You know how much I hate it when people refer to their exes as crazy. I am absolutely not going to say that Caroline Lamb, the aristocrat best known for being Lord Byron’s mistress was crazy, or highly strung, or emotional, or any of the adjectives that men use about their ex-girlfriends all the time. I like her. I really, really do, and I think she is too often dismissed as being one of the nightmare girlfriends of history.
I am going to tell you about the time that she sent Lord Byron a bloody clump of her pubic hair though, because that just seems fair. That feels like a story you’re entitled to know early, so you can use it in forming your own decisions about her behavior.
It was shortly after their break-up when she sent him that bizarre gift. She tied the parcel with a bow and left a note which read, “I cut the hair too close and I bled more than you need.” So, that was strange.
Even more extraordinary was the fact that Byron cherished this keepsake until his death. He carried it with him always. I guess we all need talismans to hold onto from relationships, but anything – really, literally, anything, not necessarily a good thing like jewelry, but candlesticks, a dead plant, some pincushion, a monkey’s skull – would be better than a bloodied ringlet of pubic hair.
Byron and Caroline were very well matched in that they were both peculiar.
Caroline was supposedly unruly from the get-go. Elizabeth Abbott, pretty much my favorite historian, writes that her mother, Henrietta Frances Spencer (married to Frederick Ponsonby, the third earl of Bessborough), was unable to give her the discipline she needed so “the sad result was a self-absorbed and wildly disruptive child who dominated her little world through her rude manners, fearful tantrums and outrageous lies.”
Sometimes Abbott means to criticize people and inadvertently makes them seem absolutely fabulous. I mean, she was this chick, apparently:
So she sounds pretty great. I kept trying to Google “Lady Caroline” coupled with “outrageous lies” but Google will not tell me any of these alleged falsehoods which is very frustrating for obvious reasons, and Abbott does not give specifics. Every biography seems to agree that there were outrageous happenings though, so I guess you can invent them on your own. I did read that she ran away to a convent to take her vows when she was age thirteen but, right around 1800, that does not seem particularly shocking.
One item we know is true is that when Caroline was almost 20 years old, in 1805, she married William Lamb, the second son of Lady Melbourne, or, as she was known in court circles, Lady M. This lady used to dally with the Prince Regent, which had the helpful effect of making William a fairly influential figure at court and offering the start of a promising political career. (Lady M later had an affair with Byron herself, but that is a minor side note to this story).
The marriage supposedly started off well. They liked each other! That was good! Although Caroline was reportedly appalled at having sex with her new husband. She began affecting a childlike lisp immediately after her marriage (this seems like a lie, but less of an “outrageous” one and more of “the kind of self-creation one might do in college”) and sitting publicly on William’s lap at events. Her mother was concerned that she was regressing, and had become “more school-girlish than wifely”.
The couple was certainly not sexually compatible. Caroline wrote, “He called me prudish – said I was strait-laced – amused himself with instructing me in things I need never have heard or known – and the disgust that I at first felt for the world’s wickedness I till then had never even heard of – in a very short time this gave way to a general laxity of principles which little by little unperceived of you all has been undermining the few virtues I ever possessed.”
In spite of that, Caroline eventually gave birth to a son, George, who suffered from epilepsy and some learning defects. The marriage slowly cooled, and Caroline began threatening to have affairs. William replied that since she was sexually unresponsive that seemed unlikely. Caroline furiously wrote, “William cares nothing for my morals. I might flirt and go about with whom I pleased.”
Eventually, she wrote this fan letter to the, at the time, very, very sexy poet Lord Bryon regarding his latest work, Childe Harold:
I have read your Book & cannot refrain from telling you that I think it & that all those whom I live with & whose opinions are far more worth having – think it beautiful.
You deserve to be and you shall be happy.
Do not throw away such Talents as you possess in gloom & regrets for the past & above all live here in your own Country which will be proud of you – & which requires your exertions.
Pray take no trouble to find out who now writes to you – it is one very little worth your notice & with whom you are unacquainted but who from the first has admired your great & promising Genius & who is now so delighted with what you have written that it would be difficult for me to refrain from telling you what I think.
As this is the first letter I ever wrote without my name & could not well put it, will you promise to burn it immediately & never to mention it?
If you take the trouble you may very easily find out who it is, but I shall think less well of Child(e) Harold if he tries – though the greatest wish I have is one day to see him & be acquainted with him.”
She famously claimed that Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” I know I have mentioned this before, but he was also unbelievably attractive. Seriously.
