Lady Melbourne Braves Opinion!

The time is past in which I could feel for the dead – or I should feel for the death of Lady Melbourne the best & kindest & ablest female I ever knew – old or young – but ‘I have supped full of horrors’ & events of this kind leave only a kind of numbness worse than pain…

there is one link the less between England & myself…

Lord Byron

‘Famous in Her Time’ A Portrait of Lady Melbourne by Richard Cosway..

Lady Melbourne was born into this world Elizabeth Milbanke in 1752, the only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke a wealthy and successful Yorkshire baronet of Halnaby Hall.

Her older brother Ralph who would become Lord Byron’s father-in-law in January 1815 was known disparagingly as ‘old twaddle Ralph’ by the Duchess of Devonshire and as there was certainly no love lost between Lady Melbourne and his opinionated spouse, one suspects that the Hon. Judith Milbanke was spoken of with equal disparagement:

 

God bless You! my Dear. I shall only add – that from the time we married, the only unhappiness You have occasioned me, has been from seeing the Sway Lady M. has at times had over You – and that before I was able to oppose it, or had the courage to do so. She has pillaged You of tens of thousands – recollect this – and now despise her.

A Portrait of the Milbanke and Lamb Families by George Stubbs in 1769

Educated, attractive and with a talent for ambition Elizabeth Milbanke would soon move away from provincial Yorkshire and by 1769 had married Peniston Lamb, a wealthy, foolish and easy going lawyer and as she worked hard to advance the fortune and the prestige of her family, she would become became one of the most celebrated Society Hostesses on behalf of the Whig Party.

Melbourne House with its tasteful and expensive decor became known as London’s most liveliest and exclusive house; a place for the dazzling parties in which only the powerful and the beautiful were admitted and it was in this milieu with charm and a ruthlessness that Lady Melbourne would cultivate the friendship of the fashionable Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the connections of the powerful Duke of Bedford and the protection of Lord Egremont.

Intrigue at Melbourne House, Now Dover House in Whitehall, London…

By 1784 Lady Melbourne had made her most distinguished advancement by virtue of the affair with the Prince Regent and although the romance did not last long their friendship would flourish and along with the title of 1st Viscount Melbourne for her naïve spouse, it is also likely that Prinny was the sire of the Melbourne’s third son George Lamb.

Of all of Lady Melbourne’s six children, her first born Peniston Lamb in 1770 was believed to be the only natural son of Lord Melbourne with the rest of his siblings all of dubious and mysterious parentage. A view echoed by her second son William Lamb who was to describe his adored mother as a remarkable woman ‘but not chaste, not chaste.’

Chaste or not, she was undoubtedly a formidable mother to her children whom she nurtured with love while encouraging the Lamb family values of sardonic confidence and the love of a good party and when William Lamb married Lady Caroline Ponsonby who had been born into one of the most powerful Whig families and the niece of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire in June 1805, the ambitious Lady Melbourne was very happy.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know? A Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb…

In 1812, Lady Melbourne began a controversial friendship with Byron as the affair with her daughter-in-law and his ‘delirium of two months’ was moving toward a volatile and unhappy ending.

For after visiting Lady Caroline in her first floor apartment in Melbourne House, Byron would often visit the ground floor apartment where Lady Melbourne lived and even though she was old enough to be his mother, she became in time his closest confidant and the recipient and literary voyeur of his most witty and outrageous letters.

Despite the antipathy she felt toward her brother’s wife, she actively encouraged Byron’s courtship with her niece Annabella as the means in which to destroy his love affair with Lady Caroline and she would become increasingly critical about his relationship with half-sister Augusta Leigh.

Vastly obedient?! You are fair, & do not try to deceive  me & in that you have great merit, I confess, – but on “other points” – XXX

I wish I could flatter myself I had the least influence… for I could talk & reason with you for two Hours, so many objections have I to urge, & after all, for what… is it worth while!

We Three! The Hon. Augusta Leigh with Lord and Lady Byron…

Believing a woman’s duty was to provide her husband with his heir and that monogamy within marriage was not the natural state and as such a woman was at liberty to have affairs, only and always with discretion but it was Lady Caroline’s blatant lack of circumspection and not the affair with either Sr. Godfrey Webster or Byron which prompted Lady Melbourne to become her severest critic:

 

when any one braves the opinion of the World, sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it and although at first people may have excused your forming friendships with all those who are censured for their conduct, from yr youth and inexperience yet when they see you continue to single them out and to overlook all the decencys imposed by Society –

they will look upon you as belonging to the same class…

By 1816 in the aftermath of Byron’s disastrous marriage and the Milbanke family had severed contact with the Melbourne family – a vengeful and isolated Lady Caroline created yet more mischief with the publication of her book Glenarvon.

With the premature death of Peniston Lamb in 1805, William as the 2nd Viscount Melbourne and a political star on the rise who would eventually serve as Prime Minister to the young Queen Victoria; was now under pressure from his family to separate from his volatile spouse or to have her committed to a lunatic asylum.

A Portrait of William Lamb, the Future Lord Melbourne…

In desperation, Lady Caroline was to write to her rattled mother-in-law:

“I am on the brink of another ruin. Half my friends cut me, all my acquaintances are offended – your protection may save – but I shall never ask for it unless freely offered” and such support Lady Melbourne would offer until her death on Saturday April 6 1818 at the age of 66.

And as Lord Byron’s ‘Corbeau Blanc’ was laid to rest in the Lamb family vault at St Ethelreda’s Church in Hatfield on April 14, the reaction to her passing from Lady Shelley would remain as controversial as the lady herself.

 

The death of Lady Melbourne offers food for reflection to the most frivolous. This lady, beautiful, clever, and well read, married in the flower of her beauty a man who did not care for her in the least.

As a natural consequence she was surrounded by admirers belonging to the highest walks of life. Unfortunately, she was addicted to opium, which broke down her health and dimmed her mental faculties..

Sources Used:

Byron’s ‘Corbeau Blanc’ (The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne) Jonathan David Gross (Liverpool University Press 1997)

Lady Caroline Lamb This Infernal Woman Susan Normington (House of Stratus 2001)

Melbourne David Cecil (The Reprint Society 1955)

The Uninhibited Byron An Account of His Sexual Confusion Bernard Grebanier (Peter Owen 1970)

The Whole Disgraceful Truth (Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb) Paul Douglass (Palgrave MacMillan 2006)

Further Reading:

 Lady Melbourne Tart of the Week – The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century

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A Cup of Kindness Yet?

January 25 is the celebration of Burns Night and despite a fabulous a supper of Haggis – I had to refuse the ‘wee dram’ of fine Scotch whiskey on offer, although I did join in with the hearty rendition of Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot which wrapped up the evening rather nicely.

Born on January 25 1759, Robert Burns remains Scotland’s best loved Bard and has a colourful reputation as a womaniser, poetical genius, and hard drinker who experienced poverty, sudden fame, debt and an early death but he also reminds me of someone I have been known to write about!

And although Lord Byron was to make a number of references to Burns in his letters and journals; I can find no mention of this most famous of songs.

For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne.

We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,

For auld lang syne

But after the fall-out of one of his most famous love affairs (and no matter how special the whiskey blend!) it would be difficult to imagine Byron holding hands and singing along with the subject of today’s post – THE Lady Caroline Lamb!

For on this day in 1828, Lady Caroline died at the age of forty two and it’s probably fair to say that even with the passage of time, opinion remains as divided about her in death, as it was in life!

For some she has been portrayed as the archetypal ‘bunny boiler’, a Regency ‘Alex Forrest’ character who stalked and terrorised poor Byron through the streets of London in the style of Fatal Attraction and yet for others she remains a misunderstood character with a hint of fragility, a talented ‘Lady of Letters’, whimsical artist, poetess and author.

Byron was to use a number of adjectives in which to describe Caro Lamb with some of the most notable being that she was in equal terms:

perplexing, absurd, agreeable, fascinating, dangerous, amiable…


The word ‘monster’ was the one that he would use MUCH later!

