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July 29 1812: Threatened Visit of a Lady

On July 29 1812, Lady Caroline Lamb, fearing that her lover Lord Byron is about to flee to Harrow, disguises herself in men's clothing, and appears at the door of Byron's rooms at No. 8 St James Street, London. It is twelve o'clock. Byron and John Cam Hobhouse are indeed preparing to leave for Harrow to "avoid the threatened visit of a lady." Several thundering raps are heard. Lady Caroline, in a disguise that fools no one, walks in, sees Bryon and Hobhouse, runs up the garret stairs, and into Byron's bedroom. There she takes off her disguise to reveal a page's dress underneath. Hobhouse leaves Byron to go to Mr. Dollman's hat shop downstairs, and orders a hat. He is about to leave when he decides that he has to assist his friend. Together they spend the day trying to get Lady Caroline to leave. At one point, Byron agrees to elope with her, and then doesn't. The story is best told by Hobhouse, who describes the day's events in full in his diary [1] as follows:


Went to Byron’s – No 8 St James’s Street – in expectation of going to Harrow, a scheme he had resolved on to avoid the threatened visit of a lady. At twelve o’clock, just as we were going, several thundering raps were heard at the door, and we saw a crowd collected about the door, and opposite to it. Immediately, a person in a most strange disguise walked upstairs. It turned out to be the lady in question, from Brocket. She, seeing me, ran up the garret stairs, on which I went down into Mr Dollman’s shop and ordered a hat. Coming up again to take my hat and stick and go away, I did think that to leave my friend in such a situation, when, as Mr Dollman told me, every soul in the house, servants and all, knew of the person in disguise, and not to prevent the catastrophe of an elopement which seemed inevitable, would be unjustifiable. Accordingly I stayed in the sitting room, whilst the lady was in the bedroom pulling off her disguise, under which she had a page’s dress. Lord Byron was with her, but repeatedly came out to me, so that nothing could possibly have happened; besides which, both parties were too much agitated to admit a doubt of their conduct at that time.


Mr Dollman saw me twice at Byron’s desire, and pressed upon me the necessity of “the lady’s going out” of the house. I sent in by Byron several proposals for her quitting the place, but she said positively she would not go. At last she was prevailed upon to put on a habit, bonnet, and shoes belonging to a servant of the house, and, after much entreaty, did come out into the sitting room, in Byron’s presence. I pressed upon her the necessity of instantly leaving the place – she said she would not. – “Then,” said Byron, “we must go off together, there is no alternative”. – “Indeed”, said I, “but there is, you shall not go off this time”. – The lady said she would not go off. I continued to urge upon her the absolute necessity of leaving the house. She said, “There will be blood spilt <first>“. – “That”, returned I, “there will be indeed, unless you go away”. To this Byron assented. – “It shall be mine then”, said the lady. She then began to look quite wild, and to struggle, and, seeing a court sword lying on the sofa, back made a snatch to get at it, but was held back by Byron. To appease her I went out of the room for five minutes to speak to Mr Dollman, and obtain of him that no violent measures might be taken, but whilst absent I desired Fletcher, Byron’s valet, to go into the bedroom to prevent the possibility of anything criminal happening, or anything which might be construed into a possibility of the thing to be dreaded taking place.

Returning into the room I found her more tranquil. She said she would go away on the condition of seeing Byron once more before Friday. She was told she should – she should do anything she pleased if she would be content to go away now.


Here was a difficulty – she must change her clothes before she went to her carriage, and this she could not do at Byron’s, for fear of being known. When she came out of his lodgings, after some reflection I told her she might go in a hackney coach (one had been standing at the door by my order some time) to my lodgings, where she might put on her own clothes, which she had in a bundle with her, and thence go in another hackney coach to her carriage, or to the house of some friend. She said she would do this if Byron went with her. I said, “I cannot consent to let you and Byron be in my rooms together – such a conduct would not be consistent with what I owe to both of you, to your mother (Lady Bessborough) and to myself”. She entreated me very hard for some time that I would permit her and Byron to be together in my rooms, but I flatly denied, and Byron said – “Indeed it would be wrong to expect it of you – I do not expect it”.


At last she consented to leave Byron’s, dressed up in the servant’s habit &c., and go in a hackney coach to Manchester Buildings, on condition that Byron might go in the coach with her as far as my lodgings. On this I left the house and went to the bottom of St James’s Street. In a minute or two I saw them (Byron and the lady) step into the coach, and drive down the street. At that instant I ran across the park to my lodgings, and, having got my door opened, stood at the corner of the buildings. The hackney coach soon came. I stopped it at the corner before it turned to the buildings, and desired Byron to get out, at which he did. The hackney coach then drove with the lady to my lodgings. I handed her out, took her upstairs, and, showing her my rooms, went away immediately, that she might dress herself, desiring her to lock the doors.


