In 1812 Byron burst onto the London literary scene with his first two cantos of Childe Harold. Almost instantly, the ladies of the ton were scrambling to have him at their house parties. Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, was one of the first to issue an invitation and soon prided herself on playing hostess to Byron. She was much older than Byron at the time–she was 62, he, 24–but they struck up an intimate friendship. He once wrote of her, “If she had been a few years younger, what a fool she would have made of me had she thought it worth her while, and I should have lost a most valuable and agreeable friend.”
Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne by Richard Cosway (around 1784)
Over the years of their correspondence, Lady Melbourne was to influence him in unexpected ways, encouraging his relationship with her niece, Anna Isabella Milbanke, later made Baroness Byron in 1815. Given Byron’s history with Melbourne’s family, this event might have been shocking to outsiders. In personal matters, however, it was practical. In 1812 when Byron first became acquainted with Lady Melbourne, he commenced a tempestuous and highly public affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Melbourne’s daughter-in-law. It was disastrous. Lady Lamb went crazy over him, stalked him, and generally made a fool of herself. By September of 1812, Bryon had abandoned his doomed love affair, writing to Lady Melbourne in reassurance:
“I presume you have heard and will not be sorry to hear again, that they (Lady Bessborough and Lady Caroline Lamb) are safely deposited in Ireland, and that the sea rolls between you and one of your torments, the other you see is still at your elbow. Now, if you are as sincere (as I sometimes almost dream) you will not regret to hear that I wish this to end, and it certainly shall not be renewed on my part. It is not that I love another but loving at all is quite out of my way. I am tired of being a fool, and when I look back on the waste of time, and the destruction of all my plans last winter by this last romance, I am–what I ought to have been long ago. It is true from early habit one must make love mechanically, as one swims. I was once very fond of both, but now, as I never swim unless I tumble into the water, I don t make love till almost obliged, though I fear that is not the shortest way out of the troubled waves with which in such accidents we must struggle.” (Cheltenham, September 10, 1812).
Whatever Lady Melbourne’s schemes were regarding Byron’s attachment to her niece, she formulated them quickly. By October of 1812, Byron’s proposal was presented to Miss Milbanke (supposedly by Lady Melbourne). Miss Milbanke refused him. It was a wise decision she later reversed.
Byron offered a second proposal in September 1814, and Miss Milbanke married him on January 2, 1815. To the mathematically gifted heiress, Byron made a scoundrel of a husband. Meanwhile, Lady Caroline gladly spread (and perhaps concocted) vicious rumors about domestic violence, infidelity, and Byron’s propensity for sexual deviance. Finding the situation intolerable, Miss Milbanke left Byron a year after she’d stood beside him in Seaham Hall, giving credence to her husband’s scandalous behavior, whatever it might have been.
Upon Miss Milbanke’s first refusal in early October of 1812, Byron had already acknowledged that she “deserves a better heart than mine.” In a letter to Lady Melbourne days afterward he writes of Miss Milbanke, “She is right in every point of view . . . Finding I must marry, however, on that score, I should have preferred a woman of birth and talents, but such a woman was not at all to blame for not preferring me; my heart never had an opportunity of being much interested in the business further than that I should have very much liked to be your relation.” (Cheltenham, October 17th, 1812).
A typical opinion toward marriage given the time, but disheartening when coupled with Byron’s socially ruinous affairs. No woman wanted wreckage to litter her household or to follow her like a stench wherever she went. And Miss Milbanke was not a tart to be tasted and put back on the shelf. Where his previous lover Lady Lamb was fiery and obsessive in response to Byron’s impassioned temperament, Miss Milbanke was rational, an intellectual to the core. In light of Byron’s rock star status, he attracted all kinds of awful while Miss Milbanke was interested in mathematics. Hardly a match made in heaven. His intentions in acquiring a wife didn’t aspire to poetry, and marriage didn’t change his tune. The sensitive side of Byron was funneled into his work and the fellow that was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” as Lady Lamb so aptly defined him, strolled through town gathering scandals.
It makes you wonder what the “sagacious” Lady Melbourne was thinking. During their exchange of letters regarding Miss Milbanke’s refusal, Byron confided somewhat naughtily to Lady Melbourne, “Tell Annabella that I am more proud of her rejection than I can ever be of another’s acceptance; this sounds rather equivocal, but if she takes it in the sense I mean it, and you don t blunder it in the delivery with one of your wicked laughs, it will do for want of something better. It merely means that the hope of obtaining her (or anybody else — but skip this parenthesis) was more pleasing than the possession of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins (being a greater number than have ever since existed at the same time) in that capacity could possibly have been to her ‘disconsolate and unmathematical admirer, X. Y. Z.'” (Cheltenham, October 20th, 1812).
Despite being friends, why would Lady Melbourne have desired a connection to Bryon? I fear that any explanation shines poorly on Lady Melbourne’s moral character but, after all, Byron was THE literary celebrity of the Regency. She increased her family’s stature by the association, and in the very least something brilliant did come out of Byron’s union with Lady Melbourne’s niece: Ada Lovelace, the self-described “Analyst (& Metaphysician.”