Magazine article The Spectator

Infamous Females

Magazine article The Spectator

Infamous Females

Article excerpt

If you've written a book it helps to have read it, especially when appearing on the radio to promote it. Facing Ned Sherrin on Loose Ends on Radio Four (Saturday), the comedienne Jo Brand seemed rather vague about some of the contents of her new book, A Load of Old Ball Crushers, an irreverent look at 50 famous or infamous women in history; among them, the two Elizabeths, the first and the Taylor, George Eliot, a pickpocket called Moll Cutpurse and Boadicea.

Sherrin said of Boadicea, `She's supposed to be buried under platform nine of, is it King's Cross or Euston station?' Brand had no idea. Under Sherrin's cross-examination about the book, she took refuge in a story about the first escalator recently installed on the Isle of Wight and the wonderment of the citizenry at the arrival of this daring new invention. Sherrin thought she was now part of the show business Establishment, `the grand old girl of comedy' as he put it. Whether or not this is the case, it's often a fate to befall sensational women. Lots of others come along and make you seem tame.

This is certainly true, historically speaking, of the subjects of Sensational Women on Radio Four (Wednesday), a six-part series about women sensation novelists of the 19th century. Of the three programmes I've heard, Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of the Whig politician Lord Melbourne, emerges as the most outrageous of her time but largely because of a man, Lord Byron. I thought Byron would get the feminist treatment from the presenter Sarah Dunant and the writer Michele Roberts as they clearly thought he treated Lamb badly in ending their tumultuous love affair. Roberts described his final, lethal exasperated Dear John as the rejection letter of all time.

It certainly was a humdinger, as one would hope and expect from a great poet, ending with, .. . . Exert your absurd caprices on others and leave me in peace.' Their brief but passionate affair was conducted at the Melbournes' grand house off Whitehall - now the Scottish Office - and, of course, much has been written about it since. But listening to Dunant and Roberts it became even more apparent to me that Lamb lured Byron into her bed, not the other way round. When a friend describes him to her, `He has a club foot and bites his nails,' she replies, `If he was as ugly as Aesop, I must know him.' She'd just read `Childe Harold' and that was enough for her.

Roberts thought Byron held the strings and when he'd made his conquest, backed off. In fact, Lamb was a slightly mad obsessive and it was hardly surprising Byron bolted. When she couldn't get in to see him, she'd dress up as a page and sneak into his room incognito. …

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