At the beginning of her biography of the novelist, ‘fairy sprite’ and proto-feminist Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Antonia Fraser hints that this may be her final book. Not for her a dramatic, Prospero-breaking-his-staff exit; instead, she writes mildly in the prologue that ‘this book… can also be regarded as the culmination of an exciting and fulfilling life spent studying history’. We must hope that Fraser continues to research and publish. Yet if this is to be her swansong, it is characteristically readable, accomplished and in places positively revolutionary.
Lamb – or Caro as she was familiarly known – is today best known as the most famous of Lord Byron’s many mistresses. It was she who coined the expression that he was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, and she remarked on first seeing him: ‘That beautiful pale face will be my fate.’ She was proved right in more ways than one. Not only was she seduced, betrayed and abandoned by Byron, but she has been consigned to posterity as little more than a hysteric, given to acts of wild ostentation in a vain bid to retain her lover’s attention, if not his affection.
He may have introduced himself by offering her a rose and carnation, saying ‘Your Ladyship, I am told, likes all that is new and rare for the moment’, but this did not last, and he soon tired of her and sought more pliable company. She later took revenge by publishing the roman-à-clef Glenarvon, a stinging attack on Byron that became a bestseller, even as it led to her banishment from scandalised society.
Fraser is clear-sighted as to Caro’s moments of caprice: ‘For better or for worse, Caroline Lamb demanded attention; exhibitionist would be a mild word for some of her exploits.’