Lady Caroline Ponsonby, the daughter of the Earl and Countess of Bessborough, was born in London in 1785 and swiftly proved herself to be as enchanting as she was uncontrollable. Laudanum, even when sweetened with lavender, failed to calm her. Governesses left. Her grandmother, the pious and well-read Lady Spencer—she became Caroline’s primary educator at home—despaired. To her cousin Georgiana, known as Little G—the daughter of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the beautiful, uncrowned queen of Whig society—the eleven-year-old Caroline announced:
Later, in the spring of 1812, or so Caroline liked to recall, she summed up the already notorious Lord Byron, about to become her bewitched lover, as “mad—bad—and dangerous to know.” The Princeton scholar of Romanticism Susan J. Wolfson has wittily observed: “It takes one to know one.”
Being mad was something an intelligent and privileged young rebel could boast about before 1810, when the public acknowledgment of King George III’s mental illness cast a shadow across such frivolity. Just how mad the capricious and volatile Caroline actually was presents a dilemma that her biographers—from the perceptive Elizabeth Jenkins, working with almost no original documents in 1932, to Susan Normington and Paul Douglass, expertly sifting through the piles of tear-blotted letters written by an inveterate correspondent—have struggled to resolve.1
Antonia Fraser, crowning half a century of writing respected historical books with Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit, cannily dodges the issue by celebrating Caroline’s increasingly weird behavior—burning an effigy of the faithless Byron at her husband’s country estate was one of her more temperate performances—as evidence that she was a woman who “at a time of women’s submission, both legally and socially, went her own way.” Not every reader of Fraser’s lighthearted biography will feel that going “her own way” adequately explains the oddness of a woman who, toward the end of her scandalous love affair, asked Lady Melbourne, the mother of her long-suffering husband, William Lamb, to accept Byron’s ring (a gift to Caroline from the foppish poet) and to exhibit it on her finger when Caroline next paid a visit. Lady Melbourne did not oblige.
Fraser’s choice of Caroline as the subject of what may be the industrious nonagenarian’s final book (although we shouldn’t bet on it) is intriguing. So is her compassionate approach to a hectically adulterous life, one which still prompts murmurs of fascinated disapproval. Has the distant memory of her own unchivalrous treatment at the hands of the satirical magazine Private Eye, which called her “Lady Magnesia Freelove,” encouraged Fraser to empathize with Caroline’s determination to live as she wished, rather than as society expected? A very public divorce case leading to Fraser’s long and happy marriage to the playwright Harold Pinter required similar pluck.
Other telling points of comparison emerge from Fraser’s tolerant approach. In Caroline’s snobbish and bigoted times, a girl with a grand title stood less chance of getting a decent education than Mary Wollstonecraft’s scholarly daughter, Mary Godwin (later the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley). Fraser stresses how earnestly Caroline hungered for self-improvement and a mentor. Her brief sojourn at a well-known London girls’ school did provide her with the rudimentary skills required of a lady: drawing, French, Italian, and enough Latin for her to attempt a translation from Ovid.
Sensibly, Fraser balances her subject’s self-destructive passions (Byron nicknamed his obsessed lover “Little Mania”) against the warmhearted if capricious philanthropic spirit instilled in her as her duty to society by Lady Spencer. This bookish grandmother also initiated her lifelong passion for reading: Byron, during his first two months of enthrallment to this impulsive mistress, was surprised to discover that Caroline liked to receive a book a day, and not simply for its bestower’s flowery inscription. In later life (she died in 1828, aged forty-two) she made friends with the Italian writer and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo and even appointed William Godwin—the founder of philosophical anarchism and father of Mary Shelley, whom Caroline expressed a strong wish to meet—as her own informal tutor. While never personally wealthy, she helped raise funds for that formerly radical and perpetually needy intellectual. Her husband may have insisted that his wife, no shrinking violet, do so anonymously.
Always striking in appearance with her cropped halo of reddish curls, Caroline had a willfulness that was already apparent when, aged seven, she told the great historian Edward Gibbon that the largeness of his face had frightened the puppy she was playing with. (Gibbon was “one of the biggest men you ever saw,” her amused aunt Georgiana reported after their visit together to his lakeside home in Switzerland.) Caroline cared about looks.
At fifteen, she fell in love with the broodingly handsome William Lamb. The death from tuberculosis of his older, childless brother made him the unexpected heir to a title—plus three grand houses. In June 1805, five months after this gratifying upgrade to William’s social and financial status (the Lambs were newcomers in the disdainful eyes of Caroline’s more established family), the adoring couple were married and settled into a handsome upper apartment at elegant Melbourne House in London, just off Whitehall and close to the home of the Prince Regent. Down below, the worldly Lady Melbourne, a former mistress of the Prince Regent’s, ruled the roost. Up above, the young Lambs (unusual for their class in those times) shared a bed and lived in bliss.
