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Jonathan David Gross, ed., Byron's "Corbeau Blanc": The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne

Monday, March 13, 2000 - 06:03
Jonathan David Gross, ed., Byron's "Corbeau Blanc": The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.  xiii + 488pp. illus. $24.95 (Pbk; ISBN: 0-89263-351-4).

Reviewed by
William D. Brewer
Appalachian State University

Lord Byron met Lady Melbourne (1751–1818) when she was sixty and he was twenty-four, and he came to regard her as his only "confidential correspondent on earth," "the best friend [he] ever had in [his] life, and the cleverest of women." He found her conversation delightful and declared that her letters were "the most amusing—the most developing—and tactiques [sic] in the world" (Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 3:141–42, 3:209, 3:153). Jonathan Gross's edition of Lady Melbourne's correspondence makes her numerous letters to Byron, the Duchess of Devonshire, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), Caroline Lamb, her niece Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), and others widely available for the first time. He supplements the letters with an informative introductory biography, extensive headnotes and endnotes, a helpful "Glossary of Personalities," and sixty-five illustrations. The illustrations alone make this a valuable book: they include portraits of Lady Melbourne, her family members, and associates; photographs and drawings of her various houses; and political cartoons. Gross also provides the reader with a "Scale of Bon Ton" printed by the Morning Post which ranks Lady Melbourne and other upper-class women on a scale of 0–19 in the following categories: beauty, figure, elegance, wit, sense, grace, expression, sensibility, and principles. (Oddly, Lady Melbourne only scores a three in wit.)

Born Elizabeth Milbanke, the daughter of a Yorkshire baronet, Lady Melbourne married the wealthy Peniston Lamb (later Lord Melbourne) in 1769, and, along with the Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Damer, dominated Whig society from 1774-1776. To memorialize her social success, Lady Melbourne had herself and her two friends painted by Daniel Gardner in his Witches 'Round the Cauldron (1775) as the three witches in Macbeth. Richard Brinsley Sheridan caricatured her in his The School for Scandal (1777) as Lady Teazle, who defiantly informs her husband that "women of fashion in London are accountable to nobody after they are married" (II.i). The three witches' social ascendancy was, however, short-lived. The suicide of Anne Damer's husband in 1776 left her destitute, and she became a sculptor. In 1779, the Duchess of Devonshire published The Sylph, a roman à clef in which Lady Melbourne is presented as the worldly Lady Besford, who argues that women should commit adultery with discretion. The Duke of Devonshire banished his Duchess to the continent in 1791 after she indiscreetly became pregnant with her lover's child.

Lady Melbourne's husband was a virtually illiterate drunkard and spendthrift who began an affair with an actress soon after his marriage, but he also proved to be generous and complaisant, showering his wife with gifts and allowing her to oversee the construction of Melbourne House, Piccadilly and the decoration of his other estates. He also tolerated her numerous infidelities. Following the common practice of upper-class women during the eighteenth century, Lady Melbourne remained faithful to her husband until her son Peniston was born. Having ensured that Lord Melbourne would have a legitimate heir, she had affairs with Lord Egremont (who may have fathered William and Emily Lamb) and the Prince of Wales (who was widely regarded as the father of her son George). Peniston died, however, in 1805, and William inherited Melbourne's title and properties. Lady Melbourne's relationship with the Prince of Wales attracted the attention of political satirists and cartoonists, but Lady Melbourne seems to have weathered the scandal with her usual good humor. According to her, "Life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think" (18).

As a well-connected upper-class hostess and close friend of the Prince, Lady Melbourne had considerable political influence which she employed on behalf of her family and friends. Partly through her efforts, her husband became an Irish peer, and her relationship with the Prince led him to appoint Melbourne lord of the bedchamber and, in 1816, peer of the United Kingdom. During her years of social pre-eminence, the Whig leader Charles James Fox was Lady Melbourne's frequent guest, and she worked tirelessly to advance her sons' careers. Frederick had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat, and after his mother's death William served as Prime Minister under William IV and Queen Victoria (1834, 1835-41). Lady Melbourne had, however, less success in managing William's wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, who had affairs with Sir Godfrey Webster in 1809 and Lord Byron in 1812. She found her daughter-in-law's complete lack of discretion unforgivable. In a 13 April 1810 letter she scolded Lady Caroline for her "disgraceful" and "disgusting" behavior and warned her that "when any one braves the opinion of the World, sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it" (107).

