Lady Caroline Ponsonby Lamb was the daughter of the earl of Bessborough and Henrietta Ponsonby, and the niece of the duchess of Devonshire. As a child she was a tomboy - and a spirit of recklessness and disdain for convention never left her. She had no formal education and was unable to read until late adolescence. But she was intelligent and witty; as an adult, she wrote poetry and prose and drew portraits. She was the first woman of Byron's class to captivate the poet completely. He treated Caroline badly after the grand infatuation faded. But while it lasted, he was demanding and possessive, goading her to admit she loved him more than her husband. He pursued her with abandon, once planning to flee England with her. Caroline's reaction to the break-up is understandable; Byron led her to believe he loved her. It was her sad fate to discover Byron's interpretation of love - a mad, passionate obsession which is abandoned as soon as curiosity and desire are sated.
When they met in 1812, Byron was 24 years old and already famous as the melancholy writer of 'Childe Harold.' Caroline was 27 years old, married and mother of an autistic son. Her husband was William Lamb, the younger son of Byron's friends, Lord and Lady Melbourne. It was Lady Melbourne to whom Byron addressed some of his most personal and scandalous letters; she was one of his great confidantes and supporters. The family lived at Melbourne House in Whitehall and played host to many fashionable and lively gatherings. They were also cousins of Lady Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, later to become Byron's wife. Caroline and William had married when she was 17 and the union began happily enough. But the death of one child and the health problems of another, as well as William's growing interest in a political career, caused a rift between the couple.
There is also some evidence that William Lamb was sexually promiscuous and made disturbing demands upon his wife, as Caroline implied in a letter to Lady Melbourne in 1810: 'He called me prudish - said I was strait-laced, - amused himself with instructing me in things I need never have heard or known - & the disgust that I at first felt for the world's wickedness I till then had never even heard of - in a very short time this gave way to a general laxity of principles which little by little unperceived of you all has been undermining the few virtues I ever possessed.' Despite these problems, however, they remained affectionate.
Caroline had read 'Childe Harold' before meeting Byron, having been lent the poem by a mutual friend. She was told that Byron 'has a club-foot, and bites his nails' but Caroline replied, 'If he was as ugly as Aesop I must know him.' She had the transparent nature of a child, with little ability to dissemble or play coy, and developed passionate attachments. Upon reading the poem, she conjured a romantic image of the poet which Byron's reputation did nothing to dispel. She wrote him an anonymous fan letter - 'You deserve to be and you shall be happy....' A few days later, she left Lady Westmoreland's before meeting him. He had been surrounded by other women and she was nervous. Already she had written her impression of him - 'mad - bad - and dangerous to know.' This remains the Byronic epitaph.
Byron, of course, always preferred women he had to pursue. Once Caroline Lamb had avoided the introduction, Byron was determined to meet her. They were introduced at Lord and Lady Holland's, but Byron was initially disappointed. Caroline did not resemble his traditional conquests, or his concept of feminine beauty. She was tall and very thin, with short, curly blonde hair and hazel eyes. After the meeting, he told his friend Medwin, 'The lady had scarcely any personal attractions to recommend her.' Her figure 'was too thin to be good' and her eccentric habit of dressing as a page shocked him. She had none of the 'retired modesty' which later attracted him to Annabella Milbanke. But Caroline was attracted to him instantly; she wrote, 'That beautiful pale face is my fate.'
In truth, Caroline possessed an instinctive disregard of opinion which Byron always coveted. However much he postured as the ne'er-do-well lord, he remained an aristocrat who desired the good opinion of other aristocrats. This changed only when his marriage failed and he grew careless of opinion and terribly cynical. Caroline was a vivacious and flirtatious woman and Byron suspected she wanted him for the notoriety and to feed her vanity. He was always insecure, a quality he hid beneath the 'Childe Harold' pose. Caroline sensed this insecurity but it only increased his charm.
