Lord Byron, the Heyer Walk and Lady Caroline Lamb

Byron c 1813 by Thos Phillips

Byron c 1813 by Thos Phillips

As promised in Sarah’s Byron blog last week, this is Sophie’s take on Byron. Enjoy.

When I studied the Romantic poets in my university English Literature course, Lord Byron was the odd man out. His sensibilities, not to mention his gravitas, didn’t seem in the same class as Wordsworth’s, Keats’s or my beloved Shelley’s.

At that time, I thought that was because of his character and advantages of birth—an aristocrat, an arrogant bad boy, a traveller with a taste for the fleshpots. He was, well, a bit raffish, with a brisk way of discarding emotional attachments. It showed in his poetry. I didn’t like him very much. And I don’t think many of my tutors did either.

The Grand Sophy paperback coverIn Georgette Heyer terms, he was more Sir Montagu Revesby than Augustus Fawnhope.

Or so I thought.

Georgette Heyer Walk

Then, some years ago now, a group of friends and fellow Georgette Heyer Fans were coming to London.

Berry Brothers & Rudd, St James's

Berry Bros & Rudd, St James’s
Philafrenzy Own work CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

To amuse them, I put together a walk round some of the places in Mayfair that she mentions in her Regency novels. (More details in this blog on the wonderful Word Wenches site.)

Lord Byron cropped up no fewer than three times en route. I wasn’t expecting it and, as he only gets a couple of name checks in the Heyer canon, I often leave him out on the Walk itself. But they all told me something about him that surprised me.

Wicked Lord Byron

Newstad Abbey, seat of Lord Byron

Newstead Abbey, Byron’s seat by Andy Jakeman
CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Being an aristocrat did not give poet Byron all the advantages with which I had, in my ignorance, endowed him. He might have inherited a title and a stately home (from a great-uncle), but they came encumbered by crippling debt and more than a whiff of scandal across the generations.

His predecessor, William, the 5th Baron Byron, was accused of murder and sent to the Tower of London to await trial by his peers, the House of Lords, in 1765. The victim was a neighbour of the family pile, Newstead Abbey, and some sort of distant cousin of Byron’s.


Pall Mall and St James’s Palace 1763

The two had been drinking in The Star and Garter tavern, 94-95 Pall Mall, on the south side of the street. They had been arguing about the amount of game on their respective estates and decided to settle the matter at sword point. They retired to an ill-lit room and, in the course of the duel, Byron thrust his sword through Chaworth’s stomach. The latter lived long enough to complain that he had not been of sound enough mind to insist they fight in a location with better lighting. He died the following day. They must have been pissed as newts, both of them.

In the end, the 5th Baron’s peers only convicted him of manslaughter and he paid a small fine. But some lurid tales, based in part on his already dubious reputation, had circulated during his incarceration. The mud stuck.

Mad, Bad and… Broke?

gold coinsWicked William’s financial straits only added to the murk. Eventually, he tried to set up a marriage between his son and an heiress to save the entailed estate. But the son ran away with another girl before the deal was done and then died, leaving a grandson who would not be of age to consent to break the entail until 1791.

After that there was no hope of recovery. The contents of Newstead Abbey were sold at auction in 1776.

Poet Byron inherited in1798, after the death of several intervening heirs, including his own father. He was ten. But when his mother took him to view the ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, it was in a terrible state of repair, with minimal furniture. She gave it up and leased it to someone who claimed he could deal with it. Then rented a smaller place for herself and her son.

Childe Harold, Byronic hero

Lord Byron in Albanian Dress by Phillips, 1813

Lord Byron in Albanian Dress by Phillips, 1813

George, poet and sixth Lord Byron, took his seat in the House of Lords in 1809. Only then he went off on a prolonged Grand Tour through Spain, Portugal and Greece, returning in1811. It gave him the material to write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a long narrative poem, initially in two Cantos, about the thoughts and experiences of a world-weary young traveller, the eponymous Childe (i.e. trainee knight) Harold.

Byron actually seems to have had rather a good time on his travels, including liaisons with some of the locals he encountered, in company with various cronies. But poetic licence, along with a verse form based on Spenser’s Fairy Queen and what that wise old bird, Sir Walter Scott, called “the affected antiquity of the style”, produced a sort of brooding philosopher hero that took the Town by storm.

John Murray published it in March 1812. Byron famously wrote later, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”. He was still broke, though.

Byron the Celebrity

House of Commons in 1793

House of Commons, 1793

Lord Byron spoke in the House of Lords again and began to consider a political career. He was lionised by his fans, many of whom were aristocrats, which might have encouraged the ambition.  But to make it possible, he would need to find a rich wife.

