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Bessborough papers

Call Number: OSB MSS 55

Scope and Contents

The Bessborough Papers consist of correspondence and manuscripts by and connected with Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough; her sister Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; and her daughter Lady Caroline Lamb. The papers span the dates 1774-1826 and have been organized into two series: Series I, Letters to Lady Bessborough; and Series II, Manuscripts.

Series I, Letters to Lady Bessborough , is housed in folders 1-34 and consists of single letters addressed to the Countess of Bessborough by a variety of friends and relatives. Many of the letters detail social engagements and plans for visits; some letters are described more fully in the box and folder listing. Lady Bessborough's literary interests are reflected in letters from Lady Eleanor Butler, commenting on Lady Bessborough's visit to Llangollen; from the poet Samuel Jackson Pratt; and from W. Drew, who encloses verses addressed to his patroness.

Lady Bessborough's travels on the Continent and concern for friends caught up in the events of the French Revolution are also documented in letters from the comtesse de Boufflers-Rouverel, Baron Armfelt, and the vicomte de Leon. Folder 11 contains a letter from the Duchess of Devonshire describing the seige of Mainz, and folder 12 holds letters from the Duke of Dorset to the Duchess of Devonshire on developments in France at the end of 1791. The collection also contains a letter from the Earl of Chichester on the surrender of Valenciennes and one from "le chevalier W" on the situation at Coblenz. Folders 32-34 house letters and fragments by unidentified authors on events during the Terror.

Series II, Manuscripts , is housed in folders 36-108 and is organized into two subseries: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Caroline Lamb. The first subseries consists of detatched album leaves upon which manuscripts in various hands have been pasted. The leaves are numbered, and as this order may reflect the original order of the album it has been preserved in the current box and folder listing. Contents include an epitaph for the Duchess, ascribed to her; occasional poems addressed to her sister and other relatives; a prayer for "my sister" which contains self-reproaches for "my pointed tongue" (folder 63); and prose fragments on subjects such as jealousy, misfortune, and self-interest. There are also several apparently contemporary poems of unknown authorship.

The second subseries, Lady Caroline Lamb, has been arranged in three sections: Poems Attributed to Lady Caroline Lamb; Other Poems; and Other Papers. The first section includes a poem that seems to be addressed to Lamb's only child ("A little Lamb there was who from its birth"); several romantic or melancholy verses; and a poem "On a Broken Guitar" accompanied by a reply poem from "Mrs. Lilburn."

There are several items which suggest or have been connected to Lamb's relationship with Lord Byron. A poem dated "April 23, 1824" which opens "And can I believe that the form I beheld" seems to be a reaction to the news of Byron's death; the poem "by those eyes whose sweet expression" has been annotated "Ldy. Caroline Lamb on Byron. 1814?" Folder 83 contains a copy of "This heart has never stoop'd its pride," which was published in a different version in Lamb's Glenarvon. An annotator attributes it, probably incorrectly, to Byron himself. A heavily corrected stanza expressing "agonizing woe" and followed by what may be the fragment of a letter is found in folder 90.

Other Poems includes copies of popular sentimental verse by L. E. L.; poems addressed to Lamb by friends; and two copies of Byron's epitaph on his dog. Other Papers, located in folders 101-106, contains silhouettes and a pencil sketch; the manuscript of an Italian "favola per Carolina mia;" and a sheet of possible chapter mottoes for an unidentified work.


  • 1774-1827

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Bessborough Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Bequest of James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.


0.42 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers include letters written to Lady Bessborough; poetry in the hands of Lady Devonshire and of Lamb; and music, two silhouettes, and one drawing. Some of the letters contain eyewitness descriptions of the Napoleonic Wars.


