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LADY CAROLINE LAMB

Lady Caroline Ponsonby features prominently in my first book, 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling'. Amy is sent from the Foundling Hospital to work the household of her mother Lady Bessborough, and she eventually becomes her personal maid. Amy witnesses first-hand Lady Caroline's volatile behaviour and violent temper tantrums which increase in severity as she becomes older, especially after her marriage to William Lamb.

Lady Caroline Lamb
Lady Caroline Lamb

She was born in 1785 to parents Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Harriet Ponsonby, née S Spencer. She was their third child and only daughter, her two elder brothers being John, Lord Duncannon, Freddy Ponsonby, and her younger brother Willy Ponsonby.

In 1791, she travelled to France, and then Italy with her mother Harriet, who was accompanying her sister Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She had been sent to France by her husband, the Duke, after he discovered that she was pregnant by her lover Charles Grey, and it wasn't until 1793 that Lady Caroline returned to England again with her mother.

From a very young age, Lady Caroline suffered behavioural problems and violent temper tantrums that could only be controlled by giving her doses of laudanum, after a succession of nurses and governesses failed to control her behaviour. This caused her mother enormous amounts of stress which led to her suffering from various physical ailments and ill-health, culminating in her having a mild stroke followed by a year of paralysis.

Lady Caroline met William Lamb when she was only 15, fell madly in love with him, and wanted to marry him, but her mother told her she was too young to marry and that she should wait.

Lady Caroline Lamb
Lady Caroline around the time of her marriage in 1805

William Lamb was the second son of the formidable Lady Melbourne, a society hostess and Whig supporter who had earmarked him for a career in politics. It seemed, at first, that a marriage to the daughter of Whig grandee Lord Bessborough would benefit his political career, but Lady Melbourne was sceptical, as she had heard rumours of Lady Caroline's mental instability and her temper tantrums, which didn't bode well for anyone wanting to enter politics.

Lady Caroline married William Lamb in 1805
William Lamb, later 2nd Lord Melbourne

Lady Melbourne and Lady Bessborough also disliked each other, so both mothers were against the match, but the couple managed to persuade them that they were in love, and they were married in June 1805 at Cavendish Square, the Bessborough's London residence.

Shortly before their marriage, William's older brother, Peniston died, leaving him Lord Melbourne's heir, but it was well known to Lord Melbourne, and all society, that William was not his son. He was result of an affair between Lady Melbourne and her long-term lover Lord Egremont, and Lord Melbourne refused to acknowledge him as his heir, only paying him a fraction of the annuity that he had allowed Peniston. This meant that William and Lady Caroline couldn't afford a residence of their own and had to live at Melbourne House under the same roof as the domineering Lady Melbourne.

There were cracks in their marriage from the start, not helped by the fact that Lady Melbourne and William's siblings disliked her and did all they could to exclude her from their tightly knit family group.

Lady Caroline was desperate to have children and she became pregnant shortly after her marriage, but she went into premature labour at six-months and gave birth in January 1806 to a short-lived daughter. In August 1807 she had her son Augustus who lived and thrived, but he had learning difficulties and would suffer from epileptic seizures throughout his life. In 1809, she gave birth prematurely to another short-lived daughter, and this time she suffered a mental breakdown which took her a year to recover from.

The Lamb's relationship was all but over by this stage, and William immersed herself into his political career after being elected as an MP, leaving Lady Caroline to recover from her various illnesses at Brocket Hall, the Melbourne's country estate in Hertfordshire.

Lady Caroline Lamb
Lady Caroline after she had recovered from the death of her daughter in 1809

Bored and neglected by her husband, she started an affair with Godfrey Vassal Webster, the son of her friend Lady Holland from her first marriage. Lady Caroline, instead of being discreet, publicly bragged about the fact that her and Webster were lovers and openly flaunted the affair before her husband, who did little to stop her.

Lady Melbourne was utterly outraged, and even though she'd had numerous lovers herself, she had always been discreet and had kept everything behind closed doors, so she was disgusted with her daughter-in-law's conduct. She forced William to threaten her with divorce and to take Augustus away from her if she didn't end her affair with Webster, so she backed down and promised to end the affair. Then she went back on her word, it carried on, and only ended when Webster was sent with his regiment to Spain to fight in Wellesley's army.

Lady Caroline then took up writing, and befriended the publisher John Murray who knew Lord Byron well and had just published his work 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage'. She read his work and engineered a meeting with him at Lady Westmoreland's house in Berkley Square. The two then started an affair in March 1812, but he was unable to stay faithful to any woman for any length of time and he soon tired of her. He ended the affair in the August of 1812 and immediately started another with Lady Oxford.

Lady Caroline carried on an affair with Lord Byron in 1812.
Lord Byron

This only aggravated Lady Caroline's already fragile mental state, and refusing to accept the affair was over, she took to pursuing and stalking Byron, until she was persuaded by her mother Lady Bessborough to spend some time on the Bessborough's estates in Ireland. She spent a year there, but she never got over Byron and he would remain a life-long obsession with her. When she returned to London the following year, she encountered Byron at a party, where she tried to slash her wrists with a small fruit knife, in front of him and the other guests, only ostracising herself further away from society.

Not only was she seen as mentally unhinged, but she had started to drink heavily, and she buried herself away at Brocket Hall where, in 1816, she took her revenge on Byron, her in-laws, and the friends who had abandoned her by publishing a novel 'Glenarvon', in which they were satirised and ridiculed. This pushed her further away from the 'haute ton', and her sister-in-law Lady Cowper, who utterly despised her, cancelled her tickets for Almack's, the exclusive ballroom in Kings Street, St James's.

Brocket Hall, the Melbourne's country estate in Hertfordshire
Brocket Hall, where Lady Caroline spent her final years

She spent most of her time at Brocket Hall, and never attempted a London season again. She wrote three more novels that were published by John Murray, but the stories were convoluted, exaggerated, and mirrored her own mental state, so they sold badly and received poor reviews.

Lady Melbourne never gave up her quest to get William to divorce her, but he stuck doggedly by her as her health had started to deteriorate. He had resigned himself to his fate and had fallen into a set pattern whereby Lady Caroline completely dominated him.

In 1825, with their marriage now over, William left for Ireland without her, as he had been appointed Chief Secretary there. By this time, she was very sick both physically and mentally, her constitution worn down by her alcohol and laudanum addiction, and she passed away in 1828.

Lord Melbourne died three months later, and William became 2nd Viscount Melbourne. His political career soon took off and he was appointed Home Secretary in 1830, then became Prime Minister in 1834. He was the young Queen Victoria's first PM, and he acted as her mentor and father figure to her up until her marriage in 1841. He died in 1848 at Brocket Hall. The Lamb's son, Augustus, lived all his life at Brocket Hall in a childlike state, and died aged 29 in 1836.


Sources: 'An Aristocratic Affair: The Life of Harriet Spencer -Countess of Bessborough' by Janet Gleeson

'Lady Caroline Lamb: That Infernal Woman' by Susan Normington

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