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78: A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

#78: A DEATH IN THE FAMILY. In 1796 Mary Lamb, sister to Charles, already a concern to her family due to outbreaks of mental illness, succumbed to a fit of outright madness, terrorized a serving girl, injured her father, and killed her mother by stabbing her with a carving knife. She was committed to an asylum and, after six months of treatment, allowed to go into her brother’s care, beginning a long, intense relationship of mutual aid and devotion, a seesaw of serenity and disheartening separations that would last out their lives. They became the center of a literary circle in London: informal dinners and visits of working writers and artists, with great talk and riotous, friendly wit. Then Mary’s warning symptoms would recur, and Charles would escort his sister to a stay at the asylum. A friend wrote: “It was very affecting to encounter the young brother and his sister walking together (weeping together) on this painful errand; Mary, although sad, very conscious of the necessity for temporary separation from her only friend. They used to carry a strait jacket with them.”

The tragedy was publicly known only after Mary’s death in 1847 (Charles died in 1834). It must have helped to explain the keen edge of melancholy in Lamb’s essays, and the pair’s devotion to each other became part of British literary legend. Two new books have taken up the subject: The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson (Penguin, 2004) and Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London, by Susan Tyler Hitchcock (Norton, 2005). Watson’s book, tricked out almost like a true-crime story, is thinner, harder in tone and to my taste not very well written. Neither book really has much new information on or explanation of Mary’s madness: that we’ll probably never fully understand. Hitchcock’s book is generally better written (a few dud patches early on), with a much fuller vision of the period, and, though called Mad Mary Lamb, does not present her life as a mere pendant to that one act of madness. Because of that it’s the more interesting, informative and affecting of the two.

As for Charles Lamb. His collaborative effort with Mary, the Tales from Shakespeare, was for years a standard book and went through God knows how many editions; but it has staled rather badly, and I have my doubts as to its uses these days for introducing children to Shakespeare. Lamb’s own plays were failures in their day, which means he survives for most readers in the Essays of Elia. They are not the whole world, as one might be tempted to say of Montaigne, or Cervantes, or certainly of Shakespeare; but they are a particular world, and one of great charm, caught in attentive and loving specific. Despite some pages that are cobwebby and gone by, Lamb can hit whole passages that make his everyday world strangely unforgettable. A certain port-and-tobacco bachelorish sympathy with the old-fashioned may be of help, but if you have it you’ll be doubly blessed, as Lamb was beloved through some of the great periods of British bookmaking, and until recently charming old hardcover reprints of his works were common in secondhand. And with the backlight of Mary’s and his tragedy, the running sociable current of wit and even temper may begin to look like a kind of heroisim—a fortitude of candles lit against loneliness and madness. Unknown even to some Lamb enthusiasts, too, are the letters, which survive with the very best of the essays. Lamb in his modest way was in the thick of the best literary creating of his day and his letters are pokes of fun and frustration at being among those gigantic psyches. The letters are another great book to leave in the bathroom and wander through at leisure—there’s a generous selection of them in the old Modern Library Giant volume. Of the poems there are at least two (both immortalized in Palgrave), “The Old Familiar Faces” and “To an Infant Dying Early,” that have become part of our literature, and I do not disdain them.

The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London:, by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (New Amsterdam, 2002) is a charming study of a famed dinner at which Lamb, Keats, Wordsworth, Haydon and others sported and held forth: one of those evenings in which a time and place seem to be held in crystal.

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