Before Georgiana ruled London society as leading hostess and leader of the ton there was Lady Melbourne. Only five years older than Georgiana, she gracefully stepped down from the post and became good friends with the new duchess. Less social obligations meant more time to play!
Elizabeth Milbank was the daughter of a baronet and grew into a beautiful, intelligent, clever girl. At 18 she was married to Peniston Lamb (does that name sound familiar?) and immediately set herself in organizing his rather disorganized affairs. That included overseeing the building of Melbourne House. After she had successfully fulfilled her duties of getting her husband's affairs in order and giving him an heir Elizabeth retired, if you will, to a hedonistic lifestyle of debauchery and scandal.
Because of her assertive and intelligent personality she accomplished her sinful lifestyle very well. It was rumored that Lord Coleraine sold Elizabeth to Lord Egremont for £13,000 and that both Elizabeth and her husband were parties of this contract and got shares of the money. She not only got money from this contract, but two children as well. She had a notorious temper and was a natural leader so even when she resigned from her post as leading hostess she was likely holding a puppet string or two of Georgiana's. In Sheridan's play, The School for Scandal, the character of the evil Lady Sneerwell was likely modeled after Elizabeth.
Unlike her character, Lady Sneerwell, Elizabeth did seem to be a decent friend of Georgiana's,
"The Duke of Richmond has been here, and told me you and I were two rival queens, and I believe, if there had not been some people in the room, who might have thought it odd, that I should have slapped his face for having such an idea; and he wished me joy of having the Prince to myself. How odious people are, upon my life, I have no patience with them."Oh yeah, she also slept with Prince of Wales and bore one of his many bastards.
In fact, Lady Melbourne could be as loyal a friend as she was a disloyal wife. When rumors surfaced about an elopement involving Georgiana's sister Harriet, she venomously denied it all while writing Georgiana to find if it was in fact true. As for her disloyalty to her husband, the Viscount seemed not to mind it too much, especially since he received the title of Viscount in 1781 due to her infidelities and manipulations.
Lady Melbourne's affairs lasted past her youth and beauty and too numerous to count. One of her younger men conquests was Lord Bedford, who was courting Georgiana's daughter at the time I believe. Some of the infamous lover and poet, Lord Byron's most scandalous letters were addressed to Elizabeth despite the massive age gap. In fact, Byron's other conquest, Lady Caroline Lamb was Elizabeth's daughter in law. How incestuous! Unlike Caroline, the affair did not end disastrously and Byron has been quoted as saying Elizabeth was "the best friend I ever had in my life and the cleverest woman." Clever indeed, it seems that no ill-will was ever wished on Elizabeth by the many men she toyed with. The same probably can't be said about the wives of those men.
In this painting by Daniel Gardner Lady Melbourne (left) and Georgiana (right) are depicted as witches.
[The Milbanks and Melbourne Families by George Stubbs is property of The National Gallery of London]