Every era seems to have women that generate intrigue and provoke gossip They’ve been queens, actresses, writers, mistresses and recently internet stars. Just the period prior to the Regency had Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, and Mary Wolstonecraft, just to name a few. These woman lived their lives by their own rules, which most of the time were contrary to the norms of society, making them the target of ridicule and criticism.
In the Regency period, other than maybe Empress Josephine (known for her scandalous dresses) the title of infamous “It” girl would certainly go to Caroline “Caro” Lamb. Born into royalty, she was the only daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, an Anglo-Irish peer, and his wife Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough. She was also the niece of one of the most talked about woman of the time, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.
As a small child, she was in such delicate health due to a bout of worms that it nearly ended her life. After recovering, she and her mother returned to England, where Caroline spent much time with the children of Lady Georgiana and Lady Elizabeth Foster, mistress to the Duke of Devonshire. As she matured, her behavior became increasingly erratic. She endured harsh treatment from her tutors, then extreme permissiveness by her mother and grandmother. She witnessed their contradictory behavior in which they decree to be religious, but then conducted extramarital affairs. This led to neurotic and fretful behavior. To control her behavior, her family resorted to everything from sedatives to laudanum to a special governess to control her.
Caroline had immense talent. At first educated at home, she was later sent to a school in Knightsbridge, London at about 11 years old. The school, formerly known as the Reading Abbey Girls School, was attended by Jane and Cassandra Austen years earlier. Here under the tutelage of Frances Rowden, a published poet herself, she schooled Caroline in writing prose and poetry. Caroline also developed skills in sketching portraiture, along with the usual lady’s accomplishments such as French, Italian, Greek, Latin, music and drama.
She married William Lamb, son of Lord and Lady Melbourne in 1805, despite her family’s objection. After two miscarriages, she gave birth to Augustus, who had epilepsy and mental retardation. When her marriage to William began to break down from all the stresses, she had an affair, but was forgiven by William.
What sent Caroline into the gossip stratosphere was her second affair with George Gordon, Lord Byron. In March 1812, she met Byron at Holland House. She attracted his attention immediately. The relationship started out platonic, but in a very short time, turned sexual. They declared their love for one another, Byron giving her the nickname “Caro” and praising her as “the cleverest, most agreeable, absurd, perplexing, dangerously fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.”
Caroline did not try and hide the affair. She wanted everyone to know she had snared the most talked-about man in London society. They eventually staged a mock marriage which included exchanging wedding rings. Everyone expected an elopement, including Caroline’s mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, who pleaded with Caroline not to disgrace her son. Her husband just ignored things, the situation too painful for him to acknowledge.
But inevitably, the relationship began to crack, mostly because of their conflicting personalities. The fighting became furious. She accused him of calling her horrible names. He said he would “wring her obstinate little neck.” It was around this time the Byron witnessed the execution of John Bellingham, who murdered Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, and he was profoundly disturbed by it. It was said that after this, Byron feared the ever-present possibility of disgrace, even execution. It was at this time he chose to end the affair. He wrote to her, telling her “this delirium of the last two months must be finished.”
Caroline would not accept this, saying “I will endeavor by all possible means to avoid a return of anything painful between us.” She became obsessed, sending him her hair covered in blood, and dressing like a man so she could get into his hotel rooms. Her family attempted to force her to go to Ireland to get her away from Bryon, but she got out of the trip by faking a pregnancy. She was at last forced by her family to leave England. She continued to write to Bryon, professing her love. He ignored her correspondence, courting his future wife Annabelle Milbanke, and had other affairs, which Caroline heard about from friends and family.
On returning to England, Caroline was so ill she had to be bled. It was then things came to a head, when Caroline began confronting Bryon in public. At a ball given by Lady Heathcote, an altercation ensued. Caroline grabbed a knife and made as if she would stab herself, only for Byron to respond, “do, my dear, but if you mean to act the Roman’s part, mind which way you strike with your own knife since you have struck there already.” She had to be disarmed, cut and bloodied.
Caroline’s final act of revenge was the writing of a novel called “Glenarvon,” chronicling the relationship. After trying to publish the novel for several years, it was finally out in 1816, and as everything Caroline did, it caused a sensation and was a bestseller. Set in the Irish rebellion of 1798, the book satirized the Whig Holland House circle. Its rakish title character was, of course, Lord Glenarvon, which was an unflattering depiction of Byron.
The book may have gotten Caroline some mark of revenge, but it put a nail in the coffin of her society career. She was barred from “good” society after that, and was not allowed in such places of Almacks, having been told by Lady Jersey she could not return. Caroline died in 1828 from dropsy, caused by her laudanum and alcohol abuse.
Of course, the above is a short version of Caroline’s life. There was more to Caroline than this, just like there was more to all the scandalous women of her time, and women of times before and after. They were, and are, mothers and friends and creative forces in their own right, and most importantly, human beings that suffer strife and difficulty, as we all do. They just suffered it in a very public way, which should invoke sympathy not criticism and vitriol.
I am sure Jane Austen knew of Caroline Lamb, but I could find no evidence of it, let’s say, in her letters Had she read “Glenarvon?” We will never know. But I think Austen would have understood Caroline’s plight. Years before, she had created Marianne Dashwood, a woman so obsessed with a man she nearly dies. Thankfully, Marianne is redeemed in the end, unlike Caroline Lamb, and many others in the real world. I guess that is the beauty of fiction. In it, you can make right what is wrong. Austen wrote a happy ending from obsessive love that Caroline Lamb never got. Had Caroline read “Sense and Sensibility?” One can only hope. In it, she would find the ending she craved, if only vicariously.