I went into the street to Byron, whom I found at the corner of the buildings, and walked with him to Bailly’s coffee-house, where I left him, and came back to my lodgings. The lady had dressed herself in her own clothes when I came into my sitting-room, and I immediately began to impress the necessity of her getting to her carriage or to some friends. In a short time a note came to her from Byron enclosed to me. It stated he wished to see her before she left London. She wrote an answer which she gave to me <not> <appointing some time & place, but saying she would contrive it> At last she settled to go to a Mrs Conyers, No 5 Grosvenor Gate – a friend of hers – and begged I would go with her. To this I consented, and she left my lodgings in a hackney coach with me, taking a little basket with her containing some of her clothes, shoes, &c. We ordered the coach to stop a hundred yards from the house, and then got out – I took her <hand/>arm and walked towards No 5. A servant in livery offered to carry the basket, and followed with it behind. When at Mrs Conyers we knocked, and the servant said his mistress was at home. After a short parley in the passage, and her requesting me a thousand times to call on her at Melbourne House the next day, and asking me to send her carriage from Moore’s livery stables to her at No 5 Grosvenor Gate, I took leave of her – she was very much affected. Before I went she made me promise I would not prevent Byron from meeting her once before she left London – she mentioned Barnet or Highgate – on her way back, and, knowing that all apparent opposition would make her as extravagant as before, and cause a scene, I consented to speak to him on the subject.


God knows that from the very beginning I have done my best to keep my friend out of the scrape. My first wish was that he should give this lady, who by the common consent of all London has made a dead set at him, no power over him by consenting to any serious folly, and when I knew that everything had passed between them, my next desire was to prevent a public disclosure and an elopement – this latter event would, as Byron assured me and assures me, have certainly taken place but for the part I played in the transactions of yesterday, which I have here noted down, twenty-four hours only after they took place, in case it should ever be necessary to defend myself from any misrepresentations, and for the purpose of keeping by me a correct statement of these facts, which together with a thousand others would prove that the seduction has not been on the side of my friend.


I have letters from the lady’s mother, and the lady, thanking me for what I [had] done before this event; and at the time Lady Bessborough first begged me to interfere, I knew interference was too late, except to prevent an elopement, but this I could not tell her, for my friend Byron had trusted me with the secret, and to him I owed a paramount and prior duty. All my endeavours have certainly tended to what I thought his good. I have not cared for the others, nor have consulted anything in my transactions with them but his advantage and my own honour. The prayers and entreaties of the mother did indeed prompt me to the same conduct, which I should have pursued solely for the benefit of my friend, but it was much against my will, and only after repeated applications, that I had any communication with her. I did tell her that the fault was more on the side of the woman than the man, and that if she could answer for the forbearance of her daughter I could engage for the prudence of my friend. In all communications with the lady I have insisted on the propriety of being prudent, and of taking no step which might produce an √©claircissement. I knew it was useless to talk about that virtue which she had not, but I could not tell her I knew her case. There again my duty to my friend interfered.


As to Byron, I have nothing to accuse [him] of except the having told me his secret, and having talked about me to the family. It was not strange he should not take my advice, when the lady was so exigéante, seeing that, after many efforts, I could neither get him away from London nor prevent him from writing to the lady. I gave up speaking to him on the subject for ten days, and never should have mentioned the topic again, had not the departure of the lady from London, and his talk, made me think there was no dread of an elopement. Lady Bessborough, on the 16th, requested I would write to her and tell her how affairs went on between the parties: my knowledge of the real fact, and my resolution of not identifying myself with any of the family, have rendered it very difficult for me to do this without running the chance of misleading Lady Bessborough Рso I have not written at all as yet Рbut now shall give her a few lines, expressing my complete persuasion that nothing but the detention of her daughter from London will prevent some catastrophe Рit is my duty to tell her this. I cannot tell her what happened yesterday Рthere would be no use in giving her such a detail, nor would such a disclosure help at all to prevent what is alone now to be prevented, an elopement Рyet, should that transaction ever come to her ears, she may think that I was aiding and abetting, and mistake all that was ever done by me to get her daughter out of the scrape for an endeavour to forward her views to get into it. I cannot help it, and if I should suffer from the misfortune of having been obliged to interfere in this transaction, delicate affair, I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that my motives have been honourable and my conduct such as anyone in similar circumstances would have most probably been forced to pursue.


Notes


1. The excerpt above is taken from the invaluable transcription of Hobhouse's diary by Peter Cochran which can be found here.




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