“I have married not a man but an Angel,” Caroline crowed to Little G in 1805. The following year, when William (a future prime minister) made his first speech in Parliament, Caroline donned boy’s clothes to join a room full of male politicians in applauding him. A shared tragedy—the Lambs’ son, Augustus, tactlessly compared by William’s forthright younger sister Emily Cowper to Victor Frankenstein’s unfortunate Creature, was epileptic and mentally handicapped—served to bind a devoted couple even closer together.2 The Prince Regent stood as the baby’s godfather. Not even Caroline’s harshest detractors—and Lady Cowper, who married her earl a month after William’s betrothal to Caroline, was among the most active—could criticize the affection she lavished on a child who, unusually for those brutal times, was reared at home, never hidden away.
If William Lamb conducted extramarital affairs, he kept them as quiet as his taste for flagellation. Discretion was foreign to the nature of his wife: her most uncritical recorder, the ebullient novelist Lady Morgan, remembered Caroline describing herself as “the slave of impulse—I have rushed forward to my own destruction.” That headlong quest began in 1811 when she hurled herself into pursuing a relationship with Sir Godfrey Webster, the violent and arrogant owner of Battle Abbey in Sussex. (A derelict abbey counted for something with Caroline, as ardent a reader of gothic novels as her fictional contemporary Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.)
Fraser, citing the fact that Caroline had recently read Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, praises her as an emancipated wife “standing up for the rights of her sex.” Lady Melbourne, no stranger to adultery herself—one of her lovers, Lord Egremont, was the father of William and Emily Lamb, while their brother George was pointedly named after the Prince Regent—cared less about Caroline’s sudden attachment to Sir Godfrey, the eldest child of Lady Holland, a formidable political figure, than about a scandal that might damage William’s career. Caroline’s attempts to blame a dissolute husband for corrupting her own “almost childlike innocence and inexperience” by instructing her “in things I had never heard or known” were coldly received by her mother-in-law. So was her bizarre request that Lady Melbourne terminate the relationship herself by returning to Sir Godfrey his gifts to Caroline.
Evidence of the stubbornness with which Caroline clung to her attachments emerged when she repeatedly broke promises to end the affair. Another sign of her enduring refusal to abide by the social hypocrisies that governed her world emerged in her defiant letters to Sir Godfrey’s displeased mother, announcing that she neither cared about Lady Holland’s disapproval (“I am not one to be so easily put down”) nor blamed herself: “I cannot help it…my passions have so long been used to master my Reason.” Sir Godfrey quit the field for a short-lived career in politics. Six months later, in March 1812, Caroline made her first approach to Lord Byron.
Byron in 1812, as Romantic biographers ought more often to remind us, was less famous for his wit than for the cultivated pose of brooding petulance that made him a perfect mirror-image of Childe Harold, the romantic hero of the first canto of his recently published and wildly successful poem. An aura of inaccessibility added to the allure of the owner of a ruined abbey whose liberal politics—his maiden speech in the House of Lords in February 1812 sought to protect Nottinghamshire’s stocking makers from being hanged for destroying the new mechanized looms that threatened their only source of income—didn’t preclude a fierce streak of snobbery.3
Initially, and on some level irrevocably, Byron adored Caroline, addressing her, in the first flush of delight, as “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.” But the born outsider also wanted a place in the Regency’s ton, the exclusive London circle presided over by the lady patronesses of Almack’s, the city’s most fashionable club. Caroline’s grand pedigree swept her lover across that threshold. Lady Melbourne, a charming but treacherous woman with whom Byron initiated a flirtatious relationship while seeking (but seldom heeding) advice on how best to handle her reckless daughter-in-law, did the rest.
It was only by playing a cynical double game that Byron managed to remain in high society and make what he wrongly anticipated would be a splendid financial alliance to Lady Melbourne’s niece Annabella Milbanke. Meanwhile Caroline, besotted and made increasingly careless by her despair, sank into the disrepute that eventually enabled her tolerant husband’s less forgiving relatives to enforce a formal separation from him. “The Devil take the deed that took my Willy from me,” Caroline wailed to William during her impulsive two-month jaunt to Paris in 1825 (perhaps to avoid signing the required document). The wonder, to William’s exasperated sister Emily, was that her brother continued to visit and worry about a wife whom he never ceased to love.
