Little Mania

Ian Gilmour

  • Lady Caroline Lamb by Paul Douglass
    Palgrave, 354 pp, £16.99, December 2004, ISBN 1 4039 6605 2

‘There never was such a Woman!!!’ Emily Cowper (later Palmerston) wrote of her sister-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb. Lady Cowper was not being complimentary. She later described Caroline as being ‘more termagant than ever’. Such disparagement of the woman, who in 1812 had a notorious affair with Byron and was married to a future prime minister, was not confined to the Lamb family. Metternich’s mistress, Princess Lieven, referred to ‘that madwoman Lady Caroline Lamb’, and Lord and Lady Holland compared her to typhus, while within Caroline’s own family her cousin Lady Harriet Cavendish wrote of her ‘absurdities’, and her grandmother Lady Spencer, who was very fond of her, complained in 1811 of her ‘great imprudence . . . &all this not from vice but vanity, inordinate vanity . . . Dear Caroline’s perverseness makes me wretched whenever I think of it.’

Paul Douglass does not conceal the widespread belittlement and criticism of Caroline Lamb, but whenever it is at all possible to do so, he takes a charitable view of his heroine. He gives her, he tells us, ‘my sympathy, my laughter and astonishment, my pity, and, in the end, my admiration.’ Even those who cannot rise to such sentiments can agree that his book provides a valuable corrective to the sometimes excessive denigration of Lady Caroline Lamb.

Two years older than Byron, Lamb, born Caroline Ponsonby, was the daughter of the Earl of Bessborough, a nonentity, and Lady Bessborough (the sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire), who was far from a nonentity, having numerous admirers, the Prince of Wales among them – Byron later called her ‘the hack whore of the last half-century’. She certainly had at least two illegitimate children, and Caroline may have been another. It’s possible that her father was the playwright and politician Thomas Brinsley Sheridan. Such parentage would be far more in accordance with Caroline’s character and behaviour than that of her official father. Douglass finds the balance of evidence against it, yet it remains an attractive possibility.

Caroline had an unsettling upbringing, though it was not as unsettled as she claimed. She had been sent to Italy, she said, with only a nurse from the age of four until she was nine ‘to be out of the way’, but that was just one of her fictions. Her inability to tell the truth about herself and her proneness to tantrums were on continual exhibition. When she was ten, her grandmother told her mother that she feared the ‘dear child’ had ‘too steady a determination not to be restrained, and too much unhappy irritation of temper and Spirits to bear contradiction’.

Caroline was clever and capable of turning out competent verses, charming when she wanted to be, wild and imprudent, attractive though not beautiful, amusing and exasperating, and often impossible. Always on stage, invariably in a starring role, she carried everything to extremes, her egotism above all. When she was 15, she decided that William Lamb was the man for her, and she duly got him; but not until 1805, when his prospects were changed by his becoming the Melbourne heir on the death of his elder brother, did he feel able to propose to her, a development which pleased the families of neither of them. Lamb’s sister Emily Palmerston told Queen Victoria that ‘it was most unfortunate that Lord M. married her and that she in fact married him,’ while Lady Bessborough feared he would not be able properly to manage her daughter. Yet Caroline’s family could not prevent the engagement since they believed that ‘any check would be productive of madness or death.’

William and Caroline Lamb, whose only surviving child was mentally retarded, had frequent noisy rows, during which crockery was sometimes thrown; they even had a violent argument over whether Caroline’s maid should travel in an open or shut carriage. William’s remarkable tolerance of his wife’s tantrums soon became resigned indifference. Regrettably, not only did his characteristic indolence lead him to accept her repeated regrets for having been so ‘troublesome’, it also prevented him taking any action to promote better behaviour.

The Lambs lived in the same house as William’s parents, Lord and Lady Melbourne, the Melbournes occupying the ground floor of Melbourne House in Whitehall (now Dover House, the Scottish Office), and the Lambs the first and second ones. After Lord Melbourne had sired a son and heir, Lady Melbourne felt she had done her marital duty and was no longer restricted by genealogical concerns. Her remaining four children (including William) all had other fathers. Lady Melbourne’s infidelities were well known, but they were never flaunted; she conducted them with the discretion that contemporary convention required, and she expected others to do the same.

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