Lady Caroline Lamb 1785-1828


    Charles Fox | Lord Granville | Duchess of Devonshire | Earl of Barrymore | Duke of Queensberry |
    E-mail me | Join the Regency Ring | Back to the Regency collection

    Caroline Lamb Picture - From Elizabeth JenkinsShe is best known for her tempestuous affair with the poet Byron, and oft quoted for coining him 'mad bad and dangerous to know,' It was perhaps a phrase as appropriate to apply to herself as Byron.

    Caroline was born in 1785, the third child of four and only daughter of an Irish peer, Lord Duncannon, and his wife Lady Henrietta, daughter of the first Earl Spencer. Her father, Ponsonby (Lord Duncannon), did not inherit the title of third Earl Bessborough until Caroline, or Caro as she was known was nine years old.

    There is much confusion as to how Caro was brought up, not the least because she had a propensity for the dramatic and for creating new pasts for herself that sounded more tragic than the original. Her confidences to Lady Morgan in the last few years of her life have been particularly confusing, with some recent biographers chosing to take them at face value.

    What is known and can be confirmed is that her mother, Lady Bessborough, suffered from ill health and while Caro later confided to Lady Morgan that much of her early years were spent alone with only a maid in Italy, it seems far more likely from records and what is known of her grandmother, the redoutable Countess Spencer, she spent her early years and education at Devonshire house under the chaperonage of her Aunt, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

    Certainly Caro had a cousin, Harriet, and a 'natural' cousin (the illegitimate child of her Aunt's husband the Duke) Caro St Jules who were both born in the same year as she, 1785. It seems more than likely that her mother who was very close to her sister would choose the odd course of exiling her own daughter despite Caro's protestations that this happened.

    Devonshire house was the centre of whig politics at this time, with such notables as Charles Fox intimate friends with the Devonshire's. It was here that Caro was first seen by William Melbourne, the second son of Lord Melbourne and his ambitious wife, Lady Melbourne.

    Lady Melbourne was eager to promote a match that would tie her family and their ambitions to the political power of the Devonshire House set, indeed she was a close intimate of Georgiana and may have worked hard to promote the match initially. For whatever reason, William fell for Caro and by the time she was 17 they were married.

    The start of their married life was idyllic. Physically Caro was a slight woman, and very beautiful, she also affected an endearing but rather childish lisp, perhaps mirroring her aunt's best friend (also the mistress of the Duke) Lady Elizabeth Foster. Caro wanted to spend every waking moment with William and anecdotes of the time have her following him constantly, sitting on his lap and whispering into his ear.

    At first William was content with the marriage and content to be idle, but later as his political ambitions developed he spent less time with her, and more trying to make his way in Parliament. He was first elected as an MP for Leominster in 1806.

    Their marriage began to fray slightly and although she became pregnant twice, she bore only one child that lived but he was mentally defective.

    Caro did not get on with her mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, who beleived that one could do anything if one was discreet. It was the creed that all society lived by at the time, and certainly Caro would have known of the affairs her mother, aunt, uncle and other prominent members of society indulged in. Caro seemed to think that discretion was oppressive, lying. She was known to throw scorn in the face of convention by amongst other things dressing up in her page's uniform.

    She was 27 when she met Byron in 1812. He was just 24 and on the verg of becoming the darling of society having just published Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage. He was feted everywhere. They began a much recognised and indiscreet affair that lasted a tempestuous four months. Byron ended the affair much to Caro's displeasure. She then spent the next four years pursuing him. Her family had to pack her off to the country and urged her husband to divorce her. Byron avoided her, seeking refuge for sometime with his new mistress, Lady Oxford, and eventually marrying a cousin of Caro's husband, Annabella Milbanke.

    It was sometime during the few months following the split that Caro began writing her first novel, Glenarvon. This was published in 1816. She wrote later that she had written it in a few months in a swell of passion, but correspondence to the publisher shows she began it much earlier. It is perhaps a concious effort to align herself closer to Byron who always said her wrote fast and passionately, for the novel was her 'apology' to him. It was not accepted as an apology, indeed, the publication of the novel with its barely concealed portraits of society figures of the time, and its dark portrait of Byron put the final nail in the coffin of her marriage. She was sent from London in disgrace. Byron was by this time in Europe, never to return to England.

    Caro wrote two more novels, Graham Hamilton, published in 1822 and Ada Reiss published in 1823. She and William finally separated for good in 1825 when Caro was 40. She died in 1828, with William at her bedside.

    A small side note is that William did not inherit the title, Lord Melbourne until after Caro's death, and he never married again. He became prime minister and was one of the young Queen Victoria's first and most trusted advisers.


    Back to top


    Sources

    Glenarvon - By Lady Caroline Lamb
    Lady Caroline Lamb - By Elizabeth Jenkins
    The Young Melbourne - by David Cecil
    Melbourne - By Philip Zeigler
    Georgiana - By Brian Masters

    Return to Regency Collection