Lady Caroline Lamb:
Review by Cheryl Bolen
Lady Caroline Lamb: A Biography
by Paul Douglass
340 pgs., $26.95
The facts of Lady Caroline’s life are presented in this newest
biographical effort from Paul Douglass, but as an English professor (at
San Jose State University), Douglass is more interested in Lady Caroline
the author than Lady Caroline, lover of the great Romantic poet Lord
The biographical information includes information on her birth and the
privileged set into which she was born. She was the only daughter of
Frederick Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon and his wife Harriet, the
youngest daughter of the first Lord Spencer. The Duke of Devonshire was
Lord Duncannon’s first cousin; the Duchess of Devonshire was Lady
Duncannon’s sister. Because Lady Duncannon was caught up in the fast
lifestyle of the Whig ladies of the era, she had several lovers, among
them Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright and great Whig orator.
Douglass suggests the possibility that Sheridan might actually have been
Lady Caroline’s father, but he also says, “Sheridan’s amazingly facile
tongue, moodiness, and tendency toward self-destructive behavior all
find echoes in Lady Caroline’s personality, though it is unlikely they
were related by blood.”
Born November 13, 1785, Lady Caroline spent most of her early years
abroad and could speak and write fluently in French and Italian. In 1793
her father succeeded, becoming Earl of Bessborough. Though she was very
close to her mother, Lady Caroline — always a high-strung child — was
also close to her maternal grandmother, Lady Spencer, who attempted to
counteract her own daughter’s influence with piety.
At age nineteen, Lady Caroline married William Lamb, the second son of
Lord and Lady Melbourne, though he was almost certainly sired by his
mother’s lover Lord Egremont. Caro had known him all her life. He wrote
that he had been in love with her for four years but could not hope for
her hand until he unexpectedly became Lord Melbourne’s heir when his
elder brother died. As heir, he would be a suitable match for a
high-born girl like Lady Caroline. Had she not fallen in love with Lamb,
she was destined to marry either her cousin who would be the sixth Duke
of Devonshire or the cousin who would be the third Lord Spencer.
Though she was madly in love with Lamb before the marriage, she was
extremely moody the first few weeks of her marriage. It is believed she
was shocked over what went on in the bedchamber between a husband and
wife. Seven months later she gave birth to a premature girl, who died
shortly after her birth. The following year she gave birth to her son
Augustus Lamb. She adored her infant son, but as he became older it was
clear he was mentally handicapped. Douglass said Augustus was retarded,
but he gives no examples and scarcely mentions Augustus after his birth.
(From other sources, it appears the boy may have been autistic.)
Douglass does say that Caroline insisted that the boy not be put away
but always stay with her or his father.
Having befriended Byron’s publisher John Murray, Caroline read Byron’s
Childe Harold before its publication and — instantly captivated — told
Murray she had to meet Byron. (By then, Lady Caroline had already
conducted at one flagrant love affair.)
Her affair with Byron began the month of Childe Harold’s publication,
March, 1812, and like a flame burned with torrid intensity before it was
snuffed three months later. During the tempestuous days of their liaison
Lady Caroline flung discretion to the wind. Small and thin, she dressed
as a page and sneaked into Byron’s chambers for passionate bouts of
lovemaking that may have been even too wild for Byron. At first, his
passion rivaled hers, but because of the disgrace she was bringing to
her husband and family and because he needed to marry an heiress, he
backed away from Caro. In an effort to make her despise him, Byron told
her of unpardonable acts he had committed. Douglass suggests that Byron
admitted to incest with his sister Augusta Leigh and to having sex with
boys. Douglass even suggests he forced anal sex on Caroline to make
himself loathsome to her.
In September, her parents demanded she and her husband go to Ireland
with them. Though Byron would write and inform her he no longer loved
her, Caroline never could free herself of the debilitating love she felt
toward him. She lost all pride. In her twisted sense of intimacy, she
exchanged locks of hair with him, but she sent pubic hair. She never
stopped writing to him, never stopped begging for meetings with him. In
a letter she wrote him two years after their affair she captures her own
persona better than any biographer: “I lov’d you as no Woman ever could
love because I am not like them — but more like a Beast who sees no
crime in loving & following its Master — you became such to me — Master
of my soul more than of anything else.”
In her obsession over Byron, she became adept not only at copying the
style of his poetry but also of copying his handwriting and manner of
scratching out words in his writings. She used this to forge a letter to
Murray authorizing Caroline to take possession of a Byron portrait that
was at Murray’s publishing office.
If she could not have Byron, she wanted his portrait – and his writings,
writings, which she studied and emulated for the rest of her life. Four
years after their affair she published her novel Glenarvon. Hugely
popular, it went to several printings but instead of gaining the
critical acclaim she so desired, its satire of her own class caused her
to be ostracized.
But she would not be deterred in her obsession to be an author. She
wrote lyrics, poetry, and two more novels.
Her relationship with Lord and Lady Melbourne, with whom she was forced
to live, had been tenuous ever since the blatant affair with Byron and
as her outrageous behavior (throwing crockery, coming to a ball dressed
as Byron’s Don Juan, shamelessly flirting with the Duke of Wellington)
increased, they urged William to separate from her.
But the cuckolded William stuck by her. As she slipped into alcoholism
in the 1820s he, too, began to be disgusted with her, and he made
arrangements to live apart.
It was at this time the Melbourne family came to the conclusion she was
insane. William would not commit her, but he did hire “keepers” for her.
He never divorced her and was at her side when she died at age
forty-two. Her death was brought on by her alcoholism.
Lady Caroline would never become Lady Melbourne. In a cruel ivony of her
life, William succeeded to the title and became prime minister after her
This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in September 2006.