Caroline Lamb has been remembered by history, thanks to her relationship status. Rather than the several books she published, it’s her tumultuous (to say the least) time as mistress to Lord Byron that has cemented her place in history.
Countless books and academic papers on Byron inevitably bring up Caroline Lamb. The spectre of the ex nobody wants; unhinged,obsessed, stalker-ish and prone to send bloody locks of pubic hair as romantic favours.
But is this fair? Who actually was Caroline Lamb and does she really deserve the title of history’s ultimate ‘crazy ex’? Lets find out…
Caroline didn’t have a great childhood. Her parents were Henriette (Harriet) Spencer and Frederick Ponsonby and believe me when I say, these two had a wildly unhappy marriage.
This of course had a huge impact on Caroline, namely because her parents were way to busy arguing and having affairs to actually parent.
This led to Caroline developing some major behaviour issues, with her screaming fits and tantrums soon becoming part daily life.
When she was 9, Caroline’s parents shipped her off to live with Harriet’s sister, Georgiana Devonshire (her off of that Kiera Knightly film) and once more everyone failed to parent the, by now, ireprobally out of control, Caroline.
They tried medicating her with laudanum (a highly addictive pain killer), isolating her from the family and shipping her off to boarding school, but nothing worked; possibly because drugging kids up and ignoring them isn’t known to be a great parenting method.
By this point the family were sick of Caroline; something the now young teen was very aware of. Though she tried, she couldn’t make herself ‘better’ nor make her family love her, writing:
Eventually, a doctor was bought in. He advised that Caroline was far to delicate to be stuck in a stressful school environment. And so Caroline’s formal education was stopped.
Caroline was now living every child’s dream: no school, no discipline and essentially complete control over what she did.
There’s no doubt this was awesome…at least until she grew up to become an adult who was almost entirely illiterate in some areas and had no concept of boundaries or life experience!
But there was at least one thing in Carolines life setting some form of moral code: GOD
Left to her own devices, Caroline had become absolutely fanatical; she devoured the bible, turning to God and religion as her only sources of sanctuary and wisdom, which is great when you have other outlets and relationships, but for Caroline it led to a really unhealthy dependency on her religious beliefs.
BUT bar the religious ferver, Caroline had grown up to be pretty cool – well, at least on the surface.
She was stunning, in an elf like way, rode horses bareback and despite her patchy education was super smart. She even started re-educating herself, studying Latin, Greek and discovering an unparalleled flare for literacy.
Naturally, as such a catch, Caroline was immediately married off and in 1805, at just 20 years old, she married family friend, William Lamb.
William and Caroline were good together. He was sweet, kind and patient. Finally after so many years lost and alone, it looked like Caroline was getting her happy ending.
Until the wedding night.
Sex left Caroline traumatised. She was overwhelmed by guilt, absolutely convinced that what she had done was a sin against god.
Caroline entered a constant battle with her sexual urges. Disgusted with herself and plagued with an ill placed religious guilt, she decided she never wanted to have sex again.
Still, 7 months after first sleeping with William, Caroline gave birth to a baby girl.
The baby was stillborn.
It was a tragedy that in no way helped Caroline’s fear that her sexual urges were inherently wrong. And so she sunk into a pit of despair.
In the midst of this, Caroline gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Augustus.
BUT Augustus was born with severe learning difficulties; though Caroline refused to have her son hidden away (as was the norm at the time) she struggled to raise him; his disability just adding to her depression and sense of guilt.
It’s pretty unsurprising that Caroline and Williams relationship was hitting the rocks during all of this.
They had frequent arguments, a desperate Caroline threatening to have an affair in a bid for happiness.
William found this a laughable notion; his wives crippling religious guilt was so much she couldn’t have sex with him, what were the chances with her doing it with someone else, outside of the godly ties of wedlock?
His reaction crushed Caroline, writing:
‘William cares nothing for my morals. I might flirt and go about with whom I pleased.’
Everything had become too much and Caroline broke, in what we might now see as a manic episode.
And so, she cut ties with the religious mania that had consumed her for so long. Deciding the only way she’d find happiness and solve her problems was to find a man and have an affair.
She couldn’t have picked a worse man to do this with…
Caroline had become obsessed with Lord Byron after reading his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
To say Byron had a reputation would be an understatement. He was one of the greatest poets and writers of his era BUT was perhaps more known for his excesses (and subsequent debts) drinking, partying and stacks of affairs.
After their first meeting, Caroline summed him up as:
‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know’
BUT this huge red flag didn’t deter Caroline, who immediately followed up with:
‘That beautiful pale face is my fate’
And so in 1812 the pair started what would become history’s most ill-advised affair.
Though at first, Byron was less into the relationship than Caroline, the more time he spent with her the more fascinated he became, describing her as:
‘the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.’
And with that, the pair embarked on a whirlwind few months.
There was talk of running away together and as Caroline’s barriers start to drop, she even started dressing as a page boy, sneaking into Byron’s rooms for illicit and by all accounts, super X rated, afterhours rendavouxs.
It seemed that her crippling sexual guilt was loosening it’s grip, replaced with a new overwhelming obsession with her boyfriend. But this wasn’t good for her either, as everyday Caroline become more frenzied.
On one famous occasion, Caroline broke the glass she was holding in her hand when she saw Byron speaking to another woman.
