Catherine Gordon Byron – a bad mother, or Gothic heroine?

Catherine Gordon Byron

Earlier this year I wrote about the Romantic poet and favourite bad boy, Lord Byron.  In that blog, I mentioned his wild family but concentrated on his father’s side. They were all, well, shall we say wild and wayward. Now it’s time to redress the balance.

I want to talk about his mother, Catherine Gordon Byron, who has at least some of the hallmarks of a Gothic heroine. Let’s start with her ancestors.

The distaff side

Rabbit hole warningNot a term we hear a great deal about, these days, unless you work in the textile industry, so here’s a bit  more information.

WARNING, A RABBIT HOLE!

Distaff: old woman with spindle Murillo

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A distaff is a spinning tool, originally it was simply a long stick, with a fork in one end. Individual fibres of Flax (or wool, etc) are wound around it, ready for spinning. Originally from the old English, meaning a flax staff, it has been in use for thousands of years. It was the medieval symbol of women’s work and there is even a St Distaff’s Day (or Rock Day) on 7th January. That’s the day after the feast of Epiphany, when everyone was supposed to get back to work.  Robert Herrick wrote a poem about it

There is a fascinating amount of spinning detail on the Wildfibres site, plus a lot more information online. If you want – or have time – to digress!

Back to Catherine, our Gothic heroine?

Her ancestry and her life are interesting, but rarely happy though they make the perfect background for a heroine in a Gothic novel.  Her family home, Gight Castle, was the site of numerous dastardly deeds and unhappy events, including the tragedy of Catherine losing her close family at an early age. She was an orphan and an heiress. Perfect Gothic heroine material.

Gight Castle – Gothic inspiration

Hagberry or bird cherry tree

Hagberry or bird cherry tree

Gight Castle was built around 1560 by the Gordon family, who were notoriously violent, even by the standards of the time. It overlooks a dark pool of water, called the Hagberry Pot, after the Hagberry trees growing along the riverbank. The Hagberry, or bird cherry (Prunus padus), is a spring flowering tree of the Caledonian forest.

Gothic Horror stories

a giant monster reaching outThere are plenty of hoary legends attached to Gight Castle.

In 1644  Covenanters besieged the castle and the then Laird is said to have thrown his gold and jewels into the pool to keep them safe. Later, he sent a diver to recover the gold, and when the man returned empty handed, crying that he had seen the devil guarding the treasure,  he was tortured until he agreed to go back into the water and look again, saying he preferred to face the devil than the Laird of Gight. They recovered his mangled body, but there was no sign of the gold.

The castle is said to be cursed and the ruins are also said to be haunted by a piper, who disappeared while searching for the devil in the castle tunnels.

And back to Catherine

Her story certainly reads like that of a Gothic heroine

The Heiress

Catherine was born in 1765 (probably; dates vary in different sources), and was the daughter of George Gordon, 12th Laird of Gight. On her father’s death she became the thirteenth (and as it happens, the final) Laird of Gight. She was also an heiress. By the age of eighteen she was the only remaining member of that family, her mother and two younger sisters dying of illness. Catherine went to live with her grandmother in Banff, where she did at least receive a good education.

We know very little of Catherine’s early life or her personality, but there is one description of her here :-

From “The Works of Lord Byron (edited by E H Coleridge)”, published by John Murray in 1831

At the age of thirty-five she was a stout, dumpy, coarse-looking woman, awkward in her movements, provincial in her accent and manner….. Of her ancestry she was, to use her son’s expression, as “proud as Lucifer,” looked down upon the Byron family, and regarded the Duke of Gordon as an inferior member of her clan. In later life, at any rate, her temper was ungovernable ; her language, when excited, unrestrained; her love of gossip insatiable. Capricious in her moods, she flew from one extreme to the other, passing, for the slightest cause, from passionate affection to equally passionate resentment. How far these defects were produced, as they certainly were aggravated, by her husband’s ill treatment and her hard struggle with poverty, it is impossible to say. She had many good qualities. She bore her ruin, as her letters show, with good sense, dignity, and composure.

It is worth remembering…

Catherine had been dead for 20 years when the above was published. Much of it would probably have come from Byron himself. If she had been the heroine of a Gothic novel, maybe she would have been described differently – of ancient and noble ancestry, petite and dark eyed and with a  fiery temperament, which might have been called spirited.

What do you think?