He soon overcame his initial response to her attractiveness, or lack thereof. They became lovers and shocked London with their affair through much of April and May 1812. Byron had long believed women were truly incapable of understanding male thoughts and desires. With Caroline, he was forced to abandon this notion. They read together, discussed poetry - and argued fiercely. His supposed flirtations with other women and her open affection for her husband and other admirers caused most of the fighting. Some arguments ended 'without any verbal explanation', Byron told a friend. He was particularly jealous of her waltzing with other men. And since Byron could not dance with his club-foot, Caroline now sat with him, no longer the life of her parties. When she was not invited to a party he attended, she would wait out in the street for him. If he needed money, she told him, he could pawn her jewels. She wrote letters constantly, confided in her diary - and Byron wrote to her as well, an equal partner in the affair.
But such passion never lasts. Byron was a victim of his own contradictory personality - he loved to pursue women but, once captured, he longed to leave them. Paradoxically, he could not rest easy without their complete adoration. He could not be simply Caroline's lover, a participant in a scandalous (but tolerated) affair; he must be her grand passion, her true love - she must belong to him alone. But once she capitulated, he grew bored and irritated with her.
Though Caroline was instantly infatuated, she at first refused Byron's most heated demands. She would not admit she loved him more than her husband William; Byron told her, 'My God, you shall pay for this, I'll wring that obstinate little heart.' But soon she loved him enough to contemplate leaving her husband, at Byron's suggestion in May 1812. He was probably testing her commitment for it is unlikely he meant to flee England with her. But he needed to know she loved him more than anything, even her very comfortable life, and so he hinted at 'elopement.' His friends, particularly the sensible John Hobhouse, were already shocked by the affair; it had grown increasingly open and hysterical. Byron was eventually persuaded to leave London.
At Newstead, Caroline bombarded him with letters. Hobhouse cautioned Byron to not respond, warning him that he was risking his reputation. Once again, it was one thing to pose as a cad but quite another to be one (and in such a public manner.) At Melbourne House, Caroline was confused and hurt. Byron did not answer her letters but he returned to London on 13 June. Then the long, slow death of their passionate affair began. He avoided her but was still attracted to her. Hobhouse, still fearful of a potential elopement, again persuaded him to leave, this time for Harrow. They were to leave Wednesday 29 July, for Caroline had threatened to visit alone on that day. Such a visit would have been disastrous for them both. An affair conducted with a modicum of restraint and discretion could be tolerated, but no lady could appear alone at a man's house without societal repercussions.
In any case, Caroline was past discretion. Byron had wooed her passionately for two months and then ignored her. She arrived at his home, Number 8 St James Street, around noon, just as he and Hobhouse were preparing to leave. Hobhouse recorded the event in his diary:
'Wednesday July 29. Went to Byron's in expectation of going to Harrow, a scheme he had resolved on to avoid the threatened visit of a Lady - at 12 o'clock just as we were going, several thundering raps were heard at the door & we saw a crowd collected about the door & opposite to it - immediately a person in a most strange disguise walked up stairs - it turned out to be the Lady in question from Brocket.... I did think that to leave my friend in such a situation, when.... every soul in the house servants & all knew of the person in disguise, and not to endeavor to prevent the catastrophe of an elopement which seemed inevitable, would be unjustifiable - accordingly I stayed in the sitting room whilst the Lady was in the bed room pulling off her disguise - under which she had a page's dress.... at last she was prevailed upon to put on a habit, bonnet & shoes - belonging to a servant of the house and, after much entreaty did come out into the sitting room....'
Hobhouse told her to leave; Caroline refused. She somehow grabbed a knife and tried stabbing herself. Byron held her down until she was calm. Eventually, she let Hobhouse take her to a friend's home. He was desperate to prevent any public declaration of intent from either party. Before leaving, she made Byron promise to visit her before he left London again.
Byron, meanwhile, became uncharacteristically torn. He was rarely indecisive but Caroline made him so. On 9 August, she sent him a letter enclosed with a very personal gift - her pubic hair. The gift was inscribed in lovers' language:
NEXT TO THYRSA DEAREST
& MOST FAITHFUL - GOD BLESS YOU
OWN LOVE - RICORDATI DI BIONDETTA
FROM YOUR WILD ANTELOPE
The letter read:
'I asked you not to send blood but Yet do - because if it means love I like to have it. I cut the hair too close & bled much more than you need - do not you the same & pray put not scissors points near where quei capelli grow - sooner take it from the arm or wrist - pray be careful....'
