January 25 is the celebration of Burns Night and last year I enjoyed a fabulous a supper of Haggis although I had to refuse the ‘wee dram’ of fine Scotch whiskey on offer – however, I did join in with the hearty rendition of Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot which wrapped up the evening rather nicely.
Born on January 25 1759, Robert Burns remains Scotland’s best loved Bard and has a colourful reputation as a womaniser, poetical genius, and hard drinker who experienced poverty, sudden fame, debt and an early death but he also reminds me of someone I have been known to write about!
And although Lord Byron was to make a number of references to Burns in his letters and journals; I can find no mention of this most famous of songs.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne
But after the fall-out of one of his most famous love affairs (and no matter how special the whiskey blend!) it would be difficult to imagine Byron holding hands and singing along with the subject of today’s post – Lady Caroline Lamb!
For on this day in 1828, Lady Caroline died at the age of forty two and it’s probably fair to say that even with the passage of time, opinion remains as divided about her in death, as it was in life!
For some she has been portrayed as the archetypal ‘bunny boiler’, a Regency ‘Alex Forrest’ character who stalked and terrorised poor Byron through the streets of London in the style of Fatal Attraction and yet for others she remains a misunderstood character with a hint of fragility, a talented ‘Lady of Letters’, whimsical artist, poetess and author.
Byron was to use a number of adjectives in which to describe Caro Lamb with some of the most notable being that she was in equal terms:
perplexing, absurd, agreeable, fascinating, dangerous, amiable…
The word ‘monster’ was the one he would use much later!
Having met in the heady month of March in 1812 as Byron had woken to find himself ‘famous’ and brief though their affair was – they have remained intertwined throughout history like Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy.
She once said that Byron’s ‘beautiful, pale face’ was her ‘fate’ and this has proved uniquely prophetic for despite their scandalous affair, Caro was also a cousin by marriage to his future spouse and the daughter-in-law of the indomitable Lady Melbourne – all of which adds a touch of frisson to her life.
The shrewd Lady M would soon became a discreet confidant of Byron and as the recipient of his most witty and outrageous letters, she would do all she could to destroy the affair which had humiliated her family while encouraging his courtship of her niece Annabella Milbanke – despite the misgivings about the nature of the troubling relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh.
Believing that a woman’s duty was to provide her husband with his heir and that monogamy within marriage was not the natural state; it was Caro Lamb’s blatant lack of discretion and not the affair with Byron which had enraged Lady M.
For as Caro was to write to Byron in June 1814:
Think of my situation how extraordinary! – my mother in law actually in the place I held – her ring instead of mine – her letters instead of mine – her heart – but do you believe either she or any others feel for you what I felt…
She never fully recovered from Byron’s rejection and by 1816 during the aftermath of his disastrous marriage and subsequent exile abroad, the isolated Caro in an act of revenge and duplicity created yet more mischief with the publication of her novel Glenarvon with the tale of a tempestuous love affair with a badly disguised Byronic character.
Caro’s cuckold of a spouse was a rising political star who would eventually serve as Prime Minister to the young Queen Victoria but under pressure from his ambitious family, he was now faced with a choice of either a marital separation or to have her committed to a lunatic asylum.
In desperation, Caro penned a letter to the exasperated Lady M that she was:
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..
I will never do any thing more that can harm William but when you turn us out of doors which Lord Melbourne has pledged himself to do… I owe it all to publish as far as I can without involving those I love a full explanation of my conduct, a full refutation of the calumnies that have been spread against me & my infamous book – and an exact account of Lord Byron’s conduct for the last four years…
Surprisingly, the hand of friendship was extended to Caro but with the death of Lady M in April 1818, Caro would once again find herself dangerously isolated.
In the years following and although she continued to lavish attention on her only son Augustus and paint exquisite sketches, the fights with William continued as her passion for mischief remained undiminished and when exiled to Brocket Hall, Caro became increasingly ill, the cause of which would be eventually diagnosed as dropsy – but admitting to having “drunk a whole bottle of wine which I bought for myself all at once...” will surely not have helped matters!
And as I write this, a delicious image of Caro making her way to the local liquor store comes to mind…
In the winter of 1827 and in a desperate attempt to help her, Caro was brought to Melbourne House where less than sixteen years earlier she had presided over the court of Childe Harold as London’s most ‘correct waltzer’ during those halcyon days of 1812 and after an emotional reunion with William and her adored Augustus who had only recently arrived from Dublin she died at Melbourne House on Friday January 25 1828.
She was reunited with the other star player in the drama of 1812 when laid to rest along side the remains of Lady M in the Lamb family crypt at St Ethelreda’s Church in Hatfield and one of her final letters was to Lady Holland who had also enjoyed something of a walk-on part during that first Byronic season:
I can only write one line to thank you for your generous conduct – will you accept from my heart my deep regret for the past – it makes me most unhappy now…
However, for all of the anguish, violence and mischief from their brief affair, is it too much to suppose that with the passing of time, Byron could now enjoy a hearty rendition of Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot and that Caro would be happy to echo that sentiment?
Now here’s to the memory of that wonderful plate of delicious Haggis and Tatties and another large helping of Tipsy Laird I simply must finish!
Byron’s Letters and Journals, Ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, 1973-97)
The Whole Disgraceful Truth Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb Paul Douglass (Palgrave Macmillan 2006)