Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lady Caroline Lamb: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know?

Caroline Ponsonby Lamb, lady Lamb (died 25 January 1828)

The premiere of Victoria on PBS has introduced American TV viewers to a swoon-worthy version of William Lamb, lord Melbourne--"Lord M.," as the young Victoria calls him—though I don't recall his name being used in the series.

Thomas Lawrence's 1805 portrait of
Lady Caroline Lamb
There are also several allusions to an unnamed wife who disgraced Melbourne--mad, bad, and, for him at any rate (at least according to this TV drama), dangerous. Her scandalous behavior and death have devastated him.

And so it's worth a post here on the infamous Lady Caroline Lamb--whose reputation for unhinged behavior, addiction to laudanum, and "erotomania," among a myriad other weaknesses, failings, and crimes, is almost always a part of her biography. Her notorious affair with Byron is probably the most well known aspect of her life. (And it is Caroline Lamb who described Byron, unforgettably, as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know.")

There have been many accounts of her life, not a few of them content to exploit the drama and the woman. As biographer and critic Paul Douglass writes, 
Most biographers have shared Byron’s frustration at Lady Caroline’s failure to conform to the feminine role of her era. They have not hesitated to prescribe a "sharp slap judiciously administered" (thus, Dorothy Marshall in Lord Melbourne [1975)) [sic], or even an out-and-out beating — as recommended by Henry Blyth in Caro: The Fatal Passion (1972).
Most of Lamb's biographers have not been sympathetic; they demonstrate an "obsession with her drunkenness, temper tantrums and crockery-smashing." (As if those negative qualities were exclusive to her!)

There's plenty about Lamb out there--biographies, quickie "non-fiction" about her affair with Byron, novels, even a film, not to mention all the biographies of Lord Melbourne, and a book or two about their marriage. (For Douglass's extensive bibliography of Caroline Lamb, click here.)

My goal in this brief post isn't to attempt a restoration of Caroline Lamb's image. But I do want to note that, aside from her relationship to men--her father, her husband, her disabled son, her lovers--she was herself a writer. Her first novel, a roman à clef, is Glenarvon, published in 1816. Although Glenarvon was wildly popular for its thinly disguised story, it contains a great deal of political and social commentary. 

Two additional novels followed: Graham Hamilton (1822), and Ada Reis (1823). (A third work, Penruddock, was also published, although no copies of this last work are known to survive.) Her novels are generally described as "gothic melodramas"--again, as if that were a bad thing! (Think of The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho!!! Reading these novels got me through my study for my Ph.D. exams--why read Dickens when I could be reading Ann Radcliffe?)

In addition, Lamb mimicked Byron's wildly popular Don Juan by publishing A New Canto in 1819, followed, in 1821, by Gordon: A Tale. A Poetical Review of Don Juan, described in the preface as "partly a burlesque parody on the style of Don Juan; partly a sacrifice of praise offered at the shrine of talent, and partly arguments proving its immoral tendency."

Finally, there are also her commonplace books and correspondence.

A 1995 Everyman's edition of Glenarvon (ed. Frances Wilson) is out of print, but copies are available. All of Lamb's fiction is accessible for free, however, at a variety of sites and in several different ways: Kindle editions, Google Books, and the Internet Archive.

An edited collection of Lamb's letters is in print: The Whole Disgraceful Truth: Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb, edited by Paul Douglass. 

You can explore A New Canto online in an edition by Peter Cochran--to access it, click here.

And while I recommend Paul Douglass's wonderful (and sympathetic) biography of Lamb, his website--Caro: The Lady Caroline Lamb Website--is superb and includes incredible biographical essays, analyses of her literary works, the extensive bibliography I noted above, and many more resources.

(By the way, Caroline Lamb's husband, "Lord M," was involved in sex scandals of his own. As the British historian Boyd Hilton notes, "it is irrefutable that Melbourne's personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity." Melbourne was also accused of "criminal conversation" with Lady Caroline Norton, about whom I have written in this blog. In this instance, he was the victim of blackmail--but the nine-day trial nearly brought down the British government. Maybe he was as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as his wife--but, as usual, double standard and all . . .)

Update, 28 May 2023: In what she admits may be her last book (this book represents “the culmination of an exciting and fulfilling life spent studying History”),  Antonia Fraser has published a new biography, Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit.