Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London (book #166)

Picture of Mary Lamb

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, 2005.

Review by Nigel Leary.

I knew very little about Mary Lamb’s life, though whenever I am in the kitchen with my mother and a bread knife I am compelled to mutter “Mary Lamb”. I enjoyed Charles’s Essays as a child, and their joint poems in The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse.

This is a good biography, though there are a couple of imagining sections near the start which are a bit annoying.

I did not know that Mary’s murder of her mother was acknowledged at the time to be linked to Mary’s caring role – as the only surviving daughter, not only was she working as a mantua-maker, but also looking after her paralysed 60-year-old mother, her 70-year-old father, who had dementia or a stroke or both, her elderly though reasonably healthy aunt and her brother John, who did not normally live with them but had injured his leg and moved back home. In addition, her brother Charles, who did live at home, had had a mental breakdown the year before and spent some time in a private madhouse, and Mary had a new apprentice, aged 9.

The family were poor and had no servants. Charles describes their mother as responding to Mary’s love with “cold and repulse“. A newspaper wrote about the murder that “As her carriage towards her mother was ever affectionate in the extreme, it is believed, that to the incresed attentiveness which her parents’ infirmities called for by day and night, is to be attributed the present insanity of this ill fated young woman”.

The year after the murder, when Mary was still in another private madhouse, Hitchcock describes Charles’s difficulties in looking after his father. “What Charles really needed was some time to himself, but circumstances did not allow it.”

Hitchcock writes about the inter-dependency between Charles and Mary that Mary “cycled through the pattern over and over: caring, finding herself overwhelmed, retreating and detaching, recovering herself, and then returning to the situation in which she must start caring again”. Charles’s alcoholism and mental health issues, in his words, were “wasting and teazing her life”.

I was interested to know that the Lambs were friends with John Rickman, discussed in my last post. “Charles called [him] ‘the clearest headed fellow,’ ‘fullest of matter with least verbosity,’ ‘hugely literate, oppresively full of information,’ and in general ‘the finest fellow to drop in a nights about nine or ten oClock, cold bread and cheese time, just in the wishing time of the night, when you wish for somebody to come in, without a distinct idea of a probable anybody’.” Data people – there with the matter and up for bread and cheese of a night.

Much later, Mary became a children’s writer. Hitchcock quotes from Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s book for three- and four-year-olds:

The sky is very black: the rain pours down. Well, never mind it. We will sit by the fire, and read, and tell stories, and look at pictures. Where is Billy and Harry, and little Betsey? Now, tell me who can spell best. Good boy! There is a clever fellow! Now you shall have some cake.

The Lambs objected to this type of writiting as not fostering imagination.

There’s a comment about Charles not liking William Godwin’s life of Chaucer because of Godwin “‘filling out the picture by supposing what Chaucer did and how he felt, when the materials are scanty'”. Given Hitchcock’s passages of imagining, I found this amusing.

There is a good account of the Lambs’ living arrangements, as described by Mary:

We still live in Temple Lane, but I am now sitting in a room you never saw. Soon after you left us we were distressed by the cries of a cat which seemed to proceed from the garrets adjoining to ours, and only separated from ours by a locked door … We had the lock forced and let the poor puss out from behind a pannel (sic) of the wainscot, and she lived with us from that time, for we were in gratitute (sic) bound to keep her as she had introduced us to four untenanted, unowned rooms, and by degrees we have taken possession of these unclaimed apartments.

They set up one of the rooms as a workroom for Charles, but

he could do nothing he said with those bare white-washed walls before his eyes … [so we] almost covered the walls with prints, for which purpose he cut out every print from every book in his old library, coming in every now and then to ask my leave to strip a fresh poor author, which he might not do you know without my permission as I am older sister. There was such pasting – such pasting – such consultation where their portaits and where the series of pictures from Ovid, Milton & Shakespear would show to most advantage and in what obscure corner authors of humbler note might be allowed to tell their stories … – the poor despised garret is now called the print room and is become our most favourite sitting room.

And let’s end on a relatively cheery note – an account of the Lambs’ holiday in 1803. Mary was not long out of a stay in a madhouse. This is written by the Lambs’ friend Captain James Burney, brother of Fanny.

We do every thing that is idle, such as reading books from a circulating library, sauntering, hunting little crabs among the rocks, reading Church Yard poetry which is as bad at Cowes as any Church Yard in the Kingdom can produce. Miss Lamb is the only person among us who is not idle. All the cares she takes into her keeping. At night however we do a little business in the smoking line [Mary also smoked, unusually for a woman], and Martin [James’s son] endeavours to make Conundrums, but alas! he is not equal to the achievement. Such is the edifying life we lead at the Isle of Wight.

The Lambs’ Poetry for Children is online here. Their letters are also online, in a coupld of editions: here and here.

There is another biography of Mary Lamb, published the year before this one, which I would like to read: The Devil Kissed Her: the story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson. Review here. There’s also a double biography from the year before that, A Double Life: a biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, by Sarah Burton. Review by Hermione Lee here.

Advertisements

Tags:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s