‘The time is past in which I could feel for the dead – or I should feel for the death of Lady Melbourne the best & kindest & ablest female I ever knew – old or young – but ‘I have supped full of horrors’ & events of this kind leave only a kind of numbness worse than pain…
there is one link the less between England & myself…‘
~ Lord Byron
Lady Melbourne was born into this world Elizabeth Milbanke in 1752, the only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke a wealthy and successful Yorkshire baronet of Halnaby Hall.
Her older brother Ralph who would become Lord Byron’s father-in-law in January 1815 was known disparagingly as ‘old twaddle Ralph’ by the Duchess of Devonshire and as there was certainly no love lost between Lady Melbourne and his VERY opinionated spouse – one suspects that the Hon. Judith Milbanke was spoken of with equal disparagement:
‘God bless You! my Dear. I shall only add – that from the time we married, the only unhappiness You have occasioned me, has been from seeing the Sway Lady M. has at times had over You – and that before I was able to oppose it, or had the courage to do so.
She has pillaged You of tens of thousands – recollect this – and now despise her.‘
Educated, attractive and with a talent for ambition Elizabeth Milbanke would soon move away from provincial Yorkshire and by 1769 had married Peniston Lamb, a wealthy, foolish and easy going lawyer and as she worked hard to advance the fortune and the prestige of her family, she would become became one of the most celebrated Society Hostesses on behalf of the Whig Party.
Melbourne House with its tasteful and expensive decor became known as London’s most liveliest and exclusive house; a place for the dazzling parties in which only the powerful and the beautiful were admitted and it was in this milieu with charm and a ruthlessness that Lady Melbourne would cultivate the friendship of the fashionable Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the connections of the powerful Duke of Bedford and the protection of Lord Egremont.
Of all of Lady Melbourne’s six children, her first born Peniston Lamb in 1770 was believed to be the only natural son of Lord Melbourne with the rest of his siblings all of dubious and mysterious parentage. A view echoed by her second son William Lamb who was to describe his adored mother as a remarkable woman ‘but not chaste, not chaste.’
Chaste or not, she was undoubtedly a formidable mother to her children whom she nurtured with love while encouraging the Lamb family values of sardonic confidence and the love of a good party and when William Lamb married Lady Caroline Ponsonby who had been born into one of the most powerful Whig families and the niece of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire in June 1805, the ambitious Lady Melbourne was very happy.
For after visiting Lady Caroline in her first floor apartment in Melbourne House, Byron would often visit the ground floor apartment where Lady Melbourne lived AND even though she was old enough to be his mother – she became over time his closest confidant and the recipient and literary voyeur of his most witty and outrageous letters.
‘Vastly obedient?! You are fair, & do not try to deceive me & in that you have great merit, I confess, – but on “other points” – XXX
I wish I could flatter myself I had the least influence… for I could talk & reason with you for two Hours, so many objections have I to urge, & after all, for what… is it worth while!‘
Despite the antipathy she felt toward her brother’s wife, she actively encouraged Byron’s courtship with her niece Annabella as the means in which to destroy his love affair with Lady Caroline and she would become increasingly critical about his relationship with half-sister Augusta Leigh.
Believing a woman’s duty was to provide her husband with his heir and that monogamy within marriage was not the natural state and as such a woman was at liberty to have affairs, only and always with discretion but it was Lady Caroline’s blatant lack of circumspection and NOT the affair with either Sr. Godfrey Webster or Byron which prompted Lady Melbourne to become her severest critic:
‘when any one braves the opinion of the World, sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it and although at first people may have excused your forming friendships with all those who are censured for their conduct, from yr youth and inexperience yet when they see you continue to single them out and to overlook all the decencys imposed by Society –
they will look upon you as belonging to the same class…‘
By 1816 and in the aftermath of Byron’s disastrous marriage and after the Milbanke family had severed contact with the Melbourne family – a vengeful and isolated Lady Caroline created yet more mischief with the publication of her book Glenarvon.
With the premature death of Peniston Lamb in 1805, William as the 2nd Viscount Melbourne and a political star on the rise who would eventually serve as Prime Minister to the young Queen Victoria; was now under pressure from his family to separate from his volatile spouse or to have her committed to a lunatic asylum.
In desperation, Lady Caroline was to write to her rattled mother-in-law:
‘I am on the brink of another ruin. Half my friends cut me, all my acquaintances are offended – your protection may save – but I shall never ask for it unless freely offered’
Lady Melbourne would offer such support until her death on Saturday April 6 1818 at the age of 66.
And as Lord Byron’s ‘Corbeau Blanc’ was laid to rest in the Lamb family vault at St Ethelreda’s Church in Hatfield on April 14, the reaction to her passing from Lady Shelley would remain as controversial as the lady herself:
‘The death of Lady Melbourne offers food for reflection to the most frivolous. This lady, beautiful, clever, and well read, married in the flower of her beauty a man who did not care for her in the least.
As a natural consequence she was surrounded by admirers belonging to the highest walks of life. Unfortunately, she was addicted to opium, which broke down her health and dimmed her mental faculties..‘
Byron’s ‘Corbeau Blanc’ (The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne) Jonathan David Gross (Liverpool University Press 1997)
Lady Caroline Lamb This Infernal Woman Susan Normington (House of Stratus 2001)
Melbourne David Cecil (The Reprint Society 1955)
The Uninhibited Byron An Account of His Sexual Confusion Bernard Grebanier (Peter Owen 1970)
The Whole Disgraceful Truth (Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb) Paul Douglass (Palgrave MacMillan 2006)
Lady Melbourne Tart of the Week – The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century