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    Lady Caroline Lamb: Antonia Fraser on a rule-breaking aristocrat

    So from an early age, Caroline was surrounded by unconventional, strong-minded women. Caroline herself was a sweet girl but very naughty. She was eccentric, exhibitionist, and loved attention. But in many ways she was very kind, too. There’s one story about her walking about the beaches where she lived, picking up little boys and educating them.

    What sources do we have that tell us about Caroline and her life?

    Well, we go by the correspondence, and the aristocrats of the era wrote letters all the time. These have been amazingly well preserved in the archives of their grand stately homes. I’m so grateful to those archivists, because those letters are invaluable – they are very personal and vivid, which I love.

    Caroline married in 1805. What can you tell us about that?

    It began as a love match, when she fell for William Lamb, as he then was – he later became Lord Melbourne and prime minister. They fell in love but she wasn’t allowed to marry him because at that time he was just a second son. But then his older brother died of consumption, meaning he would inherit his father’s title, so she was allowed to marry him and was thrilled. In those early years, he educated her, which she liked. There are stories of them sharing a swinging seat and reading poetry together. Her letters often refer to them reading Hume, or Rousseau or other philosophers.

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    Caroline herself was a sweet girl but very naughty. She was eccentric, exhibitionist, and loved attention. But in many ways she was very kind, too

    But the great romance didn’t last. I think that there was a sort of diffidence in Lamb that wouldn’t allow himself to go the whole way emotionally, while Caroline wanted the entire thing – full blown love. So there was perhaps a mismatch there. But even so, he was extraordinarily kind to her, and incredibly tolerant in what he allowed her to get away with.

    Yes, Caroline lived in a world of really strong women and that’s part of what drew me to her story. William Lamb had a very commanding mother, Lady Melbourne, about whom it was once said that she could not see a happy marriage without wishing to destroy it. He also had a pretty domineering sister, Emily, who married Lord Cowper, and then Lord Palmerston.

    Thomas Lawrence's portrait of William Lamb, husband of Caroline until their separation in 1825 and two-time prime minister (Photo by Bridgeman Images)

    Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of William Lamb, husband of Caroline until their separation in 1825 and two-time prime minister (Photo by Bridgeman Images)

    They were powerful women, and quite frankly, I don’t think they liked being around Caroline. They thought she was cheeky, and they didn’t like cheeky. While it was a difficult relationship with Lady Melbourne from the start, I think that Caroline’s independent attitude made this progressively worse.

    When did things began to unravel in the marriage?

    When Caroline had a very public flirtation with Sir Godfrey Webster, a handsome 21-year-old baronet, four years younger than her. Why she did that, we can only guess. She said, several years later, that they never actually slept together. So it was more, I think, done to provoke her in-laws, the Melbourne family – it was done to show off.

    Caroline is famous for her relationship with Lord Byron, whom she memorably described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. What brought her into his orbit?

    In 1812, Byron had suddenly become tremendously famous after writing a narrative poem called Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, following the travels of a melancholy and wayward young man, and deemed by many to have autobiographical influences.

    After reading it, Caroline was deeply intrigued by Byron, especially since she was an aspiring writer herself. And so she wrote to him. Then followed a scene that had been carefully arranged by Caroline. At a ball she went up to him and then simply passed him by. She obviously did this on purpose, to get his attention – and it worked.

    Caroline and Byron had a tumultuous and widely known affair, full of passionate letter-writing and illicit meetings. Was it a great romance or a flash in the pan?

    I think that there was one tremendous moment of love. That involved a good deal of darting to and fro, with Caroline dressed up as a page to sneak out and meet Byron for secret rendezvous. She was obviously in love with him, but I’d stick my neck out and say that he was also genuinely in love with her, at least for that moment. But then, ungrateful love rat that he was, he set off chasing others, including the mesmerising older noblewoman Jane Harley, Countess of Oxford. So for him it was something of a flash in the pan, but for her it was an obsession.

    How did Caroline and Byron’s relationship come to an end?

