The love affair between Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron has long fascinated me. I don’t generally read romance novels, but real life love stories interest me, especially those that have disastrous consequences for one or more of the parties. Is that a bit like rubber necking? Maybe, or maybe it’s just an interest in other human beings.
Although she was a novelist in her own right, it is this affair for which Caroline is probably best known, there was even a film made about it. And what an affair it was! Tumultuous, and damaging for her and to her, and not just for her reputation in London Society. And in those days, a lady’s reputation was everything. Make no mistake, the affair, although short-lived (it only lasted from March until August 1812) was scandalous. Caroline never really got over it.
Born the Honorable Caroline Ponsonby, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Henrietta Ponsonby, niece of the Duchess of Devonshire, Caroline acquired the title “Lady” when her father inherited his title. By all accounts, she was a temperamental child, subject to mood swings. Her parents’ marriage was not a happy one which may not have helped with her temperament.
She married William Lamb in 1805, when she was 20, both of them expecting that he would inherit his father’s estate and with it, a title and substantial riches; unfortunately that didn’t materialise in Caroline’s lifetime. William and Caroline’s marriage was a love match, they’d met when she was 16 and married when she was 19. They were happy for a while, but their first child, born after about two years of marriage, a boy, Augustus, was not fully fit.
It’s difficult to be sure now exactly what the problem was, but it may have been some form of autism, he certainly had learning difficulties. Some writers have said that Augustus was mentally subnormal and suffered from epilepsy (I don’t know, autism and being mentally subnormal seem worlds apart to me). In those days, the stigma attached to a child like this would have been immense, but Caroline and William decided that they would look after him at home, rather than “put him away” somewhere in the country, as was the common practice at the time. Even though William was deeply embarrassed by his son, he lived at home until he died, several years after the death of his mother. However, there is no doubt that looking after a child with a severe disability would have put an immense strain on their marriage. It would be difficult today, but back then…
Two years after the birth of her son, Caroline was pregnant again, and this time gave birth to a daughter, but sadly, she died shortly after birth. Caroline took a long time to recover from both pregnancies, physically, and probably emotionally too. This must have added to the strain already on Caroline and William’s marriage, particularly as William was said to be quite promiscuous. He doesn’t sound like the kind of man who would have been too tolerant of either his wife’s lack of desire or physical inability to satisfy his needs and no doubt started to seek solace elsewhere. It isn’t fair to blame the marital difficulties all on Caroline though. William was a politician, a profession that has its own set of challenges, and there was their son’s health. All of these things would have conspired against all but the very strongest of marriages. Having said all that, there are commentators who say that William overindulged his wife, forgiving her affairs to often when he should have administered corporal punishment (wives were just chattels in those days, remember).
It rather seems that whatever else they did (or whoever else they did), Caroline and William truly did love each other all their lives. Perhaps another factor in their marital difficulties were William’s eclectic sexual tastes. Caroline was never explicit, at least not in writing, as to what William demanded or desired, but she initially felt it was wicked, but that over time, she had come to lack morality as much as he had. We can only guess at what these things were, but they certainly had an impact on Caroline over time. I suppose all of us would be changed in some way, and who knows how until we are in that position? Maybe this background helps to explain the effect Byron had on Caroline, and she on him. Byron’s club foot doesn’t seem to have stopped his attraction to women, may have felt inferior in some way and was quite insecure. However, he does seem to me to be the archetypical womaniser: it was all about the chase and once the prey was caught, he tended to lose interest.
Caroline was 27 when she met Byron, he was 24. She had been lent his poem Childe Harold and, having read it, was determined to meet him. I guess that was the writer in her, wanting to meet a hero. It was she who pursued him at the start, although the tables soon turned, and he wanted her to admit that she loved him more than she loved her husband, something she was reluctant to do. He even planned to run off with her at one point. And then he lost interest. Byron wrote to Caroline to tell her their relationship was over, which, in my opinion, is cowardly, even if he knew how she would react.
Caroline did not handle the split well. She bordered on insanity, and even visited his home on her own, which was unthinkable in those days. They met at a ball and she made a public scene, which was just about the final straw. Caroline’s reputation was in shatters and she was shunned by London society. As her behaviour became more and more erratic and unpredictable, William threatened to send her to Ireland. Despite everything, she published her first novel, Glenarvon. Although it was published anonymously, everyone knew it was written by Caroline, which just added fuel to the already well stocked fire, and it seemed that she would never regain her place in society. Apart from a few friends she was an outcast.
When she learned of Byron’s death in April 1824 she became hysterical. She met his funeral procession by accident and collapsed when she found out it was his. Her mood swings became even more erratic and she started to use laudanum and brandy. She had never been a big woman so the lack of structure in her life and abuse of drugs and alcohol started to take its toll. By October 1827, she was seriously ill with dropsy (we would call this oedema nowadays). She died in January 1828, at the age of 42, less than four years after Byron. William never married again. Did the affair with Byron and the way he treated her accelerate her death? Doubtless, although I suspect if it hadn’t been him it would have been someone else.
Caroline seems to have had a different take on the world from most people. I’m sure she’d have been better suited to life nowadays where she could have been her own woman and thrown herself into some good cause or other, to take her mind off of that Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know man.
© Susan Shirley 2016