Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit
By Antonia Fraser.
Pegasus Books, 2023.
Hardcover, 224 pages, $28.95.

Reviewed by Paul Krause.

“Lady Caroline Lamb broke the rules.” Who was Lady Caroline Lamb, the great rulebreaker, “free spirit,” and lady who nearly destroyed Lord Byron’s image in a day and age when adventurous promiscuity among men was a catalyst for fame and fortune while the same for a woman was a near death-sentence which tarnished her reputation in the halls of polite society? She was, as Antonia Fraser writes in her splendid little biography of this great and complicated woman, “a human being” and “a mother,” not to mention a famous poet and writer.

Lady Caroline Lamb was once a well-known figure, famous not only for her dalliance with Lord Byron but also famous because she was married to William Lamb, the 2nd Viscount of Melbourne, future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She featured prominently in the hagiography of Lord Byron, which was already being constructed in his lifetime, then speedily after his death, to which Caroline drew the short straw regarding personal and iconic heroism. Caroline, not Byron, was to be assailed for overstepping social mores. In the later Victorian era hagiography of Lord Byron, Caroline had to be demeaned to protect Bryon’s cultivated image.

It is only appropriate that nearly 200 years after her death, Lady Caroline Lamb finally has a biography that deconstructs the negative image that has dominated her cultural memory. Fraser gives us a human and humane biography. Yes, Caroline isn’t exactly a pristine and virtuous woman. She did love Lord Byron. She betrayed her wedding vows for him. Her flagrant infidelity to William’s fidelity (until their separation) is all true. Yet she was also tender-hearted and kind; she supported William’s political career when he was at his lowest point in life and politics; she cared for her ill son, Augustus, rather than pawn him off to wet nurses or a psychiatric institution; and she endeavored to aid aspiring young writers—male and female—who sought her help and literary connections to begin their adventurous and turbulent lives as writers and poets.

Caroline’s life, we might say, was a real-life embodiment of the Byronic hero or heroine. She fell in love with William as a teenager because he was “reading poetry aloud” at an aristocratic gathering. Because “young Caroline was a great lover of poetry,” she was instantly swooned by William’s charm and poetic grace. William was “irresistible.” 

But if Caroline fell in love with William Lamb because of his poetic image and charm, then it is unsurprising that Caroline fell madly in love with Lord Byron—the greatest of the Romantic poets and Romantic lovers. “Caroline was a romantic who believed in romantic love, and romantic love feeds on constant wonder and reassurance.” Having read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Caroline wrote to Lord Byron. Eventually, Lord Byron responded. The romance was on when they finally met in person.

During their love affair, the friends of Bryon did their best to protect the daring poet from the fallout following public revelations of their romance. Caroline was the woman transgressing boundaries. She loved Byron. Bryon didn’t necessarily love her, though he did fall for her aggressive beauty and charm. This image of their romance was carried forward after both of their deaths. This image of the love between Caroline and Byron was, of course, a lie. Byron really did love Caroline for a short period of time; he was entirely smitten by her charm and grace.

The reality was that Caroline first spurned Byron and then Byron pursued her, aggressively so, one might add. Caroline’s hard-to-get first encounter led to their famous dalliance. “If Lady Caroline was unquestionably madly in love with Lord Byron, then it is equally clear from his surviving letters that Byron was in love with Caroline—for a time at least. He was also exasperated by her.” What Antonia Fraser does in recounting the romantic affair between these two star-crossed and immortal lovers is humanize Lady Caroline from two centuries of brutalist propaganda which universally cast her in a negative light for the love affair (while, by contrast, often protecting Byron).

Eventually their passion faded, and Byron parted ways, being ever cruel to Caroline in their post-romance correspondence. This led Caroline to sympathize and become pen-pals with Annabella, Byron’s newly married wife, who suffered from the abuse and mistreatment of England’s renegade and ruffian poet. Suffering and sorrow often make the best of friends, as was the case with Caroline and Annabella.

Caroline’s experience with Byron led her to write her best-selling novel. Glenarvon was “a tale of love, certainly, but also essentially a story of betrayal, both political and romantic.” Set in Ireland during the Protestant Ascendency and before Catholic emancipation, the story focuses on an Irish hero turned traitor, a man who destroys the innocence of a young woman named Calantha, before ruining his own life and reputation by turning to serve the British Empire and then drowning himself in guilt and distress over all that has transpired.

Glenarvon was immediately read as a satire and mockery of Lord Byron. There was little doubt as to who the author was, even though Caroline’s name was not initially printed on the first edition of the book. Although a popular success, Byron’s friends in the British press attacked the book and attacked Caroline. While Bryon did crush Caroline’s soul, Caroline wasn’t as innocent as her fictional instantiation of herself made her out to be. Nevertheless, the success (even if scorned by the press) of Glenarvon allowed Caroline to reinvent herself as a writer and poet.

Caroline’s newborn life as an accomplished writer and poet in her own right, having emerged out of the shadow of Byron and having achieved the same success as Jane Austen (though Caroline has obviously not fared as well as Austen as time has gone on), led to her new role as poet-mother to numerous lesser men than Byron. Edward Bulwer, for instance, born in 1803 and 17 years younger than Caroline, was madly in love with her. Her success as a writer and reputation as Byron’s greatest lover inflamed the intrigue of a new generation of aspiring poets and writers. They came to her like Sappho, hoping both for romance and literary advancement. Caroline, however, was growing too frequently ill, and therefore rejected the romantic advances of several of these men, Bulwer included, and instead showed them the kindness of a motherly writer, trying to help them advance their literary lives as much as she could.

As Caroline’s health deteriorated (she was always and frequently ill even when she was young, exuberant, and lascivious), so too did her marriage with William. Her infidelity was not a secret. William was appointed Chief Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, effectively separating the two. Nevertheless, William rushed back to England upon news of Caroline’s rapidly declining health. She died on January 25, 1828.

Antonia Fraser has written a courageous and heroic book that restores the humanity of Lady Caroline Lamb to a new generation of readers. The fact that this remarkable woman finally gets her own biography, rather than the usual insert into a biography of Lord Byron or a passing mention in a nineteenth-century English literature volume, is among the book’s greatest accomplishments. Lady Caroline Lamb has long deserved her own story, and Fraser has given the world Caroline’s story from Caroline’s heart. 

If we are to take away anything from this superb, albeit short, biography, it is that Caroline Lamb “stands for the kind of independent woman” who was also “intelligent” and “original,” while also showing great kindness and love to others. Caroline’s life was once associated with that of a female Lucifer, a seductress and rebellious deviant who nearly destroyed others, especially Lord Byron. The reality was she was a flawed but loving woman, “a Free Spirit.”

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView and the author of Finding Arcadia: Wisdom, Truth, and Love in the Classics (Academica Press, 2023) and The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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