    There wasn’t a hard cut off. Instead, it was a sort of continued flirtation. But after their initial great moment of love, Caroline began to feel Byron slipping away. She became increasingly desperate, bombarding him with letters and proposing that they should elope. Caroline’s family dragged her away to Ireland, and Byron carried on with Lady Oxford, sending a letter to Caroline sealed with Lady Oxford’s seal, which is rather bad taste.

    An 1813 portrait of Lord Byron, by Richard Westall. The Romantic poet had numerous affairs, including a tumultuous tryst with Lady Caroline Lamb (Photo by IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo)

    An 1813 portrait of Lord Byron, by Richard Westall. The Romantic poet had numerous affairs, including a tumultuous tryst with Lady Caroline Lamb (Photo by IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo)

    In later years, Byron spoke quite cruelly about Caroline. I think this was mainly because of the Gothic novel Caroline wrote, Glenarvon. Nobody’s read it nowadays, but it’s frightfully good. It was clearly about Byron, and everyone knew it was, so Caroline was really courting the drama. He’s made out to be a kind of rebellious aristocratic Irish independence hero. Now I’m guessing at his feelings here, but I think that probably did it for him. That’s not because it was unflattering, but more because he felt: “Writing is my game. What is she doing, writing about me? I should be writing about her!”

    I think the world regarded the whole affair with fascination and enjoyment, as the world does. They liked the gossip. And Byron wasn’t Caroline’s only affair – as well as her flirtation with Sir Godfrey Webster, she also had a relationship with an adventurer called Michael Bruce. Bruce was known for his escapades during the Bourbon Restoration, when he helped to smuggle the Comte de Lavalette, a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, out of France, disguised in his wife’s clothes.

    Caroline’s first novel, Glenarvon was a financial success, but not well received critically. Nonetheless she published three more novels and poetry that mimicked Byron’s style. Was she a good writer?

    Yes. Ada Reis, in particular, is a very good novel. She just had a short burst of writing. After Glenarvon in 1816, she published two further big novels (Graham Hamilton and Ada Reis) in the 1820s. But then her health started to decline. I think that’s partly why she isn’t taken more seriously as a literary figure. Caroline never advertised herself as a great novelist, but when she could get close to leading a literary life, she did. She enjoyed getting to know literary people and moving in those circles.

    What can you tell us about the final years of Caroline’s life?

    Throughout her affairs, Caroline’s husband maintained a sort of charm and indolence. It’s unclear whether he had affairs of his own when they were together – it seems he may have held back. It was an interesting dynamic in their relationship, because despite it all I think he really loved her, and always defended her against his mother. But in 1825 the pair formally separated – an event that was sad rather than acrimonious. It wasn’t led by either of them, rather his family insisted – his sister especially agitated for it. Afterwards, he went off to become chief secretary for Ireland.

    Caroline never advertised herself as a great novelist, but when she could get close to leading a literary life, she did. She enjoyed getting to know literary people and moving in those circles

    Caroline died just a few years later, in January 1828. She spent the majority of the final years of her life at Brocket Hall, a beautiful house in Hertfordshire. She loved being on the lake and riding, but it was a very curtailed existence. It’s thought that she had dropsy – possibly as a result of her long use of laudanum. It was a rather unpleasant condition [sufferers of dropsy experience swelling, due to fluid retention, and it can often be a sign of heart failure]. She was just 42 when she died.

    Caroline did many outrageous things in her life. What do you think was the most audacious?

    Well, I think it would probably have to be dressing up as a man to sneak into the House of Commons. Women weren’t allowed in as spectators at the time, and Caroline wanted to hear her husband’s first speech in the house. I think that was pretty brave – it shows her independent spirit.

    How should we look back on Caroline today?

    I think we should look back on her as somebody who should have had more chances at independence, which she was denied as a woman at that time. She was a very bright person with lots of enthusiasm for life who just didn’t have the opportunities. I admire her spirit, her guts. She was like a little pug dog.

    Lady Antonia Fraser is the author of several bestselling history books and historical biographies, and the recipient of a DBE for services to literature. Her latest book is Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2023)

    This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine

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