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Wednesday 28 November 2012

Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828)

Lady Caroline Lamb  from Wives of the Prime Ministers (1844-1906)
Lady Caroline Lamb
from Wives of the Prime Ministers (1844-1906)

Lady Caroline Lamb (13 November 1785 - 26 January 1828) was a prominent member of Regency society and the author of the scandalous novel, Glenarvon. She was the wife of William Lamb, later Viscount Melbourne and British prime minister, and had a very public affair with the poet Lord Byron.

A temperamental child

Caroline Ponsonby was born on 13 November 1785, the only daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and Henrietta Spencer, younger sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough  from La Belle Assemblée (1810)
Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough
from La Belle Assemblée (1810)
Caroline was brought up in the shadow of her parents’ unhappy marriage, influenced by the unrestrained decadence of the Devonshire House set. In person, she was slight and agile; in character, unconventional, intense and highly temperamental. She liked to gallop bareback and dress up in trousers, was frequently lost in day dreams and subject to mood swings. Her austere grandmother, Lady Spencer, into whose care she was frequently placed, found her unmanageable.

'The Fairy Queen'

In 1802, Caroline made her debut and became the most vibrant personality in London. She was a captivating conversationalist with ethereal good looks that led to her being nicknamed 'the Sprite' and 'the Fairy Queen, Ariel'. On the other hand, she was highly volatile and often flew into rages. However, such was the bewitching intensity about Caroline that people were always ready to forgive her exasperating behaviour.

A love match

Amongst the men that Caroline captivated was William Lamb, second son of Lord Melbourne, but he could not propose marriage because, as a younger son, he was not a good enough match. However, in January 1805, his fortunes changed with the death of his elder brother, Peniston, and as soon as the initial period of mourning was over, he proposed and was accepted.

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne  from The History of White's   by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne
from The History of White's
 by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
William and Caroline were married on the evening of 3 June 1805 in Cavendish Square, London. But the day did not pass without incident. At the end of the service, the increasingly hysterical Caroline flew into a rage and had to be carried from the room. This outburst of emotion caused William to become very protective of his new wife, screening her from anything that might upset her.


Childbearing was not easy for Caroline and she had only one surviving child, a son, Augustus, who was born on 29 August 1807(1). It soon became apparent that he had learning difficulties, a fact that his father never really came to terms with. He remained with a mental age of about seven until his death in 1836.

A craving for attention

At first, the Lambs seemed to be an ideal couple, always flirting with each other, spending their time either at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire or in London. But their idyllic happiness was short-lived. Caroline saw life as a drama in which she was the heroine and when life did not match up to her ideals, she reinvented it, living in a world of unreality. William was naturally lazy and peace-loving and did not believe in Caroline’s idealism. He failed to live up to her romantic notion of what a lover should be like. Their marriage became a sequence of arguments and reconciliations.

By 1810, the couple were living separate lives. William devoted himself to his parliamentary work, whilst Caroline developed friendships which would feed her ego. These included two with women of dubious reputations, Lady Wellesley and Lady Oxford, as well as intellectuals such as Monk Lewis. She also had a violent and very public flirtation with Lady Holland’s son, Sir Godfrey Webster.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron  from The Life of Lord Byron   by Thomas Moore (1844)
Lord Byron
from The Life of Lord Byron
 by Thomas Moore (1844)
In March 1812, the first part of Childe Harold was published, and Lord Byron became famous overnight. After seeing him for the first time, Caroline wrote in her diary that he was “Bad, mad and dangerous to know.” Later she added: “That beautiful pale face will be my fate.”

Caroline pursued Byron, whom she saw as the sinfully romantic hero of Childe Harold and not the sulky man with the face of an angel and a lame leg. Their affair was conducted very publicly, each passionately jealous for the other’s attentions.

But Byron soon tired of Caroline’s obsessive behaviour and turned to less demanding companions: Caroline’s mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, who became his confidante and Lady Oxford, his mistress. William did nothing, but waited for Caroline’s game to be played out.

The Byron obsession

When Byron wrote to end their relationship, Caroline’s sanity showed signs of collapse. She dressed her menservants in new livery with buttons saying “Ne crede Byron” (do not believe Byron) and ceremonially burnt his gifts to her on a bonfire.

On 5 July 1813, Byron and Caroline met for the first time since the end of their relationship, at a ball given by Lady Heathcote. Caroline broke a glass and started slashing her arms with the pieces, causing a tremendous scandal. She had taken a step too far and society shunned her.

But Caroline could not let Byron go. He had become a fixation with her. She wrote to him and kept turning up at his London rooms, often dressed as a page. On 2 January 1815, Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke, William’s cousin. Caroline predicted that it would fail. It did.


Caroline’s behaviour became increasingly unpredictable and in 1816, she was threatened with being sent away. In desperation, she wrote Glenarvon, a strange Gothic tale of fashionable society whose characters were based on real people. It was published anonymously on 9 May 1816 and met with instant success. But Caroline’s authorship was an open secret and the scandal was enormous. Lady Jersey rescinded Caroline’s voucher for Almack’s and even her cousins eschewed her.

Though William’s initial reaction to the novel was that he would never see her again, perversely, when people began to cut her, he relented and stood by his deranged wife: “We will stand or fall together.”

Opening page of Glenarvon   by Lady Caroline Lamb (1816)
Opening page of Glenarvon
 by Lady Caroline Lamb (1816)

Caroline was desperate for admiration but was now an outcast from polite society. She had a number of literary friends, such as Lady Morgan, and some very unfashionable admirers, the most presentable of whom was Bulwer Lytton. William did not seem to be jealous. He pitied any man who was caught in his wife’s toils and saw them as fellow sufferers.

When Caroline learned that Lord Byron was dead, she fell into a hysterical fever. Later, she accidentally met with his funeral procession, and collapsed on discovering whose wake it was. She frequently had violent moods where she broke things or galloped wildly round the park. Her appearance became unkempt, she ate erratically and she frequently resorted to laudanum and brandy.

William looked after Caroline, soothing her nerves and helping her with her novels - Graham Hamilton (1822), Ada Reis (1823) and Penruddock (1823). But caring for Caroline took its toll on William, and in 1825, it was decided they should separate. However, after just a few months apart, he relented, and Caroline was back living at Brocket. Though William lived in London, he often visited.

Illness and death

Soon Caroline’s health began to fail. She was weary of life, and at last, became calmer. Now, it seemed, her affection was all for her husband. William was away, having been appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, but the letters between them were tender and affectionate.

By October 1827, Caroline was dangerously ill with dropsy. In mid-January, she asked: “Send for William. He is the only person who has never failed me.” A few days after William’s arrival at Melbourne House, on 26 January 1828, Caroline died. She was buried in Hatfield churchyard on 7 February.

(1) Some sources say 11 August.

Sources used include:
Cecil, Lord David, Melbourne (1939, 1954)
Franklin, Caroline, Lamb, Lady Caroline (1785-1828), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005, accessed 28 Nov 2012)
Lee, Elizabeth, Wives of the Prime Ministers 1844-1906 (1918)
Moore, Thomas, The Life of Lord Byron (1844)


  1. What a sad tale, even after 200 years one must feel for Caroline, she was born 100 years to soon I think.

    And what a marvellous man was William Lamb, who I believe became Prime Minister 10 years after the death of Caroline.

    Melbourne the Capital of Victoria Australia was named for him.

    1. It was actually a little sooner than that. Lord Melbourne had two terms of office as Prime Minister:
      July - November 1834 as Prime Minister to William IV and
      April 1835 - August 1841 as Prime Minister to William IV and then to Queen Victoria.