He was somewhat more flattering to her and wrote:
“I have always thought you the cleverest, most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.”
So, yes, they started sleeping with one another fairly quickly. And she was not sexually unresponsive!
But Byron was demanding. First, he wanted Caroline to leave her husband, which she had no intention of doing. To that decision he proclaimed, “My God, you shall pay for this, I’ll wring that obstinate little heart.” She began to reconsider, but by then, his friends dissuaded him, claiming such an act would ruin his reputation. (Byron always, always, always wanted to be liked. You would think he would have been successful and talented enough not to care so very much, but he did.)
So Byron thought that they would have a discreet affair, but Caroline had no intention of taking that path either. When they went to parties, she insisted that they arrive in the same carriage. There were also scenes; sometimes Byron’s club foot meant he could not dance, while Caroline enjoyed dancing. For instance:
On 5 July, they met again at a waltzing party at Lady Heathcote’s. Caroline remembered his earlier pleas for her to sit with him instead of dancing. She walked up to him and asked, ‘I conclude I may waltz now.’ Byron replied: ‘With every body in turn – you always did it better than anyone. I shall have a pleasure in seeing you.’ Later, he said to her sarcastically, ‘I have been admiring your dexterity.’ Caroline picked up a table knife, ‘not intending anything’, she later wrote. Byron was amused and contemptuous. ‘Do, my dear. If you mean to act a Roman’s part,’ he told her, ‘mind which way you strike with your knife – be it at your own heart, not mine – you have struck there already.’ Caroline cried out, ‘Byron!’ and fled in distress. When some ladies tried to take the knife from her, she cut her hand. The entire shoddy affair was reported in the papers.
When he went somewhere without her, she began following him.
Byron really didn’t like that possessive streak. He didn’t appreciate needy women in general. He was also at a point in his career where he was routinely being compared to “a Greek God.” I kid you not. There is a review where the writer does not touch on his poetry at all, but only about how looking at him is like looking at a Greek God. It’s pretty much the interview in Bridget Jones’ Diary that Bridget tries to conduct with Colin Firth where she only asks him about how hot he is and spends all her time describing staring at him.
Lord Byron was very handsome, and he was known for sleeping with a lot of women.
A lot of women. Supposedly he slept with 250 in one year in Venice.
However! Back to our story. I legitimately believe he was faithful to Caroline. But then, when he flirted with another woman at a party, she became so furious that she bit down on the glass she was drinking from and broke it. Glass shards apparently just spewed out of her mouth, flying everywhere.
He said they should take a break.
She did not concur.
That was around the time she sent him the pubic hair. She also dressed up as a boy, broke into his house, and tried to stab herself in the heart in front of him.
Where once he had found her “agreeable, absurd, amiable” – all the good A+ words! – he now did not feel that way. After the break-in where she left a note reading “remember me,” he wrote an angry poem:
Remember thee! remember thee!
Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream
Remorse and shame shall cling to thee,
And haunt thee like a feverish dream!
Remember thee! Aye, doubt it not.
Thy husband too shall think of thee:
By neither shalt thou be forgot,
Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!
So, the relationship did not work out. At all.
You know who was really, really nice about this messy business? Her husband, William. Her husband who seemingly wanted the gross stuff in bed. Maybe he felt guilty that he had not paid enough attention to her morals earlier, but she told him everything. William promised to stand by Caroline and even offered to send her to their country home so that she could get some distance from Byron, which was great advice that no obsessively-in-love person, has, I suppose, ever taken.
Byron, by that time, was sleeping with Lady Jane Oxford. She was not known for being witty or for doing anything but talking about her sex life. I think she’s dumb, honestly. Reading about her dumb life was the worst part of writing this essay.
Ah, fine, I see you are onto me. I do not normally penalize women for talking about their sex lives to the exclusion of everything else in the world. If I did, it would be impossible for me to love Madame du Barry as much as I do. I love a good strumpet, I really do. However! In the process of sleeping with Byron and telling everyone about her affair with this sexy young poet, Lady Jane wrote this letter:
“Lady Caroline, I love another. I am no longer yr lover. and since you oblige me to confess it, by this truly unfeminine persecution, – learn, that I am attached to another; whose name it would of course be dishonourable to mention. I shall ever remember with gratitude the many instances I have received of the predilection you have shewn in my favour. I shall ever continue your friend, if your Ladyship will permit me so to style myself; and, as a first proof of my regard, I offer you this advice, correct your vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices upon others; and leave me in peace.’
