This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Lady Caroline Lamb lives on in the collective memory as Byron’s spurned lover, the woman who coined a phrase when she called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. He, of course, was the impresario of his own personality cult, practically inventing the idea of literary celebrity. She played out their tempestuous affair, and especially its break-up, at a pitch of operatic performativity that even he found too theatrical, however.
She famously stabbed herself at a ball (“ye dagger scene — of indifferent memory”, as he disdainfully put it). Another attempt to act out her pain and rage was more meticulously pre-planned and included theatrical extras. At Christmas 1812, she got villagers to dance around a bonfire of his love tokens. Her servants wore specially made buttons on their livery inscribed with the words “Ne Crede Biron” (“Don’t trust Byron”) in mockery of his family motto “Crede Biron”, whilst a page recited a poem she had written that included the line “Shake not your heads, nor say the lady’s mad”.
The story offers so much melodrama that it has been hard for earlier biographers to avoid becoming melodramatic themselves or taking sides in the lovers’ quarrel. By contrast, Antonia Fraser, now in her nineties, adopts an admirably common-sense approach in this new life. Compassionate yet above the fray, she dials down the allegations of madness on both sides. Her long experience of writing historical biographies (and perhaps of life, too) tells.
Lady Caroline Lamb’s carnivalesque attention-seeking offers much legitimate food for thought to theoretically-minded historians of personal identity, particularly female identity, in the Regency–Romantic period. Here, too, Fraser offers ballast by reminding us of the realities of lived experience in the context of daily family relations.
It is in fact Caroline’s family background that best explains her excesses and unmet emotional needs. Here they seem very human and, in a good but sad way, almost humdrum — so long as you can rid yourself of the urge to fetishise rank and fame in the way that history automatically does.
Caroline Lamb was born Caroline Ponsonby in 1785 into a hothouse: the Whig aristocracy, by whose side Byron himself (though a lord) seemed a lower-class parvenu. Her parents were the Earl and Countess of Bessborough, and her aunt was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. It’s a relief that we’re given a cast list at the beginning of the book, as the large number of relatives with multiple titles and nicknames can set your head spinning. The list on its own gives one some sense of how hard it must have been to establish any sense of independent identity within such a family.
Caroline’s volatile personality was formed in a peculiarly privileged yet stressful environment. She inherited a sense of dynastic entitlement, but it came with an unsettling unspoken penumbra. To begin with, she was a girl, which meant that her future status and identity would not be determined until she married.
Caroline’s own sense of self-identity was skewered from the start
More disturbing, perhaps, was the proliferation in the family of “Children of the Mist”, which made who was who hard to fathom. She saw her own mother give birth to two such illegitimate children, the result of a high-society affair. She may even, Fraser suggests, have been illegitimate herself, the product of an earlier extramarital liaison between her mother and the brilliantly wayward politician-playwright Richard Sheridan. There’s no proof, of course, but, whatever the genetic truth, Caroline’s own sense of who she was was skewered from the start.
Her marriage at 19 to William Lamb — who would later, as Lord Melbourne, become Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister — was itself a minor blip in the aristocratic stratosphere. He was a younger son (whose own paternity was questioned), although his elder brother’s death soon secured him the title. In a world of arranged marriages, it was a love match, the couple having known each other since childhood.
Caroline seemed so smitten before he proposed that her mother — in a letter to her lover — expressed some concern that her daughter’s health might be affected by untoward emotions. The couple wed and produced a single child, Augustus, who suffered from epilepsy and learning difficulties. Caroline adored him.
That Caroline went on to have an affair was not in itself an act of rebellion, given her heritage. In the world of the Whig aristocracy, however, feelings — and especially public displays of them — were taboo. Infidelity was the private norm as long as an elegant façade was projected.
When Byron burst onto the scene with Childe Harold, ladies swooned because his poetry encoded stylised, personalised emotion. Caroline’s Byromania was not unique, but the result was. Her husband’s oddly passive reaction is insightfully attributed by Fraser to self-protection rather than insensitivity.
Caroline’s thwarted need for intimacy led to oddly symbolic extremes. She sent Byron a lock of her pubic hair, drawing blood in the process of cutting it off. He chose in the end to identify with the detached, cynical Whig way of dalliance. By then under the influence of Caroline’s Machiavellian mother-in-law Lady Melbourne, he later sent Caroline a lock of hair as his own which he’d actually cut from the head of a new lover, Lady Oxford. Lady Melbourne went on to encourage Byron’s disastrous marriage to the heiress Annabella Milbanke. Caroline, a cousin, found herself having to politely congratulate the couple. The incestuous tangles are enough to drive you mad.
In the end, Caroline’s embarrassing public displays of distress in the wake of her affair with Byron led to her being cut off by society. Her family eventually succeeded in securing a legal separation between her and her husband. Few today read Glenarvon, her so-called revenge novel in which Byron appears as a devilish fallen angel with a split personality.
A lengthy hodge-podge of gothic and social satire, it’s no more unreadable than many other novels by now-forgotten professional writers of the period. Caroline was clever and well read. The best bits are biting parodies of Whig high society and its cynical attitudes.
She was, in Fraser’s view, a romantic, someone who believed in authentic emotion against the odds. The tragedy was that her context forced her into perpetual masquerade. This biography offers a wise and humane perspective on her sad travails as a woman who broke the rules.