As I said last week, fate began to play a new hand in Caroline’s life at the end of 1804. William Lamb’s older brother Peniston became seriously ill, he was dying of consumption and William grasped his moment to propose to Caroline. but before I tell you the tale, here is the background to this series of posts, as always and if you have read it before please skip to the end of the italics where I have marked the type in bold.
I was drawn to Lady Caroline Lamb, who lived in the Regency era, because Harriette Wilson the courtesan who wrote her memoirs in 1825, mentions the Ponsonby and the Lamb family frequently. Also the story of Caroline’s affair with Lord Byron captured my imagination. Caroline was also a writer, she wrote poems, and novels in her later life. I have read Glenarvon.
Her life story and her letters sucked me further into the reality of the Regency world which is rarely found in modern-day books. Jane Austen wrote fictional, ‘country’ life as she called it, and I want to write fictional ‘Regency’ life rather than simply romance. But what I love when I discover gems in my research like Caroline’s story is sharing the real story behind my fiction here too.
Lady Caroline Lamb was born Caroline Ponsonby, on the 13th November 1785. She was the daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon, and Henrietta (known as Harriet), the sister of the infamous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
Caroline became an official lady when her grandfather died, and her father became Earl of Bessborough earning her the honorific title ‘Lady’ and she grew up in a world of luxury, even Marie Antoinette was a family friend. Caroline was always renowned as being lively, and now it is suspected she had a condition called bipolar. As a child she earned herself a title as a ‘brat’, by such things as telling her aunt Georgiana that Edward Gibbon’s (the author of The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire) face was ‘so ugly it had frightened her puppy’.
And when she grew up Byron once 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.”
William had been harbouring a desire for Caorline for years by this point, and he must have seen other suitors lining up for their moment to offer. Caro was from one of the most renowned and oldest families, and her family were even considering a match with a prince… So William grasped a chance to offer for her now, at least knowing he would likely become a peer.
Caroline refused him, though.
As Peniston became more seriously ill, William’s mother scandalously allowed his mistress to stay in their family home, to give him some comfort. He died on January 4th 1805, leaving William the heir to the Melbourne title and fortune. This however was not a straightforward step, because William was illegitimate. Peniston had been Lord Melbourne’s only legitimate child, and although Lord Melbourne had given his wife’s other sons his name, he knew they were not his. He therefore refused to recognize William as his heir in any unofficial capacity, even though to the world William was his son… (So you see the other way these high status families managed their copious by-blows, they either passed them off to others, or persuaded husbands and wives to treat them as legitimate)
While the Lamb family were creating scandal and enduring sadness, Caro’s family were spinning up a storm of scandal as usual. Caro’s mother wrote to her lover about a letter, sent to Caroline, which contained ‘every gross, disgusting indecency that the most deprav’d imagination could suggest‘ and in case Caro should not understand the innuendo, the author had explained everything in detail… What was worse was the letter contained details which indicated that the person knew the family, and it referred to a conversation Caro had participated in with her aunt Georgiana. The rest of the family went on to be bombarded with horrible letters, and even worse an editor from the Morning Post showed Harriet letters that he received on a daily basis pouring out scandal about the family. It was then that Harriet recognized the writing as one of her former lovers.
Harriet and Georgiana in the end silenced the author by publishing a response in the paper…
Shame to the pen whose coward poisons flow
In secret streams with baneful malice fraught
That emulates th’ assassin’s Midnight blow,
by hate directed and my vengeance wrought.
Yet generous mind the name will ne’re reveal,
Tho’ known! nor deign a stigma to impart,
But leave the dastard miscreant to feel
The conscious pangs of corrupted heart.
That letters did cease not long after this was published.
Meanwhile, eventually, Lord Melbourne was persuaded by his wife to settle an allowance on William and recognize him as the future Earl, but instead of setting an allowance of £5,000 on William, Lord Melbourne only allowed him £1,800 – yet that was enough for William to provide for a wife and so on May 1st he repeated his proposal to Caroline.
‘I have loved you for four years, loved you deeply, dearly, faithfully – so faithfully that my love has withstood with firm determination to conquer it when honour forbade my declaring myself – has withstood all that absence, variety of objects, my own endeavours to seek and like others, or to occupy my mind with fix’d attention to my profession, could do to shake it‘
His heartfelt words convinced Caroline to plead the acceptance of her parents, and on the 2nd of May Harriet wrote to her lover.
‘I have long foreseen and endeavoured to avoid what has just happened – Wm Lamb’s proposing to her but she likes him too much for me to do more than entreat a little further acquaintance on both sides, (that line make’s me wonder if the only reason Caro refused the previous year was on the advice of her mother – she says further) and not have this declared immediately, which precludes all possibility of retreat. In some things I like it. He has a thousand good qualities, is very clever, which is absolutely necessary for her; and above all she has preferred him from childhood, and is now so much in love with him that before his speaking . I dreaded it affecting her health. But on the other hand, I dislike the connection extremely. I dislike his manners, and still more his principles and his creed,or rather no creed. Yet to her his behaviour has been honourable and his letter is beautiful.‘
I love that Harriet criticizes his principles… when we KNOW hers… But I also love that she thinks his letter beautiful…
The story continues next week… Yes, I am going to leave in suspense until then…
Go to the index
- the story of the real courtesan who inspired The Illicit Love of a Courtesan,
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional Historical and New Adult Romance stories, and the author of a No.1 bestselling Historical Romance novel in America, ‘The Illicit Love of a Courtesan’.
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