It is just a dumb letter, you know? It is very, very stupid compared to anything Byron or Caroline wrote. It is also tacky. That’s just a cheap, smug, tacky little ending, there, and it’s unforgivably deliberately cruel to someone in pain. I hate the letter and I hate her.
Byron sent it to Caroline. It’s written in Lady Jane’s hand but he still sent it.
Why? Up until that point he had been sending Caroline letters about reconciling. Was he . . . I cannot believe that Lord Byron was genuinely in love with Lady Jane Oxford. She sucks. She’s a dreadful writer. So, he was drunk? Spiteful? Really drunk??
The best explanation I’ve got is, “They were nasty people. Everyone involved in this affair was appalling except for Lady Caroline.” Now re-thinking. She was also having an affair. Her husband sounds quite nice though. “The only non-terrible person in this affair is William, who was, seemingly, weird in bed, maybe into some off-color stuff, but also, not dreadful.”
I’d marry William. He seems nice. What do you think was the unspeakable stuff he wanted in bed? Blowjobs probably, right? Or 19th century British aristocrat horse whipping stuff? Maybe he wanted her to pretend to be a horse. You know, it’s possible he just loved to cuddle too much.
Caroline received the Lady Jane letter, read it, and tried to slash her throat with a razor.
But then she pulled her act together. She held a bonfire where she burned a scarecrow version of Byron in effigy. At the event, an all female chorus line danced and chanted “Burn, fire, burn, while wondering boys exclaim,/ And gold and trinkets glitter in the flame.”
She was planning to throw herself onto the fire, but William said, “You know, maybe that is not a good idea.” Or something like that. I think William and I would be friends because he always had good advice.
When Byron heard about this evening, he sent her a note saying, “You are possessed by the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet!” Isn’t it great to know the origin of that term was Caroline Lamb’s Byron-burning party? I think it’s amazing.
Shortly thereafter, Lady Caroline wrote a book about her affair with Byron titled Glenavron. I highly recommend you read it. It’s not well written, but it’s graphic. There is one portion where Caroline writes:
Lord Glenarvon was of a disposition to attend so wholly to those in whose presence he took delight, that he failed to remember those to whom he had once been attached; so that like the wheels of a watch, the chain of his affections might be said to unwind from the absent, in proportion as they twined themselves around the favourite of the moment; and being extreme in all things, he could not sufficiently devote himself to the one, without taking from the other all that he had given.
That perhaps explains sending Lady Jane’s letter.
After the book’s publication, William decided that the whole affair had actually become too painful. In his private letters he claimed that he now wished he was dead. Finally, he said he wanted to separate. Caroline went full Scarlett O’Hara and tore up their house demanding that William stay. She then ran away to Paris and London. William eventually relented, and allowed her to come home, which she did, with an addiction to laudanum that she had picked up abroad. She wrote a second book about laudanum, but it sold poorly, because, well, Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs were not to be born for another century.
I’m not even going to say how, because we’d be here for ten more pages. He just died. Caroline said that she was sorry she had ever said a bad word about him. He left her a ring – despite the fact that she burnt him in effigy! – which she wore fondly for the rest of her life.
A ring is a good remembrance after a relationship ends. It is a lovely normal clean item. It is much better than a bloodied festering clump of pubic hair. Which – fun fact! – is supposedly still housed at Byron’s publishing house.
Caroline died in 1828 at age 42. William wrote her obituary, in which he claimed that mistresses of poets “have to be judged leniently, because their passion stems from imagination rather than depravity.”
Are you reading this and thinking, “My last relationship broke up. I am trying to find someone to identify with in this story, Jennifer, but I have failed, because I either maintained my pubic hair and did not break into anyone’s house, or, alternatively, I did not deliberately drive my ex-lover to multiple suicide attempts.”
GOOD WORK, BUDDY.
By comparison, I think we’re all winners, and we can take comfort in that. Let’s all resolve to be better than everyone in this story, and say goodbye to this freakish historical chapter with some poetry written by Byron, a good looking guy:
I read the “Christabel;”
I read the “Missionary;”
Pretty – very:
I tried at “Ilderim;”
I read a sheet of “Marg’ret of Anjou;”
I turned a page of Webster’s “Waterloo;”
I looked at Wordsworth’s milk-white “Rylstone Doe;”
I read “Glenarvon,” too, by Caro Lamb;
Oh. William went on to become the Prime Minister of England. Really. Queen Victoria loved that guy. Just in case you were wondering.
A History of Mistresses by Elizabeth Abbott