Lady Caroline Lamb was born Caroline Ponsonby on November 13, 1785, in London. She was the daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon, and his attractive wife, Henrietta Elizabeth, whose sister was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana and Henrietta were both “Spencer Girls,” which makes them the ancestors of Princess Diana.
When Lord Duncannon inherited his father’s title and became Earl Bessborough, Caroline received the honorific title of “Lady,” which she kept until she died. She was a member of the very highest of the immensely privileged aristocratic class. She knew the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent, still later George IV). She was presented to Marie Antoinette and to the queen of Italy. As a child she told Edward Gibbon (the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) that his face was so ugly it had frightened her puppy. Thus began the reputation for outrageous behaviour which followed Caroline throughout life. Headstrong and egalitarian in her social and political views, she was unfortunately handicapped by her wealth, as her friend Lady Morgan later commented. Caroline was born with no title. She acquired her title upon her father’s becoming Earl of Bessborough in 1793. When a Lady marries a commoner, she uses his family name. Thus, Lady Caroline later married William Lamb and became Lady Caroline Lamb. Lamb later inherited the title of Lord Melbourne, but not until after his wife had died, otherwise we would speak of “Lady Melbourne” rather than Lady Caroline Lamb.
Little Caroline had hair that was reddish-blond. She had delicate features, excellent teeth, and freckles across her cheeks and nose. By age four she could draw a map of England freehand and had begun to read. At five she spoke some French and Italian, and at six she began to study music. At six and a half Caroline could speak French “very tolerably” (according to her father) and play a tune on the harpsichord. By the time she was seven she had begun to read French and Italian. She was lithe, well-coordinated, and even athletic. Yet, despite her accomplishments, Caroline seemed infantile and elfin. She lisped, and her pronunciation was influenced by her Aunt Georgiana’s household—a nasal drawl seasoned with baby talk. If she had been born two centuries later, she would have been sent to speech therapy.
Natural childhood desire for attention was exacerbated into adult neurosis when Caroline’s mother fell seriously ill with blood spitting and spasms. The seven year old girl reacted badly to this and to the deaths of a young boy and her grandmother’s beloved dog while in Italy, and worse when her mother fell in love with Granville Leveson Gower, a handsome young officer. She endured harsh punishment by her tutors for misbehaviour, but extreme permissiveness at the hands of her mother and grandmother. A fever almost killed her at this time. Caroline developed such nervous and fretful behaviour that in adolescence she was sometimes sequestered with a trusted governess. Nonetheless she had a traditional coming out in Paris in 1802, shortly after the signing of the ill-fated Treaty of Amiens. Though she avoided being shunted into a familial backwater, it was a near thing.
Caroline became infatuated with William Lamb, second son of Lord and Lady Melbourne. They married in 1805, despite her mother’s and grandmother’s misgivings. After two hard miscarriages Caroline produced an apparently healthy boy, Augustus, who unfortunately soon showed symptoms of epilepsy and retardation. She and William loved their child and each other, but they often fought. He was an atheist who pronounced himself not a pillar of the church, but a buttress who supported it “from the outside” for the sake of domestic stability. Lady Caroline’s naïve piety took a beating, and she began to ape the fashionable ennui of her class. Her morals eroded, and she had a love affair with the notorious Sir Godfrey Vassal Webster—got caught, and embarrassed her mother-in-law by confessing to William, who forgave her.
In March 1812 Caroline read an advance copy of Lord Byron’s newly published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, wrote to him, and began a very public affair which nearly resulted in an elopement in August. Lady Bessborough collapsed, but she and Lord Bessborough dragged their daughter off to the family estates in Ireland to forestall further bad behaviour. Caroline still believed Byron would run off with her. She had at this time a sharper understanding of the hypocrisy of Britain’s liberal “Whig” culture than he, and she was prepared to leave England permanently. Byron would do so eventually, but not yet. He wrote her a letter intended finally to “snap the knot,” and Caroline suffered a nervous breakdown. She celebrated Christmas 1812 by lighting a bonfire and tossing replicas of Byron’s gifts and letters onto it while local children recited her poem comparing Byron to Guy Fawkes.