Lady Melbourne began her correspondence with Byron in order to persuade him to break off his relationship with Caroline, but her friendship with the poet survived the affair. Byron later explained to Lady Blessington that "Lady M[elbourne], who might have been my mother, excited an interest in my feelings that few young women have been able to awaken. She was a charming person—a sort of modern Aspasia. . . . I have often thought, that, with a little more youth, Lady M might have turned my head" (Lady Blessington's Conversations of Lord Byron, ed. Lovell, 132). Lady Melbourne served as a mediator between Byron and the increasingly unstable Caroline, urging him to grant her daughter-in-law's request for a lock of hair. (Byron mischievously sent Caroline a "double lock" of his and his current mistress's hair.) Despite her knowledge of Byron's sexual promiscuity, Lady Melbourne gave him her "free permission" to pursue her niece (174), Annabella Milbanke. In a 10 June 1814 letter Byron's only "confidential correspondent" expressed her dismay over his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh: "I am shock'd at some of the things you sd to me last Night, & think the easy manner in which two people have accustom'd themselves to consider, their Situation quite terrible" (180). She apparently believed that if Byron married Annabella he would no longer be vulnerable to Augusta's dangerous influence and Caroline's hysterical outbursts.

In her advice to her niece, Lady Melbourne asserted that "Marriage after all we can say, or do, must be a sort of Lottery" (132). Soon after she married Byron, it became clear to Annabella that she had picked a losing lottery ticket, and she decided to seek a separation. The failure of the marriage that she did so much to engineer surprised and saddened Lady Melbourne. It took all of her diplomatic skills to repair her relations with the Milbankes, who held her partly responsible for Annabella's marriage to the mad and bad lord. To make matters worse, Caroline Lamb published her novel Glenarvon (1816), in which her mother-in-law is presented as the crafty and villainous Lady Margaret Buchanan, soon after the separation. In contrast, Byron's portrait of Lady Melbourne in Don Juan is extremely positive. Although she was a prominent member of the "gynocracy" that Byron despised (Don Juan, 16:52), she appears in his poem as the maternal Lady Pinchbeck, whom Juan chooses as Leila's guardian:

I said that Lady Pinchbeck had been talk'd about—
   As who has not, if female, young, and pretty?
But now no more the ghost of Scandal stalk'd about;
   She merely was deem'd amiable and witty,
And several of her best bon-mots were hawk'd about:
   Then she was given to charity and pity,
And pass'd (at least the latter years of life)
For being a most exemplary wife. (12:47)

Lady Melbourne would have been horrified, however, by her most recent fictional incarnation as a sinister, middle-aged bloodsucker in Tom Holland's Gothic thriller Lord of the Dead (1995; published in Great Britain as The Vampyre) who guides Byron during his years as a Regency vampire.

Lady Melbourne's letters to Byron should be read alongside his numerous letters to her. Gross provides a fraction of Byron's part of the dialogue in endnotes, but for a fuller sense of their interchange one needs to refer to volumes 2–4 of Leslie A. Marchand's edition of Byron's letters and journals. As Gross observes, "To read both ends of the correspondence is to realize how often Byron's literary imagination was first stimulated by the worldly insights offered to him by Lady Melbourne" (6). Their letters to each other are chatty, gossipy, and intimate. In a 21 June 1813 letter to his "corbeau blanc" Byron jokingly proposes that they elope together (Byron's Letters and Journals, 3:66), and the disappearance of "Many of Lady Melbourne's letters to Byron from April 1813" makes one wonder if their relationship was more than platonic (116). Expertly and meticulously edited, Gross's collection of Lady Melbourne's correspondence adds a great deal to our understanding of English upper-class life during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and Byron's relationships with women during his years of fame.