Lady Caroline Lamb (née Ponsonby; November 13, 1785 – January 25, 1828) was a novelist best known for her scandalous book Glenarvon, which revealed the torrid details of her 1812 affair with Lord Byron, whom she described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. This moniker has been immortalized in time and is still used today.
As the only daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and the Countess of Bessborough, Caroline possessed a free and recklessness spirit with a disdain for convention. From childhood she grew increasingly troublesome, experimenting with sedatives like laudanum, and even had a special governess to control her behavior.
In 1805 at the age of 19, she married the Honorable William Lamb, who later became the notable British Prime Minister in 1834 when Queen Victoria came to the throne in June 1837.
Portrait of a Young William Lamb
Caroline bore to a son soon after their wedding, but the child was stillborn. She then gave birth to a living son, George, in 1807, followed by a premature, baby girl in 1809 who did not survive. The death of her children caused Caroline great heartache and pain.
In 1812, another momentous occasion changed the life of Lady Caroline Lamb and propelled her down a path of infamy. Lady Lamb met the dashing and infamous poet Lord Byron, who was widely known in society as a seducer of women. Byron was immediately smitten with Caroline. At first, Caroline resisted the attraction and described the poet Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” after their first meeting at a ball in 1812.
“Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”Source: Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins (3 ed.)
Soon the two were lovers and attracted the attention of London’s society. Lord Byron’s pet name for Lady Caroline was “Caro,” whom he described as, “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago”. Caroline proudly adopted the name and insisted all others call her by her lover’s endearment.
The cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.”Source: Caro: The Lady Caroline Lamb Website
By August of 1812 after a half year affair, Lord Bryon dropped Lady Caroline for a new lover, Jane Harley, the Countess of Oxford. With Caroline’s reputation now in ruin, she left for Ireland to escape the humiliation and rumors of London’s society. Upon her return to London she attended a ball to honor the Duke of Wellington where Lord Byron verbally insulted Caroline in front of their peers. It is said that in full view of many of guests, Caroline picked up a nearby glass and tried to cut her own wrists. Caroline showed further signs of desperation and instability when she began stalking Lord Byron by dressing up as a pageboy to gain entrance to his home.
Lord Byron, whose debt was now large, next began pursuing the heiress Annabella Milbanke. The couple married in 1812; however Annabella soon left him and took their newborn daughter with her.
Lady Caroline’s Revenge
After years of pursuing Lord Byron and being cast aside in humiliation, Caroline decided to take her revenge on Lord Byron. In 1816, she published the Gothic novel Glenarvon, a work of fiction with a rendition of Lord Byron as the seducer of her character’s tormented soul.
In Glenaron, Caroline describes herself as…
Freed from the last tie which had bound her to one feeling of honour or of virtue, she, without remorse, gave way during the absence of her child and husband (who accompanied the boy to Ireland) to a life of extravagance and vice, ensnaring the inexperienced by her art, and fascinating the most wary by her beauty and her talents. The charms of her person and the endowments of her mind were worthy of a better fate than that which she was preparing for herself. But, under the semblance of youthful gaiety, she concealed a dark intriguing spirit, which could neither remain at rest, nor satisfy itself in the pursuit of great and noble objects. She had been hurried on by the evil activity of her own mind, until the habit of crime had overcome every scruple, and rendered her insensible to repentance, and almost to remorse. In this career, she had improved to such a degree her natural talent of dissimulation, that, under its impenetrable veil, she was able to carry on securely her darkest machinations; and her understanding had so adapted itself to her passions, that it was in her power to give, in her own eyes, a character of grandeur, to the vice and malignity, which afforded an inexplicable delight to her depraved imagination.Glenarvon, 1816, p. 24-25.
The agony and humiliation that Caroline experienced upon Lord Byron’s rejection and subsequent marriage is clearly evident in her description of the fictitious lover, Lord Dartford, in Glenarvon below:
But they knew little of the nature of man, who could conceive that Lord Dartford had even a thought of uniting himself to Lady Margaret by any lasting ties. On the contrary, he suddenly and secretly, without even taking leave of her, departed for England; and the first letter which she received from him, to inform her of his absence, announced to her, likewise, his marriage with a lady of fortune and rank in his native country.
Lady Margaret was at dinner with a numerous company, and amongst them the young count, when the letters from England were placed before her. The quivering of her lip and the rolling of her dark eye might have betrayed, to a keen observer, the anguish of a disordered spirit; but, recovering herself with that self-command which years of crime and deep dissimulation had taught her, she conversed as usual, till it was time for her to depart; and only when in her own apartment, closing the door, gave vent to the fury that opprest her. For some moments she paced the room in silent anguish; then kneeling down and calling upon those powers, whose very existence she had so often doubted: “Curse him! curse him!” she exclaimed. “O may the curse of a bitter, and deeply injured heart, blast every promise of his happiness; pursue him through life; and follow him to the grave!—May he live to be the scorn of his enemies, the derision of the world, without one friend to soften his afflictions!—May those, whom he has cherished, forsake him in the hour of need; and the companion he has chosen, prove a serpent to betray him!—May the tear of agony, which his falsehood has drawn from these eyes, fall with tenfold bitterness from his own!—And may this blooming innocent, this rival, who has supplanted me in his affections, live to feel the pangs she has inflicted on my soul; or perish in the pride of her youth, with a heart as injured, as lacerated as mine!—Oh if there are curses yet unnamed, prepared by an angry God, against offending man, may they fall upon the head of this false, this cold-hearted Dartford!”(Glenarvon, 1816, p. 33-34.)
Caroline’s decision to publish the details of her torrid affair with Lord Byron as a veiled novel of unrequited love had devastating effects not on Lord Byron, but on Caroline herself.
Lady Caroline Is Blacklisted
Although Glenarvon was published anonymously, society easily guessed Caroline was the spurned lover and author of this titillating tale. The Countess of Jersey, one of the most powerful women of the ton who was ridiculed in the novel, took exception to the portrait of her depicted in the novel. Lady Jersey held a leading role in the ton and was referred to as “Queen Sarah”. In retribution, Lady Jersey exerted her power and had all of Caroline’s memberships to London’s exclusive clubs revoked, thus ostracizing Caroline from London’s haute ton. Caroline was now completely blacklisted from London society.
Eight years later in 1824, Lady Caroline’s lover, Lord Byron, passed away from a fever while abroad in Greece. Caroline reportedly collapsed in the street during his funeral procession and lapsed between despair and fits of rage in public. During this time, Caroline’s husband, Lord Melbourne, stood by her side, refusing to give in to his family’s wishes that divorce his wife.
Lord Melbourne oil painting by J. Partridge, 1844; in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
By 1825 Caroline convinced her husband to grant a separation and took up residence in Brockton Hall. By the time Caroline was 41 years old in 1827, she came under the supervision of a full-time doctor.
Caroline’s Last Request
In her last moments, Caroline asked her husband, William, to visit her saying, “He is the only person who has never failed me”. After Caroline’s death, her husband, William Lamb, became Prime Minister of England.
Statue Of Lord Byron on Hyde Park Corner in London
Lonpicman, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons