Magazine article The Spectator

Lamb Not for the Slaughter

Magazine article The Spectator

Lamb Not for the Slaughter

Article excerpt

Lamb not for the slaughter

Jane Ridley

LORD MELBOURNE

by L. G. Mitchell

OUP, L25, pp. 349

When William Lamb, the future prime minister Lord Melbourne, was a boy at Eton, he fought a boy who pummelled him amazingly. This won't do, thought young Lamb, and he walked away. Leslie Mitchell shows in this excellent biography that Melbourne walked away from many unpleasant things. He seemed indolent and `milk-and-water', making no effort to impose himself upon events. For over 20 years, he was a generally silent, idle, absent backbench MP, paralysed by nerves before making a few halting speeches. Despite being a protege of Charles James Fox, he lacked convictions. His politics, said the Duke of Bedford, were `God knows what'.

Lady Caroline Ponsonby married him. Caroline's three pregnancies produced only one son, who was mentally retarded. Driven by violent swings of mood, she smashed crockery, dressed as a boy and took lovers. William Lamb watched helplessly as Caroline flaunted her scandalous affair with Byron, who proceeded to seduce William's mother, thereby making him doubly embarrassed. When Caroline went public and wrote a novel, Glenarvon, in which she pilloried Whig society, William was ostracised. Too weak-willed to divorce, he endured public humiliation and domestic misery, hiding in his library at Brocket from the drunken, slovenly Caroline and the tribe of orphans she 'adopted'. Leslie Mitchell believes that William's marriage scarred him for life. Caroline's premature death in 1828 (she was 43) released him, but he never learned to trust again.

William first received junior office under Canning at the advanced age of 48. No one would have predicted that Lord Melbourne, as he now was, would become not only Home Secretary (1830-34) but Prime Minister. Leslie Mitchell explains that in 1834 there was no one else around who wanted to be PM. Fate decreed that Melbourne's inability to commit himself and his lack of agenda or ideas were strengths in the 1830s, when party was out of fashion, and the Whig government had overreached itself on reform. Melbourne was a remarkably good prime minister. His habit of doing business whilst lying on a sofa belied a surprising appetite for work. …

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