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The Young Melbourne Excerpts (Biography)

[ Lord Byron Affair ] [ Lord Melbourne ]

From The Young Melbourne by Lord David Cecil (1939)

Chapter 6 - Byron:

...The Webster episode was only the rehearsal of a far more distressing exhibition. In March, 1812, the first part of Childe Harold was published to the world. Its success was instantaneous and colossal. The sweep of its rhetoric, its full-blooded romantic pessimism, its glowing Turneresque landscapes, all torrents and ruins, and patches of picturesque foreign colour, alike hit the taste of the time. And so still more did the personality behind them; the figure of the author who, melancholy, detached and scornful, his heart turned to marble by a career of sin and sightseeing in every part of Europe, stood out in melodramatic silhouette against the sublimities of nature and the wreckage of empires. Besides, he was a lord, and, it was rumoured, as beautiful as an angel: such a lion had not appeared in London within living memory. His book became the fashion as no poem ever has before or since. Listening at the dinner table one heard the words "Childe Harold" coming from every mouth; in St. James's Street, where its author lived, the traffic was held up by the press of carriages bearing notes of invitation for him; before a month had passed, the doors of every modish house in the capital had been flung open to announce "Lord Byron."

On an unprejudiced observer he must have made an unexpected impression. There limped into the room a self-conscious youth, with a handsome sulky head, fidgety movements, showy, ill-fitting clothes, and a manner conspicuously lacking in the ease and naturalness usual in a man of his rank. Indeed, Byron at twenty-four was, in almost every respect, the opposite of the version of himself he sought to impose on the world. No one could have been less detached. By nature acutely sensitive to the opinion of others, his confidence had been early undermined by his lame leg, his bullying, drunken mother, and the poverty-stricken and provincial circumstances of his childhood. A gnawing, resentful mistrust of all men, and more especially of all women, warred continuously in his breast with an obsessing desire to make an impression on anyone by any means. There was nothing he would not do to score a hit or avoid a humiliation. Nor was he at heart a romantic. Fundamentally, Byron had a robust eighteenth-century mocking kind of outlook. But the romantic attitude, by the scope it gave for individual self-glorification, gratified his egotism: and he could not resist adopting it. His sophistication was equally false; a mask assumed to hide a torturing shyness. He trembled every time he had to enter a drawing-room; his conversation was that of a clever undergraduate, all impish brilliance, and wilful moods, and naive affectations: and if he failed to please, he flung off in a pet. So far from being the experienced and disillusioned Childe Harold, he was a raw, nerve-ridden boy of genius, whose divine fire gleamed fitfully forth through an undignified turmoil of suspicion and awkwardness, theatrical pose and crude vanity.

Such was the real Byron. But the hostesses of London saw him as Childe Harold. And none more than Caroline. As might have been expected, she caught the Byron fever in a particularly virulent form. "I must meet him I am dying to meet him," she told Rogers. "He has a club foot and bites his nails," Rogers replied. "If he is as ugly as Aesop," she insisted, "I must see him." A few days later her wish was gratified at a ball. Caroline staged the meeting with her usual sense of the theatre. When Byron was led up to her to be introduced, she gazed for a moment intently into his face, and then silently turned on her heel. That night she wrote in her diary, "Bad, mad and dangerous to know." This was equivalent to saying she had determined to know him very well. They met again two days later during an afternoon call at Holland House. This time as he was presented, Byron, thoroughly piqued by her behaviour at their first interview, began straight away: "This offer was made to you the other day. May I ask why you declined it?" History does not record her reply; but before they parted he had promised to come and see her. The affair between them was launched on its tumultuous course.

The events of this celebrated serio-comedy, as Byron called it, have been told and re-told, analysed and argued about, in a hundred different books. Yet much about it remains obscure. For the chief evidence on the subject is that of Caroline and Byron themselves: and they were both such confirmed liars, both so bent at all costs on making out a good case for themselves, that it is impossible to trust a word that either says. Further, their behaviour was so abnormally capricious as to make it hard, even when the facts are unquestioned, to divine their import. In Caroline, contradictory moods and different dramatic poses succeeded one another with the eyedeceiving rapidity of a quick-change act. While Byron was blown from his course at every turn, now by weakness, now by vanity.

