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Books: Caroline Lamb’s Husband

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THE YOUNG MELBOURNE—Lord David Cecil—Bobbs-Merrill ($3).

When naive Alexandrina Victoria became Queen of England in 1837, she inherited as Prime Minister a fine worldly Whig: William Lamb, Lord Melbourne. For four years, he, the representative of a passing era, patiently tutored the young Queen who was to play the title role in a new age. But the same man had had another life, as William Lamb, second son of worldlywise, domineering Lady Melbourne. As William Lamb, he was the husband of Byron’s mistress, Caroline Lamb, and was by all odds the most urbane of the many cuckolds whom George Gordon Lord Byron left on his pilgrimage through British bedrooms.

Last week Lord David Cecil (author of The Stricken Deer, a life of Poet William Cowper) published the story of Lord Melbourne’s first life. The Young Melbourne is perhaps the best, certainly the raciest and most absorbing biography since Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria.

All that he was, William Lamb owed to his mother, Lady Melbourne. She presented her husband with six children, few of whom were his. William was universally supposed to be the son of Lord Egremont, who, scandal had it, bought Lady Melbourne from Lord Coleraine for £13,000, of which Lady Melbourne got a cut. (“Your mother is a whore,” a young Cambridge friend once shouted at William’s brother George.)

The little Lambs worshiped their forceful mother who ruled over vast, anarchic Melbourne House. Order-loving Lady Granville, in an exasperated moment, described it as “that great ocean, where they wander about all day and sleep about all the evening; no meal is at a given hour, but drops upon them as an unexpected pleasure.” In that matriarchy, the strikingly handsome, tall, dark-eyed, sensual, clever, positive, realistic Lambs horse-played and horselaughed at delicacy and romance, ate prodigiously, fell asleep and snored, shouted their arrogant opinions, cursed loud and long. Yet they had immense love of life, good humor, adroitly managed people and situations. Melbourne House was a social centre of London. It was also animal, hard, rapacious and plainspoken.

William Lamb naturally fell easy victim to the wholly different boudoir atmosphere of Devonshire House, whose tyrant was slight, agile, wide-eyed, willful, 17-year-old Caroline Ponsonby. Her lisping voice cooed out words in “the Devonshire House drawl.” Said a rival: “Lady Caroline baas like a little sheep.” Caroline liked to gallop bareback, to dress in trousers. Sometimes she would scream and tear her clothes, kick the floor with her heels. But she was vivid, fitful, daring and held even outraged relatives spellbound.

William Lamb was Caroline’s predestined prey. They were married, though not before Caroline, “seized by an unaccountable fit of rage with the officiating bishop, tore her gown and was carried fainting from the room.” For three years all went well. Once Caroline was brought in “concealed under a silver dish cover, from which she emerged on the dinner table stark naked. …” In the mornings William and she read “Newton on the Prophecies with the Bible”; then “Hume with Shakespeare till the dressing bell.”

Caroline Lamb was one of the first live, romantic heroines, but the robust Lambs did not believe in heroines or romance. They laughed at her. Privately they called her “the little beast.” Even William liked to regale her with his old love affairs. Soon Caroline had a lover, Sir Godfrey Webster, coarse, handsome and ostracized. But Sir Godfrey called it off at the time a new waltz, Ach du lieber Augustin, was sweeping England and a jam of carriages was bearing invitations to the door of a young Lord who had just published a book called Childe Harold.

Byron, says Author Cecil, was no true romantic. He “had a robust Eighteenth-Century mocking kind of outlook.” When she saw him, Caroline Lamb wrote: “Bad, mad and dangerous to know.” A week later she wrote: “That beautiful pale face will be my fate.” They went through a curious mock marriage, exchanged vows, signed a book as Byron and Caroline Byron. Byron’s confidante in this and later affairs was William Lamb’s mother, Lady Melbourne, whom he described as “the best friend I ever had.”

At last relatives carried off Caroline and William to Ireland, where everybody said “how fond Lady Caroline seemed of her husband.” “When they say that to me,” said her mother, “I want to bellow.”

Byron (affairing with calm Lady Oxford, who told him, “a broken heart is nothing but a bad digestion”) wrote Caroline saying: “Correct your vanity which has be come ridiculous . . . and leave me in peace.” Caroline had convulsions for a fortnight. She offered herself to any young man who would fight a duel with Byron. She put new livery on her footmen with buttons engraved: “Ne crede Byron” (“Do not believe Byron”).

Although people began to cut Caroline, William stood by her. Said he later: “By ron was treacherous beyond conception.

I believe he was fond of treachery. . . .” But he regretted that his mother should “conspire against his wife with that wife’s lover.” After Caroline wrote Glenarvon (a novel about herself and Byron), its succes de scandale got her ostracized. She took to frequenting other literary persons, among them William Blake and Bulwer Lytton, with whom she had an affair. Said William Blake: “There is a great deal of kindness in that lady.” Said Bulwer Lytton: “Wil liam Lamb was particularly kind to me.

I think he saw my feelings.” Gradually Caroline replaced literature with laudanum and brandy. Sometimes she broke $1,000 worth of china in a morning.

When at last William agreed to a separation, Caroline quickly died. “For years afterwards the mere mention of her name brought tears to his eyes. . . . ‘Shall we meet?’ he would be heard murmuring to himself, ‘Shall we meet in another world?’ ” To the future Prime Minister, Caroline’s death seemed like the end of the world.

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