The best friend I ever had in my life, and the cleverest of women…
So said Lord Byron of Lady Melbourne, 17 November 1813. Before we delve into Colin Brown’s tidy paperback, let us first familiarise ourselves with Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne (née Milbanke; 1751 – 1818) and her timeline – one that spans grand old Georgian England and a romp through the whimsical Regency; two of my particular favourite eras. For myself, it was likely that I’d encounter Elizabeth (and indeed I had, by name at least, through my fascination with Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire) on my travels through women’s history and I’m very pleased to have met her through this conjuncture.
As you may know already, exploring the lives of aristocratic ladies of influence is one of my keenest interests and Elizabeth holds a candle to many of the female luminaries I’ve had the pleasure of studying. Rather prophetically, Elizabeth features as a part of the trinity with the Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Damer in Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775) – this group portrait captured a trio of intimate friends who just so happened to be early figures of fame and celebrity.
By this, I refer to their sphere of political and societal influence; gaining notoriety through a heady concoction of Whig politics, the liberal arts and sensational socialising. Anyone who has seen The Duchess or read Amanda Foreman’s titular biography will know of the Georgian gossip columns and rumour mill, stirred by the antics of individuals of note who captured the popular imagination. As a part of the Devonshire House circle, Elizabeth was, in her own right, one such individual. Indeed as a mistress of George IV, patroness of Almack’s Assembly Rooms and leading hostess of the era, Lady M can rightly be seen as a woman worth ‘watching’.
Extravagant wealth, scintillating politics and moral complexity make any study of the 18th century an exciting one and I feel that Lady M gives the reader plenty of detail. Mr Brown’s own investigations were prompted by his connection to English Heritage and research for a book on Whitehall. Standing in what he felt to be a particularly feminine ‘costume drama’ interior office, belonging to former Deputy Prime Minister John Whitehall, Brown came to learn that this has formed a part of Lord and Lady Melbourne’s private suite of rooms. Naturally, a detour into the life of Lady M ensued. Anyone interested in leaders, ambition and a dose of scandal really ought to read the resulting biography and I feel that it’s through titles such as these that we can become more intimately acquainted with what is essentially a sprawling, rhetoric packed era. It wasn’t through dates and grand schemes that I became interested in the 18th century, but rather through tantalising details – like how Byron called Elizabeth ‘Lady M’ or how she featured as the character of Lady Besford in the Duchess’ novel The Sylph, or visual portrayals such as the aforementioned group portrait and caricatures that we’re still able to see today. What gets left behind is intriguing – especially since we’ll never quite get to be in a room with someone whose story became history.
Lady M considers Elizabeth as a hostess, patroness and matriarch of ambition: planting seeds so that her children might, I don’t know, end up as the young Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister. That’s right, Lady M was at play long before her son William ‘Lord M’ Lamb! Colin Brown traces back through Elizabeth’s headlines to bring us a worthy account of her attitudes, relationships and intelligence – all of which created historical moments akin to the greatest of fictions. Anyone with an eye for a story will appreciate this fascinating biography, one where its leading lady mixes and mingles with other 18th century worthies, making the history all the more satisfying and interconnected. Happily, Brown’s writing is well-suited to keeping a-pace with such a lively account: balancing a sense of humour with fact, fancy and an accessible, well-read style. Chapter One opens with a Marriage of Convenience that puts one in mind of Hogarth and from that moment, you know that we’re in proper Georgian territory.
Rather unconventionally, I started Lady M by jumping straight to its centerfold of accompanying pictures. Perhaps this habit has come from having been a student of Art History, or maybe it’s because a set of images can set the scene with great immediacy – either way, I was delighted to see a mix of country house interiors and exteriors, paintings and portraiture by the likes of Reynolds and Stubbs and illustrative 18th century elements. It’s true that Colin was able to draw from a wealth of diaries, archives and correspondence to write his biography, but Elizabeth’s story also came to be defined by the arts and the author demonstrates the importance of visual storytelling through his consideration of all these sources. The book even has a plan view of Dover House at its end pages, giving more insight into the world that we’re exploring. Equally, Brown’s postscript is just as useful in continuing the narrative, giving further points where, like myself, you may be inclined to undertake further reading.
Of particular note, there’s a chapter devoted to Elizabeth’s relationship with Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire – something that will certainly appeal to those interested in women’s history and female friendships. In fact, I’d recommend reading Lady M alongside works that I’d consider to be suitable companions, like The Scandalous Lady W and Georgiana; all of which paint captivating portraits of society women in Georgian Britain. Don’t hesitate in reading Lady M, it’s own School for Scandal: you’ll have to save a new seat at the table for this fantasy dinner party guest. I’ll now wait quietly for Elizabeth’s biopic!
Written with thanks to Amberley Publishing, who gifted this book based on my keen interest in women’s history to review for fellow readers and historians.