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.

When in 1810 her daughter-in-law was in the midst of a dalliance with Sir Geoffrey Webster, Lady Holland’s son, Lady Melbourne told Caroline that her behaviour the previous night had been ‘disgraceful in its appearances and . . . disgusting in its motives’. That may seem pretty rich coming from her. But she was complaining not of Caroline having an affair but of her defiance of the conventional proprieties.

‘When anyone braves the opinion of the world,’ Lady Melbourne told her daughter-in-law in characteristic strain, ‘sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it.’ Yet Caroline, probably to her disappointment, did not feel any consequences from her husband, who was not shaken out of his lethargic detachment. According to her, William cared ‘Nothing about [her] morals . . . His indolence rendered him indifferent to everything.’

Early in 1812 Caroline was so impressed by Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, that she wrote Byron an anonymous fan letter. Then, ‘one night at Lady Westmorland’s’, she recounted much later, ‘the women were all throwing their heads’ at the poet. After Lady Westmorland led her up to him, she continued, ‘I looked earnestly at him, and turned on my heel.’ Obviously she was hoping to provoke Byron and she succeeded. Their liaison began soon afterwards.

In March, Caroline’s cousin and Byron’s future wife, Annabella Milbanke, who had not yet met the poet but was already interested in him, told her mother: ‘Lady C has of course seized on him, notwithstanding the reluctance he manifests to be shackled by her.’ Byron’s reluctance was soon overcome by Caroline’s vivacity and her apparently very strong feelings for him. She seems at the start to have been bowled over by the Byronic legend and by her generally romantic instincts rather than by Byron himself. In such circumstances it was easy for both to imagine they were deeply in love. But the make-believe soon became fact. Caroline fell violently in love with Byron, who later said that he had made every effort to be in love.

Plainly his efforts were, for a time, successful. But on his side the affair reached its zenith in the middle of May and was in gradual decline thereafter. Not so on Caroline’s side. She had, as her friend Lady Morgan wrote, ‘a restless craving after excitement’, and public display excited her. She had won the greatest lion of the day and wanted everyone to know it. And know it they soon did. Even then, Caroline was as brazen as ever. The fashionable world was not charitable, wrote J.W. Ward, a friend of Byron’s in Portugal who eventually became foreign secretary, ‘the public scandal is infinite.’ ‘By the common consent of all London’, Byron’s close friend John Cam Hobhouse said, Caroline had ‘made a dead set at him’. By the middle of May, Byron realised that he had been reckless; their affair had got out of hand.

Besides, he hated scenes, and she could not live without them. In an affectionate letter he told her that Thomas Moore was in great distress about them, and people talked ‘as if there were no other pairs of absurdities in London’. He knew quite well, though, the reason for that: all the other pairs were pursuing their adulterous affairs in private. ‘This delirium of two months must pass away,’ he went on. They did not know each other and a month’s absence would make them ‘rational’. He thought it better that he not Caroline should leave London, and ended by denying he had altered, but his going away ‘would cease to make fools talk, friends grieve and the wise pity’.

Caroline left London too, for the Melbourne country house, Brocket, in Hertfordshire, while Byron paid a week’s visit to Newstead Abbey, his Nottinghamshire home, with Hobhouse and his cousin and heir, George Byron. Even when he was there, Caroline Lamb could not leave him alone. A page arrived with a letter from her; Hobhouse suspected the boy, who had a ‘dreadful body’, to be Caroline herself – she was fond of performing a similar trick in London. If it was Caroline, she cannot have been encouraged by the atmosphere at the Abbey. ‘This whole week,’ Hobhouse recorded, ‘passed in a delirium of sensuality – housemaid at N.’

Neither the sensual delirium at Newstead nor the temporary separation moderated Caroline and Byron’s delirium in London. In his short poem to Caroline, probably written in April or May, he wrote:

Yet fain would I resist the spell
That would my captive heart retain,
For tell me dearest, is this well?
Ah Caro! Do I need the chain?