And he had started a highly-charged relationship with the very married Lady Caroline Lamb, the most ardent devotee of his poetry.

Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's lover

Lady Caroline Lamb by Thomas Lawrence

To begin with, he was fascinated by Caro, as he called her. At the start of the affair, in April 1812, he writes to her, I have always thought you the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.” In the same letter he also says that her heart is “a little volcano that pours lava through your veins”.

He was right. Within only a few months, Byron was starting to realise Lady Caroline was too hot to handle.

He even began to take steps to avoid her attentions.

Hat Shop, 8 St James’s Street

By Wednesday July 29th, 1812 we find Byron and his friend Hobhouse in Byron’s lodging preparing a trip out to Harrow in order, as the latter says in his diary, “to avoid the threatened visit of a lady.” Let Hobhouse tell what happened next.

At twelve o’clock, just as we were going, several thundering raps were heard at the door, and we saw a crowd collected about the door, and opposite to it.  Immediately, a person in a most strange disguise walked upstairs.  It turned out to be the lady in question, from Brocket. She, seeing me, ran up the garret stairs, on which I went down into Mr Dollman’s shop and ordered a hat. 

Hobhouse says he almost left them to it, but Mr Dollman, the owner of the hat shop downstairs, told me, every soul in the house, servants and all, knew of the person in disguise. So Hobhouse decides that he must stay with his friend to prevent the catastrophe of an elopement which seemed inevitable.

Accordingly I stayed in the sitting-room, whilst the lady was in the bedroom pulling off her disguise, under which she had a page’s dress. Lord Byron was with her, but repeatedly came out to me, so that nothing could possibly have happened; besides which, both parties were too much agitated to admit a doubt of their conduct at that time.

Then ensues a scene that is pure Mozart. Mr Dollman, fearful of scandal, wants the lady gone. So does Hobhouse. Byron flip flops. The lady is adamant she won’t go without Byron. Spying a dress sword on the couch, she seizes it and threatens to hurt herself. Byron wrestles it away from her.

Hobhouse eventually resolves the impasse by getting Caro and Byron to take a hackney (enclosed, so they won’t be recognised) to his own rooms in Manchester Buildings off Whitehall. He runs hell for leather through St James’s Park and gets there first; pulls Byron out of the carriage and sends him off; then persuades Caroline to go into his rooms, change her clothes and then go ANYWHERE.  (She gives up and goes to a friend.)

Byronic Hero?

shadowy man running away round cornerWhat really interests me about this incident is how very unheroic, indeed unByronic, Lord Byron’s own conduct was. He nearly gave in to Caroline more than once. And then he fled and left Hobhouse to sort things out. He certainly wasn’t either cool or in control.

Extracting himself from her excitable attentions became increasingly difficult in subsequent months. In the end, he was neither kind nor dignified.

Annabella, Lady Byron. Public Domain via WIkipedia Commons

Annabella, Lady Byron

Man in a panic?

Yes, I would say so.
I suspect that Caroline, with her volcanic heart, scared him witless.

And yes, he did find himself a rich wife in 1815. That didn’t end well either.

In fact, the third Byron-related site on the Heyer Walk was the stretch along the north side of Piccadilly down which he would walk from the marital home opposite Green Park to publisher John Murray’s house at 50 Albermarle Street to take afternoon tea with Murray’s literary circle.

And what of Caro?

You can make a case that she continued to scare him for the rest of his life. Whereas she, poor deluded soul, always clung to her devotion and memories of their love affair.

Lady Caroline Lamb by Eliza H Trotter

Lady Caroline Lamb by Eliza H Trotter

I commend to you Jane Lark’s wonderfully understanding account of the love affair from Lady Caroline’s point of view.

But I must say that when I now read those famous lines from Byron’s Don Juan, they sound less the careless sophistication I always thought and more like desperate wish fulfillment:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Tis a woman’s whole existence.

Lady Caroline had made her mark.

Sophie Weston Author


3 thoughts on “Lord Byron, the Heyer Walk and Lady Caroline Lamb

  1. lesley2cats

    I really enjoyed that, Sophie – and the links. Always fascinating, Byron and “the rest of the boys in the band”, as someone said. Although I’ve never been a fan of Byron’s poetry, much preferring Shelley, since I was given Maurois’ “Ariel” at the age of 12. Shelley next?

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh yes, Ariel was wonderful, wasn’t it? I used to have a copy but I haven’t seen it for years now.

      Dear Shelley. He was always so hopeful for mankind. Well, except Lord Castlereagh. But the young idealist is allowed to hate the incumbent Prime Minister, I always feel.

      I’m not sure that Byron had much feeling at all for his fellow man and woman. But he did have a wonderful eye for the place and the moment, as it were.

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