Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - The Life of Lady Caroline Lamb

Allegedly that was Lady Caroline Lamb's response on her first sight of George Gordon, Lord Byron, but the same sentiment could be applied to her. In an age that favored form and decorum, no matter what you did behind closed doors, Lady Caroline Lamb scandalized society with her reckless behavior and flouting of convention.

She was born Caroline Ponsonby on the 13th of November in 1785, which makes her a Scorpio. She was the only daughter of Lord Duncannon, the future Earl of Bessborough and Lady Henrietta Ponsonby, the sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (more on her in another post).

Like her mother, Caro was delicate in health as a child. From the age of 9, she lived at Devonshire House, along with her cousins Lord Hartington, his sisters Lady Georgiana and Lady Harriet, and Lady Elizabeth Forster's two children by the Duke, one of which was also named Caroline.

A born drama queen, Caroline made up fanciful tales about her childhood, including the tidbit that she didn't learn to read until well into her teens. Considering that her grandmother, the Dowager Lady Spencer was zealous about education, and her governess was Selina Trimmer, the sister of noted author of children's morality tales, Sarah Trimmer, the idea is absurd. Still many future biographers have taken Caro's stories at face value, and repeated them.

The truth is that Caroline was exceptionally well-educated. She wrote several published novels and poems as an adult, but she was also an accomplished artist as well. Not only was she fluent in French and Italian, but she was also skilled at Latin and Greek. Growing up, Caro spent time on the continent with her mother and her aunt as they gave birth to the illegitimate children of their lovers. She met Marie Antoinette, the Queen of Naples.

From early childhood, Caro was developing a reputation for outrageous behavior. She once told the noted writer Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that his face was so ugly it scared her puppy! While most kids outgrow the inclination to say whatever comes out of their mouth, Caro never did.

Caroline was blessed with a slim figure, reddish blonde hair and delicate features but she had the unfortunate tendency to lisp and to talk in a baby voice (sort of like Trista Sutter from The Bachelorette). As her marriage broke down, she liked to dress up like a page, flouting convention.

At the age of 16, she met William Lamb, the second son of Lord Melbourne. Both her mother and her grandmother had misgivings about the match. At the time, William was the second son, his brother Peniston being the heir to the title. William wasn't even Lord Melbourne's biological son. The rumor was that he was actually Lord Egremont's. Caro was also headstrong, and neurotic while William had a much calmer temperment. They also had almost nothing in common. Still, his mother, Lady Melbourne championed the match. She wanted access to the Whig Power Center which was Devonshire House, the Duchess being an ardent Whig supporter. There William could mingle with politicians such as Charles James Fox, furthering his own career.

They were married in 1805 when Caro was 19. At first the marriage was happy, until William's overwhelming ambition to succeed as a politician took him away more and more. Caro also suffered two horrible miscarriages, including a stillborn daughter, before finally giving birth to a son, Augustus in 1807. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that Augustus suffered from epileptic fits and he may have been autistic as well. Caroline refused to put him away, despite the pleas of her family and her in-laws. Despite his affliction, she was devoted to him.

Soon the cracks in their marriage became even greater. William was an athiest while Caroline had been relatively pious when they married. They were also not sexually compatible. There is evidence that William was a little kinky which shocked Caroline, who probably had very little knowledge of the sexual act before marriage.

In March 1812, Caro read an advance reading copy of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and wrote him an anonymous fan letter. Byron at this time had yet to become the rock star of the Regency that he would become. He'd had some verse published in 1806 and 1807, but Childe Harold made his reputation after the first two cantos were published. He'd taken his place in the House of Lords the previous year, and made his maiden speech only a month before he met Caroline.

Byron described Caroline to a friend as “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.” Caroline was one of the stars of her day. She was beautiful and charming, but, in the words of one of her friends, "had a restless craving after excitement".

Byron received hundreds of what were essentially fan letters from women. When he found out that Lady Caroline Lamb was the letter writer, he was intrigued enough to want to meet her.
What followed was an affair that lasted only six months, but the repercussions continued for years. Caroline was totally besotted with Byron and, initially, he was equally smitten by her, although she wasn't his usual type. It was not just a sexual attraction but also an intellectual attraction. They shared a love for dogs, horses, and music. They both they wrote constantly to each other, sometimes every day. By the end of their affair, something like 300 letters had exchanged hands.

