Lady Caroline Lamb – born on this day in 1785 – is a fascinating character. Ostensibly known as one of Lord Byron’s lovers (and the first documented stalker), she was also an accomplished writer and a fiercely independent woman at a time when women were meant to be anything but. Lady Caroline is also an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, which is interesting given the eventual tragic fate of both women.
Caroline married her husband, William Melbourne (who would later be Prime Minister) at the age of 17. Initially, their marriage was apparently a happy one. However, this did not last. William had political ambitions and the more time he spent on them, the less time he had for Caroline. Caroline also gave birth to a son who had severe mental problems. The couple chose to care for him at home, despite the aristocratic convention of the time being to ship any children born with a “defect” off to an institution for the rest of their lives. The care of their son also put a strain on their marriage and forced a wedge between Caroline and William.
Enter Lord Byron.
When Caroline met Byron in 1812, she was 26, he was 24. He had just published Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage and was the toast of London society.Despite the fact that Byron engaged in affairs with numerous ladies – both married and unmarried – Caroline was very much his equal. It was she who coined the famous phrase about Lord Byron when she called him, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” She said this after their first meeting when she ignored his advances. Of course, as was typical with Byron, this only made him pursue her more.
Byron described Caroline as “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.” Their affair was fiercely passionate – and short. After four months, Byron broke it off. Despite William’s family urging him to divorce Caroline, he was fiercely loyal to his wife and took her away to Ireland to try to escape the scandal. Caroline and Byron continued to correspond during her time in Ireland but, upon her return to England, Byron ended things for good. If he thought he was going to cast Caroline aside as he had so many others, however, he was mistaken. In what many call the first recorded case of “staking”, Caroline spent the next four years pursuing Byron.
In a sign of the times, she was diagnosed with “erotomania”—dementia caused by obsession for a man. She lost weight and Byron remarked that he was being “haunted by a skeleton”. In 1816 – just weeks after Byron’s departure from England – Lamb anonymously published the novel Glenarvon. It featured a thinly disguised main character based on Byron who betrays his own country. Lamb not only painted an unflattering portrait of Byron but of many other prominent members of London society also. This was the final straw. She was completely ostracised from high society.
There are two things which seem to set Caroline apart from her (female) contemporaries, both of which would lead to her downfall. She hated the aristocratic maxim that anything was permissible as long as one was discreet, and her unwillingness to hide her indiscretions led to her eventual ostracisation from high society. The other was her unwillingness – as this website dedicated to her puts it – to “crawl away and suffer silently as married women did when their lovers jilted them.” By all accounts, she was a fiercely independent woman and – instead of the crazed, jilted “other woman” that many biographers have painted her – she would seem to be a shining example for any woman. It would seem Byron was right when he said she “ought to have lived 2000 years ago” – in fact, she ought to have lived 200 years hence and would have been a force to be reckoned with.
Caroline’s final years were unhappy (no doubt partly due to her obsession with Byron). She and William separated in 1825. Her struggle with mental instability increased, complicated by her abuse of alcohol and laudanum. She died on 25 January 1828 with the ever-faithful William by her side.
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