Glenarvon is Lady Caroline Lamb’s first novel. When it appeared in May 1816 it created a scandal because it appeared to be a kiss-and-tell (or as Byron crudely put it, a “— and publish”) account of her affair with him in 1812 (Byron's Letters and Journals 5:85). The characters are drawn from Lady Caroline Lamb’s social circle, the pinnacle of British Society during the “Regency” (1811-1820), when George III was declared incompetent to rule and the Prince of Wales acted the King’s role as Regent. Glenarvon is set, however, during the brutally suppressed Irish Rebellion of 1798, and it strikes anti-establishment political notes.
Glenarvon’s protagonist, Lady Calantha, is intended to marry her cousin William, handsome son of Calantha’s aunt, Lady Margaret. Calantha and William grow up together while Lady Margaret lives a dissipated life in Naples. When Calantha’s guardian, the Duchess of Altamonte, unexpectedly conceives another child, Lady Margaret rushes home accompanied by her lover, Count Viviani. As she fears, the Duchess gives birth to a male heir, the infant Marquis of Delaval, who will now inherit the Altamonte estate. Calantha has lost her prospects, and so have William and his mother. Lady Margaret manipulates Count Viviani into arranging for the murder of the infant Marquis. The child is strangled in its crib, and the Duchess of Altamonte dies of grief. Disgusted by her own treachery, Lady Margaret sends Viviani away. To Lady Margaret’s frustration, William rebels, saying he will attend university and not marry.
Calantha marries Henry, Earl of Avondale, a handsome but unreligious man who commands a regiment of English troops in Ireland. Calantha and Henry adore each other, but he unintentionally corrupts her by mocking her prudishness and encouraging her to read and socialize. She falls into the clutches of Glenarvon, an Irish rebel leader whose ancestors fought at Culloden. Charismatic Glenarvon has ruined many women. He loves Calantha, but after numerous plans of elopement, expressions of regret, and declarations of undying love, he abandons her like the rest. Calantha dies of grief, and Lord Avondale duels Glenarvon, who wounds him and disappears. Count Viviani suddenly returns to accuse Lady Margaret of killing the infant Marquis. We learn that Glenarvon and Viviani are the same person, and that the child was not murdered after all. Lord Avondale dies of a broken heart.
In the novel’s final scenes, Glenarvon betrays Ireland, abdicating his leadership of the Independence movement and taking a commission on a British warship. On shipboard he is tormented by spectral visions of the women he has destroyed. A monstrous hooded monk whose body is “gored with deadly wounds” curses him, saying “Hell awaits its victim”(Glenarvon3:318-19). Glenarvon goes mad and flings himself into the water. His shipmates rescue him, but he dies on the deck and is presumably damned.
Lady Caroline was socially ostracized for this gothic melodrama because of its London scenes satirizing her friends. As scholar John Clubbe has said, Glenarvon captured her aristocratically privileged, politically liberal, and morally hypocritical milieu perfectly (see John Clubbe, “Glenarvon Revised--and Revisited,” Wordsworth Circle 10 (1979)). The novel was reprinted a dozen times in the nineteenth century, appearing in the 1860s as The Fatal Passion, but disappeared thereafter until it was republished in 1995 under the editorship of Frances Wilson by J.M. Dent. It has often been called “hysterical,” and incoherent, but is now receiving more serious attention as a work of early feminism, like Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806).
The book sold out immediately and went into multiple reprintings. Lady Caroline made significant revisions in the second edition, adding a ten page preface and altering characterizations of the major figures in her cast. As John Clubbe has shown, she also tightened her writing, corrected numerous spelling and typographical errors, and sought to soften the sensationalist aspects of her Gothic tale (see John Clubbe "Glenarvon Revised--and Revisited.” Wordsworth Circle 10 (1979):205-17).
Augustan Review 3 (Oct. 1816), 350-54.
British Critic New Series v.5 (June 1816), 627-33.
British Lady's Magazine 4 (Aug. 1816), 101-03.
Monthly Review 80 (June 1816), 217-18.
New Monthly Magazine 5 (June 1816), 443-44.
Scourge and Satirist 12 (Sept. 1816), 228-35.
Theatrical Inquisitor 9 (Aug. 1816), 122-25.