  2. two corrections. Byron didn't die until 1824, not 1821.
    Also, though the adults at Devonshire Houe/ Chatsworth lived a scandlous life, the children were brought up quite strictly by Miss Trimmer and were shielded from much of the scandal of the adults' lives.
    Lady Caroline had a hard time telling truth from falsehood. The biography she tod Lady Morgan-- one that has been repeated many times, has been refuted by other less biased sources.
    Her life would have been exciting enough for most people but she felt the need to embellish it.
    Her novel Glenarvon was a great scandal. Though she did write unflattering about Lady Jersey, lady Holland, her own mother, and her mother-in law, she gave the characters different names. People might have talked, speculated, and such but no one could have been certain whom she meant. Unfortunately, Lady Caroline published a key telling the world that Lady Holland was Princess of Madagascar, for instance.
    This thumbing her nose at the laeaders of society resulted in her vouchers for Almack's being revoked. Wellington tried to get her reinstated but not even his prestige could accomplish that.
    As you mention, after her family and society turned their backs on her, she wandered around and mixed in literary circles. Her cousin called her more than half mad. I do not know if a psychiatrist has ever tried to diagnose her, but she did have serious mental health issues.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Silly mistake over Byron's death date - I was relying on Cecil's biography of Melbourne which talks about the events as if they happened in 1821 and I should have cross-referenced it. I have removed the date completely as the later date didn't seem to fit with the flow of the section.

      I agree that it is hard to tell how much of what Caroline wrote was actually true. However, I cannot help but feel that, even with a strict governess, the way that Caroline's mother and aunt were living must have had an influence on her.

      According to Cecil, William's sister, Emily, Lady Cowper, did get Caroline readmitted to Almack's, but "the doors of the great houses remained closed".

  3. Was there every any speculations about what mental condition she could have been suffering? Bi-polar maybe?

    1. I think there has been a lot of speculation about the mental stability of both Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron. It is possible that both were bipolar - this paper by Paul Douglass certainly supports the belief that Lady Caro was:

  4. sorry, but she has not just predictet that the marriage of Lord Byron wuold have fail. Rather she has been to cause the end, and force Buron into exile.

    1. I disagree. It was not Byron's involvement with Lady Caroline Lamb that caused the failure of his marriage, but his own behaviour towards his wife and it was the rumours about the nature of his relationship with his half-sister Augusta that caused him to flee into exile.

  5. Byron's marriage was doomed well before he travelled to Seaham to take the vows. He and Annabella were a complete mismatch. That aside, however, Caro William was directly responsible for the idea that Byron and Augusta were in a "criminal conversation" as adultery was termed at the time. She became jealous when Byron's attention was taken when his step sister came up to town and he included her in his invitations. She accused him of having her stay in his lodgings which he disputed in a letter to a friend. Carolline became convinced that their relationship was sexual. Later, when the marriage was in difficulty, she met with Lady Byron to reveal his "secrets". One of them was his sexual dallying with boys at school and the other was his imagined affair with Augusta. These gave his wife ample ammunition in her war with him. She took their infant daughter on a visit to her parents and he never saw either of them again. Read "Lord Byron's Wife" by Malcolm Elwin and "Byron's Letters and Journals" by Leslie Marchand to be accurate in your posts about Byron.
    Anne Ridsdale Mott, Byronmania

    1. Alas, one of those marriages which should never have taken place!

    2. The incestuous affair between Byron and Augusta (his half sister, not his step-sister) was VERY REAL. Annabella suspected as much from the get-go. She browbeat Caro into swearing to it and to Byron's homosexual affairs to help her case for divorce. At the time, Caro was near another psychotic break and in no condition to resist. However, during the marriage, Caro (a shell of her former self) tried as best she could to be supportive of Byron and Annabella.

  6. All very interesting . I have followed Caroline's biog ever since, years ago, I saw the film 'Lady Caroline Lamb's. So many different aspects to their lives. Thank you for all the information.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post - I think her story is very sad.