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The Life and Letters of
Lady Melbourne

By Cheryl Bolen

Byronís "Corbeau Blanc": The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne
Edited by Jonathan David Gross
Liverpool University Press
Copyright 1997
488 pages

This work was first published by Rice University Press in 1997 and by Texas A&M University Press the following year. The Liverpool Press edition, however, happened to be the least expensive of the costly book in my internet search (and since my book obsession is very expensive, I must cut corners whenever possible).

That Byronís Corbeau Blanc has been published by three university presses should be a tip-off that this is a rather scholarly work. Gross himself is an English professor at DePaul University. His published works ó all from university presses ó deal either with Byron or with those who lived in late Georgian England.

The structure is not one commonly adopted for general audiences. The fairly hefty book has a four-page preface, two-page explanation of editorial method, four pages on deciphering the abbreviations used in the letters, and a two-page chronology on Lady Melbourne and her family and some of her friends. This is followed by the Introduction in which Gross gives 47 pages of biographical information on Lady Melbourne followed by eight pages of notes.

The letters begin on Page 69 and are divided into the following parts: Georgianaís Rival, 1770-1804; A Keen Politician, 1805-1811; A Dangerous Acquaintance, 1812-1813; Byronís Zia, 1814; A New Code of Confidence, 1815; As Much Fortitude as You Can Muster, 1816; and The Making of a Diplomat, 1817-1818. Each of the parts is followed by several pages of authorís notes.

When I first read this book I was extremely disappointed. I had ordered the book because to learn about Lady Melbourneís many love affairs. (Only the first of her six children was sired by Lord Melbourne.) To my chagrin, no letters from lovers appeared in this book. I suspect the omission was not Grossís. Since Lady Melbourne (1751-1818) was noted for her discretion, it is likely that letters from lovers were either destroyed in her lifetime or by her family after her death.

Sadly, few letters from Lady Melbourneís first five decades appear in this book. Gross was particularly interested in her relationship with Lord Byron during the last decade of her life. That relationship covered Byronís torrid affair with Lady Melbourneís daughter-in-law, Caroline Lamb (married to Lady Melbourneís favorite son, William, who would later served as Queen Victoriaís first prime minister), and Byronís subsequent courtship and marriage to Lady Melbourneís niece, Annabella Milbanke, the only child of her brother.

That is not to say Gross neglects Lady Melbourneís highly interesting first five decades. His astute editing provides large chunks of biographical information, and he also includes a 57-page Glossary of Personalities of the haute ton who would have been acquainted with Lady Melbourne. He has taken pains to include abbreviated family trees for the Milbankes, Melbournes, Cavendishes, and Spencer/Poyntz families and 65 illustrations.

But the heart of the book lies in the 142 letters, many never previously published. These were found in the archives at John Murray (London publisher), Lovelace Collection (Byronís daughter was Lady Lovelace), Oxford University, British Library, Hertford County Record Office, Melbourne Hall Archives, and the Huntington Library in California.

Though more of the letters pertain to the ladyís relationship with the great poet, many letters to her steward and her friends appear in this work.

Of particular interest ó especially for someone like myself who reads a great deal of old diaries ó was the brief section Gross uses to explain abbreviations used in personal correspondence at the time. Iíd never had a problem realizing that Dss was an abbreviation for duchess or Ly for Lady, but I had not known that ye stands for "the."

Though Iím glad I bought the book, it may not have a broad enough appeal for the casual Regency reader. But if youíre a Byron fan, the book is a must-buy. Not cheap, though.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in July 2008.


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