On 12 August, Byron was forced to visit her. Her parents had been urging her to join William Lamb in the country and then vacation in Ireland. She had refused because of the situation with Byron. Her father-in-law, Lord Melbourne, was disgusted with her behavior and ordered her to go. Caroline melodramatically declared she would run off with Byron. Lord Melbourne called her bluff; he told her she could go to Byron but Byron probably wouldn't take her. Caroline was furious but didn't rush off to join Byron. She fled Melbourne House to hide at a surgeon's, of all places. Byron was contacted and intervened. He bribed her driver and persuaded her to go home. He also told her to go to Ireland for both their sakes. She did so unwillingly, but this was the effective end of their romantic relationship. They did continue to write, perhaps because he feared another hysterical outburst. He also still cared for her. And for Byron, absence always made the heart grow fonder. He could now play the role of the gracious former lover; he did so with aplomb. Since she was safely away, he could avow passion he no longer felt. His 'good-bye letter' was particularly affecting and Caroline kept it until her death. It read in part:
'My dearest Caroline, - If tears which you saw and know I am not apt to shed, - if the agitation in which I parted from you - if all I have said and done, and am still but too ready to say and do, have not sufficiently proved what my real feelings are, and must ever be towards you, my love, I have no other proof to offer... You know I would with pleasure give up all here and all beyond the grave for you, and in refraining from this, must my motives be misunderstood? I care not who knows this, what use is made of it.... I was an am yours freely and most entirely, to obey, to honor, love, - and fly with you when, where, and how you yourself might and may determine.'
The winter of 1812 and 1813 also found Byron engaged in another affair, with Jane Elizabeth, countess of Oxford. An older woman with six children, politically active and the veteran of other love affairs, she was at first more discreet and less demanding than Caroline. She was also a friend of Caroline's, though she quickly destroyed the friendship by encouraging Byron's disdain for his former lover. Caroline wrote to Byron from Ireland and the letters reached him at Lady Oxford's home of Eywood. There Byron and his new lover would read the letters and compose replies. On her way home to London in early November 1812, Caroline received one such reply sealed with Lady Oxford's initials. Its contents were reproduced in her novel 'Glenarvon' four years later:
'I am no longer your lover; and since you oblige me to confess it, by this truly unfeminine persecution, - learn, that I am attached to another; whose name it would of course be dishonourable to mention. I shall ever remember with gratitude the many instances I have received of the predilection you have shewn in my favour. I shall ever continue your friend, if your Ladyship will permit me so to style myself; and, as a first proof of my regard, I offer you this advice, correct your vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices upon others; and leave me in peace.'
The effect upon Caroline was brutal. She was physically ill and had to seek rest in Cornwall, where she was also bled. Upon her arrival in London, she began to write Lady Oxford as well, threatening to tell Lord Oxford of the affair. The countess laughed at the threat but Byron was understandably troubled.
Byron soon returned to London and saw Caroline at various social events. Face-to-face, the poet could not be particularly nasty. They had a few brief civil conversations. Caroline was still torn by jealousy and regrets. In the last year, with Byron safely away, she had struggled to repair her marriage but heartbreak and indecision left their mark. She was now emotionally agitated and her figure increasingly emaciated. Byron remarked to Lady Melbourne that he was 'haunted by a skeleton.' He was both repulsed and fascinated by her devotion. During the Christmas season, while Byron stayed with the Oxfords, Caroline held a dramatic bonfire at the Melbourne country home in Hertfordshire. Village girls dressed in white danced while Caroline threw copies of his letters and other tokens into the fire. A figure of Byron was even burned in effigy while her page recited lines she had written: 'Burn, fire, burn, while wondering boys exclaim,/ And gold and trinkets glitter in the flame.'
The return to London society in early 1813 witnessed more indiscretions. Caroline would visit at inappropriate hours, once inscribing on a book at his desk: 'Remember me!' The book, not coincidentally, was written by the homosexual William Beckford. The message was a reminder that she knew of his transgressions. In a fit of pique at the clumsy blackmail, Byron wrote a poem of the same name which captured his feelings:
Remember thee! remember thee!
