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Byron’s Corbeau Blanc:
The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne

Ed. Jonathan David Gross

Byron’s Corbeau Blanc: The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne Jonathan David Gross
University Press
Liverpool 1998

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Byron’s Corbeau Blanc, edited by Jonathan Gross, is a fascinating volume which provides us for the first time with the full transcripts of the letters of Elizabeth, Lady Melbourne, one of the most powerful and influential characters of the Regency period. As the wife of Lord Melbourne, mistress of the Prince Regent, mother-in-law of the wild and unpredictable Caroline Lamb, and close confidante of Lord Byron, Lady Melbourne lived at the centre of political and cultural power in Regency England. If her relationship with the Regent was politely ignored, her influence with him was widely acknowledged. These letters show to what extent her political and social power was respected in Society and also reveal her remarkable talent for manipulating those around her. Byron’s famous letters to Lady Melbourne and Caroline Lamb’s infamous portrayal of her in Glenarvon have left for posterity a woman who is shown both as mother confessor and wicked gothic villainess. Gross’s book gives us the opportunity to hear Lady Melbourne’s own voice and to understand her importance in the lives of both these writers.

One of the major revelations of this book is the extent to which the breakdown of Byron’s relationship with Caroline Lamb was encouraged by Lady Melbourne’s interference, and also how his ill-fated marriage to Annabella Milbanke was cleverly and determinedly engineered by her. Gross includes a letter written by Annabella Milbanke, after her separation from Byron in which she confesses that in reading Les Liaisons Dangereuse she became reminded of her scheming aunt. Whilst this volume reveals the full extent of Lady Melbourne’s Machiavellian manipulation and control of those around her, it also reveals a explanation of this beyond mere malice, which seems to be a consuming desire to be mentally active. Her letters to her husband’s staff reveal her strong involvement with the agriculture and administration of the Melbourne estates and her knowledge of and concern for their tenants. The Regency lady of leisure need not have concerned herself with any of these matters, but Lady Melbourne seemed to take as much interest in the variety of cow-powders used on the estates as she did in the machinations of government or the relationships of those around her.

This book gives us not only a portrait of a unique and powerful woman but a valuable insight into the political, social and cultural life of the Regency period. Lady Melbourne’s letters together with Gross’s meticulous scholarship bring to life a society which, whilst it was highly decadent, was dependent on the rules and strictures of propriety in order to survive. Lady Melbourne is revealed in this book as very much a creature of her time. Her hatred for Caroline Lamb, for example, stemmed not from Caroline’s adultery but from her inability to maintain discretion and ‘play the game’. In the one surviving letter that Lady Melbourne wrote to Lady Caroline, her bile and hatred towards her daughter-in-law is palpable. Her friendship with Byron was the perfect revenge. Byron’s letters to Lady Melbourne are renowned as the most intense, confessional and revealing of his surviving correspondence. To read the other half of the letters is fascinating as Lady Melbourne, cool, persuasive and dispassionate, exerts a quasi maternal and at the same time almost sexual influence over the young poet. Lady Melbourne’s letters reveal almost as much about Byron as do his own and this volume will prove invaluable for Byron scholars, or for anyone interested in or involved with the study of the Romantic period.

Lady Melbourne’s letters are elliptical, sometimes fragmentary and often elusive. Although at times, and to particular people, she was a dedicated correspondent, she seemed to go through long periods of writing nothing at all. As a letter writer she was entirely in control of her art, never confessional, never scurrilous and, with a strong awareness of the letter’s power as ‘proof’, never indiscreet. Her letters to the Duchess of Devonshire are full of suggested scandal and gossip but this is couched in the most respectable of terms and, frustratingly, specific events and people are rarely referred to. This is a highly confidential and personal mode of correspondence which relies on the recipient’s prior knowledge and understanding. Luckily we have Gross’s thorough and elucidatory footnotes to fill in the gaps.

Jonathan Gross’s accompanying short biography and chapter summaries provide vital background information for the often frustratingly elusive and secretive letters. These are accompanied by genealogy trees of the Melbournes and the Milbankes which go some way towards helping the reader to disentangle the interconnected worlds of the Regency aristocracy. What these diagrams unfortunately lack is an account of the numerous illegitimate offspring produced by Lady Melbourne and many other men and women within the circles in which she moved. She herself was the mother of several of the Prince Regent’s ‘by-blows’, including a son who was named George in full acknowledgement of his paternity, and her son William was fathered by Lord Egremont. Only her firstborn, Peniston Lamb, was the legitimate son of Lord Melbourne in accordance with the strict unwritten rule amongst women of Lady Melbourne’s standing that one should not cuckold one’s husband until a legitimate male heir had been provided. Gross also provides us with a comprehensive set of illustrations including portraits, photographs of manuscripts and contemporary newspaper satires. His thorough scholarly approach and desire to contextualise his subject pay off as he manages to create a living and accessible history which will prove invaluable to our knowledge and understanding of the Regency.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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