Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 by Colin Brown
Elizabeth Lamb was sexy, shrewd and presided over a salon for the fashionable Whig set for three decades but in writing her biography I found fresh evidence that Elizabeth Lamb, the Viscountess of Melbourne was as scheming and ruthless as Marquess de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
She was almost proud of her reputation for intrigue. When she commissioned an artist to do a group portrait of herself and her two closest friends, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Anne Damer, a sculptor, she arranged it so they were portrayed as the three witches in Macbeth, casting spells on those around her. Not that she regarded herself as a wicked witch, but others did, and today she might be regarded as a monster who would do anything for her ambition to rise to the top of Georgian society.
She lived by a rule that provided a woman had done her duty in producing an heir for her husband, she should be free to have as many lovers as she liked. Before the age of contraception this led to the birth of many illegitimate offspring but such were the different moral codes before the Victorians, a Georgian man invariably accepted his wife’s infidelities and her children as his own. Lady Melbourne had six surviving children but only the first, Peniston, was by her husband, Peniston Lamb. Her second son, William – who later became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister – was almost certainly sired by George Wyndham, the third earl of Egremont, Elizabeth’s long-term lover who owned Petworth house in Sussex. Her fourth son, George, was widely assumed to be the result of Elizabeth’s brief sexual encounters with the young, plump Prince of Wales when she visited Eton to see Peniston.
Elizabeth had been born Elizabeth Milbanke in 1751 in the Yorkshire Dales at Halnaby Hall – now only the stables survive – but she managed to rise from being a squire’s daughter to one of the leading ladies of Georgian society. Her marriage to Peniston was a marriage of convenience for both parties. He wanted the respectability of the Milbanke’s. She wanted Peniston’s fortune – he had inherited £1 million from his father, with two country houses, Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, and Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, with a comfortable house in Sackville Street, just off Piccadilly.
She discovered soon after she had married Peniston while she was pregnant with his son that her husband had taken up with a celebrated courtesan called Sophia Baddeley, whose friend humiliated Elizabeth by writing her kiss and tell memoirs which claimed Peniston had promised Sophia lavish sums of money providing she would only have sex with him. Elizabeth had her revenge by having a string of lovers and spending Peniston’s fortune firstly on a splendid London house – now converted into flats called the Albany, still one of the most prestigious addresses in Piccadilly.
Georgiana came under Lady Melbourne’s spell, which infuriated Georgiana’s mother, Lady Spencer who repeatedly ordered her daughter to break off her friendship with Lady Melbourne, to no avail. It was almost as though Georgiana was afraid of Lady Melbourne and wrote many letters (now in Lamb archive at the British Library) pleading with Lady Melbourne not to be angry with her. Lady Mary Coke complained the Duchess ‘cannot walk into a room; she must come in with a hop and a jump’. I found that was not Elizabeth’s style. Where the Duchess was gushing and gauche, Elizabeth was calculating, scheming, politically shrewd. Her advice was to prove disastrous for her intimate friend Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, (1757-1806), however.
Georgiana spent years trying to produce an heir for the Duke and when she did, she then took Lady Melbourne’s lead by taking a couple of lovers. However, where Lady Melbourne insisted on absolute secrecy about her affairs, Georgiana fell pregnant to a rising Whig politician, Charles Grey and she was quickly confronted by the Duke who insisted on her having the child in exile in France to limit the scandal – and the potential problems of inheritance. Unlike Lady Melbourne, she was forced to give up the child, a girl, who was brought up in the country by Grey’s parents.
Elizabeth’s intrigues reached a climax in her middle age when the poet Lord Byron literally stumbled into their lives. The Melbourne’s had done a house swop with the Duke of York and moved from Piccadilly to the Duke’s house in Whitehall, now Dover House, the Scotland Office, jammed between Horse Guards and the Cabinet Office. William Lamb’s wife, Caroline Lamb, was holding dancing parties and had invited the young poet who had burst onto the scene like a pop star with his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. He had one leg shorter than the other, and tripped on the staircase at Melbourne House. He commented to a friend: ‘It is a bad omen’. He was right. Caroline fell head over heels in love with the dashing poet and for a hot summer in 1812 they became passionate lovers. Caroline’s ‘crime’ in Lady Melbourne’s eyes was not that she had cuckolded her son; it was that she conducted her affair in public. After an earlier affair, she wrote an excoriating letter to her daughter-in-law saying: ‘When one braves the opinion of the World sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it.’
Lady Caroline Lamb today would be regarded as a wild child, a celebrity starlet, the darling of the gossip columns. Byron tired of Caroline’s attentions – she dressed up as a page to get into his rooms and slashed her wrists at a ball – and tried to drop her. Astonishingly, her mother-in-law set about helping Byron to extricate himself from Caroline’s desperate clutches. And she did so by helping to engineer a marriage between Byron and her niece, Annabella Milbanke. The marriage was a disaster but I found evidence that Lady Melbourne was keen to promote it – even after she discovered that Byron had had an affair with his half-sister, and had a child with her. Byron and Lady Melbourne exchanged rings and letters like lovers. There were claims that she had become Byron’s lover. She was sixty one and he was twenty four. It may seem unlikely but she was such an extraordinary woman, no-one would say it never happened.
Colin Brown's new book Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 is available for purchase now.