This the sixth instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834. Here we turn to the third plate, which begins to open up some social and even romantic dimensions to the project.
The Illustrations to the Life and Work of Lord Byron were by no means all landscapes. The plan provided for each monthly part to consist of four landscapes and one portrait. As issued, the first number gave us a Maid of Athens, the second the Ottoman tyrant Ali Pascha, and the third an English rose, the seventeen year old Mary Chaworth.
Byron had a lifelong habit of falling in love immoderately and all too frequently. By the time he fell in love with Miss Chaworth, the daughter of a neighbour, she was the third beneficiary of his ardour.
The bare bones of the affair are thus. Mary Ann Chaworth lived at Annesley Hall, a nearby estate to Byron’s Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. In 1803 Byron spent some weeks at Newstead. They spent much time in one another’s company. The problem was he was yet a boy at fifteen, and she a woman at seventeen: The infatuation flowed entirely in one direction.
The portrait is by the Manchester-born self-taught portrait and figure-subject painter Frank Stone (1800 – 1859). He is an interesting figure in his own right, with strong associations with the poets Thomas Campbell and Samuel Rogers, both of whom feature in the Illustrations, and we will eventually arrive at them. He was also the close friend of Charles Dickens.
He was, we must observe, only three years of age in 1803 when Mary Chaworth was seventeen, so was not responsible in any way for the original portrait. Brockedon, in his commentary to the plates in the final, bound, edition, tells us that Stone worked ‘from an Original Miniature’. Of that there now appears to be no record, except that it might well have come from Byron’s own possession. Brockedon had the opportunity to quote from Byron’s subsequently-destroyed Diaries, noticing an entry from 1820 in which the poet had recorded that Miss Chaworth had given him ‘her picture’. In the absence of that miniature, however, there is a reproduced alternative by John Hazlitt from 1805, which shows that she still wore her hair distinctively short.
In the year of the second portrait she married a local heir, nine years her senior, John ‘Jack’ Musters. The University of Nottingham Library has a useful account of the context on its website. It seems more like the match that she might have imagined for herself aged seventeen. By all accounts it was not the best of marriages; they separated between 1813 and 1816 on account of his infidelities. During that period she made some approaches to Byron, but by that time his interests lay elsewhere.
Memories of her provided Byron with many opportunities for poetic regret. Byron scholars, and indeed William Brockedon in the commentary, give much more detailed accounts and poetic illustration. Here, however, I am more interested in what the image represents in terms of expanding horizons and their audience.
Her demise appears to have been uniquely expressive of her era. In 1831 she and her husband were living at Colwick Hall just to the east of Nottingham centre. On 8 October the Second Reform Bill was defeated in Parliament. This was intended to address a woeful lack of representation of the general populace in Parliament. At the time only 5% were able to vote and the country was filled with ‘rotten’ boroughs. Riots broke out across the country and in Nottingham violence was aimed at known opponents of Reform. On 10 October the mob marched on Colwick Hall and sacked it. Mary Ann spent a night in pouring rain hiding in a shrubbery, and was so broken by the event that she never recovered, and died less than four months afterwards on 6 February 1832. The timing of the publication of the engraving made it unwittingly serve as a memorial.
But it also has more general significance in the context of the Illustrations. The final three-volume set included twenty-four portraits plus an extra title-page portrait of Byron. Of the twenty–four plates, half were female subjects. But the distribution of the female subjects was far from even. In the sequence of monthly numbers, seven of the first eight portraits were of women, and after Ali Pacha in number two, readers had to wait until number twelve to find another male subject in the shape of Sir Walter Scott.
The preponderance of female subjects in the first half of the series seems to have been entirely deliberate. By the 1830s woman comprised a major portion of the book market. With the growth of illustrated annuals from the mid-1820s, publishers were increasingly conscious of the importance of this sector, and of designing the content and embellishment of their products towards it.
Miss Chaworth and her companions served as a point of identification in the project for more-or-less the whole spectrum of female readers in the early 1830s. This was a world in which they had more than just a stake, but here the principal interest, at least throughout the first half of the book. The implication is that the expanding horizons of Europe were theirs, too, for the reaching, and they were as entitled to embark on the journey at least as much as any man.
Next: We set sail for Portugal