Friday, February 26, 2010

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

I must admit—I debated whether to include Lady Caroline Lamb as one of our nineteenth century heroines. Sure, she was a real lady who lived in the early nineteenth century in England. She was in her teens when she started her meteoric rise to infamy. But most of our nineteenth century heroines were women we could admire. I find that harder to say of dear, passionate Caro.

It was Caro who called the poet Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but perhaps that’s because it takes one to know one. She was born Caroline Ponsonby, the only daughter of the Earl of Bessborough, and spent much of her youth at Devonshire House, being the niece of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She had a governess, then attended a finishing school in London. According to some sources, she spoke French, Italian, Greek, and Latin and dabbled in prose, poetry, and painting. In 1805, at just nineteen, she made what was considered an excellent match, marrying a rising political star, William Lamb, who would someday become Lord Melbourne and one of Queen Victoria’s closest advisors.

But Caro’s life was far more turbulent. She may well have been a bit mad. She simply couldn’t settle into being wife and mother, though that’s what everyone expected of her. She cut her hair into short curls (the first “pageboy”), dressed in boys’ clothes, and traipsed about London by night. When she did appear as a lady at balls and such, she invariably did something to draw attention to herself, like leaping over couches to reach the people she liked faster.

Or staring at gentlemen poets.

That’s one of the stories on how she and Lord Byron met. He was introduced to her by a delighted hostess at a ball, and Caro stared him down, then gave him the Cut Direct by turning her back on him without a word. A man used to having women fawn over him, he was immediately determined to pursue her.

But in the end, it was Caro who pursued him, and quite scandalously too. She truly was a bad girl. One account calls it the first celebrity stalking. For six months, he was the center of her world. She wrote him passionate letters. If he had been invited to a ball and she hadn’t, she’d stand outside until someone let her in too. She’d use her pageboy disguise to show up at his rooms and demand entrance. Byron was a man who lived large, but Caro was too much even for him. He was relieved when her husband took her to Ireland for a few months to cool off. When she returned to London, the poet made it clear their affair was over.

Caro rejected was Caro the most dangerous. Exiled for a time to the country, she made the village girls dress in white and dance around a fire while she burnt Byron in effigy. But that wasn’t enough to still her furies. If Byron could write epic poems, she could write a novel. And she did. Glenarvon, published in 1816, was a thinly disguised story of her life and lampooned a number of Society notables. Lady Jersey, one of the patronesses of the famous Almack’s, immediately rescinded Caro’s vouchers, and the rest of Society followed in turning its back on her. Only her family stayed loyal. Though she published other novels and poetry, she remained on the edges of Society until she died, in her early 40s.

So, what do you think? Should Caro be admired for being fiercely independent, for daring to flaunt Society’s rules to pursue her passions, for getting revenge for rejection? Or was she, as I suspect, truly a bit mad, bad, and dangerous to know?


Meg said...

I think she was pretty nuts, but I have to admire the fact that she was utterly unapologetic about it. :D

Between Caro, and her cousin Sarah's elopement with Eleanor Butler (two other 19th century ladies I greatly admire), that family experienced rather a lot of scandal.

Marissa Doyle said...

In her biography of Lady Bessborough, Caro's mom, Janet Gleeson posits the possibility that Caro was not Lord Bessborough's daughter but the result of an affair with Charles Wyndham, who was known to be a rather unstable character from a notoriously unstable family. Evidently poor Caro was "difficult" from birth.

QNPoohBear said...

I definitely think Caro was rather crazy and I admire her theory but not practice, if that makes any sense? Has anyone actually read Glenarvon? There's a limited preview on Google

ChaChaneen said...

Nothing about her worth looking up heroically at in my opinion... reminds me too much of the lost ladies today in Hollywood. Interesting story though so thanks for sharing as always ladies! Hope you have a GREAT weekend!

Liviania said...

I would say she would be admirable if she weren't clearly crazy. Doing things because you think they're right is entirely different than doing them because you aren't in your right mind.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I have to admit I have a fondness for Caro. I've written about her at Scandalous Women, and she's in my book which is coming out next year. Don't forget that Byron wasn't blameless in the whole affair. He was very wishy-washy about ending the whole affair. And there is something to be admired about Caro, not just being like Marianne in Sense & Sensibility, unashamed to show your emotions and to be as Meg said so utterly unapologetic about it but she was also devoted to her son Augustus who was not only an epileptic but also mentally handicapped as well. She wouldn't let the Lambs put him away. One of the things that drew her to Byron was that he was good to her son.

Rachel said...

I would go with the latter option! I read the biography by Amanda Freeman on Georgiana. Is there one for Caroline that you would recommend?

Now Georgiana was quite a lady, but definitely more on the scandalous side than heroine despite her efforts in 19th c. politics.

Poor Lord Byron! LOL I'm sure he didn't know what to do with Caro without jeopardizing his own reputation with Society!

Thanks for the post ;) I'm reading Bloody Jack right now. It's good so far!

Marissa Doyle said...

I haven't read any bios of Caro, but if you liked Georgiana, definitely take a look at the bio I mentioned of her sister Harriet--it's called Privilege and Scandal by Janet Gleeson. Very lively and well-written.

Regina Scott said...

Haven't read Glenarvon, though it would be interesting to see how easy it would be to pick out who the real-life figures are behind the characters. As to bios of Caro, they vary from sympathetic to downright vindictive. Many are not far off period (50 years or less after her death). One that wants to paint her as simply perishing to have a literary fame of her own (not sure I believe this) is The Queens of Society by Grace and Philip Wharton (Harper 1861). The Internet Archive has a free download of the book.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Rachel, Paul Douglass wrote a really good bio of Caro that came out recently, and then there's Henry Blyth's book Caro: The Fatal Passion, as well as Edna O'Brien's book Byron in Love.