Twisty Little Passages: The Several Editions of Lady Caroline Lamb's Glenarvon

By Douglass, Paul | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Twisty Little Passages: The Several Editions of Lady Caroline Lamb's Glenarvon


Douglass, Paul, Wordsworth Circle


Glenarvon was published in 1816 by Henry Colburn, who advanced Lady Caroline Lamb [pounds sterling]200 with an agreement to pay [pounds sterling]300 upon publication. He must have anticipated decent sales, for he had recently paid an established writer, Lady Morgan, about the same amount for her novel O'Donnel (Erickson 156). Glenarvon is an interesting case study in the winding paths of revision, which began as soon as Lamb detected editorial changes in the proofs: "I shall be seriously angry if any alteration is made whatever either in punctuation or orthography & I entreat you to send me the proof sheets. Remember and send the remainder of the 1st vol. - for I have been obliged to alter it all back again ... "(2) She was also "vex'd" when Colburn left two musical settings by Isaac Nathan out of the galleys. (3) She perhaps felt Nathan's music would be a selling point, because the second volume of Byron and Nathan's successful Hebrew Melodies, had just appeared. Colburn put the music back in, but the proofreading continued practically up to the day Glenarvon was published anonymously on May 9, 1816. There were errors, including mis-numbering of chapters, (4) but the author was proud, and sent copies of the novel to her circle of associates. Her pride turned to alarm, however, when her sister-in-law and others began to accuse her of betraying them with this "kiss and tell," or as Byron put it, "--and publish" confessional (Byron's Letters and Journals 5: 85). When John Cam Hobhouse announced his intention to counter-attack on Byron's behalf for Lamb's expropriation of his "character" in the novel by publishing some of Lamb's letters. Lamb expressed nothing but astonishment (Douglass 185). She spent the next period of her life revising Glenarvon for its second and third editions, adding a preface, and then an introduction for a fourth edition, (5) trying to repair the damage. And yet, she never altered any passages that would change the novel's core message.

Lamb's reputation for insanity is largely based upon the act of social suicide Glenarvon became. She paid heavily for portraying Byron both as an irresistible lover and "a coward and a hypocrite," a "smooth dissembler," who smiles--but "while he smiles he stabs" (Works 1: 342). Frustrated passion and simultaneous anger with Byron motivated the writer, no doubt, but her deeper anger lay with the society that excused him while condemning her for their adultery. That double standard irked, then enraged her, and she began to see it as confirmation of the pervasive hypocrisy she had witnessed first hand for years. Of Calantha, the novel's heroine. Lady Caroline wrote, "She heard folly censured till she took it to be criminal; but crime she saw tolerated if well concealed" (Works 1: 54). In Glenarvon, Lamb was able to dramatize her own attempt to defy a society rife with "hypocrisy and deceit" (Works 1: 71).

Lamb had other motives besides family distress for revising her work. The press had been severe with her first novel--overly so, in retrospect. Glenarvon has significant flaws, but the reaction of journals and magazines was certainly out of proportion to its offenses. The British Critic described it as composed of "scenes of seduction and adultery" representing the "morals of Paris and Vienna" (i.e., "Sodom and Gomorrah") by an author bent on "publishing to the world her own shame," who seemed "to glory in her guilt." The Critic's reviewer said that the novel ought to be read "with a mixed feeling of abhorrence and pity". (6) The Theatrical Inquisitor similarly found Glenarvon "tiresome" and "revolting" and described it as a pornographic work comparable to John Cleland's Fanny Hill. (7) The British Lady's Magazine bemoaned the novel as a "wretched production" which was "disgusting, immoral, and tawdry," and notwithstanding these grave charges, completely "farcical." (8) The Monthly Review did not charge Glenarvon with moral or religious harm, but rather inquired into the novel's oddity. …

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