However, from the welter of conflicting statements and inconsistent actions, one fact emerges. Neither was, in any true sense, in love. Caroline of course thought she was more than anyone had ever been in love before. And it is true that her emotions were violently agitated. But it was not Byron she cared for: it was his reputation, and still more the idea of herself in love with him. Beautiful, brilliant, seared with the flames of exotic passion, and the most lionized man in England, he was everything she had all her life been seeking. Here at last was a hero worthy of such a heroine. Firmly shutting her eyes to everything but her own visions, she made up her mind that she had found the love of her life. Byron was less self-deceived. He knew quite well he was not in love. Caroline was everything he liked least in women, stormy, clever, and unfashionably thin; "I am haunted by a skeleton," he once remarked. But he had not the strength to withstand her; and he never could refuse the chance of a conquest. Moreover, young as he was, and dazzled by the new and glittering world into which his fame had so suddenly flung him, the prospect of an amour with one of its reigning queens flattered him in a way he was unable to resist. Once entangled, he played his part with all the spirit he could muster. Society was presented with the extraordinary spectacle of a love drama, performed in the most flamboyant, romantic manner by two raging egotists, each of whom was in fact wholly absorbed in self.

They did not do it very well. Caroline over-acted her part, and Byron could not keep his up. Under the glaring spotlight of the public attention, they postured about the stage, getting in each other's way, tripping each other up, turning on one another in childish abuse, pausing to explain to the audience how abominably the other was behaving. Indeed, it would have been an ignominious exhibition enough, but for the personalities of the performers. But both in their varying degrees were people of genius: and in the most ludicrous postures, the most farcical contretemps, they managed somehow to remain magnetic and picturesque. Byron's most flagrant disloyalties sparkle with infectious humor: Caroline's wildest insincerity throbs with an eloquence that brings tears to the eyes. It is this ironic contrast between the glamour of its characters and the unseemly absurdity of the situations in which they were involved, that gives their story its peculiar piquancy to an amateur of the human comedy. Caroline took the initiative, at once striking the high romantic note on which she intended the relationship to be conducted. "That beautiful pale face will be my fate/' she noted, some time during the first week or so of their acquaintance. And she proceeded with a magnificent gesture of generosity to offer Byron all her jewels to sell, if he were hard up. He replied by sending her a rose accompanied by a note, couched in the best Childe Harold strain of insolent allurement: "Your Ladyship, I am told," it ran, "likes all that is new and rare for a moment." This was only following her lead; how far he had decided to go, in these early days, is uncertain. However, any lingering hesitations he may have felt were soon dispelled by Lady Bessborough. She, fearing a repetition of the Webster affair, tried to discourage Byron by telling him that Caroline's infatuation was only assumed to pique another admirer. This roused all Byron's latent competitiveness: he determined not to rest till he was the acknowledged master of Caroline's heart.

From this time the affair rushed onwards in a gathering crescendo. Byron spent the greater part of every day in Caroline's room at Melbourne House; during the rare moments they were apart they communicated by means of letters and verses. Whether they ever became lovers in the fullest sense of the term is one of the unsolved problems of the whole mysterious business. Rogers, who knew them both well, denied it: and his denial is made more probable by the fact that Caroline was of that cerebral temperament, to which the pleasures of the imagination always mean more than the pleasures of the senses. On the other hand it is almost incredible that Byron should have been satisfied without this most practical proof of her subjugation. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that some time in the summer they went through an odd mock marriage ceremony, exchanging rings and writing mutual vows in a book which they signed Byron and Caroline Byron.

Indeed, every stage of their passionate pilgrimage was marked by some theatrical gesture. Caroline was chiefly concerned to parade her tremendous conquest before the world. Throughout all the brilliant crowding activities of the London season, between the red festooned curtains of an opera box, amid the diadems and bare shoulders of a ball, driving round the park in the level evening sunshine, the lowering dark head and the ecstatic blonde one were conspicuous, side by side. They left every party together in Byron's carriage; if by chance only he was invited, Caroline would hang about outside among the link-boys to greet him with demonstrative ardour when he came out. She also created scandal by appearing at unexpected moments in his rooms, imperfectly disguised as a page, in a plumed hat, silver-laced jacket and tight scarlet pantaloons. He, for his part, ran through all the gamut of the Byronic attitudes: was by turns enigmatic, passionate, mocking and tragic. Sitting in her room, he would declaim with melodramatic desolation on the unparalled iniquity of his own character; compared with him, he cried, William Lamb was as Hyperion to a satyr. On other occasions, with eyes lurid with jealousy, he would require Caroline to swear that she loved him bet- ter than William. And when she hesitated, "My God, you shall pay for this," he thundered. "Ill wring that little obstinate heart." He even made her give up waltzing on the ground that he could not bear to see her in the arms of another man. Caroline was jealous, too, and showed it in an even more spectacular fashion. Little Lord John Russell, at dinner at Spencer House, was startled to notice that Lady Caroline Lamb, seized by a fit of uncontrollable agitation, had bitten through the glass that she held in her hand; following her gaze across the table, he saw Lord Byron bending attentively over a beautiful woman next him.

