LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

In Whig Society 1775-1818

‣ Forward
Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
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During the last few years many memoirs and letters written by those women who played such notable parts in the political and social world of the latter end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century have been published. Lady Bessborough, Lady Holland, Lady Shelley, Lady Sarah Napier, Princess Lieven and Lady Granville have become our familiar friends through the medium of their brilliant correspondence. Yet two of the greatest women in the political society of their day are unknown to us, except through the remarks of their contemporaries, though their joint lives covered just over a century from the year 1752 to 1869. The letters of these two, Elizabeth Viscountess Melbourne, the mother, and Emily Lamb, Countess Cowper (later Viscountess Palmerston), the daughter, may be of some interest, not only because they give further light on the knowledge we already possess of that epoch, but also because they illustrate the vivid personalities of those who wrote them.


The epoch may be said to have closed with the Victorian Era, though it may also be said that it received the shrewd blow which eventually ended it with the passing of the Reform Bill.

Lady Melbourne, who was born in 1752 and died in 1818, was the mother of William, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, Whig Prime Minister from 1835 to 1837 and from 1837 to 1841. He is best known as the guardian and mentor of the girlhood of Queen Victoria.

His picture has been drawn for us in the contemporary record of the Queen’s own faithfully kept diaries. He was then, as a present-day writer aptly calls him, “an autumn rose.” He himself told the Queen what his mother had done for him. In the pages of Torrens’ Life of Melbourne1 we get a sinister sketch of her influence and personality, but the author gives us no self-revealing correspondence to enable us to form our own opinion of her character. She devoted her talents to the education and position of her greatly beloved son. Her very failings she used to turn to his advantage. He never satisfied her while she lived, but as the years sped by, in the autumn of his life, he became what she intended him to be. She was the Egeria of more than one great man, and her letters reveal the secret of her influence over them. Not only to William her second son, but also to Emily her elder

1 Memoirs of Viscount Melbourne, by William McCullagh Torrens, 1878.

daughter, Lady Melbourne transmitted her amazing talents, and when Emily, late in life, after the death of her
first husband, became the wife of Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of England for nearly nine years, she occupied a unique position in the political life of her day.

While Lady Melbourne’s letters explain her domination, we cannot see in Lady Cowper’s interminable and frequent communications much trace of the political talents which characterized her in later life. Like William she developed late, and her mother never saw the complete success of her work for her daughter.

There is a distinct difference in the style of the mother and daughter. The letters from Lady Melbourne might almost be written by a man—they display the calm good sense for which she was praised by her contemporaries, and are forcible rather than lively. The letters the daughter writes after her marriage with Lord Cowper are full of that fun and mischief which made her brother Frederick call her “that little devil Emily.” Later, as Lady Palmerston, her letters are more restrained, but they remain distinctly a woman’s letters. And in the lives of the two women there is also this difference. Lady Melbourne married a man who was unworthy of her, and could never have hoped for much happiness, but Lord Cowper was a man looked up to and beloved by many. Emily Lamb had before her the prospect of perfect happiness, and
realized it, as a letter written to her mother while on her honeymoon shows. But it was said of Lady Melbourne by those who knew her, that she could not see a happy marriage without trying to destroy its harmony.

One has to remember the days in which these two women lived. There was a curious completeness in their lives and those of their class. Looking back to that age, they and their friends seem like the inhabitants of some great Castle, secure in their impregnable position against the storms of the outside world, although they were beating around them. The members of that society were cultured and brilliant; their standards were classic both in literature and art. They loved to collect around them the treasures of ancient Europe. They read regularly and widely; their literary companions were the classics, and the men quoted Greek and Latin as easily as the schoolboy of to-day talks the slang of the moment. Their standard of good-breeding was stern, a very bed of Procrustes, and admitted of no alteration. The Whigs went so far as to invent their own pronunciation of common words, and talked of “chancy” for china; “Haryot” for Harriet; “yallar” for yellow; and sent to the “chimist” for their medicine. Frances Viscountess Jocelyn, Lady Cowper’s daughter, who lived until 1880, urged her granddaughters to speak of “cowcumber” as so much more suitable than cucumber.


It was a very different age to ours. So closely welded a community made its own social laws. Good-breeding demanded that outward conventions should not be violated, but asked few questions as to what went on beneath the surface. Scandals were glossed over by the decent acquiescence of wife or husband. Nearly every man drank too much, but so long as he “carried his wine like a gentleman” no one saw any reason to complain, and he himself made complete and frequent atonement by disabling fits of the gout. Anything shocking or violent was an offence in itself, and it is easy to conceive the horror which the open scandal of Lady Caroline Lamb’s intrigue with Byron must have inspired in Lady Melbourne; not so much on account of its immorality as of its publicity.

Every gentleman in those days thought it right to appear to be in the enjoyment of a grand leisure, even though he worked very hard behind the scenes,1 and it was considered the most important of a woman’s accomplishments that she should possess sufficient knowledge of the world and savoir-faire to skate lightly over a difficult situation. The art of conversation was considered of great importance, and the young learned it through mixing with their elders.

There was much likeness between the English society of this age and their contemporaries of

1 The 5th Duke of Devonshire said of his cousin Henry Cavendish, the scientist, “He is not a gentleman—he works.”

the ancien régime in France; but in reading the memoirs of the day one is struck by the fact that, contrary to the French practice, the English landowners lived constantly on their estates and took a benevolent, though perhaps uneducated, interest in their tenants. The passing of the Reform Bill probably saved the English from the fate of the French aristocracy.

With the death of Lady Palmerston in 1869, practically the last survivor of that brilliant period through which she and her mother had lived passed away.