Till Lethe quench life's burning stream
Remorse and shame shall cling to thee,
And haunt thee like a feverish dream!
Remember thee! Aye, doubt it not.
Thy husband too shall think of thee:
By neither shalt thou be forgot,
Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!
She then forged a note in Byron's handwriting to his publisher John Murray, requesting a painted miniature of the poet. Murray complied, none the wiser. Byron was again furious. It was up to Lady Melbourne to have a copy made for Caroline and return the original to Byron. When Caroline requested a lock of his hair, Byron played a cruel trick. He sent her a lock of the countess of Oxford's hair instead, later remarking 'it was a lucky coincidence of colour & shape for my purpose' and thus mocking both women. For her part, Caroline had her buttons inscribed 'No Crede Byron', a mockery of the Byron family motto 'Crede Byron'.
It is possible, too, that she knew of Byron's long-distance semi-courtship of Annabella Milbanke, who was her cousin and Lady Melbourne's niece. Byron had hinted to Lady Melbourne that Annabella would make a suitable wife in the fall of 1812: 'As to Love, that is done in a week, (provided the Lady has a reasonable share) besides marriage goes on better with esteem & confidence than romance, & she is quite pretty enough to be loved by her husband, without being so glaringly beautiful as to attract too many rivals.' This longing for settled domesticity was cut short by Annabella's refusal. It was a sensible decision to a rash, impersonal proposal. But Annabella found herself newly fascinated by Byron, writing a brief and incisive sketch of his character. She also instigated a renewal of their acquaintance in August 1813.
It was clear that Byron was attempting to escape his tangled romantic exploits. Formerly famous for his poetry, he was now infamous as a lover. But the summer of 1813 would find him trading one scandal for another, even greater one. After four years apart, his half-sister Augusta Leigh had come to London for three weeks. Byron made no secret of his affection and enlisted Lady Melbourne to secure entry for Augusta to aristocratic dinners and parties. The poet and his shy sister would often sit together, talking together, openly affectionate. It was later rumored they began an incestuous affair whether in London or, in July and August, at Augusta's home near Newmarket while her husband was away. The charge has been much discussed but never proven. It was first made by Byron's wife during a bitter divorce; scholars have selectively quoted from Byron's letters in support of the charge but the evidence is nebulous and can be explained in less sensational terms. Whatever the truth of their physical relationship, Byron and Augusta did share a private camaderie, teasing each other with childhood nicknames. The poet believed his sister accepted and knew him as no others did; she gave him unconditional love and support. This knowledge was his respite from Caroline's hysterics and Lady Oxford's increasing demands. Like her former friend, the countess did not like being pushed aside.
In fact, Caroline's final public scenes only pushed Byron closer to his sensible and kindly sister. They both attended a masked ball at Burlington House on 1 July in honor of the duke of Wellington. There, Byron (dressed as a monk) 'scolded her' publicly. Caroline was hurt and retreated. On 5 July, they met again at a waltzing party at Lady Heathcote's. Caroline remembered his earlier pleas for her to sit with him instead of dancing. She walked up to him and asked, 'I conclude I may waltz now.' Byron replied: 'With every body in turn - you always did it better than anyone. I shall have a pleasure in seeing you.' Later, he said to her sarcastically, 'I have been admiring your dexterity.' Caroline picked up a table knife, 'not intending anything', she later wrote. Byron was amused and contemptuous. 'Do, my dear. If you mean to act a Roman's part,' he told her, 'mind which way you strike with your knife - be it at your own heart, not mine - you have struck there already.' Caroline cried out, 'Byron!' and fled in distress. When some ladies tried to take the knife from her, she cut her hand. The entire shoddy affair was reported in the papers.
Byron's policy was to avoid her at all costs. In any case, he was soon consumed in another love affair with Lady Frances Webster, the unhappily married wife of a close friend. Also, he was again visiting Lady Oxford and corresponding with Annabella Milbanke, who had rejected his proposal a year earlier. These were mere distractions, however, for Byron had family troubles. He loaned Augusta's husband £1000; George Leigh was an inveterate gambler and Byron could ill afford the loan. He knew it would never be repaid. He and Augusta discussed leaving England while George paid off his debts. But his sister's desire to take her infant son along made Byron balk and return to sanity.