Having met in the heady month of March in 1812 as Byron had woken to find himself ‘famous’ and brief though their affair was – they have remained intertwined throughout history like Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy.

She once said that Byron’s ‘beautiful, pale face’ was her ‘fate’ and this has proved uniquely prophetic for despite their scandalous affair, Caro was also a cousin by marriage to his future spouse and the daughter-in-law of the indomitable Lady Melbourne – all of which adds a touch of frisson to her life.

The shrewd Lady M would soon became a discreet confidant of Byron and as the recipient of his most witty and outrageous letters, she would do all she could to destroy the affair which had humiliated her family while encouraging his courtship of her niece Annabella Milbanke – despite the misgivings about the nature of the troubling relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh.

Believing that a woman’s duty was to provide her husband with his heir and that monogamy within marriage was not the natural state; it was Caro Lamb’s blatant lack of discretion and not the affair with Byron which had enraged Lady M.

For as Caro was to write to Byron in June 1814:

Think of my situation how extraordinary! – my mother in law actually in the place I held – her ring instead of mine – her letters instead of mine – her heart – but do you believe either she or any others feel for you what I felt…

She never fully recovered from Byron’s rejection and by 1816 during the aftermath of his disastrous marriage and subsequent exile abroad, the isolated Caro in an act of revenge and duplicity created yet more mischief with the publication of her novel Glenarvon with the tale of a tempestuous love affair with a badly disguised Byronic character.

Caro’s cuckold of a spouse was a rising political star who would eventually serve as Prime Minister to the young Queen Victoria but under pressure from his ambitious family, he was now faced with a choice of either a marital separation or to have her committed to a lunatic asylum.

In desperation, Caro penned a letter to the exasperated Lady M that she was:

on the brink of another ruin. Half my friends cut me, all my acquaintances are offended – your protection may save – but I shall never ask for it unless freely offered..

I will never do any thing more that can harm William but when you turn us out of doors which Lord Melbourne has pledged himself to do…

I owe it all to publish as far as I can without involving those I love a full explanation of my conduct, a full refutation of the calumnies that have been spread against me & my infamous book – and an exact account of Lord Byron’s conduct for the last four years…

Surprisingly, the hand of friendship was extended to Caro but with the death of Lady M in April 1818, Caro would once again find herself dangerously isolated.

In the years following and although she continued to lavish attention on her only son Augustus and paint exquisite sketches, the fights with William continued as her passion for mischief remained undiminished and when exiled to Brocket Hall, Caro became increasingly ill, the cause of which would be eventually diagnosed as dropsy – but admitting to having “drunk a whole bottle of wine which I bought for myself all at once...” will surely not have helped matters!

And as I write this, a delicious image of Caro making her way to the local liquor store comes to mind…

In the winter of 1827 and in a desperate attempt to help her, Caro was brought to Melbourne House where less than sixteen years earlier she had presided over the court of Childe Harold as London’s most ‘correct waltzer’ during those halcyon days of 1812 and after an emotional reunion with William and her adored Augustus who had only recently arrived from Dublin she died at Melbourne House on Friday January 25 1828.

She was reunited with the other star player in the drama of 1812 when laid to rest along side the remains of Lady M in the Lamb family crypt at St Ethelreda’s Church in Hatfield and one of her final letters was to Lady Holland who had also enjoyed something of a walk-on part during that first Byronic season:

I can only write one line to thank you for your generous conduct – will you accept from my heart my deep regret for the past – it makes me most unhappy now…

However, for all of the anguish, violence and mischief from their brief affair, is it too much to suppose that with the passing of time, Byron could now enjoy a hearty rendition of Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot and that Caro would be happy to echo that sentiment?

Now here’s to the memory of that wonderful plate of delicious Haggis and Tatties with another large helping of Tipsy Laird I simply had to finish!

Sources Used:

Byron’s Letters and Journals, Ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, 1973-97)

The Whole Disgraceful Truth Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb Paul Douglass (Palgrave Macmillan 2006)