Often though the story of Caroline’s affair with Byron has been told, it never grows stale, in part because the level of hypocrisy is so mesmerizing. “Cruel and unnatural as you have behaved, you surely do not wish to be the Death of your mother,” Lady Bessborough’s maid reproached Caroline for upsetting the woman described by Byron as “the hack whore of the last half century.” Byron’s viciousness was not without grounds. Lady Bessborough, sounding very like her daughter, once remarked that she could “never love anyone just a little.” She demonstrated that by conducting a passionate affair with the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was widely suspected of being Caroline’s father. She then bore two secret children to Granville Leveson-Gower, a man young enough to be married off in due course to one of Caroline’s cousins (while continuing the affair with her) and the chief confidant for her distress about Caroline’s public pursuit of Byron. Lady Melbourne, whom the anxious Lady Bessborough meanwhile entreated to maintain her own considerable hold over Byron, played a more elaborate game.
Comparisons are often made between the clever, devious, unscrupulous Lady Melbourne and Madame de Merteuil, the scheming puppeteer of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). (Lady Holland, a well-read political hostess who thought her friend both “sensible and amusing,” was the first privately to note a marked resemblance.) The deft epistolary fencing between Byron and Lady Melbourne, who was more than twice his age, often comes eerily close to the letters exchanged between Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont as they plot the seduction of two virtuous women. But Merteuil, who also wants Valmont for herself, falls prey to jealousy; for Lady Melbourne, the pleasure of advising Byron while scolding Caroline seems to have been all in the delicious sense of control. (It’s not impossible, however, that a mysterious gap in her correspondence in 1813 conceals a brief affair of her own with him.)
An unpredicted corollary of Lady Melbourne’s close involvement, as Douglass and Fraser both suggest, was that Byron and Caroline became intimately united in a game of deceiving a grand mistress of deception. In August 1812, following a robust dressing down from William’s irate father, Caroline declared herself pregnant and promptly vanished. (Was she? Who knows: “truth,” in Caroline’s definition, comprises merely “what one thinks at the moment.”) Byron, making himself the hero of the day, tracked down his fugitive mistress at a surgeon’s house, en route—so the distraught Caroline proclaimed—to a Portsmouth ship and a life abroad.
Restored safely to her parents by her lover, Caroline made no more claims about pregnancy and agreed to go to Ireland with her husband and the Bessboroughs, while secretly entreating Byron to rescue her once again: “Take me with you—take me, my master, my friend.” Byron, glibly assuring Lady Melbourne that the affair was over, responded by telling Caroline that he remained hers, “to obey, to honour, love—& fly with you when, where, & how you yourself might & may determine.” Years later, Caroline informed Byron’s inquisitive friend Thomas Medwin that “every day” during her Irish absence her lover had written “long kind entertaining letters,” while adding to her dismay by beginning a new, more restful affair with Lady Oxford.
Even Lady Melbourne remained baffled by the strength of Caroline’s passion and—long after his affair with Lady Oxford had subsided—by her seemingly inexplicable hold over Byron. In June 1813 William actually reproached Byron for neglecting Caroline. A month later, wounded by her lover’s indifference at a ball, Caroline stabbed herself in an incident Byron shrugged off to Lady Melbourne as “that slip of the pen-knife of C’s.” By August he was sheepishly justifying the necessity of writing Caroline “a soothing letter”; ten months later, he was pleading the impossibility of excluding her from his rooms: “You talked to me about keeping her out—it is impossible…the moment the door is open, in she walks. I can’t throw her out of the window.” Small wonder that Lady Melbourne was unconvinced by a declaration in August 1814 that the former lovers had achieved “a conclusive and happy separation.”
A harmonious ending was never in the cards for such an obsessive affair. In 1816, having parted from his young wife after a year (her choice, not his) and gone into what he wrongly assumed would be a temporary exile, Byron found it harder to banish Caroline from his mind than the grief-stricken Annabella. That summer, while living beside Lake Geneva, he borrowed Madame de Staël’s copy of Glenarvon, the scandal-read of the season. Its anonymous but widely identified author was Caroline Lamb. The novel—which earned her a temporary exclusion from Almack’s for daring to satirize the ton—included intimate extracts from Byron’s letters. Finding William Lamb glorified as Lord Avondale, the forgiving husband of wild Calantha, and himself cast as the doomed Glenarvon, Lady Calantha’s predatory lover, Byron joked that he had not sat long enough for a good portrait. He added his regrets that the real story had not been told: “The romance would not only have been more romantic, but more entertaining.” Later, explaining the charm of his lover Teresa Guiccioli to his half-sister Augusta Leigh and his friend the banker Douglas Kinnaird, Byron described her as “a sort of Italian Caroline Lamb…she has the same red-hot head—the same noble disdain of public opinion.”
