The Life and
By Cheryl Bolen
Byronís "Corbeau Blanc": The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne
Edited by Jonathan David Gross
Liverpool University Press
This work was first published by Rice University Press in 1997 and
by Texas A&M University Press the following year. The Liverpool Press
edition, however, happened to be the least expensive of the costly book
in my internet search (and since my book obsession is very expensive, I
must cut corners whenever possible).
That Byronís Corbeau Blanc has been published by three
university presses should be a tip-off that this is a rather scholarly
work. Gross himself is an English professor at DePaul University. His
published works ó all from university presses ó deal either with Byron
or with those who lived in late Georgian England.
The structure is not one commonly adopted for general audiences.
The fairly hefty book has a four-page preface, two-page explanation of
editorial method, four pages on deciphering the abbreviations used in
the letters, and a two-page chronology on Lady Melbourne and her family
and some of her friends. This is followed by the Introduction in which
Gross gives 47 pages of biographical information on Lady Melbourne
followed by eight pages of notes.
The letters begin on Page 69 and are divided into the following
parts: Georgianaís Rival, 1770-1804; A Keen Politician, 1805-1811; A
Dangerous Acquaintance, 1812-1813; Byronís Zia, 1814; A New Code of
Confidence, 1815; As Much Fortitude as You Can Muster, 1816; and The
Making of a Diplomat, 1817-1818. Each of the parts is followed by
several pages of authorís notes.
When I first read this book I was extremely disappointed. I had
ordered the book because to learn about Lady Melbourneís many love
affairs. (Only the first of her six children was sired by Lord
Melbourne.) To my chagrin, no letters from lovers appeared in this book.
I suspect the omission was not Grossís. Since Lady Melbourne (1751-1818)
was noted for her discretion, it is likely that letters from lovers were
either destroyed in her lifetime or by her family after her death.
Sadly, few letters from Lady Melbourneís first five decades appear
in this book. Gross was particularly interested in her relationship with
Lord Byron during the last decade of her life. That relationship covered
Byronís torrid affair with Lady Melbourneís daughter-in-law, Caroline
Lamb (married to Lady Melbourneís favorite son, William, who would later
served as Queen Victoriaís first prime minister), and Byronís subsequent
courtship and marriage to Lady Melbourneís niece, Annabella Milbanke,
the only child of her brother.
That is not to say Gross neglects Lady Melbourneís highly
interesting first five decades. His astute editing provides large chunks
of biographical information, and he also includes a 57-page Glossary of
Personalities of the haute ton who would have been acquainted
with Lady Melbourne. He has taken pains to include abbreviated family
trees for the Milbankes, Melbournes, Cavendishes, and Spencer/Poyntz
families and 65 illustrations.
But the heart of the book lies in the 142 letters, many never
previously published. These were found in the archives at John Murray
(London publisher), Lovelace Collection (Byronís daughter was Lady
Lovelace), Oxford University, British Library, Hertford County Record
Office, Melbourne Hall Archives, and the Huntington Library in
Though more of the letters pertain to the ladyís relationship with
the great poet, many letters to her steward and her friends appear in
Of particular interest ó especially for someone like myself who
reads a great deal of old diaries ó was the brief section Gross uses to
explain abbreviations used in personal correspondence at the time. Iíd
never had a problem realizing that Dss was an abbreviation
for duchess or Ly for Lady, but I had not known that
ye stands for "the."
Though Iím glad I bought the book, it may not have a broad enough
appeal for the casual Regency reader. But if youíre a Byron fan, the
book is a must-buy. Not cheap, though.
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in