Lady Caroline Lamb

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This article is about the person. For the film, see Lady Caroline Lamb (film).
Caroline Lamb
Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb.jpg
Lady Caroline Lamb, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Born (1785-11-13)13 November 1785
Died 26 January 1828(1828-01-26) (aged 42)
Spouse(s) William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne
Parents Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough
Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough

Lady Caroline Lamb (13 November 1785 – 26 January 1828) was a British aristocrat and novelist, best known for her affair with Lord Byron in 1812. Her husband was William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, who later became Prime Minister. However, she was never the Viscountess Melbourne because she died before Melbourne succeeded to the peerage; hence, she is known to history as Lady Caroline Lamb.

She was the only daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough,[1] and related to other leading society ladies, being the niece of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, and cousin (by marriage) of Annabella, Lady Byron.

Youth and education[edit]

Lady Caroline's mother, Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough, by Angelica Kauffman in 1793

She was born the Honourable Caroline Ponsonby, and became Lady Caroline when her father succeeded to the earldom in 1793. As a small child she was considered delicate and for her health spent much time in the country. She traveled with her mother and other family to Italy, where she made an agonizing recovery from an illness caused by worms that nearly ended her life.[2] After returning with her mother to England, she rejoined a lively menage of children who lived at Devonshire House and Roehampton, including her cousins: Lord Hartington (later the 6th Duke of Devonshire), Lady Georgiana, and Lady Harriet Cavendish; and two children of Lady Elizabeth Foster and the Duke of Devonshire. With these children she was educated at Devonshire House, at a Dame School in Knightsbridge, and at her overindulgent mother's and grandmother Lady Spencer's knees, although they found her behavior increasingly troublesome, and experimented with sedatives like laudanum and a special governess to control her.[2] During childhood she became particularly close to Lady Harriet Cavendish, who was only three months older.[3]

Lady Morgan reported in her memoirs that Lamb told her that she had grown up as a tomboy, and quite unable to read or write until adolescence.[4] While many scholars have accepted this (and other melodramatic claims made by Lady Morgan) at face value,[5] published works of correspondence about her family members make it extremely unlikely. The grandmother she shared with her Cavendish cousins, the formidable Dowager Lady Spencer, was zealously dedicated to promoting education, and later employed their governess as her own companion. This governess was Miss Selina Trimmer, who was the daughter of Mrs Sarah Trimmer, a well-known and respected author of moral tales for children. She taught them an extensive curriculum, considerably beyond mere literacy. There is a published letter Lamb wrote on 31 October 1796 (just before her eleventh birthday) that not only demonstrates her literacy, but shows a merciless wit and talent for mimicry.[3] Lamb was exceptionally well educated at home, and also attended a school in Hans Place, London. In her early adult years, she not only wrote prose and poetry, but also took to sketch portraiture. These courtly skills stood her in good stead. She spoke French and Italian fluently, was skilled at Greek and Latin, and also enjoyed music and drama.

Marriage and family[edit]

Lady Caroline Lamb

In June 1805, at the age of nineteen, Lady Caroline married the Hon. William Lamb, an up-and-coming politician, and heir to the 1st Viscount Melbourne. Although their meeting had been shrewdly orchestrated by William Lamb's mother, theirs was a love match. The couple had become "mutually captivated" during a visit to Brocket Hall in 1802 and for many years the pair enjoyed a happy marriage.[3] Their union produced a son, George Augustus Frederick, born on 11 August 1807,[6] and a premature daughter, born in 1809 who died within 24 hours.[7] Lady Caroline was physically ill-suited to childbirth and suffered long recovery periods after each one. Her son was born with severe mental problems that may have been a type of autism. Although most aristocratic families sent mentally challenged relatives to institutions, the Lambs cared for their son at home until his eventual death in 1836,[6] eight years after Lady Caroline's own death. The stress of their son's ill health, combined with William Lamb's consuming career ambitions, drove a wedge between the couple.[2]

Lord Byron[edit]

From March to August 1812, Lady Caroline embarked on a well-publicized affair with Lord Byron. He was 24 and she 26. She had spurned the attention of the poet on their first meeting, subsequently giving Byron what became his lasting epitaph when she described him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Lady Caroline Lamb claimed she coined the phrase after her first meeting with the poet at a society event in 1812, and this was later reported by her friend, Lady Morgan (in her Memoirs), although as Paul Douglass notes in his biography, there is no contemporary evidence to prove Lamb actually created the famous phrase at the time.[2] Byron's response to Lamb's enticements (she wrote him a fan letter), was to visit her because of her high social status as a niece of the Duchess of Devonshire, and then to pursue her passionately.[8][9]

Lady Caroline and Lord Byron publicly decried each other as they privately pledged their love over the following months.[8][10] Byron referred to Lamb by the hypocorism "Caro", which she adopted as her public nickname.[11] After Byron broke things off, her husband took the disgraced and desolate Lady Caroline to Ireland. The distance did not cool Lady Caroline's interest in the poet; she and Byron corresponded constantly during her exile.[8] When Lady Caroline returned to London in 1813; however, Byron made it clear he had no intention of restarting their relationship. This spurred increasingly public attempts to reunite with her former lover.[9] Matters came to a head at Lady Heathcote's ball in early July 1813, when Byron publicly insulted Caroline, who responded by breaking a wine glass and trying to slash her wrists. She did not seriously injure herself, and it is most unlikely that she had any suicidal intentions; but polite society was scandalised, and her mental stability was called into question. Byron himself referred to it as a theatrical performance : "Lady Caroline performed the dagger scene".

Lady Caroline's obsession with Byron would define much of her later life, as well as influence both her and Byron's works. They would write poems in the style of each other, about each other, and even embed overt messages to one another in their verse.[10] After a thwarted visit to Byron's home, Lady Caroline wrote "Remember Me!" into the flyleaf of one of Byron's books. He responded with the hate poem; "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! Remember thee! Ay, doubt it not. Thy husband too shall think of thee! By neither shalt thou be forgot, Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!"[11]

Her cousin Harriet (by then Lady Granville), with whom Lady Caroline's relationship had deteriorated after childhood, visited her in December 1816 and was so incredulous at her unrepentant behaviour that she ended her description of the visit in a letter to her sister with: "I mean my visits to be annual."[12]

Literary career[edit]

Lamb's most famous work is Glenarvon, a Gothic novel that was released in 1816 just weeks after Byron's departure from England. Although published anonymously, Lamb's authorship was an open secret. It featured a thinly disguised pen-picture of herself and her former lover, who was painted as a war hero who turns traitor against Irish nationalism. The book was notable for featuring the first version of the Byronic hero outside of Byron's own work as well as a detailed scrutiny of the Romantic Period and, more specifically, the Ton.[13] Lamb included scathing caricatures of several members of those prominent society members.[10] One of them, Lady Jersey, cancelled Lamb's vouchers to Almack's in retribution for Lamb's characterisations. This was the opening salvo in a backlash that found Lamb blackballed from fashionable society,[14] although her sister-in-law, Lady Cowper, got Lamb readmitted to Almack's in 1819.[2]

Byron responded to the novel; "I read Glenarvon too by Caro Lamb….God damn!" The book was a financial success that sold out several editions but was dismissed by critics as pulp fiction. However, Goethe deemed it worthy of serious literary consideration.[15]

In 1819, Lamb put her ability to mimic Byron to use in the narrative poem "A New Canto." Years before, Lamb had impersonated Byron in a letter to his publishers to have them send her a portrait of Byron. It worked; the tone and substance of her request fooled them into sending the painting.[10] She used that skill to respond to Byron's "Don Juan I and II". Lamb was most concerned with those allusions Byron had made about her; for example, the line "Some play the devil—and then write a novel" from "Don Juan II".[3][11] In "A New Canto", Lamb wrote – as Byron – "I'm sick of fame; I'm gorged with it; so full I almost could regret the happier hour; When northern oracles proclaimed me dull." Byron never publicly responded to the poem. A reviewer of the time opined, in part; "The writer of this lively nonsense has evidently intended it as an imitation of Lord Byron. It is a rhapsody from beginning to end."[3][16]

Lamb published three additional novels during her lifetime: Graham Hamilton (1822), Ada Reis (1823), and Penruddock (1823).

Later life and death[edit]

Byron's confidante and close friend was William Lamb's own mother, the colourful Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne.[17] Lady Melbourne had been instrumental in bringing about the politically advantageous marriage of her son to Lady Caroline, despite disliking both Caroline and her mother. However, once Lady Caroline began her affair with Byron, her mother-in-law began a long and blatant campaign to rid her son of his wife; as Lord David Cecil remarks, she had long since concluded that Caroline deserved all her misfortunes. William Lamb refused to submit and regretted that his mother had conspired against his wife with Byron. Calling Byron treacherous, William Lamb was supportive of his wife to her death.[18]

Ultimately, it was Lamb who prevailed on her husband to agree to a formal separation in 1825. Both parties had had numerous extramarital affairs by that time and Lamb had long been known to eschew duplicity.[2] She took up permanent residence at Brocket Hall. Lamb's struggle with mental instability became more pronounced in her last years, complicated by her abuse of alcohol and laudanum. By 1827, she was under the care of a full-time physician as her body, which had always been frail, began to shut down and she retained fluids (a condition then known as dropsy). William Lamb was Chief Secretary for Ireland by that time and made a perilous crossing to be by her side when Lamb died on 26 January 1828.[2][17]

Popular culture[edit]

In 1972, the film Lady Caroline Lamb was released to primarily critical reviews with Sarah Miles in the lead role. In 2003, the BBC released Byron[19] with Jonny Lee Miller in the title role and Camilla Power as Lady Caroline Lamb.

The 1905 novel The Marriage of William Ashe by Mary Augusta Ward was based on Lady Caroline and her husband.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Lady Caroline Ponsonby Lamb
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Douglass, Paul (October 2004). Lady Caroline Lamb: A Biography. Palgrave Macmillan, 354 pp. ISBN 1-4039-6605-2. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Leveson-Gower, Sir George (Ed.), Hary-O: the Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish 1796–1809, London: John Murray (1940).
  4. ^ Owenson, Sydney (Lady Morgan) (1862). Dixon, William Hepworth, ed. Lady Morgan's memoirs autobiography, diaries and correspondence. Wm. H. Allen & Co. ISBN 0-404-56793-2. 
  5. ^ "Lady Caroline Lamb," The Literary Encyclopedia,
  6. ^ a b "Melbourne, Viscount (I, 1781 - 1853)". www.cracroftspeerage.co.uk. Heraldic Media Ltd. Retrieved 2 March 2014. 
  7. ^ Paul Douglass (1999). "The madness of writing: Lady Caroline Lamb's Byronic identity". Pacific Coast Philology (Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association) 34 (1): 53–71. doi:10.2307/1316621. JSTOR 1316621. 
  8. ^ a b c Sunday Times: Property (17 November 2002). "Ireland: Poetic justice at home of Byron’s exiled lover". Mad, bad and dangerous to know" has become Lord Byron's lasting epitaph. (Dublin, Ireland: The Times Online). Retrieved 21 February 2010. 
  9. ^ a b Castle, Terry; Grosskurth, Phyllis (13 April 1997). "Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know". " A biography that sees Lord Byron as a victim of circumstances" (NYC, USA: The New York Times). Retrieved 21 February 2010. 
  10. ^ a b c d Millstein, Denise Tischler (May 2007). BYRON AND "SCRIBBLING WOMEN": LADY CAROLINE LAMB, THE BRONTË SISTERS, AND GEORGE ELIOT (A Dissertation). Shreveport, LA, USA: Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, Department of English. 
  11. ^ a b c Wu, Duncan. "Appropriating Byron: Lady Caroline Lamb’s A New Canto.” Wordsworth Circle. 26.3 (1995): 140–46.
  12. ^ Leveson-Gower, F. (Ed.), Letters of Harriet Countess Granville 1810–1845, London: Longmans, Green, and Co. (1894).
  13. ^ Dickson, Leigh Wetherall and Douglass, Paul (Eds.)"The Works of Lady Caroline Lamb." Pickering & Chatto (2009) Volume 1: Glenarvon: lii + 451; Volume 2: Graham Hamilton and Poems xxx + 229; Volume 3: Ada Reis, A Tale xx + 222.
  14. ^ Weinreb; Gronow (21 February 2010). "Almack's Assembly Rooms". London, UK: The Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos. Retrieved 21 February 2010. 
  15. ^ Hennig, John "Goethe's Klaggesang. Irisch." Monatshefte, Vol. 41, No. 2" University of Wisconsin Press (1949) pp. 71–76
  16. ^ Monthly Review New Series v. 94 (1821), 329. London, UK
  17. ^ a b Cecil, David (18 October 2001). The Young Melbourne & Lord M. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 566. ISBN 1-84212-497-8. Retrieved 20 February 2010. 
  18. ^ Cecil, David, The Young Melbourne & Lord M, p. 178.
  19. ^ [1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Douglass, Paul (2004). Lady Caroline Lamb: A Biography. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Douglass, Paul (2006). The Whole Disgraceful Truth: Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb. Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Douglass, Paul; Dickson, Leigh Wetherall (2009). The Collected Works of Lady Caroline Lamb. Pickering & Chatto.

External links[edit]