Certainly the course of their love was the reverse of smooth. Rogers used often to arrive home in the afternoon to find the pair pacing his garden: they had quarrelled all day and wanted him to reconcile them. To Caroline, suffering had its compensations: existence was for the first time as exciting as she had always desired it. But Byron felt differently. At heart he liked life to move calmly and sensibly. It was only his desire to conquer Caroline that had made him play up to her heroics. Once his victory was won, he grew bored. Besides, he had an uncomfortable feeling that all this sensational exhibitionism made him look ridiculous. He grew more and more restive; by July he was longing to be quit of the whole affair.

Now, a new and powerful influence arose to encourage his longing. Byron had not taken to Lady Melbourne when he first met her. He only liked those who liked him: and Caroline's mother-in-law, he suspected, must be his enemy. As a matter of fact, Lady Melbourne was not ill-disposed towards Byron. Caroline's troubles, she had long ago made up her mind, were always Caroline's fault. On this occasion had she simply flung herself unasked at a young man's head. And, according to Lady Melbourne's code, a young man was perfectly justified in making love to a married woman if she showed herself willing. In himself, Byron struck Lady Melbourne as extremely agreeable; she therefore made herself as pleasant to him as she could. Her success was immediate. Mistress as she was of the art of pleasing men, she made him feel more at ease than he had since his entry into London society. Moreover, he had a great deal in common with her much more than with Caroline. Her worldly wisdom, her caustic agreeability, and her equable temper, alike appealed to him; so for the matter of that did her cynicism and her lack of refinement. The Melbourne atmosphere was far more to Byron's taste than the Devonshire. After the delicacies and exaltations of an interview with Caroline, what a relief it was, what an indescribable relief, to turn into Lady Melbourne's rooms on the ground floor; where one could be as outspoken and flippant and disloyal as one liked, with no risk of being thought unkind or xmgentlemanly. Besides, Lady Melbourne was so helpful: on her sofa she would sit, advising one in the most terse and entertaining way about how to manage a woman or how to save one's income. "The best friend I ever had in my life," he was to write later, "and the cleverest of women. If she had been a few years younger, what a fool she would have made of me had she thought it worth her while."

Lady Melbourne enjoyed his company as much as he did hers. At sixty-two it was gratifying indeed to be the favourite companion of the most sought-after young man in London especially when it involved stealing him from Caroline. Nor had she so far outgrown her youth, as to be insensible to his attractions. It would be misleading to say that she was in love with him. Her friendship with Byron was at most an agreeable diversion from the serious business of her ambition. But she felt sufficiently warm towards him to acquire a strong bias in his favour. No doubt he wa^ selfish and fickle most men were in her experience. But he was sensible enough at bottom, as far as she could see. Discreetly managed, he should give no trouble.

Here she was wrong. The wild fire of genius that burned unsteadily in Byron's bosom made him at once more formidable and more unstable than she realized. But she can hardly be blamed for her mistake. Possessed as he was by the wish to make a good impression, Byron was incapable of showing himself with complete honesty to anyone. And he had achieved an extraordinary dexterity at guessing the version of his character best calculated to win over the person he happened to be talking to. The Childe Harold pose he saw would be no good with Lady Melbourne; if she believed in it, she would not like it. Laughingly, therefore, and with an artful frankness, he represented himself as a straightforward, sensual male, weak, a trifle mischievous, and with no high-flown ideals about him, but essentially good-natured; the victim, not the master of others; anxious only for a quiet life and a little fun. It was not quite the truth. But it was close enough to it to be irresistibly convincing. Lady Melbourne was convinced. However, she did not lose her head. Her demeanour towards Byron was a masterpiece in the delicate art of friendship between older woman and younger man; easy, intimate and with a pleasant touch of flirtation about it, but never so ardent or so familiar as to be unsuitable to her age and position. She received his declarations of admiration with a teasing, flattering irony exactly calculated to keep the relationship between them at that comfortable temperature which would make it firm.

"You say, I admire you certainly as much as ever you were admired" she says on one occasion, "and a great deal more I assure you than ever I was. I have been beloved but Love is not admiration. Lovers admire, of course, without knowing why. Yours therefore is much more flattering as I sd. the other day but you quite astonished me when I found your usual playfulness chang'd into such a formal tirade. I have hardly yet recovered my surprise now I have told you everything & have shown myself truly to you; I can not see why you should wish that you had not known me. It can not lead to any regret and if circumstances should not stop it entirely our Friendship will be very pleasant to both as any sentiment must be where all is sunshine and where love does not introduce itself, there can be no jealousys, torments & quarrels. . . . Once you told me you did not understand Friendship. I told you I would teach it you, & so I will, if you do not allow C. to take you quite away."

