When Lady Caroline Ponsonby married William Lamb in 1805, they expected he would soon inherit a substantial estate from his aging father. But when Caroline died in 1828, at the age of 42, William had still not become Lord Melbourne. They were still without title or riches, because the first Viscount Melbourne had simply outlived his daughter-in-law. Throughout her life Caroline lived in a wealthy world without possessing those riches herself. Slowly, painfully, she fell from great expectations to a crippled marriage and collapsing health. A frequently cited cause of that fall has been William’s over-indulgence of his wife. William remained devoted to Caroline despite her tantrums and extramarital affairs, and Caroline apparently loved him to the end. Their partnership endured until she drew her last breath—despite her affairs, including the very public liaison she had with Lord Byron in the spring and summer of 1812. William never remarried.
Byron described Caroline as “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.” Their affair lasted from March until August 1812, when Byron almost eloped with her. That fall, he broke it off, and Caroline broke down. The psychiatry of the time called it “erotomania”—dementia caused by obsession for a man. It was a malady she shared with hundreds of other Byron fans, except that she actually became Byron’s lover during the first great flush of his success. Gossip soon made the affair and its aftermath into a sexual melodrama, and even sympathetic portrayals of Lady Caroline convey the image of an adulteress whose obsession with Byron drove him wild and her crazy. While Caroline was certainly Byron’s lover in the flesh, their relationship was literary as well as libidinous.
She was Byron’s equal in verbal wit at the time they met, when she was twenty-six and he had just turned twenty-four. They shared a love for dogs, horses, and music. Byron could sing, and Caroline studied Greek and Latin, played the harp and harpsichord and wrote songs. She made drawings and watercolors, and canvassed for elections; she even claimed she introduced Byron to Dante. Byron admired her for raising Augustus, her mentally retarded, epileptic son, at home instead of placing him with caretakers.
By 1812, when she met Byron, Lady Caroline had developed a contempt for the low morals and superficiality of Whig culture. Byron shared this disdain and admired her outrageous character. At first. Then he pulled back. Wounded, Caroline wanted him to admit that he had been deeply affected by their relationship. Though he claimed indifference to friends, he found it impossible to drop her cold. He turned distant. She grew skeletal. She became for him a ghost who preyed on his imagination, for she simply did not know how to crawl away and suffer silently as married women did when their lovers jilted them.
Most biographers have shared Byron’s frustration at Lady Caroline’s failure to conform to the feminine role of her era. They have not hesitated to prescribe a “sharp slap judiciously administered” (Dorothy Marshall in Lord Melbourne (1975)), or even an out-and-out beating (Henry Blyth in Caro: The Fatal Passion (1972)). Criticism, too, has administered blows to the modest corpus of her literary work, starting with the publication of Glenarvon, her first novel, in 1816. It made her wonder why “everybody wishes to run down and suppress the vital spark of genius I have, and in truth, it is but small (about what one sees a maid gets by excessive beating on a tinder-box). I am not vain, believe me, nor selfish, nor in love with my authorship; but I am independent, as far as a mite and bit of dust can be.” The overreaction of criticism to Caroline’s literary offenses complements her biographers’ obsession with her drunkenness, temper tantrums and crockery-smashing. Those who have judged her novels and poetry have treated them as an extension of her personality: at best the production of a neurotic mind, and at worst a devious attempt to hurt Byron.
Lady Caroline certainly suffered when Byron ended their affair. She had a mental collapse and was threatened with a straitjacket more than once. After Byron left England, however, her life did not devolve into complete histrionics. She published three novels, two accomplished parodies of Byron’s poetry, several poems in literary journals, and a number of songs — besides having worked up three other novel projects and a “pocket-diary” called Penruddock that she printed in England and sought to publish in Ireland.
"Caro" has always provoked such strong reactions that it is difficult to get an objective view of her life and work. This site hopes to provide resources for assessing her place in English literary and social history, including her contemporaries, like Isaac Nathan, Amelia Opie, Madame de Staël, Lady Morgan, and Maria Edgeworth. The phrase "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" was reported by Lady Morgan in her diaries as one of the brilliant quips and witticisms that made Lady Caroline's conversation so sparkling and risque. It is important to remember, though, that she never wrote down that phrase herself.