In June and July, however, there was little sign of his trying to resist the spell or loosen the chain, while Caroline’s behaviour became ever more extravagant, perhaps partly because of her suspicions that she was not the only woman in the poet’s life. Caroline’s obsession with Byron rendered her capable of anything, while to Byron the situation was intolerable. And since he was unable to break her ‘chain’ on him, elopement sometimes seemed the only way out. At the end of July he had arranged to go to Harrow with Hobhouse, but before they left there was a thunderous knocking on his door in St James’s Street, so loud that a crowd gathered; and ‘a person in a most strange disguise,’ Hobhouse recorded in his diary, ‘walked up the stairs.’ It was of course Caroline, wearing a page’s uniform. Fearing an elopement, which, Byron later assured him, would certainly have taken place but for his intervention, Hobhouse insisted that she left. Caroline refused and tried to stab herself, being restrained by Byron. Eventually, after endless persuasion and much toing and froing in carriages, Caroline was returned to Whitehall. An elopement had been averted, but the danger was not yet over.

Early in August, Caroline sent Byron, together with some of her pubic hair and an inscription ‘From your wild Antelope’, a note ending: ‘I will kneel &be torn from your feet before I will give you up – or sooner be parted with.’ That was quickly followed by another day of antics. Lord Melbourne had upbraided her for her behaviour, she had responded rudely and flounced out of the house, threatening to go to Byron. Ladies Melbourne and Bessborough appealed to Byron for help. By bribing the coachman who had brought him a message from Caroline, he found her in a surgeon’s house in Kensington and took her ‘almost by force’ to the Bessboroughs’ house in Cavendish Square, from where she was eventually induced to return to Whitehall. Lady Bessborough’s worries over her daughter caused her to have a slight stroke.

Byron told Hobhouse that, when he was with her, Caroline had such a power over him he could do only what she pleased. Caroline was bound up with his social success, and he was swept along by her vivacity and her (usually) winning ways. Moreover, he felt that he was responsible for her plight. He well knew that an elopement would be disastrous for both of them. Indeed, he told Hobhouse that he should ‘blow his brains out the week after’. Yet he felt he had to go ahead with it. That was partly because of his weakness when he was with her, but it was also because honour demanded it.

Caroline’s August escapade to Kensington was not quite her last throw. She tried to delay leaving England by pretending to be pregnant, and insisted on one more meeting with Byron. All that had happened did not stop Byron both agreeing to meet her and writing her a love letter, in which he promised that nobody else would ‘ever take the place in my affections which is and shall be most sacred to you’. Then at the beginning of September, to the relief of all, she was packed off to Ireland with her family.

Although Douglass’s habit of calling Caroline Lamb ‘Lady Caroline’ while often calling other titled people just by their Christian names occasionally jars, he tells the story briskly and well. He has done much original research and has now produced by far the best biography of the woman Byron once called ‘little Mania’. But he should have been better served by his editor. At one point the book calls Henry Brougham ‘Lord Henry Brougham’, which he never was, and then calls him ‘Lord Brougham’ some twenty years before he left the House of Commons to become lord chancellor in Grey’s Reform Bill administration. The editor of the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey, is similarly made a lord nearly two decades too soon. And Thomas Malthus is labelled ‘a critic’ with a ‘stellar reputation’, but if Malthus had a stellar reputation it was as an economist.

Douglass evidently thinks that William Lamb was politically liberal. In fact, he was highly conservative. Early in 1812, in the debate on the bill making machine-breaking a capital offence, on which Byron later made his maiden speech in the Lords attacking the government, William made the most hard-line speech in the Commons supporting the government. He did not think it right to inquire into disputes between masters and men, since such inquiries tended to influence workmen into thinking they had rights which had been infringed. As usual he was in favour of repression.

Later, when the Duke of Wellington succeeded Goderich as prime minister and asked Lamb to continue in his post of Irish secretary, Douglass comments that ‘William had no desire to serve a right-leaning, hard-line government.’ Yet William told his brother that he had every intention of continuing in Ireland, since ‘nothing could be more satisfactory or in fact more agreeable to my own opinions than the language and views of Peel and the Duke.’ He was even against Parliamentary and electoral reform. Indeed, to William Lamb, as the great French historian Elie Halévy put it, ‘reform of any kind seemed impossible or dangerous.’ As a member of the cabinet which was carrying the Reform Bill through Parliament, Lamb, who was now Lord Melbourne and home secretary throughout the long struggle, could not oppose it. Yet he made only two major speeches in favour of reform.

