Author Picture
13 November 1785 – 25 January 1828

A novelist. The only daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, third earl of Bessborough, by his wife, Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer, the younger daughter of John, first earl of Spencer, was born on 13 Nov. 1785. At the age of three she was taken to Italy, where she remained six years, chiefly under the charge of a servant. She was then sent to Devonshire House to be educated with her cousins, and was subsequently entrusted to her grandmother, Lady Spencer, who, alarmed at her eccentricities, consulted a doctor as to her state of mind.

She was married on 3 June 1805 to the Hon. William Lamb, afterwards Lord Melbourne. She was soon passionately infatuated with Byron, of whom she wrote in her diary, after his introduction to her, that he was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know.’ After Byron's rupture with her in 1813, Lady Caroline's temper became so ungovernable that her husband reluctantly determined upon a separation. While the legal instruments were being prepared she wrote and sent her first novel, Glenarvon, to the press. On the day fixed, however, for the execution of the deed of separation, a sudden reconciliation took place, and Lady Caroline was found seated beside her husband, ‘feeding him with tiny scraps of transparent bread and butter,’ while the solicitor was waiting below to attest the signatures (Torrens, Memoirs of Viscount Melbourne, i. 112). Glenarvon was published anonymously in 1816 (London, 12mo, 3 vols.). It was written, she says, ‘unknown to all (save a governess, Miss Welsh), in the middle of the night’ (cf. Lady Morgan's Memoirs, ii. 202). This rhapsodical tale owed its brief success to the caricature portrait of Byron which it contained. Moore, in a fit of indignation, wrote a review of it for the Edinburgh, but on second thoughts did not send it (Torrens, Memoirs of Viscount Melbourne, i. 112). Byron, in a letter to Moore, says: ‘If the authoress had written the truth … the romance would not only have been more romantic, but more entertaining. As for the likeness, the picture can't be good; I did not sit long enough’ (Moore, Life of Lord Byron, p. 330). An Italian translation of the novel appears to have been printed in Venice in 1817 (ib. p. 363). It was reprinted in one volume in 1865, under the title of The Fatal Passion (London, 8vo). On hearing that Byron, when questioned by Madame de Staël, had laughed at her book as ‘that insincere production,’ Lady Caroline burnt at Brocket ‘very solemnly, on a sort of funeral pile, transcripts of all the letters which she had received from Byron, and a copy of a miniature (his portrait) which he had presented to her; several girls from the neighbourhood, whom she had dressed in white garments, dancing round the pile, and singing a song which she had written for the occasion, “Burn, fire, burn, &c.”’ (Rogers, Table Talk, 1856, p. 236).

Caring little for politics, but always craving for notoriety, she energetically canvassed the Westminster electors in 1819 on behalf of her brother-in-law, George Lamb, and succeeded in gaining over a number of doubtful voters. In the same year she published A New Canto (anon. London, 8vo). Her second novel, Graham Hamilton, which was sent to Colburn's in 1820, ‘with an earnest injunction neither to name the author nor to publish it at that time,’ was published in 1822 (anon. London, 12mo, 2 vols.). The design of this novel is said to have been suggested to her by Ugo Foscolo, whose advice was, ‘Write a book which will offend nobody; women cannot afford to shock.’ It was succeeded in 1823 by Ada Reis; a Tale (anon. London, 12mo, 3 vols.), another edition of which was published in the following year (Paris, 12mo, 2 vols.). In July 1824 she accidentally met Byron's funeral procession on its way to Newstead. Though she partially recovered from this sudden shock, her mind became more affected, and in the following year she was separated from her husband.

During the remainder of her life she lived for the most part at Brocket with her father-in-law and her only surviving child, George Augustus Frederick Lamb, a hopeless invalid, who died unmarried on 27 Nov. 1836, aged 29. She died at Melbourne House, Whitehall, in the presence of her husband, who had hastened over from Ireland, on 26 Jan. 1828, aged 42, and was buried at Hatfield.

Lady Caroline was a clever, generous, and impulsive woman, inordinately vain, and excitable to the verge of insanity. In person she was small and slight, with pale, golden-coloured hair, ‘large hazel eyes, capable of much varied expression, exceedingly good teeth, and a musical intonation of voice’ (The Life of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton, i. 328). Her powers of conversation were remarkable, full of wild originality, and combining great and sudden contrasts, while her manners ‘had a fascination which it is difficult for any who never encountered their effect to conceive’ (Literary Gazette, 1828, p. 108). Lord Lytton has left on record a curious account of his brief and sentimental attachment to her (Life, i. 334–6). She is supposed to have been the original of Mrs. Felix Lorraine in Vivian Grey, of Lady Monteagle in Venetia, (Public Life of the Earl of Beaconsfield, 1879, i. 30, 127), of Lady Melton in De Lindsay, Lady Clara in Lionel Hastings, and of Lady Bellenden in Greville (Life of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton, i. 357–358). She wrote poetry for the annuals, and several of her pieces were set to music by Isaac Nathan and others. Some of her verses have been collected in Isaac Nathan's Fugitive Pieces and Reminiscences of Lord Byron … also some original Poetry, Letters, and Recollections of Lady Caroline Lamb (1829). Eleven letters written by her to her friend Lady Morgan are preserved in Lady Morgan's Memoirs (i. 442–3, ii. 174–9, 203–4, 206–13, 240), and seven written to William Godwin in Mr. C. K. Paul's William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, 1876 (ii. 266–8, 285–6, 302–4). There is a whole-length engraving of Lady Caroline Lamb with her boy by Cheeseman, and a charming print by W. Finden, from ‘an original drawing in the possession of Mr. Murray,’ will be found in Finden's ‘Illustrations of the Life and Works of Lord Byron,’ 1833, vol. ii.


A biography by George Fisher Russell Barker
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900
Volume 31