Gothic literature became prominent in the latter half of the 18th century and grew more popular throughout the 19th century. Gothic novels consist of multiple themes and tropes mostly dealing with vice, and decay. However, there are novels like Lady Caroline Lamb’s, Glenarvon, that employs the femme fatal character, death, supernaturalism, melodrama and many other conventions of gothic literature.
Lamb’s novel is based off her affair with Lord Byron, furthering the “Byronic Hero” archetype, and draws from other elements in her personal life. Lamb’s brief yet intense affair with Byron began and ended in 1812, and her novel was published shortly thereafter in 1816.
During the writing of Lamb’s novel, the United Kingdom was under the Regency Period that lasted from 1811 to 1820, in which a highly developed sense of social standing, pushed emphasis on manners and class issues, and modern social thought amongst the upper class of England emerged. During this time, Lamb and her social circle were the peak of the social structure around them.
What essentially distinguishes Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel from others in the gothic literary movement, is that while it possessed numerous gothic themes, it was initially viewed as a “kiss and tell” story due to it being based off her affair and those in her social circle. In Leigh Wetherall Dickson’s analysis of Lady Caroline Lamb’s novels, she writes that “Disparaging references to Lamb’s personal life have become a substitute for critical engagement with her work; judgements of the woman and the texts have become fused together.” Not only this, but she also states, “Frances Wilson has already written on how Lamb has been perceived as an ‘‘exaggerated woman’’ whose name has ‘‘become synonymous with melodrama’’, which has rendered all fictional representations and biographical studies of Lamb as a figure unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction due to self-indulgent emotional excess.” Lamb’s personal melodrama reflects perfectly in her novel and because of this, she had fallen from her high status within society. This particular time of her life is the focal point in which her novel draws inspiration from.
In real life, Lamb herself is a femme fatal, an archetype that is littered throughout gothic literature. The femme fatal is a seductive female character who tricks and manipulates men into doing what she wants. Regarding Caroline Lamb’s affair with Byron, Denise Millstein writes, “Their brief relationship was characterized by intense fits of ego and temper on both sides, as well as sexual games, all of which involved the assertion of dominance.” Lamb was often able to get the upper hand on Byron after their affair burnt out, by writing the way he does and often forging things in Byron’s writing. By showing this dominance over him, she was able to persuade him to her bidding. This type of female character is brought to us in her gothic novel, Glenarvon, through a character named Lady Margaret. Lady Margaret manipulates Count Viviani into arranging the murder of a new born child and sends him away. In one instance in the novel, Viviani refers to Lady Margaret as a “tygress” and speaks on how her looks subdued him. He states, “I should have shewn mercy; but an unrelenting tygress urged me on. — On thee—on thine, be the guilt, till it harrow up thy soul to acts of phrenzy and despair: —hope not for pardon from man—seek not for mercy from God. — Away with those proud looks which once subdued me” (Glenarvon, 1816). Through continued dialog, Viviani reveals himself to be someone who loved Lady Margaret and feels scorned. She becomes the target of another gothic element, illicit love. Illicit love is seen when a young woman becomes a target of an evil man’s desires or schemes, which is seen when Count Viviani later betrays Lady Margaret. “Die then—thus—thus,” said her enraged, her inhuman lover, as he struck the dagger, without daring to look where his too certain hand had plunged it” (Glenarvon, 1816).
The employment of the femme fatal character and scorned lovers gives way to other gothic elements in Lamb’s novel, such as the use of intense emotion, death, and supernaturalism. Many of the characters in Lamb’s novel are so overwrought with emotions that they often die from them. One character, Calantha, experiences a sudden onset of these emotions and states that, “her feelings indeed swelled with a tide too powerful for the unequal resistance of her understanding: —her motives appeared the very best, but the actions which resulted from them were absurd and exaggerated” (Glenarvon, 1816). Characters in the novel have often fallen from a broken heart or from grief. The way that the other characters deal with these deaths and other instances of intense emotion give way to supernaturalism.
As Robert Harris discusses the elements of the gothic novel on his website, he identifies supernaturalism by stating that, “Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural.” Supernaturalism is also the exploration of the unknown and how much control we have as human beings. Mary-Shelley’s popular gothic novel, Frankenstein, is a prime example of this. When Victor Frankenstein creates his monster, it then comes to life by a strike of lightening, and Victor Frankenstein fears his creation because he cannot control it. Supernaturalism can be seen towards the end of Lamb’s novel when the title character, Glenarvon, becomes hag-ridden by visions of the women whose lives he has ruined. Afterwards, Glenarvon dies and a monstrous monk condemns him stating that “hell awaits its victim” (Glenarvon, 1816). Condemning or cursing characters is another element within supernaturalism that carries over from the romantic period into the gothic.
Lamb also puts to use gothic language. Gothic language is often characterized by darkness and leads to fearful, unsettling, or melancholic imagery. This can be seen after Lady Margaret’s death. St. Clare says, “hasten there, and call for the presence of the duke; then return and meet me at the chapel, and I will restore to your gaze your long forgotten and much injured lord. The people in shouts re-echoed the mysterious words, but the darkness of evening prevented their seeing the horrid countenance of the wretch who addressed them” (Glenarvon, 1816).
Leigh Dickson writes another piece on Lady Caroline Lamb for Northumbria University and discusses how other intellectuals who review and analyze Lamb’s work and life, view her within the literary community and also how they portray her to other literary scholars. Dickson writes, “Because of this focus each study of Lamb’s life is a virtual carbon copy of the one before, thereby authorizing its own legitimacy by adhering to what appears to be a sanctioned version of Lamb’s life, reaffirming what is thought to be already known. The ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ that each biography claims to reveal does appear to be more than a little eccentric and perhaps even dangerous.” While Dickson goes on to criticize how other critique Lamb’s work, she herself admires Lamb’s work and life. Not only does she admire Lamb’s gothic text, Glenarvon, but she also likes the subsequent texts. The framework for Lamb’s following novels is set in primarily gothic settings, as was Glenarvon. Also, due to Lamb’s tie to Lord Byron, who is also a gothic writer, she will forever be tied to the gothic movement, if not by her work then by him.
- Harris, Robert. “Elements of the Gothic Novel.” Elements of the Gothic Novel, 2018, www.virtualsalt.com/gothic.htm.
- Wetherall Dickson, Leigh. “Authority and Legitimacy: The Cultural Context of Lady Caroline Lamb’s Novels.” Women’s Writing, vol. 13, no. 3, Oct. 2006, pp. 369–91
- Franklin, C. “LEIGH WETHERALL DICKSON and MALCOLM PAUL DOUGLASS, JR. (Eds.). The Works of Lady Caroline Lamb.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 61, no. 251, 2010, pp. 650–652.
- Millstein, Denise. “Byron and ‘Scribbling Women’: Lady Caroline Lamb, the Brontë Sisters, and George Eliot.” 2007.
- Caroline. “Glenarvon.” , By Plato, The University of Adelaide Library, 17 Nov. 2015, ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lamb/caroline/glenarvon/complete.html.