The public nature of the romance presented no problem to Caroline. Most of her family, including her mother-in-law, had little regard for fidelity, but kept their liaisons quiet.
This was not Caroline's style. Being a Drama Queen, she enjoyed making scenes, and with Byron, there was ample opportunity. Caroline had no care for what other people's opinions, a trait that Byron admired. Like Violet Trefusis, another aristocratic woman who was the daughter of Edward VII's last mistress Alice Keppel, Caroline had no use for the hypocrisy of the times, where as long as you were discreet, you could get away with anything.

Byron at first admired her outrageousness but he soon pulled back, wounding Caroline, who wanted him to admit that the relationship mattered to him. Her infatuation became obsessive. On one occasion, as Byron leant across another woman Caroline bit through the rim of her wineglass in jealous anxiety. Byron received constant attention and barrages of love-letters from her. At first Byron was charmed but eventually he got bored. Like most men, he preferred the chase, until he got what he desired, and then he no longer wanted it.

Byron on the other hand wanted all her love and devotion solely for him. It killed him when Caroline admitted that she loved her husband, and that she wouldn't tell him that she loved him more than William. The more he demanded of her, and the more she gave, the less he wanted her once the initial thrill was gone.

His friends advised him that his affair with Caroline was ruining his reputation. He removed himself to his country estate Newstead Abbey where Caroline bombarded him with letters, which he didn't answer, probably hoping that she would get the hint that the relationship was over. But Caroline persisted. She beside herself, wondering why after the passionate two months they had spent together, he was now cruelly ignoring her. When Byron returned to London in June, Caroline threatened to visit him at his rooms, which would have been a disaster. No lady could appear at a man's rooms alone without reprecussions from society. On June 29th, Caroline showed up as threatened. When his friend Hobhouse tried to get her to leave, she grabbed a knife and tried to stab herself.

Caroline continued to bombard him with letters, engaged in further cross-dressing to get into his rooms, and posted him some of her pubic hair. The campaign was so intense that Byron would refuse to attend social engagements for fear of meeting her. Caro became that woman that we all fear becoming, the crazy ex-girlfriend, unable to walk away with her dignity intact when it was clear that he was no longer interested. She just didn't get that he was "just not that in to her," anymore. But Byron's passive-agressive behavior didn't help matters. He couldn't or wouldn't just end things.

Byron detested "scenes" unless he was the one making them and, being interested mainly in himself, finally found the intensity all too much. He broke off the affair, but Caroline wouldn't give up. She claimed that she and Byron intended to elope. Her father-in-law called her bluff, by telling her to go ahead! Her parents eventually took her off to Ireland, where Caroline tried to forget Byron, and to repair the damage to her marriage. It was actually Byron who persuaded her to go for both their sakes. While she was there, they continued to write each other, although he wrote her a "good-bye" letter which Caro kept until her death.

While she was gone, Bryon took up with a new mistress, Lady Oxford, an older woman with six children, who was also a friend of Caroline's (shades of Lady Hester Stanhope and Lady Bessborough. Lady Oxford however, encouraged her lover's disdain for Caro, effectively ending their friendship. When Caroline wrote to Byron from Ireland, he would compose his replies to her with Lady Oxford's help. As she was arriving back in London, she received a letter from Byron that was sealed with Lady Oxford's initials. Talk about a bad move!

'I am no longer your lover; and since you oblige me to confess it, by this truly unfeminine persecution, - learn that I am attached to another; who name it would be of course dishonorable to mention.'


The shock made Caroline physically ill, she lost weight, which made her look skeletal. Instead of going away quietly, she still clung to the hope that she and Byron would be together. She threatened to tell Lord Oxford about his wife's affair, which Lady Oxford laughed off but left Byron troubled. During Christmas, Caro had held a dramatic bonfire at Brocket Hall. While village girls danced in white, Caroline threw copies of his letters into the fire, while a figure of the poet was burned in effigy!

