LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Mabell, Countess of Airlie:
In Whig Society 1775-1818


Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.

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In Whig Society (1921) is a life-and-letters biography of Elizabeth Lamb, viscountess Melbourne (1751-1818), the mother of William Lamb, future prime minister, mother-in-law of Lady Caroline Lamb, the aunt of Annabella Milbanke, friend and ally of the Duchess of Devonshire, lover of the Prince of Wales, and favored correspondent of Lord Byron. For four decades she was one of the most formidable women in London, a political hostess and matriarch who used her access to the high and mighty to advance the political fortunes of the Whig party and the private fortunes of her associates. Byron, who knew her when she was in her sixties, described Lady Melbourne to the Countess of Blessington as “a charming person—a sort of modern Aspasia.”
The Countess of Airlie arranges her letters as a family chronicle, beginning with the marriage of Elizabeth Milbanke to Peniston Lamb in 1769, passing quickly on to the next generation of Lambs—Penniston, William, Frederick, George, Emily, and Harriet—and concluding with the children of Emily, Countess Cowper, some of whom she knew as a child. There is much about history and politics, but the story and selection of letters center on family matters: the disastrous marriages of William and Caroline Lamb and Lord and Lady Byron, the failed marriage of George Lamb and a daughter of Lady Bessborough, and the more successful marriage of Emily Lamb with Peter, fifth earl Cowper. Emily's later marriage with Viscount Palmerston was the subject of a sequel, Lady Palmerston and her Times (1922).
The chronicle leaves readers with much to ponder about changing times and manners. Lady Airlie barely hints at a central fact, that after Lady Melbourne had produced the family heir, Penniston, her later children were probably fathered by George O'Brien Wyndham, third earl of Egremont, or in the case of George, by the Prince of Wales. Lady Melbourne was discreet about her romantic affairs, as was not the case in the next generation. But in both, and indeed in the broad circle of friends and relations, the sexual behavior Byron chronicles in Don Juan was openly or covertly practiced with all the attendant conflicts between rational calculation and passionate indulgence. As Lady Melbourne was a useful informant to Byron, so she remains to Byron's readers.
The “Gynocracy” Byron describes is on full display in the life of Lady Melborne who, as Lady Airlie says in her forward, “exercised a great influence over the society of her time.” Her book was written to demonstrate a “parallel between the condition of England during and after the Napoleonic Wars and the England of the present time.” As sometimes happens, wars abroad created opportunities for women at home and fostered hedonistic behavior amidst the general uncertainty. It may be that the domestic perspective is limiting, as when Airlie implies that the Regent's new-found Toryism was an instance of female sway (“it appears that he had ceased to care for Whig surroundings from the day that the Duchess of Devonshire had interfered with Mrs. Fitzherbert” pp. 104-05) but there is little doubt that Lady Melbourne and her contemporaries thought in such terms and acted accordingly.
“Rock the cradle, rule the world” was a sentiment they might have agreed with: insofar as politics was family business, as it was in Lady Melbourne's time, the importance of sexual selection and the subtle or not-so-subtle roles women performed in dynastic politics can hardly be gainsaid. In one of the better letters (pp. 30-32) the Duchess of Devonshire stops just short of profanity in decrying the Tory Duchess of Gordon, who had stolen a march by attracting the affections of the Duke of Bedford to one of her daughters—the very duke who had been one of Lady Melbourne's many admirers. This is sexual politics of a high order. One also sees in the letters aristocratic politics beginning to lose or rather change its grip when William and Frederick Lamb resist their mother's interference and pursue more professional and less corrupt paths to power.
But one can infer this only by reading between the lines. In Whig Society looks at events through the prism of domestic relationships, and therein lies its great interest. The central events in the narrative are those concerning Caroline Lamb and Annabella Milbanke, whose antithetical characters were equally troublesome for the prudent matriarch to manage. The significance of Caroline Lamb's story in the familial context lies in the threat it posed to William's political career and to the web of kin relationships needed to support it; the marriage of Miss Milbanke to Lord Byron might have underpropped similar dynastic and political ambitions, though Lady Airlie absolves Lady Melbourne of responsibility for initiating it. While one would like to have more of the Byron correspondence, his is but a secondary role in the Lamb chronicle and he is treated accordingly.
Mabell, Countess of Airlie (1866–1956) was the great-granddaughter of Lady Palmerston and the great-great-granddaughter of Lady Melbourne. After the death of her husband in the Boer War she became a lady in waiting and spent much of her long life at court. Times had changed, as she notes, but her life experience and family connections make her an insightful docent who can both see the world as Lady Melbourne saw it and distance herself from it, as when she compares her ancestor to the Madame de Merteuil of Laclos' novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She is sentimental but clear-eyed, judgmental but not censorious, rather like Lady Melbourne or Byron. She is not very good at sketching characters, but then her characters to speak for themselves in the correspondence.

David Hill Radcliffe