My dear Ly. M – God knows what has happened – but a 4 in the morning Ly. Ossulstone angry (& at that moment ugly) delivered to me a confused kind of message from you of some scene – this is all I know – except that with laudable logic she drew the usual feminine deduction that I “must have behaved very ill…
Oh dear, it would appear that on another balmy July evening some 205 years ago, the poet Lord Byron had found himself in hot water – again!
Ly. W(estmorland) says “you must have done something – you know between people in your situation – a word or a look goes a great way” &c. &c. – so it seems indeed….
On the evening of Monday July 5 he attended a ‘Small Waltzing Party – 10 o’clock at the home of Lady Heathcote despite his intense dislike for the ‘fashionable Waltz’ on account of his lameness and for his disdain for anything remotely fashionable.
That he had attended a party only days before that had all ‘the refuse of the Regent & the Red book – Bedfords – Jerseys – Ossulstones – Greys & the like’ also did very little to deter him!
And that he might bump into Lady Caroline Lamb, his aggrieved and furious former lover whom he had been anxiously avoiding several days earlier was yet another futile deterrent.
Byron’s most recent paramour Lady Oxford had sailed out of his life with her husband at the end of June and although he had been reunited with his half- sister Augusta Leigh, he was making plans to go abroad again.
And so he went to Lady Heathcote’s party as did Caro who according to Byron’s trusty confidant, his ‘Dear Lady M’ was determined to pique the poet ‘by her Waltzing’.
Piqued or not, something happened to Caro at this party involving a Waltz, blunt words and a sharp weapon according to the people there and with human memory so notoriously fallible – some wild and rather outrageous stories were shared.
What did not happen was the dramatic scene as portrayed in the 1973 film Lady Caroline Lamb with Richard Chamberlain as an unsympathetic Byron wrestling a knife from an hysterical and suicidal Caro as a group of ladies including Annabella Milbanke as the future Lady Byron scream and run for cover.
Professing ignorance of the whole bloody scene, Lord Byron could only say:
I have heard a strange story of C’s scratching herself with glass – & I know not what besides…
What I did or said to provoke her – I know not – I told her it was better to waltz – ‘because she danced well’ but I see nothing in this to produce cutting and maiming – besides before supper I saw her – & though she said and did even then a foolish thing…
She took hold of my hand as I passed & pressed it against some sharp instrument – & said – ‘I mean to use this’ – I answered – ‘against me I presume’ – & passed on… nor do I know where this cursed scarification took place – nor when – I mean the room – & the hour.
Lady Melbourne with her sensibility, poise and distaste for scandal had merely this to say:
She broke a Glass, & Scratched herself, as you call it, with the broken pieces – Ly O(ssulstone) and Ly H(eathcote) – discussed instead of taking it from her, & I had just left off, holding her for 2 Minutes.
However according the Duchess of Beaufort: Caro not only wounded herself in several places but was carried out by several people actually in a straight waist coat.
But it is only fair that we hear from the Lady herself:
He had made me swear I was never to Waltz – Lady Heathcote said ‘come Lady Caroline you must begin, & I bitterly answered – Oh yes! I am in a merry humour.’
I did so but whispered to Lord Byron, ‘I conclude I may Waltz now’ and he answered sarcastically, ‘with every body in turn, you always did it better than any one. I shall have pleasure in seeing you’.
I did so, with what feelings you may judge.
After this, feeling ill, I went into a small inner room where supper was prepared: Lord Byron & Lady Rancliffe entered after!
Seeing me, he said ‘I have been admiring your dexterity.’ I clasped the knife, not intending anything, ‘So my dear,’ he said ‘yet if you mean to act a Roman part, mind which way you strike with our knife, be it at your own heart not mine – you have struck there already.’ ‘Byron’ I said, and ran away with the knife.
I never stabbed myself….people pulled to get it from me; I was terrified my hand got cut & blood came over my gown..
With Caro’s hysterics, Lady Melbourne’s anguish and the scolding by the ladies of Lady Heathcote’s circle, Byron must have been counting the days until his departure abroad, particularly when the story was published in The Satirist:
‘With horn-handled knife,
To kill a tender lamb as dead as mutton’
However, his departure would not be for another three years and that is for another story!
Byron’s ‘Corbeau Blanc’ The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne Ed Jonathan David Gross (Liverpool University Press 1997)
Byron’s Letters and Journals Volume 3 1813-1814 Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1974)
Lady Caroline Lamb Paul Douglass (Palgrave Macmillan 2004)
The Whole Disgraceful Truth Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb Paul Douglass (Palgrave Macmillan 2006)