with his family in the neighbourhood of Nottingham. Notwithstanding this report, he set out on horseback, along with Colonel Wildman, and the great Newfoundland dog Boatswain, to visit the old hall. The narrative of what he saw and heard there will never cease to interest all who admire the great poet. He says:—

"In the course of our ride we visited a spot memorable in the love story. It was the scene of the parting interview between Byron and Miss Chaworth prior to her marriage. A long ridge of upland advances into the valley of Newstead like a promontory into a lake, and was formerly crowned by a beautiful grove, a landmark to the neighbouring country. The grove and promontory are graphically described by Lord Byron in his 'Dream,' and an exquisite picture given of himself and the lovely object of his boyish idolatry : —

"'I saw two beings in the hues of youth Standing upon a hill, a gentle hill, Green, and of mild declivity, the last As 'twere the cape of a long ridge of such, Save that there was no sea to lave its base, But a most living landscape, and the wave Of woods and cornfields, and the abodes of men Scatter'd at intervals, and wreathing smoke Arising from such rustic roofs ; — the hill Was crown'd with a peculiar diadem Of trees, in circular array, so fixed, Not by the sport of nature, but of man: These two, a maiden and a youth, were there Gazing — the one on all that was beneath, Fair as herself — but the boy gazed on her; And both were fair, the one was beautiful : And both were young — yet not alike in youth. As the sweet moon on the horizon's verge, The maid was on the eve of womanhood : The boy had fewer summers, but his heart Had far outgrown his years, and to his eye There was but one beloved face on earth, And that was shining on him.'

I stood upon the spot consecrated by this memorable interview. Below me extended the 'living landscape,' once contemplated by the loving pair; the gentle valley of Newstead diversified by woods and cornfields, the village spires, and gleams of water, and the distant towers and pinnacles of the venerable Abbey. The diadem of trees, however, was gone. The attention drawn to it by the poet, and the romantic manner in which he had associated it with his early passion for Mary Chaworth, had nettled the irritable feelings of her husband, who had but ill brooked the poetic celebrity conferred on his wife by the enamoured verses of another. The celebrated grove stood on his estate, and in a fit of spleen he ordered it to be levelled with the dust. The hand that laid it low is execrated by every pilgrim!

"Descending the hill, we soon entered upon a part of what once was Annesley Park, and rode amongst time-worn oaks and elms with ivy clambering about their trunks, and rooks' nests among their branches, and came to the gate-house of Annesley Hall. It was an old brick building, that might have served as an outpost or barbican to the Hall during the civil wars, when every gentleman's house was liable to become a fortress. Loopholes were still visible in its walls, but the peaceful ivy had mantled the sides, overrun the roof, and almost buried the ancient clock in front, that still marked the waning hours of its decay. Immediately opposite the gatehouse was the Hall itself, a rambling pile, patched and pieced at various times, and in various tastes, with gable ends, stone balustrades and enormous chimneys that strutted out like buttresses from the walls!

"We applied for admission at the front door, which was under a heavy porch. The portal was strongly barricaded, and our knocking was echoed by waste and empty halls. Everything bore the appearance of abandonment. After a time, however, our knocking summoned a solitary tenant from some remote corner of the pile: it was a decent-looking little dame, who emerged from a side-door at a distance, and seemed a worthy inmate of the antiquated mansion; she had, in fact, grown old with it. Her name, she said, was Nanny Marsden ; if she lived until next August, she would be seventy-one. A great part of her life had been passed in the Hall; and when the family had removed to Nottingham, she had been left in charge of it. The barricading of the front of the house was done in consequence of the riots which had recently taken place at Nottingham, when her master's house was sacked by the mob.

"Guided by the worthy little custodian of the fortress, we entered through the sally port by which she had issued forth, and soon found ourselves in a spacious but somewhat gloomy hall. Everything around had the air of an old-fashioned country squire's establishment. About the hall were hung portraits of racehorses, hunters, and favourite dogs, mingled indiscriminately with family pictures.

"As we were strolling about the mansion, our four-footed attendant, Boatswain, followed leisurely, as if taking a survey of the premises. I turned to rebuke him for his intrusion ; but the moment the old housekeeper understood he had belonged to Lord Byron, her heart seemed to yearn towards him. ' Nay, nay,' exclaimed she, 'let him alone—let him go where he pleases; he's welcome. Ah, dear me! If he lived here I should take great care of him—he should want for nothing. Well,' continued she, fondling him, ' who would have thought I should see a dog of Lord Byron's in Annesley Hall!'

"'I suppose, then,' said I, 'you recollect something of Lord Byron when he used to visit here?' 'Ah, bless him,' cried she, ' that I do! He used to ride over here and stay three days at a time, and sleep in the blue room. Ah, poor fellow, he was very much taken with my young mistress; he used to walk about the garden and the terrace with her, and seemed to love the very ground she trod on; he used to call her his bright morning star of Annesley'

"I felt the beautiful poetic phrase thrill through me. 'You appear to like the memory of Lord Byron?' said I.

"'Ah sir, why should not I? He was always main good to me when he came here. Well, well! they say it is a pity he and my young lady did not make a match ! Her mother would have liked it. He was always a welcome guest, and some think it would have been well for him to have had her— but it was not to be. He went away to school, and then Mr. Musters saw her, and so things took their course.'