Caro's behavior became increasingly erratic. She would visit at inappropriate hours, once leaving a note in one of his books on his desk: "Remember me!". Pissed off, Byron wrote a poem in reply:

"Remember thee! Remember thee!

Till Lethe quench life's burning stream

Remorse and shame shall cling to thee,

And haunt thee like a feverish dream."

The 19th century term for what ailed Caroline was called 'erotomania,' dementia caused by obsession with a man. Nowadays, she'd be given Prozac or Lithium to balance out her moods, but back then the only cure was laudanum, a concoction that was derived from opium and alcohol (I just found out that it is still available by prescription in the US. Who knew?). It was a catch-all cure for everything from menstrual cramps to nervous ailments, colds to cardiac diseases. The only problem was that it was also addictive.

Caroline got her own revenge back of a sort in 1816 with the publication of her novel Glenarvon, a thinly disguised account of her relationship with Byron. She even quoted one of his letters in the novel. Although the book was published anonymously, it was too much for the ton, who began to shun her. She was banned from Almack's, and even her cousin Caroline who had married William Lamb's brother George (to differeniate between the two of them, Caro was CaroWilliam, and her cousin was CaroGeorge), began to distance herself. She even encouraged her husband to declare that he would never set foot on the family estate as long as Caro resided there.

Byron married William's cousin Annabella Milbanke in 1814, but after having their first child, a daughter Ada Augusta, the couple seperated in 1816. Caroline, who was friendly with Annabella, played both sides against each other, spreading rumors about Byron's relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. She claimed that he had confessed to an incestuous relationship at their last meeting. In the meantime, she was also still writing to Byron, who suspected that she was up to something and was disgusted at the lengths that she would go to.

William's parents encouraged him a number of times to formally seperate from Caroline for the good of his career. However, every time he took steps to do so, they would reconcile. But finally in 1825, he even had had enough. She'd humiliated him one to many times, having affairs with army officers while they traveled to Paris and Brussels after the war. In 1820, she'd even appeared at a masquerade ball dressed like Don Juan, after the first cantos of Byron's poem had been published.

Caro had continued to write, publishing two more novels, Graham Hamilton and Ada Reis, along with two epic poems. All were published anonymously. But her heart still belonged to Byron. In 1824, she had a nervous breakdown after accidentaally encountering Byron's funeral cortege as it passed through Welwyn, near Brocket Hall. Her health declined, she'd been abusing alcohol and laudanum. By 1827, she was an invalid, under the car of a physician full-time. William had been given the post of Secretary for Ireland, and was away when she took a turn for the worse.

Despite the past, he was still devoted enough to her that he made came back from Ireland in inclimate weather to be by herself when she died on January 25, 1828. She was only 43 years old.

After her death, William never remarried. He told Lady Brandon, soon to become his mistress, that he felt a "a sort of impossibility of believing that I shall never see her countenance or hear her voice again." He became Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister until he resigned in 1841. He had been very close to the young Queen, tutoring her in the art of politics. Melbourne, Australia was named after him in 1837. He died at the family estate of Brocket Hall in November of 1848.

Lady Caroline Lamb has come down to us through history as a cautionary tale of how not to act, but she should also be known for her bravey, in not conforming to the feminine role of her era. She dared to love, wholeheartedly and admittedly recklessly but with her entire being. She kept her son with her at a time when handicapped children were routinely shunted aside to the care of an outsider, and never acknowledged. She made a name for herself as an author, when the idea of women writing books was still considered a novelty.

Further Reading:

Caro The Fatal Passion: The Life of Lady Caroline Lamb - Henry Blyth
Passion and Principle, the lifes of women during the Regency - Jane Aiken Hodge


Marg said...

Fascinating! I am reading An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer, and she is mentioned in passing in the narrative a few times!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I love the story of Lady Caroline Lamb. I feel that she deserves her own movie or miniseries. There was a movie in the 70's starring Sarah Miles and Richard Chamberlin I believe as Bryon, but she's fascinating in her own right, particularly in regards to her son.

Helena Worth said...

Just a quick note that you've mentioned Marie Antoinette as Queen of Naples instead of her sister Maria Carolina.