Henrietta Frances Spencer Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, was born on June 16, 1761, the younger daughter of John, Earl Spencer. In November of 1780 she married Frederick Ponsonby, viscount Duncannon; her dowry of L20,000 went toward Duncannon's L30,000 debt. Their first child, John William Ponsonby, was born on August 31, 1781. Despite their incompatibilities, and Henrietta's abortive elopement with Charles Wyndham, one of the King's friends, the couple had four children during the first seven years of their marriage; their only daughter, Caroline (later Lady Caroline Lamb), was born in 1785. Duncannon initiated divorce proceedings against his wife in 1789, prompted by her relationship with the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, but was persuaded by his father and brother-in-law to withdraw the bill from the House of Lords.

While visiting Italy in 1794, Henrietta began a lengthy relationship with Lord Granville Leveson-Gower. Their first child, Harriet Stewart, was born in August of 1800 and placed with foster parents.

Henrietta and her sister, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, remained close throughout their lives and frequently visited and traveled together until Henrietta's death in 1806. Georgiana spent many summers in residence at Manresa House in Roehampton, when she gardened and established a hostel for "unfortunate girls." In December of 1809, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, recently named Secretary of War in Canning's cabinet, married Georgiana's daughter, Harriet Cavendish.

In 1812, Lady Bessborough escorted her daughter to Ireland in a successful effort to end Caroline's relationship with Lord Byron. She died in retirement in Florence in November, 1821.


Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was born on June 9, 1757, the eldest daughter of John, Earl Spencer. On June 5, 1774, she married William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire. She quickly became the hostess and center of the "Devonshire House Circle" of Whig aristocrats and a friend and partisan of Charles James Fox. She was the model for Sheridan's Lady Teazle in School for Scandal, set the fashions at court, and published The Slyph, a popular and notorious novel, anonymously in 1778. Her enthusiastic and effective canvassing in support of Fox in the hotly contested Westminster election of 1784 was widely lampooned in the popular press.

After several miscarriages, Georgiana bore the Duke three children, first two daughters and then, in 1790, a son and heir, William Cavendish, Marquis of Hartington. She was separated from the Duke in 1791 over her extravagant gambling debts and her pregnancy by Charles Grey, who had replaced the Duke of Dorset in her affections. Their daughter, Eliza Courtney, was born in February 1792 and raised by Grey's parents in Northumberland. Georgiana and her husband were reconciled, in part due to the influence of Lady Elizabeth Foster, Devonshire's mistress, and the three formed a household which included the children of both women by Devonshire.

Georgiana's health declined in the 1790s after a severe illness which affected her eyes, and she and her household lived more quietly at Devonshire and at Chatsworth, although she continued to be interested in political affairs and troubled by substantial debts. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire died at Devonshire House on March 30, 1806. The Duke of Devonshire married Lady Elizabeth Foster on October 19, 1809, despite the opposition of all of his children; he died two years later.


Lady Caroline Ponsonby Lamb was born November 13, 1785, the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Bessborough. She married William Lamb, eldest son of Lord Melbourne, on June 3, 1805. Their only son William was born in August 1807.

In the spring of 1812 she met Lord Byron at Holland House. Byron was enjoying his new celebrity as the author of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," and the two began a four month affair, despite her opinion of him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." The relationship scandalized her family, and in August her mother and her husband took her to Ireland in order to end the affair. Lamb began separation proceedings, but abandoned them the following year, though the couple continued to live apart.

In 1816, she published Glenarvon, a thinly disguised retelling of her relationship with Byron in novel form. It only served to renew the gossip, and her husband sent her from London to live primarily at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire. The novel was translated into Italian in 1817; upon hearing that Byron had laughed over it with Madame de Staël, Lamb is said to have made a bonfire of Byron letters and keepsakes on the grounds at Brocket.

She published two more novels; Graham Hamilton (1822) and Ada Reis (1823). Her separation from Lamb became final in 1825, and she spent the remainder of her life in seclusion at Brocket Hall with her father-in-law and her invalid son George. She died at Melbourne House in the presence of her husband on January 26, 1828.

Processing Information

This finding aid was produced in part from a previously existing card set in the Manuscripts Catalog, or from another inventory. All pertinent bibliographical information has been retained.

Guide to the Bessborough Papers
Under Revision
by Beinecke Staff
August 1999
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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