"The simple soul then showed us into the favourite sitting-room of Miss Chaworth, with a small flower-garden under the window in which she had delighted. In this room Byron used to sit and listen to her as she played and sang. He himself gives us a glowing picture of his mute idolatry:—

"…'she was his sight,
For his eye followed hers, and saw with hers,
Which coloured all his objects. He had ceased
To live within himself ; she was his life,
The ocean to the river of his thoughts,
Which terminated all: upon a tone,
A touch of hers, his blood would ebb and flow,
And his cheek change tempestuously—his heart;
Unknowing of its cause of agony.'

"We continued our stroll about the waste apartments. Some of them were hung with family portraits, among which was pointed out that of the Mr. Chaworth who was killed by the wicked Lord Byron.

"These dismal-looking portraits had a powerful effect upon the imagination of the stripling poet. He used at first, though offered a bed at Annesley, to return every night to Newstead to sleep, alleging as a reason that he was afraid of the family pictures of the Chaworths, that he fancied they had taken a grudge to him on account of the duel, and would come down from their frames at night and haunt him. At length, one evening, he said gravely to Miss Chaworth and her cousin: ' In going home last night I saw a bogle,' which Scotch term being unintelligible to the young ladies, he explained that he had seen 'a ghost,' and would not therefore return to Newstead that evening. From that time, during the remainder of his visit, he always slept at Annesley, which was interrupted only by a short excursion to Matlock and Castleton, in which he had the happiness of accompanying Miss Chaworth and her party.

"From the rear of the Hall we walked out into the garden, about which Byron used to stroll and loiter in company with Miss Chaworth. It was laid out in the old French style;—there was a long terraced walk with heavy stone balustrades and sculptured urns, overrun with ivy and evergreens. A neglected shrubbery bordered one side of the terrace, with a lofty grove inhabited by a venerable community of rooks. Great flights of steps led down from the terrace to a flower garden, laid out in formal plots.

"The retired and quiet garden, once a little sequestered world of love and romance, was now all matted and wild, yet was beautiful even in its decay. Its air of neglect and desolation was in unison with the fortunes of the two beings who had once walked here in the freshness of youth, and life, and beauty. The garden, like their young hearts, had gone to waste and ruin.

"Returning to the Hall, we now visited a chamber built over the porch, or grand entrance: it was in a ruinous condition, the ceiling having fallen in and the floor given way. This, however, is a chamber rendered interesting by poetical associations. It is supposed to be the oratory alluded to by Lord Byron in his ' Dream,' wherein he pictures his departure from Annesley, after learning that Mary Chaworth was engaged to be married:—

"Yet," Irving adds, "notwithstanding what he asserts in the verses last quoted, he did pass the ' hoary threshold' of Annesley again. It was, however, after the lapse of several years, during which he had grown up to manhood, had passed through the ordeal of pleasures and tumultuous passions, and had felt the influence of other charms. Miss Chaworth, too, had become a wife and mother, and he dined at Annesley at the invitation of her husband."

He thus met the object of his early idolatry in the very scene of his tender devotions, which, as he says, her smiles had once made a heaven to him. He was in the very chamber where he had so often listened entranced to the witchery of her voice, these were the same instruments and music ; there lay her flower garden beneath the window, and the walks through which he had wandered with her in the intoxication of youthful love. Can we wonder that, amidst the tender recollections, the fond passion of his boyhood should rush back in full current to his heart?

He was himself surprised at this sudden revulsion of his feelings, but he had acquired self-possession and could command them. His firmness, however, was doomed to undergo a further trial. While seated by the object of his secret devotions, with all these recollections throbbing in his bosom, her infant daughter was brought into the room. At the sight of the child he started : it dispelled the last lingerings of his dream.1

The conflict of feelings that raged within his bosom throughout this fond and tender, yet painful and embarrassing visit is touchingly depicted in lines which he wrote immediately afterwards; and which, though not addressed to her by name, are evidently intended for the eye and the heart of the fair Lady of Annesley.

Being thus put upon the traces of this love story, Irving says: "I cannot refrain from threading them out, as they appear from time to time in various passages of Lord Byron's works. During his subsequent rambles in the East, when time and distance had softened away his 'early romance ' almost into the remembrance of a pleasing and tender dream, he received accounts of the object of it, which represented her, still in her paternal Hall among her native bowers of Annesley, surrounded by a blooming and beautiful family, yet a prey to secret and withering melancholy."2

The cause of her grief was a matter of rural comment in the neighbourhood of Newstead and Annesley. It was disconnected from all idea of Lord Byron, but attributed to the harsh and capricious conduct of one to whose kindness and affection she had a sacred claim. The domestic sorrows which had long preyed in secret on her heart, at length affected her intellect, and the "bright morning star of Annesley" was eclipsed for ever. Mrs. Musters died in 1832. Lord Byron died of fever at Missolonghi, on April 19, 1824.

1 In a letter in M.A.P. of December 16, 1899, from Mr. L. Chaworth Musters, of Wiverton, Notts, the writer stated that Mrs. Musters' eldest daughter, Mrs. Hammond, whom Lord Byron saw as an infant, was still alive in her ninety-fourth year.
2 Irving's Newstead Abbey and Annesley.