In reality it was she who was taking him away from C. She made use of the friendship to engineer a break. Far too intelligent to take a solemn line about the matter, she constituted herself Byron's confidante; listened sympathetically to his complaints of Caroline's tantrums, laughed heartily when he made fun of them; and was herself in return very amusing about Caroline. "Really she seems inclined to behave better," she writes once, "and is only troublesome in private and a great bore in public. This I know you never could believe. But I hope some day to see you undergo a dinner when she is trying to show off." Subtlely she tried to discredit Caroline in his eyes; sensibly she pointed out how awkward the connection was likely to prove in the future. Would it not be better and kinder too to make an end of it at once?


Chapter 9 - The Finished Product (Lord Melbourne):

...In 1826 William's life was still at a standstill. So far as outward circumstances were concerned, it was unchanged since 1816. All the same these ten years had not been unimportant in his history. Frustrated of active outlet,, his energies concentrated themselves on the development of his inner man. It was high time. For though he had been a precocious youth, at about twenty-six he had begun to mark time. The perturbations of his marriage, the preoccupations of his social and political life, required so much of his vitality as to leave little over for the maturing of mind and personality* Besides he was the sort of character that, in any circumstances, does not come of age till middle life. His nature was composed of such diverse elements that it took a long time to fuse them into a stable whole. Certainly he needed some slow blank period in which to digest his experience. These ten years were a bit of luck for him, whether he realized it or not.

In the first place they gave his intelligence space to develop. During this period he read omnivorously. No more than at Cambridge was it an orderly sort of reading. From Pindar to Shakespeare, from Thucydides to St. Augustine, from French to Latin, from philosophy to novels, he turned as the fancy took him. But the very diversity of his fancy meant diat he covered a great deal of ground. And if his reading was unsystematic, it was the very opposite of superficial. He pondered, he compared, he memorized; the Elizabethan drama, for instance, he knew so well that he could repeat by heart whole scenes not only of Shakespeare but of Massinger; the margins of his books were black with the markings of his flowing illegible hand. He educated himself outside the library as well. When he was shooting he loved the sport and was often out six hours a day he took the opportunity to observe the habits of the wild creatures and note them down. On a landlord's ride round his father's property he would pick up information about agriculture, committing it to his memory for future reference. And he thought as much as he observed. More, in fact; for, to William, information was only interesting in so far as it illustrated a universal law. It was the nature of his mind to argue from the particular to the general; and he kept a commonplace book, in which he noted down the generalizations that were always springing to his mind. Sometimes they were the fruit of his reading:

"Never disregard a book because the author of it is a foolish fellow."

"A curious book might be made of the great actions performed by actors whose names had not been preserved, the glories of the anonymous."

We find him speculating as to why it is, that the spirit of a past period, so vivid in an original document, evaporates completely in the process of translation; or comparing the attitude of the Greeks to Alcibiades, with that of the English to Fox. He made it a rule, if a passage in a book started a train of thought in his mind, to pursue it to its conclusion, and then jot this down before he forgot it. At other times his reflections are the product of his personal experience. He had seen a great deal of human nature in his time. Now he began to meditate on it. Why did people get married? How did they manage their incomes ? What was the secret of their success or failure ? What fundamentally are the prevailing forces in public and private life? The pages of his book are littered with questionings and generalizations on these subjects. As time passed the different aspects of his thought began to connect themselves one with another; the wisdom he had acquired from books, to relate itself to the wisdom he had acquired from life. Gradually his scattered reflections composed themselves into a philosophy, his unconsciously acquired point of view built up for itself a conscious intellectual basis and justification.

Along with this mental development, went a development of character. The lessons of experience sank in and began to modify his native disposition; insensibly he began to control such impulses in himself as were inconsistent with what he believed, to give rein to those that his intelligence approved. Time, too, did its work on him; stripping his nature of such characteristics as were merely youthful and superficial, sharpening and stabilizing those that were of its essence. Slowly, the difficult process of maturity accomplished itself; bit by bit William's temperament and his intelligence, the influence of his heredity and his education, of his married life, his social life, and his public life, integrated themselves into a completed personality. At forty-seven he was at last, the William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, of later days.


*All book excerpts are used under the Fair Use Doctrine and are intended only to encourage further reading of the published versions of the books quoted.