Lord Byron, shortly before his brief, doomed marriage to her niece Annabella Milbanke, described Elizabeth Lamb, Lady Melbourne (known to the admiring young poet as Lady M), as ‘the best friend I ever had in my life, and the cleverest of women’. Lady Holland, a rival hostess in Georgian London, compared Elizabeth to the scheming Marquise de Merteuil of Laclos’s great novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. William Lamb, Elizabeth’s son, became Queen Victoria’s adored first prime minister. He told the teenage monarch that ‘almost every body’s character was formed by their Mother’, although William’s legendary indolence was anathema to a mother whose talent for manipulation and intrigue pushed her husband’s family to the top of the social tree and resulted in her grand home on Whitehall becoming the struggling Whig Party’s indispensable HQ.
Houses get star billing in Colin Brown’s biography of Lady Melbourne (astonishingly, it is the first to have been written). Tracking Elizabeth Milbanke (as she was born) down to Halnaby Hall, her Yorkshire birthplace (since demolished), Brown points to the nearby church of St Peter at Croft, where