Anouther infamous episode was when Caroline sent Byron a lock of her pubic hair, writing in the attached note:
‘I cut the hair too close and bled more than you need’
Kinda understandably, the bloody public hair and accompanying unceasing attention was proving a bit too much for Byron. Not only that, but he’d already starting fancying a new woman anyway. A break up was imminent.
BUT Instead of ending the relationship like a grown up by explaining why things just weren’t working; Byron did what any dickhat would – he made up a string of lies, bought in another women and then fled the scene.
Caroline fell into a deep depression. Oddly it was her, until then, forgotten, husband who offered Caroline a shoulder to cry on.
William Lamb had seen ALL the red flags between Caroline and Byron and expected a nasty implosion, so he’d patiently waited to help his wife pick up the pieces when her affair ended.
This support couldn’t have been more needed, Caroline was in the throes if a full breakdown and it was agreed that she needed space and a break from her life at home. So she went to Ireland to recouperate.
Now when I say Caroline wasn’t doing well, I MEAN IT! The situation was dire. By the time Caroline reached Ireland she was swinging between devastating bouts of depression and wild manic episodes; her bones visibly jutting out from her refusal to eat.
Of course it was now that Byron decided to write to Caroline (I should add, Byron did this despite the small fact that he was already attempting to woo another women into engagement, whilst sleeping with an additional woman on the side-so a great move all round)
Byron wrote passionately with suggestions the pair may met again. This letter was then promptly followed by another that read:
‘I love another…I am no longer yr lover’
Understandably Byron’s letters did a huge number on the already fragile Caroline and any hope of her re-cooperation ended.
She started to self harm and broke into ever more frequent manic episodes.
These episodes pushed Caroline further from reality. During one she even recruited little girls from the local village, dressed them all in white and had them perform whilst she burnt a Lord Byron effigy and threw gifts he had bought Caroline into the fire; all the while she chanted a self composed poem:
‘Burn, fire, burn, while wondering boys exclaim, And gold and trinkets glitter in the flame.
Ah, look not thus on me, so grave, so sad, Shake not your heads, nor say the lady’s mad.
London, farewell; vain world, vain life, adieu! Take the last tears I e’er shall shed for you.
Young tho’ I seem, I leave the world for ever, Never to enter it again; no, never, never!’
Once the embers died down, Caroline sent the girls home before writing down the nights events in a letter to her former lover.
Carolines love had become consumed by anger and she vowed to destroy Byron.
Interestingly it was this that actually allowed Caroline to give the world a chance to see her as more than Byron’s ex lover and as a talented writer in her own right.
In 1816 she published Glenarvon, which was a thinly veiled fictional account of Caroline and Byron’s relationship. This was followed by two critiques of Byron’s work and abuse of his talents AND two more works of fiction, Graham Hamilton (1822) and Ada Reiss (1823).
It’s Caroline’s latter novels that really stand out, not just because of all the transposed fictional Byron digs BUT because she looks at some pretty cool issues. Including (the now timely) topic of how power is achieved, with Caroline delving into whether being ‘well born’ and rich actually qualifies anyone to lead.
In fact, right now Caroline’s novels are enjoying a bit of a literary review, with current academics starting to revisit her work and voice.
However, when Caroline’s work was released, it didn’t get an amazing critical reaction. After all, Glenarvon was pretty much a tell all; an A-Listers ex getting one back and trying to make some cash in the process.
Her books were picked up for the scandalous details, nothing else.
It wasn’t just Caroline’s writing that was taking a nosedive. Her ever faithful husband, William Lamb, had been left devastated by the publication of Glenarvon.
Suddenly his wives fictionalised love affair was immortalised in print, on bookshelves across the country. Heartbroken, William was left alone to pick up the pieces this time; Caroline oblivious to the pain she’d caused.
Now, Believe it or not, things were about to get even worse.
In 1824 Lord Byron died
Caroline was obviously devastated when she heard the news.
This was made worse when one of Byron’s close friends published: ‘Recollection of Lord Byron’ which revealed that her former lover hadn’t mentioned her in his final moments and thought of Caroline as nothing more than one more notch in his bedpost and a terrible wife.
This time Caroline couldn’t turn to William for support. Her husband had had enough; enforcing a legal separation.
Caroline wandered Europe, picking up a string of short lived lovers as she went. She published a book under a sudo-name but it bombed.
Truly, she was alone. By now, Caroline had alienated everyone who’d want to help her. There was no solid mental health system, so as Caroline got sicker, got thinner and fell deeper, there was nowhere to go.
Eventually William took Caroline back, not as his wife, but as a sick friend who desperately needed help.
On her return to London, Caroline was declared ‘insane’. Just like she had been as a child, she was medicated with laudanum. And though she’d been trying since she was a little girl, she didn’t ever ‘get better.’
Caroline Lamb died in 1828, at just 42.
But history, would remember Caroline and her the two loves of her life, long after they were gone.
William Lamb went on to become Prime minster of Britain. Lord Byron would be remembered as one of the greatest poets to ever live. And Caroline? Caroline became a cautionary tale to men, a punchline; history’s best example of the ‘crazy ex girlfriend’.
This was interesting where can I find out more? You can still get copies of Carolines book, personally I’d say Glenarvon is the weakest, but worth a read, with the others all must reads!
There are some great papers you can access on Caroline, including this one around her ‘construction of madness’
Also, worth checking out is Paul Douglass’ biography on Caroline, which looks at why she is been so vilified by history.