Though he may have used other women as distractions, Byron still ignored Caroline. Ironically, her love for him typified the 'Byronic' spirit in all its heedless emotion. But Byron was far less enamored of reckless abandon than many believed. Though he often acted impulsively, he was deeply aware of his faults. He was never dismissive of his sins and too often obsessed over them. Caroline shared this obsessive spirit. But she and Byron had shared their last private conversation sometime in June. After his death, she told a mutual friend that Byron had kissed her at his home:
'....the last time we parted for ever, as he pressed his lips on mine (it was in the Albany) he said 'poor Caro, if every one hates me, you, I see, will never change - No, not with ill usage!' & I said, 'yes, I am changed, & shall come near you no more.' - For then he showed me letters, & told me things I cannot repeat, & all my attachment went.'
The last statement was perhaps optimistic and an attempt to save face. Their final public confrontations in early July had been so scandalous and humiliating that nothing was left but regret and anger.
By 1814, Byron was preparing to wed Caroline's cousin Annabella Milbanke. It was his first romantic attachment of a purely conventional nature. There was no need to be clandestine or discreet; there was nothing forbidden about courtship with a respectable and studious heiress. Therein lay its attraction and danger. Caroline accepted the news calmly, though Byron had feared otherwise. They had not seen each other for months, even as Byron continued to write regularly to her mother-in-law. Caroline now viewed Byron with a wounded eye. As for Annabella, she was never threatened by her cousin, remarking she found her 'quite virtuous' compared to other former lovers. But when Byron and Annabella separated in 1816, Caroline sought her revenge against the poet.
Caroline claimed that Byron had confessed to an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh at their last private meeting. This was supposedly what ended her 'attachment.' During the initial separation between Annabella and Byron in 1816, Caroline played both sides against one another, spreading rumors about Byron and Augusta while writing to Byron through mutual friends. He suspected her duplicity and was disgusted. In turn, she wrote: 'I know not from what quarter the report originates. You accused me, and falsely; but if you could hear all that is said at this moment, you would hear one, who....would perhaps die to save you.'
But she had already arranged a meeting with Annabella, now desperate for some power over her husband. Annabella, meticulous as always, took notes at the meeting. Caroline alleged that Byron told her of a 'criminal intercourse' between him and Augusta, even 'boasting at the ease of his conquest.' And there were other 'unnatural crimes' - young boys he had corrupted - 'He mentioned 3 schoolfellows whom he had thus perverted.' Annabella now had the information necessary to ensure a divorce on her terms. But having betrayed Byron with rumors and slander, Caroline was desperate to hide her deceit. She wrote to him again. He never responded and she came close to madness.
Later, Caroline traveled with her husband to Paris and Brussels where she humiliated him again, pursuing various army officers. Her most famous conquest was the duke of Wellington. Yet Byron remained the greatest passion of her life. She wrote a novel about him called 'Glenarvon', an open condemnation of his character which revealed her continuing obsession. In 1820, when the first cantos of 'Don Juan' were causing a sensation in London, Caroline appeared at a masked ball dressed as the character. The newspapers made note of her appearance. When Byron died in 1824, she wanted to know his last words - and she wanted her letters to him returned. Instead, Hobhouse asked to have the letters Byron had written her, but she refused to part with them. She said, 'I am very sorry I ever said one unkind word against him.'
Caroline's last years found her increasingly melancholy and restless. She wrote two more novels and separated from her husband in 1825. But she and William remained close and he was at her bedside when she died in 1828. He never married again and continued working in politics. He eventually became Prime Minister and one of Queen Victoria's favorite advisers.
click here to read selections from Byron and Caroline's letters
click here to read a selection from Caroline Lamb's 'Glenarvon'
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The above portraits are of Lady Caroline
Lamb in a page's costume by Thomas Phillips, date unknown;
an undated sketch of LCL; and GH Barlow's 1815 sketch of Lord Byron.
written June 1997; last revised 7 March 2004