After this bitter break-up, she began a novel manuscript and formed friendships with people close to Byron, like his publisher, John Murray, and Isaac Nathan, the young Jew with whom Byron was writing “Hebrew Melodies.” Byron married one of William Lamb’s cousins, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and when their marriage foundered, Caroline felt divided. She defended Byron against public humiliation (he was accused of abuse and sodomy), and yet tried to protect Lady Byron from losing custody of her child. William’s family made a concerted effort to bring about a separation and wrest custody of Augustus from Caroline. To her credit (and William’s), Caroline had kept Augustus in the household, giving him every chance to develop normally, despite his frequent grand mal seizures.
In summer 1816, just after Byron departed England forever, Caroline published her novel, Glenarvon, loosely based on her affair with Byron. It was set in Ireland and took as its background the bloody repression of the Irish uprising of 1798. It also satirized a number of familiar London households. The book hit like a bombshell. She was “cut” and shunned by virtually everyone. Her in-laws found a doctor who diagnosed Caroline as “insane.” Under extreme pressure, William came close to a separation, then demurred. It seems clear now that he supported his wife’s writing. Caroline struggled on for the next eight years, in and out of hot water with her relatives. She published two satires of Byron’s Don Juan: A New Canto (1819) and Gordon: A Tale (1821). She wrote two more novels. Graham Hamilton (1822) tells the story of a young man who sacrifices his moral code and ends an outcast who emigrates to America. Her last novel, Ada Reis (1823) is a phantasmagoria of witchcraft and wizardry in which the title character makes a deal with satanic forces and pays the ultimate price. Set in climes as disparate as Italy and Peru, the novel ends in hell, where sinners have been given one last chance at redemption but are too crime-besotted to save themselves. Lady Caroline also wrote song lyrics which were set to music and sold by Isaac Nathan.
The news of Byron’s death in 1824 crushed Caroline. She accidentally encountered his funeral procession as it passed through the neighbourhood of Welwyn, near Brocket Hall and the Melbourne family estates. Worse, she read for the first time a poem Byron had written years before in frustration at her antics that cursed her with “remorse and shame.” Though she exaggerated the impact of these events upon her psyche, the record shows that she produced no significant writing after this date. She worked at a wide variety of novel projects and even published a women’s pocket-diary—a sort of calendar and receipt-book rolled together with inspirational quotations from famous writers. She also formed literary friendships with William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley), the Italian novelist Ugo Foscolo, and several liberal (or “Bluestocking”) writers like Lady Morgan and Amelia Opie.
Caroline’s husband finally agreed to a separation from her, then reneged again, allowing her to return to live quietly at Brocket Hall, her favourite place. Her health had declined under the abuse of alcohol and laudanum (liquid opium). She began to retain water as her internal organs gradually deteriorated. By 1827, she was an invalid under the care of a full-time physician. William had been given the post of Secretary for Ireland, and was away when she entered her final days. He made a perilous crossing of the channel and was at her side when she expired on January 25, 1828. William, who had stuck with her in spite of everything, wrote that he felt “a sort of impossibility of believing that I shall never see her countenance or hear her voice again” (see Philip Ziegler, Melbourne: A Biography 105). She died before William’s father, and therefore never became “Lady Melbourne,” nor saw him rise to become Prime Minister under Queen Victoria. Her son Augustus lived a full life, despite his handicaps. In November 1836, William (now Lord Melbourne) was engaged in paperwork at his desk while twenty-nine-year-old Augustus lay upon the sofa nearby. He had appeared to be asleep, but suddenly spoke in a quiet voice to his father: “I wish you would give me some franks [postage stamps] that I may write and thank people who have been kind in their inquiries.” In a few hours he was dead. William died in 1848.