Caroline Lamb has been remembered by history thanks to her tenure as mistress to the poet Lord Byron. Rather than the several books she published, it is her love life that remains her legacy. Countless books and academic papers on Byron cite Caroline Lamb as the ultimate "crazy ex": unhinged, obsessed, stalker-ish and prone to sending bloody locks of pubic hair as romantic favors.
But is this fair? Who actually was Caroline Lamb, and does she really deserve the title of history’s ultimate “crazy ex”? Let’s find out…
Caroline didn’t have a great childhood. Her parents were Henriette (Harriet) Spencer and Frederick Ponsonby, and believe me when I say that these two had a wildly unhappy marriage. This had a huge impact on Caroline, namely because her parents were way too busy arguing and having affairs to actually parent her. Consequently, Caroline developed some major behavior issues, with her screaming fits and tantrums soon becoming a part of daily life.
When she was nine, Caroline’s parents shipped her off to live with Harriet’s sister, Georgiana Devonshire (of that Kiera Knightly film), and once more, everyone failed to parent the by now irreparably out of control Caroline.
They tried medicating her with laudanum (a highly addictive painkiller), 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, Caroline's family was sick of her, something the now young teen was very aware of. Though she tried, she couldn’t make herself “better” or make her family love her, writing:
Eventually, a doctor was bought in. He advised that Caroline was far too delicate to be stuck in a stressful school environment, so Caroline’s formal education was stopped.
Caroline was now living every child’s dream: no school, no discipline and 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 Caroline's 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 source 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 fervor, 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 and Greek and discovering an unparalleled flare for literacy.
Naturally, as such a catch, Caroline was immediately married off. 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 traumatized. 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, seven 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. Thus, 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 added to her depression and sense of guilt.
It’s pretty unsurprising that Caroline and William's relationship was hitting the rocks during all of this. They had frequent arguments, with a desperate Caroline threatening to have an affair in a bid for happiness.
William found this a laughable notion, as his wife’s crippling religious guilt was so much she couldn’t have sex with him, so what were the chances with her doing it with someone else, outside of the godly ties of wedlock?
His reaction crushed Caroline, and she wrote:
“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. She cut ties with the religious mania that had consumed her for so long. She decided that the only way she could 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 Pilgrimate." 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."
This huge red flag didn’t deter Caroline, who immediately followed up with:
"THAT BEAUTIFUL PALE FACE IS MY FATE."
Then, 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.”
With that, the pair embarked on a whirlwind few months. There was talk of running away together and as Caroline’s barriers started to drop, she even began dressing as a pageboy, sneaking into Byron’s rooms for illicit and, by all accounts, super X-rated afterhours rendezvous.
It seemed that her crippling sexual guilt was loosening its grip, replaced with a new overwhelming obsession with her boyfriend. But this wasn’t good for her either, as every day, 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. Another infamous episode happened 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."
Kind of understandably, the bloody public hair and accompanying unceasing attention was proving a bit too much for Byron. Not only that, but he had already started fancying a new woman anyway. A break-up was imminent.
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, brought in another woman, 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 had 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 of a full breakdown and it was agreed that she needed space and a break from her life at home. She went to Ireland to recuperate.
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 then 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 woman into engagement, while sleeping with an additional woman on the side—so a great move all-around).
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 YOUR 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 while 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.
Caroline's 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 her 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 later 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-lister's 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 wife’s fictionalized love affair was immortalized in print and on bookshelves across the country. Heartbroken, William was left alone to pick up the pieces this time, as Caroline was oblivious to the pain she had 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 enough and was enforcing a legal separation. Caroline wandered Europe, picking up a string of short lived lovers as she went. She published a book under a pseudonym, but it bombed.
Truly, she was alone. By then, Caroline had alienated everyone who had wanted 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. Although she had 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 the two loves of her life long after they were gone. William Lamb went on to become Prime Minister of Britain. Lord Byron would be remembered as one of the greatest poets to ever live. 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 Caroline’s books. Personally, I would say Glenarvon is the weakest, but worth a read. All the others are must-reads! There are also 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 has been so vilified in history.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
Photo Credit: Portrait by Thomas Lawrence
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