Useful though each of the biographies of Caroline Lamb is in illuminating her quicksilver temperament, none of them satisfyingly explains Byron’s evident reluctance to break free of her. A possible clue appears in the jacket illustration of Fraser’s book: a painting of Caroline commissioned from Thomas Phillips by her doting cousin, the Duke of Devonshire. In it a slender, androgynous figure dressed as a page offers a bowl of fruit to an invisible patron. (Caroline, while seldom averse to publicity, was distressed when Phillips naughtily exhibited his Ganymede portrait of her next to one of Byron, as if the fruit were being proffered to him.)
Caroline was a born masquerader. Stories abound of her love of disguise. Byron, encountering her at a masked ball given by the Duke of Wellington in the summer of 1814, to which he went dressed as a monk, assured Lady Melbourne that he had scolded Caroline “like a grandfather” for twitching her skirt aside to display a natty pair of green pantaloons. In 1815 Caroline swaggered into a Paris ballroom dressed as the Prussian field marshal Gebhard von Blücher, cheered on by a hired retinue. Following her restoration to favor at Almack’s, she startled an 1818 gathering of the ton by impersonating Byron’s Don Juan, attended by four of the prettiest little “devils” that money could procure.
Caroline’s favorite alter ego was that of a young boy. She visited and later stalked Byron in an androgynous page boy’s disguise that seemingly suited his taste. A glimpse of queer undercurrents in the lovers’ relationship surfaced in Byron’s evidently deliberate admission to the prudish Medwin that an early quarrel with Caroline had been made up “in a very odd way, and without any verbal explanation.” Can William Lamb’s remarkable lack of jealousy be partially explained by his intuition that this passionate entanglement offered no threat to his marriage?
Caroline saw Byron for the last time in 1815, when Lady Melbourne took her—at his wish—to congratulate him and Annabella on their betrothal. In her later life, she continued to write, but with what might best be described as qualified success. Ada Reis, another anonymously published novel, appeared without fanfare in 1823. Despite evidence of diligent research, a piratical hero, and exotic settings, reviews were tepid. Caroline’s growing dependence on drugs and alcohol led to the appointment of two nurses to supervise her even before the Lambs separated, with touching reluctance, in 1825. That year the gossipy memoirs of the courtesan Harriette Wilson included a vicious portrait of Caroline (based, Wilson claimed, on the account provided by Caroline’s French maid) drinking “enough for a porter” and sleeping with her son’s doctor.
Caroline spent the happiest of her relatively subdued last years at Brocket Hall, the Lamb family’s country house, which had provided a comforting refuge in more turbulent times. Visibly affected and enlarged by dropsy (an abnormal accumulation of water under the skin, now known as edema), she died at Melbourne House in 1828, shortly after William and their son, Augustus, paid a final visit. The recently widowed Emily Cowper, growing charitable about a dead sister-in-law she had found in life to be consistently exasperating, conceded that Caroline, while “really not quite right…had something about her which made people forgive her.” Lady Morgan, the most devoted of Caroline’s literary friends in later life, recalled both her boast of “the vital spark of genius I have” and her poignant admission that “in truth it is too small.” To Morgan, one of the few women she trusted, Caroline wrote that her greatest achievement was to be independent, “as far as a mite and bit of dust can be.”
An eloquent example of the innate good-heartedness that Antonia Fraser’s agreeable book takes care to emphasize had surfaced earlier in the hectic, capricious, and oddly pointless career of this Regency eccentric. Paying homage in 1818 to the late Lady Melbourne, a woman she could justly regard as her chief enemy, Caroline wrote that “a kinder heart and finer mind were never to be found anywhere than there.” Despite her flagrant insincerity, it was a tribute intended to offer balm to the feelings of the man she both loved and betrayed: Lady Melbourne’s devoted and bereaved son, William Lamb.
Elizabeth Jenkins, Lady Caroline Lamb (London: Victor Gollancz, 1932); Susan Normington, Lady Caroline Lamb: This Infernal Woman (Cornwall: House of Stratus, 2000); Paul Douglass, Lady Caroline Lamb: A Biography (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); The Whole Disgraceful Truth: Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb, edited by Paul Douglass (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); see also Caro: The Lady Caroline Lamb Website, sites.google.com/sjsu.edu/caro/works/selected-letters. ↩
Emily Cowper may never have read Frankenstein, but in 1823, when she drew the analogy, she had just seen Thomas Cooke playing the Creature in Presumption, a crudely dramatized version of Mary Shelley’s novel that premiered at the English Opera House. ↩
Given royal approval on March 20, 1812, the Frame Work Bill made vandalism of mechanized frames a capital felony. It was repealed in March 1814 and reinstated three years later. Caroline’s reactionary husband, William, was an ardent supporter of the bill. ↩