Shake not your heads, nor say the Lady's mad: A very Byronic bonfire

06 November 2020

Cultural Studies | History | Literature

This blog includes temporary free access to correspondence published in Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive. Click here or on the image below to view this item for free until 6th December 2020.

 

Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb, c.1805, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb, c.1805, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

A perennial favourite of the autumn calendar, Bonfire Night – or Guy Fawkes’ – passed quietly in lockdown yesterday with nary a whiff of gunpowder nor plotting on the cold November air. It is not to the attempted parliamentary fireworks of 1605 that I turn today, however, but another bonfire, both literal and literary.

 

Released this spring, Nineteenth Century Literary Society draws together over 200,000 images from the archives of the famed John Murray publishing house which worked with luminaries including Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen and – most notably – Lord Byron, the bad boy or bad bard of nineteenth-century verse. The collected works and letters of the Romantic poet offer an unparalleled insight into his life, his works and the glittering social circle who surrounded him. The more I read, the more my fascination grew. Not with the badly behaved lord, no, but his much-maligned mistress – Lady Caroline Lamb.

 

Caroline Lamb (née Ponsonby) was born into the wealthy elite of the Anglo-Irish establishment in 1785. A niece of the famed socialite Georgiana Cavendish, young Caroline spent much of her childhood at Devonshire House and received a thorough education, yet her adolescent behaviour was of great concern to the family who supposedly attempted to control her emotional outbursts with laudanum. At nineteen, she married William Lamb, then an up-and-coming politician who later became Lord Melbourne, a two-time Prime Minister and favourite of Queen Victoria. Though kin to several enduringly well-known historical figures, a keenly committed Whig and a talented author in her own right, it is for her disastrous affair with Lord Byron that Caroline is remembered today.

 

After a brief dalliance in 1812, a series of public scandals unravelled Caroline’s reputation and she has since been roundly characterised as unstable and obsessive – the archetypical crazy ex of the Regency set. Correspondence and commonplace books preserved in the John Murray Archive allow researchers to uncover the aftermath of the relationship in various letters from Lamb, Byron, his publisher and his friends. The intricate and incestuous interconnectedness of high society in this period is easily apparent; one of Byron’s closest confidants, after all, was Viscountess Melbourne – poor Caroline’s mother-in-law! (In further proof that the world is truly too small, Byron would eventually marry Anne Milbanke, who was Caroline’s cousin by marriage.)

 

Victimised by the gossips, both publicly and privately, Caroline vowed revenge. On the night of 23rd December 1812, she thrust up two fingers to her former beau in an episode of perfectly orchestrated pageantry, constructing a raging bonfire on the lawns of her husband’s country estate and throwing into the flames the “glittering toys” and “trinkets” of romance, along with reproductions of Byron’s letters. Local village children were invited to dress in white and dance around the fire as the festivities unfurled. Oh, what glorious and utterly cinematic drama! Picture, if you will, a nineteenth-century break-up directed by Baz Luhrmann.

 

There are hundreds of gems hidden in Nineteenth Century Literary Society and amongst them researchers will find the Address spoken by the page at Brocket Hall before the Bonfire - penned by our heroine, Caroline.

 

Is this Guy Faux you burn in effigy? 

Address spoken by the page at Brocket Hall before the Bonfire, c.1812 © The National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Address spoken by the page at Brocket Hall before the Bonfire, c.1812 © The National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Why bring the Traitor here? What is Guy Faux to me? 

Guy Faux betrayed his country, and his laws.

England revenged the wrong; his was a public cause.

But I have private cause to raise this flame.

Burn also those, and be their fate the same.

[…]

Burn, fire, burn; these glittering toys destroy.

While thus we hail the blaze with throats of joy.

Burn, fire, burn, while wondering Boys exclaim,

And gold and trinkets glitter in the flame.

Ah! look not thus on me, so grave, so sad;

Shake not your heads, nor say the Lady's mad.

Judge not of others, for there is but one

To whom the heart and feelings can be known.


Address spoken by the page at Brocket Hall before the Bonfire can be found amongst a collection of correspondence relating to Caroline Lamb and will be available to access freely until 6th December 2020.

Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, nineteenth-century publishing and socialist propaganda. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.