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William Lamb, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, had something in common with the poet Ted Hughes; his life was, in part at least, defined by the woman he married. Just as we will never know what direction Hughes’ life might have taken if he had never met Sylvia Plath, so we can only speculate on the course of William Lamb’s if he had not married Caroline Ponsonby – known to history as Lady Caroline Lamb.
To consider Melbourne’s life and career solely in the light of his sadly scandalous marriage would, of course, be doing him a grave disservice and Leslie Mitchell naturally does no such thing.
Sensibly, he separates Melbourne’s life into compartments – his family background, his upbringing, his education, his marriage, his political career, his private life after the death of Caroline, his relationship with Queen Victoria and his eventual decline. On the whole, given what an eventful life he had, it’s an approach that works very well. Occasionally, it would have been enlightening to know what was happening in his personal life at the most important points in his political career, but a moment’s consideration tells you that any attempt at a linear narrative could easily have resulted in total confusion.
William Lamb was a Whig. That isn’t a statement about his political stance – it’s a statement about his whole lifestyle. To be a Whig was to raise irony to an art form. Whatever one’s real feelings or beliefs, they were always overlaid with an veneer of apparent disinterest. As L G Mitchell tellingly puts it:
William Lamb gave the impression of being a lounging kind of fellow, psychologically horizontal rather than vertical. It was rumoured that the Lamb family, finding Ten Commandments rather taxing, subsumed all life into one, namely ‘Thou shalt not bother’.
In fact, Melbourne possessed a shrewd brain, honed and directed in youth by the tutelage of John Millar in Glasgow – himself a pupil of Adam Smith – but he rarely revealed it, always taking pains to conceal himself behind an almost impregnable carapace of detachment.
He was the second son of Matthew Lamb, the first Lord Melbourne. In fact, he almost certainly wasn’t Matthew Lamb’s son at all. The Whigs had an interestingly broad-minded approach to marriage. Once the heir had been produced, the union was considered a success and both parties were free to do pretty much as they wished, with no one thinking much the worse of them for it. Of Lord and Lady Melbourne’s six children, it’s entirely likely that only two were legitimate. William was – without much doubt – the son of Lord Egremont, making him the illegitimate grandson of William IV. It was only the unexpected death of Peniston, Matthew Lamb’s legitimate firstborn child, that transformed William into the heir to the Melbourne properties and title.
As a second son (legitimate or otherwise) with no prospects at the time of inheriting, he needed an occupation. It wasn’t so much that he was particularly interested in politics, it was just something to keep him entertained.
He became Prime Minister virtually by default because everybody considered him the least worst option – and when it happened, no-one was more surprised than he was.
His style of government was very hands-off. He took almost no part in decision making, hated public speaking and frequently slept through cabinet meetings. Almost his entire career in Downing Street was spent mediating between his various warring ministers and just letting them do their jobs without undue interference. He elevated the art of doing nothing into a system that worked remarkably well – and infuriated his opponents into the bargain.
His privileged upbringing led him to oppose both the Reform Act of 1832 (which extended voting rights to a wider section of the population) and the repeal of the Corn Laws – both of which he felt were shifting the balance of power away from the propertied classes. The effects of the Industrial Revolution grieved him. He disliked and distrusted the new breed of monied men being created in the manufacturing towns of the north and looked on them as a threat to a system he believed had maintained stability in England for hundreds of years.
He was, however, in many ways a surprisingly fair-minded and tolerant man who believed in religious freedom and the right to legal protest, however tiresome it was when people actually exercised that right. He didn’t really mind whom he talked to or dined with. In fact, his tactic when dealing with Radicals of any persuasion was to invite them to dine and then proceed to charm the socks off them. His distinctive form of government included ministers and advisers of many shades of political persuasion. In fact, he so muddied the political waters around him that his contemporaries were plainly hard-pushed to know what on earth to make of him.
His catastrophic marriage in 1805 to the unstable Caroline Ponsonby had almost scuppered him, however. He genuinely seems to have adored her … but then she was the sort of woman he liked; strong, independent-minded, almost masculine. His personal life was dominated by women fitting that description … his redoubtable mother Elizabeth, his sister Emily, the women with whom he consorted in later years … were all formed from the same mould. He also, it has to be mentioned, had a lively interest in le vice anglais – flagellation – which while not perhaps entirely surprising, given his public school education, is a little disconcerting because his specific interest lay in the beating of women and children. When Caroline Lamb complained that he had beaten her during the course of their marriage, she was probably telling the truth, for once. To what degree his domination by strong women was responsible for that particular predilection, must remain a matter for speculation.
An intensely private man, the very public and high profile disaster of his union with Caroline damaged him almost beyond repair. Her chain of liaisons (most famously with Lord Byron) was making her husband a laughing stock and in the end, his family – who always came to his rescue – had to move in and separate him from her. It would be another 20 years before he allowed himself to grow truly fond of anyone – with equally disastrous consequences.
That person was the young Queen Victoria, who in the early years of her reign was so totally dependent upon (and indeed smitten by) him that she actually prevented Peel from forming a government, so determined was she to keep Melbourne at her side. When Victoria transferred her affections – almost literally overnight – to Prince Albert, the affect on Melbourne was devastating.
His declining years make extraordinarily melancholy reading. His family – as always – closed ranks around him, took care of him and nursed him until his death, but the overwhelming impression you’re left with is of a man who could have been and done so much more if only he’d been a little more open and emotionally honest both with himself and others.
It was the diarist Charles Greville who, when commenting on Melbourne’s relationship with the young Victoria, produced one of the most telling observations about him:
I have no doubt he is passionately fond of her as he might be of his daughter if he had one, and the more because he is a man with a capacity for loving without having anything in the world to love.
L G Mitchell writes about Melbourne lucidly, with understanding, compassion and a wry humour, while never losing sight of his failings, foibles and weaknesses. He was a complex, hidden man and no easy subject for a biographer, but a knowledge of William Lamb and his world is well-nigh essential to anyone who seeks to understand the peculiar dynamics of England at a time when the whole shape of society was changing, and this 1997 book – while requiring some familiarity with the period – is an excellent place to start.
Oxford University Press. 1997. ISBN 978-0-19-820592-0. 349pp.