The Gordon Ancestry

Bath River Avon

Bath, River Avon. Wiki Commons, Attr. Enrique Íñiguez Rodríguez

The Gordons were a lawless family, they tortured and killed messengers and raided neighbours’ lands. Drowning, murder and hanging befell many Gordons and Catherine’s father committed suicide by drowning himself in the River Avon in Bath in 1779.

And in 1785, Miss Gordon, an heiress worth around £23,000, entered Bath Society.

Enter John “Mad Jack” Byron

The Husband

Captain Mad Jack Byron

John Byron was a fortune hunter. His wife, Amelia, Baroness Conyers, had died the year before, leaving him with a daughter, Augusta. He desperately needed to find a wife who could keep him in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

Catherine was the perfect candidate.

Handsome and charming, John quickly courted the heiress and they married in Bath on Friday 13th May 1785. He agreed to take the name of Gordon (hence the future romantic poet is named George Gordon Byron). This gave John access to Catherine’s fortune.

They made their home at Gight, where apparently Catherine’s friends and relatives were not very welcoming to “Mad Jack”. He soon proved them right with his scandalous behaviour: within two years he had run through all Catherine’s fortune.

The step-daughter

Augusta Leigh. Byron’s half-sister

During all this, Catherine was looking after Augusta, her step-daughter, and nursing her through a serious illness. However, by 1787 things were looking very bad, financially, for the family.  Catherine sold Gight Castle in 1787 to the 3rd Earl of Aberdeen (another George Gordon), to pay off their debts and the impoverished couple left Scotland and fled to France.

Fortunately, Catherine had a small income of £150 a year which her husband could not touch.  Pregnant, Catherine left Mad Jack to continue with his dissolute lifestyle in France and she returned to England.

Catherine sent Augusta to her grandmother, Lady Holderness, and went off to find herself lodgings in Holles Street, London, where she gave birth to George Gordon Byron on 22nd January 1788.

The single mum

Okay, a single mother is heroic, but the heroine of a Gothic novel? Perhaps not, although widows and abandoned wives did feature. Frequently.

Broad St Aberdeen

Catherine took George off to Aberdeen, and after the death of her husband in 1791 she devoted herself to her son.

They moved to Broad Street and lived on the first floor of a house with Agnes Grey, their maid. This was possibly the happiest time for the pair.

Aberdeen was a thriving port, with bookshops and playhouses.  Catherine joined the local subscription library  and she encouraged her son to read widely.

Lord Byron

Byron went to a local school run by a Mr Bower. The boy never got on with Bower, but once Byron had transferred to a clergyman named Ross for his education  he made “astonishing” progress (Byron’s own words). He also attended Harrow for a short time before going to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Throughout his education, his single mother supported him on her £150 a year. That must have been tough for her, especially when “he overspent wildly” at Cambridge.

“Am  I to call this woman mother?”

These are Byron’s words, in a letter to his half-sister Augusta. He does own that he is “troublesome”, but he still thinks she nags him a great deal too much!

However, I do have some sympathy with her, a single mum struggling to keep everything together and look after a son who has inherited the wayward genes from both sides of the family.

In conclusion

Catherine seems to have had a short temper, and had difficulty controlling her wayward and strong-willed son. But she didn’t give up on him. She had married a charming rogue who took all her money, and he even turned up in Aberdeen asking for more, after she had left him. In what was very much a man’s world, Catherine did her best to forge a path for herself and bring up her son as best she could.

I don’t think she did too badly, all things considered. But of course you may disagree – feel free to let me know!

Sarah

Wed in Haste to the Duke, by Sarah Mallory

 

11 thoughts on “Catherine Gordon Byron – a bad mother, or Gothic heroine?

    1. Sarah Mallory

      I am sure young Byron was quite a trial, and from the reports she had a temper, so they probably had a few tussles along the way. But I think she tried to do her best for him. It must have been very tough for her.

      Reply
  1. Yve Setters

    Wow what a tough cookie, although silly where men were concerned but then society was a man’s world. She did her best in a time where women were mere “meal tickets” to unscrupulous rogues. Hats off to her for trying her best.

    Reply
  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Golly! In keeping with the whole Byron legend, I’d say. No wonder he was a bit bonkers with that ancestry. I’m sorry for his mother, though. She had a rough deal. Definitely gothic material there.

    Reply
  3. Sophie

    Good heavens. What a horrible trial the appalling husband must have been. I’m not surprised if the poor woman became a bit short tempered. Just wish she’d had a happier time of it after Aberdeen. Poet Byron can’t have been much of a consolation, even after he grew out of his troublesome teens. If, indeed, he ever did.

    Reply

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