From Ireland, Caroline continued to bombard Byron with letters, to which he unwisely sometimes responded. Eventually, under the guidance of his new mistress Lady Oxford, whose children had as many fathers as Lady Melbourne’s, and who never made scenes, he told Caroline that he was no longer her lover, gratuitously adding that she should correct her ‘vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices upon others; and leave me in peace.’ On her return from Ireland, Caroline put on a charade near Brocket. Villagers danced round a fire, on which Byron was being burned in effigy, throwing his letters and gifts to her into the flames. But the burnt offerings were only copies.

Even then Byron was not free from her. She used to sneak into his rooms in the Albany and read his letters. And Byron was still meeting her. He told Lady Melbourne that ‘keeping her out’ was impossible: ‘I can’t throw her out of the window.’ Shortly afterwards he committed his greatest folly of all. When his engagement to Annabella Milbanke was about to be announced, he tried, in Douglass’s words, ‘to kill’ Caroline’s ‘affection for him’ by admitting that he had committed incest with his half-sister and had engaged in homosexual activities.

Caroline Lamb was a born deceiver of herself and everyone else. She was prepared to stoop to any subterfuge to achieve her ends: a few months later she forged a letter to get a portrait of Byron from his publisher John Murray. In her history, Lord David Cecil wrote, ‘side-by-side run always two stories, what happened to Caroline and what she pretended had happened.’ With her there was, too, a wider than usual gulf between precepts and practice.

She told Murray that the only rules necessary for a safe passage through the world are, ‘to speak the truth, when one is obliged to speak at all, and never to repeat in one society what one hears in another’. Not long afterwards she wrote a series of lies to Byron. And then, after a visit to Brussels to see her brother who had been wounded at Waterloo, and then to Paris, where she had a brief affair with the Duke of Wellington – ‘her ladyship was never very particular,’ the celebrated courtesan Harriette Wilson said – she learned that Lady Byron had left her husband. She insisted on seeing Annabella to pass on what Byron had confided to her about his incest and his earlier homosexuality. Douglass implausibly maintains that she was trying to help Annabella negotiate a settlement to protect her right to her daughter, and was ‘motivated most of all by guilt that she had not warned Annabella of Byron’s true character’. Much more probably, her motive for breaking her promise to keep Byron’s revelations secret was her desire for revenge.

That was not Caroline’s only vengeance. In May 1816 she published a three-volume novel, Glenarvon, savaging Byron. It enjoyed popular success at the time and has had something of a revival of late. It has entertaining passages and portraits or caricatures, but most of it is tedious and preposterous trash, an unhappy combination of a novel about contemporary life and a wild Gothic tale which would be absurd even in an opera. Glenarvon (Byron) has ‘a spirit of malignity if wounded, which never rested till it had satisfied its vengeance . . . Falsehood and craft were stamped upon his countenance, written upon his brow, marked in his words, and scarce concealed beneath the winning smile which sometimes played upon his lips.’

Yet the novel was more suicide than murder. Not content with denouncing Byron, Caroline satirised the Lamb and the Devonshire families. Not even William escaped. He was accused, the diarist Thomas Creevey wrote, ‘of having overset’ his wife’s ‘religious and moral principles by teaching her doctrines of impiety’. William told Lord Holland, whose wife was another of Caroline’s victims, that he was ‘unwilling to see anyone, more particularly those who [had] been the objects of so wanton and unjustifiable an attack’. He did not write, he went on, because ‘I could only exculpate myself from any previous knowledge, the effect in which must be to throw a heavier load upon the offending party.’ The Whig world was outraged. ‘This time,’ Hobhouse wrote to Byron, ‘she has really knocked herself up.’ Glenarvon, he added, had rendered ‘the little vicious author more odious if possible than ever’; she was excluded from the smartest houses.

Glenarvon increased the Lamb family’s pressure on William to separate from his wife, but he could not summon the energy or courage to do so. She still had a hold on him. Caroline never recovered her place in London or country society. When she gave a ball at Brocket, almost nobody attended. Even her servants could not stand her and were constantly leaving. She wrote two more novels, but was becoming more and more addicted to alcohol and drugs. Two nurses were employed to monitor her consumption. Harriette Wilson described Caroline drinking ‘enough for a porter’ and sleeping with her son’s doctor.

Eventually – not until the end of 1825 – William and Caroline agreed a legal separation. She died two years later. Emily Cowper recorded that William was ‘rather low next day, but he is now just as usual and his mind filled with politics.’ She underestimated William’s grief but not his absorption in politics.