The worst I can say about Lady Caroline Lamb is that she suffered from erotomania. This is the medical euphemism for saying she was sexually, intellectually, and psychically besotted with Lord Byron to a degree that made him squirm in his trousers.
Lady Caroline Lamb – Thomas Phillips
Their short affair lasted from March to August of 1812 and made an indelible impression on his poetry. A number are direct rejoinders to Caro’s immoderate behavior. (*Sigh* All the years I spent at university learning about Romantic poets and never once encountered Byron’s “Remember Thee”. The poem was a stab at his ex-lover when, in a fit of desperation, she descended upon his household and scribbled in the flyleaf of one of his books “Remember thee!”)
For the man she had initially spurned as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Caro had it bad. She is credited with being the first celebrity stalker, running her sprightly self around London trying to enflame Byron by Any Means Necessary. She even impersonated Byron in writing, requesting his favorite miniature portrait of himself from his publishers.
Mimicry was nothing new for Caro. As Lady Morgan recounts in her memoirs, Caro’s childhood at the Duchess of Devonshire’s household:
Caro’s unconventional education was her solace amid the madness of the aristocracy. Her perspective turned her into a novelist and poet, and to Byron’s annoyance, a damn good copyist. He criticized her for modeling the great originals in her work, lamenting over her ability to capture voice—especially his own.
Although history relegates her to the archives of the sexually diseased, she was witty and singular. Her work and legacy deserve a closer look. Dickens called her “One of the most interesting stories of fashionable life . . . [a] really clever woman—a heroine in a way. . .” Byron recognized her eccentricity saying, “I do not at all know how to deal with her, because she is unlike everyone else.” (BLJ 2:222)
Lady Caroline Lamb – Sir Thomas Lawrence (1805)
Caro’s reputation, through much her own fault, was defamed by her peers. In a letter of November 1824 written to Captain Thomas Medwin, Byron’s biographer and close friend, she imparts her version of a salacious tale following their breakup:
“. . . unhappily, we continued occasionally to meet. Lord Byron liked others, I only him–The scene at Lady Heathcote’s is nearly true–he had made me swear I was never to Waltz. Lady Heathcote said, Come, Lady Caroline, you must begin, & I bitterly answered–oh yes! I am in a merry humour. I did so–but whispered to Lord Byron ‘I conclude I may waltz _now_’ and he answered sarcastically, ‘with every body in turn–you always did it better than any one. I shall have a pleasure in seeing you.”–I did so you may judge with what feelings. After this, feeling ill, I went into a small inner room where supper was prepared; Lord Byron & Lady Rancliffe entered after; seeing me, he said, ‘I have been admiring your dexterity.’ I clasped a knife, not intending anything. ‘Do, my dear,’ he said. ‘But if you mean to act a Roman’s part, mind which way you strike with your knife–be it at your own heart, not mine–you have struck there already.’ ‘Byron,’ I said, and ran away with the knife. I never stabbed myself. It is false.”
Take the tale out of context and Caro does seem crazy, but if we are to trust her word, Byron taunted her nearly as much as she harassed him. They were that broken couple, terrible together, terrible apart.
It didn’t help that Caro refused to shrug off her individuality. Her inability to comport like other ladies made the ton jittery and even estranged her friends. She possessed an artful way of living but was artless, by her own account “not a woman of the world.”
Physical and emotional hardships persisted throughout her life. At age 19, she married William Lamb for love. By 26, she’d lost a daughter and tried to raise her mentally handicapped son. She’d turned from her former piety, aped the ton’s moral ambiguities, and taken Byron as a lover. She was a woman like no other, cropping her hair when hair, no matter how tightly wound upon the head during the day, was long and heavy against the neck at night. As she said about herself once:
“…everybody wishes to run down and suppress the vital spark of genius I have, and in truth, it is but small (about what one sees a maid gets by excessive beating on a tinder-box). I am not vain, believe me, nor selfish, nor in love with my authorship; but I am independent, as far as a mite and bit of dust can be.” *
- November 1824 letter from Caro to Captain Thomas Medwin
- Charles Dicken’s on Caro from All The Year Round, April 15, 1882
- An unbiased assessment of Caro, including a biography, links to her works, and a vast array of resources
- Tart of the Week: Lady Caroline Lamb from The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide