Tuesday, June 11, 2013

“Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”

by Susanne Dietze

When approached by a suave young gentleman with a rather lurid offer, the well-known beauty refused her admirer by calling him "Mad, bad, and dangerous to know." After all, he was a celebrity with a bad reputation.

He didn't take "no" for an answer, though. Eventually, he wore his lady down with his wit, charm, and perseverance. Their ensuing relationship was tempestuous tabloid fodder, leading to an ugly breakup with reports of stalking and spying, followed by years of open warfare fought in the very-public pages of mass-market publications.

Sound familiar? Just goes to show there’s nothing new under the sun.

The Dangerous Guy was George Gordon, Lord Byron (born 1788)—you may remember him from such school reading assignments as “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. He’d published celebrated poetry. Ladies like him. He had powerful friends.
File:Byron 1824.jpg
George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron, by Thomas Phillips,1824.{{PD-US}}
The Lady in Question, Caroline Lamb, was living a good life, too. Born in 1785, she was the niece of the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and was raised in the Devonshire household with the Duchess’ children as well as the Duke’s illegitimate children, all one happy dysfunctional family.

Devonshire House was a hotbed of Whig politics, and it was here that a matron named Lady Melbourne decided Caroline might make a good match for her politically minded son, William.
File:Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb.jpg
Lady Caroline Lamb, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1805, {{PD-US}}
Caroline was apparently taken with William. They married and had two children, but their son George was born either disabled or ill, and their daughter died within hours of birth. About that time, William was elected to political office, and their marriage began to fray.

In this era, many in Society believed that as long as participants were discreet, adultery was fine. Just about every relative of Caroline’s followed this creed, but it didn’t sit well with Caroline. Not the adultery part; the lying part. So in 1812 when she and Byron started their affair, she didn’t care who knew about it.

She was 27. He was 24. They were passionate and delirious. He called her Caro, and the name stuck among Society.

So it was probably something of a shock to Caro when, after all of that pursuing and scandal and declarations of passion, Byron moved on a few months later. He broke things off to be with a new mistress, and soon after, he married William’s cousin, Annabella Milbanke. (Caro’s cousin-in-law? Ooh, that burns.)
File:Annabella Byron (1792-1860).jpg
Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron {{PD-US}}
Caro spent the next four years pursuing Byron in any possible way she could contrive. She wrote letters to him. She dressed like a pageboy, entered his house, and scribbled notes to him in his books. She didn’t eat, and Byron told Lady Melbourne he was being “haunted by a skeleton.”

For his part, Byron wrote scathing poems that were clearly about Caro, like “Remember Thee! Remember Thee!”

Ay, doubt it not. Thy husband too shall think of thee!
By neither shalt thou be forgot, Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!

Oh, dear.

Caro’s family sent her to the country to get her away from Byron.  But Caro kept on writing.

Her first novel, Glenarvon, was published in 1816, a so-called apology to Byron. However, the novel’s characters were ill-concealed likenesses of well-known members of high society, including Byron, William, and the Patronesses at Almack’s. The novel basically blamed everyone for the poor heroine's ruin, and it caused scandal while, naturally, becoming an astonishing financial success.

Meanwhile, Byron’s new wife Annabella was miserable with her philandering hubby. It wasn’t long before she took off with their daughter Ada, and he signed a Deed of Separation.

Caro saw an opportunity for revenge. She fanned flames of the rumors about Byron’s private life, including claims of Byron's adultery, incest with his sister Augusta Leigh which resulted in a daughter, and sodomy (which can't be proven but still interest scholars. All claims apparently have strong arguments to back them up).

Byron fled Britain, never to return. He died in Greece in 1824, something of a war hero.

Caro and William separated officially in 1825, when she was 40. But when she died three years later, William was at her bedside.

William went on to inherit the title of Lord Melbourne. He became prime minister and was the young Queen Victoria’s most trusted adviser. They'd spend four or five hours a day in one-another's company and wrote to one another when they were apart.
File:2nd V Melbourne.jpg
William Lamb, Lord Melbourne {{PD-US}}
Another interesting note? Byron’s only legitimate child, Ada, grew up to become Ada Lovelace, considered the world’s first computer programmer. Her name and likeness are used by the Ada Initiative, which promotes females in the field of technology.

As for Caro and Byron's legacy? When Caro called Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” she might have been right. But she also might well have been predicting the harvest of their sad, twisted romance.

Does it surprise you how similar this 200-year old celebrity scandal sounds to what we see in today's tabloids?

Do you feel sad for all of these people? I do. Do you ever wonder if something could have happened in people's lives to prevent them from making bad choices?


Susanne Dietze has neither dressed like a pageboy nor written a scathing novel about people she knows. 

She is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. You can visit her on her website, www.susannedietze.com.


  1. I'm not surprised. People are people. I never buy the "good old days" philosophy.

  2. Well, it's always a wee bit difficult for me to work up much sympathy for people who started life with so many advantages but made such a muck of things. When I consider many of these Georgian and Regency celebrities, I see a lot of hedonism, but not a lot of happiness. I guess it goes to show that a stable family puts a child at more advantage than money, power, education or prestige. (Let me go remind my kids that!)

    There's also a programming language named Ada. (Never learned it. Don't know that it was ever popular. Certainly wasn't in the places I worked.) If memory serves, Ada was a gambler who tried to use her mathematical skills to win at ... was it betting on horse races? -- but she wasn't successful at it.

  3. You said it, Dina. There's nothing new under the sun.

  4. C.J., ah, those hedonistic Regency people. As I recall, their wild ways were part of what inspired the Victorian era's (shall we say) persnickiti-ness about modesty.

    What a tremendous lesson that is, to recognize that money, fame, and status can't provide a solid foundation for a child the way a loving home can. Byron and Caro were loved, I think, but neither grew up in ideal situations. Byron experienced some weird stuff at school, as I recall. Both grew up with entitlement issues, too.

    And neither sounds as if they matured enough to recognize that actions carry consequences.

    You know more about Ada than I do. Interesting about the gambling! She sounds like she was one intelligent lady, however she used her math gifts.

  5. Haha, Dina, you took the words right off my fingertips.

    What a wild story, better than most of our modern soap operas and reality TV dramas, that's for sure. Throw in Byron's friendship with Percy Bysse Shelley, who happened to be married to Mary Shelley, and the plot really thickens!

  6. Oh yes, Niki, you're right: there was quite a literary group of friends there. Brilliant, jaded, talented, not-so-happy folk.

    But boy could they write.

  7. So similar to the "Lost Generation" so many decades later, with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. Also very unhappy people with amazing creative ability. Interesting!

  8. Interesting point, Niki... there's also the Bloomsbury group with Virginia Woolf. Not all writers there, but still...

    And of course Tolkein and Lewis were friends and hung out in a pub, talking theology, mythology, and fiction.

    It is kinda fun to hang out with creative types and talk shop. Can't blame them.

  9. Interesting post! In some ways it is surprising, in others it is not. People are people and sin is sin, no matter when it happens. We just have more social media to go with it now! :)

  10. Karen, so glad you could visit today! You're right about the social media angle--what if they'd had i-phones back then? This would have been all over Twitter!

  11. Susie! Oh my, my, my. Caro! Fascinating. I really hung on your every word. Caro may well have been the first stalker in history. Interesting. I may have to read that fictional account that she wrote. Do you think it's available on line somewhere?

  12. Suzie, Caro was something, wasn't she? Slightly obsessive, to say the least. She'd go to jail today.

    Glenarvon is still available. The kindle is $5, I think:


  13. Well I'm going to have to read it. Sometimes thereare hhidden research gems in old books like that. :)

  14. Let me know what you think of it, Suzie!

  15. No, I'm not surprised - and that's why novels are still high on the list of favorite activities, because really, that's what this sounds like.

    Especially the part about Caro dressing like a page boy and sneaking into his house.

    And yet, I know so many people who say women never did anything like that back then... or I can't use something like that because it wouldn't even occur to a women in Society. Right.

    Thanks for this, Susie. I really enjoyed it.


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