Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London


Mary Lamb - a dutiful daughter, well liked by just about everyone - killed her own mother with a carving knife. She spent the rest of her life in and out of madhouses, yet the crime and its aftermath opened up a life that no woman of her time or class could have expected. Freed to read extensively, Mary Lamb discovered her talent for writing. She and her brother, the essayist Charles Lamb, embarked on a literary collaboration that resulted in the famous Tales from Shakespear. Confidante to many of Britain's ...
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Mary Lamb - a dutiful daughter, well liked by just about everyone - killed her own mother with a carving knife. She spent the rest of her life in and out of madhouses, yet the crime and its aftermath opened up a life that no woman of her time or class could have expected. Freed to read extensively, Mary Lamb discovered her talent for writing. She and her brother, the essayist Charles Lamb, embarked on a literary collaboration that resulted in the famous Tales from Shakespear. Confidante to many of Britain's Romantics including Coleridge, Godwin, and Wordsworth, Mary Lamb stood at the vibrant center of a colorful literary circle. Through a deep reading of history, letters, and literature, Susan Tyler Hitchcock brings to life an intriguing portrait of Mary Lamb and her world. This narrative of a nearly forgotten woman becomes a tapestry of insights into creativity and madness, the changing lives of women, and the redemptive power of the written word.
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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In 1796, in a fit of insanity, Mary Lamb, aged thirty-one, murdered her mother with a carving knife. Thereafter, despite periodic spells in asylums, she played host to Coleridge and Wordsworth and was the principal author of the famous “Tales from Shakespeare,” written with her better-known brother Charles. Charles was an alcoholic with a stutter and a limp who had a blistering sense of humor, and who, under the pen name Elia, artfully reinvented the personal essay. It was only a matter of time before modern biographers rediscovered the unconventional pair. Hitchcock’s is the third biography of the Lambs to appear in the past couple of years, and capably rescues Mary from the footnotes of her brother’s story. But this somewhat bland account fails to convey the quirkiness of the Lamb siblings, or to illuminate a literary partnership that lasted for nearly forty years.
Publishers Weekly
One afternoon in 1796, Mary Lamb, aged 31, killed her mother with a carving knife at the dinner table. Like Kathy Watson in her recent The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb, Hitchcock diagnoses manic-depression at the heart of Mary's matricidal act and her subsequent stays in Britain's early mental asylums. Hitchcock (Coming About: A Family Passage at Sea), however, is far more willing to speculate about the gaps in the record of Mary's life, not to mention her thoughts and feelings as she regained something like a normal existence after the murder, which was judged an act of madness. Despite eventual bestselling collaborations with her brother, essayist Charles Lamb, in Tales from Shakespeare and Poetry for Children, Mary left an erratic documentary trail, with only one significant personal essay, which Hitchcock sees as proto-feminist. Charles, her lifelong protector, remains the best source about his sister and their shared life. But his letters to such friends as Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey show some reserve about the delicate subject of his sister's mental health. With such gaps, Hitchcock often resorts to reading into existing texts or inferring details of Mary's asylum experiences from typical practices of the time, which only partially resuscitates this tragic but elusive life. 32 illus. not seen by PW. Agents, Miriam Goderich and Jane Dystel. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Mary Lamb is the little-known sister of essayist Charles Lamb, with whom she coauthored the much-loved Tales of Shakespeare. What few of her contemporaries realized was that Mary suffered from severe mental illness, probably bipolar syndrome, which led to her stabbing her mother in a manic fit. In this well-researched book, Hitchcock (Geography of Religion) traces Mary's life and social circle in detail, drawing on historical accounts, letters, and literature to reconstruct the circumstances of the stabbing and its resulting impact on the Lamb family. Interestingly, Mary had to endure only about six months' treatment at Fisher House, a moderately priced, private madhouse, smaller than the infamous Bedlam, before she was allowed to move into her own room. Mary's illness would recur throughout her life, often requiring hospitalization; upon recovery, she would resume her normal activities of reading, writing, and serving as her brother's companion (Charles never married). Together, they entertained writers and thinkers of the time, such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Godwin, and Hazlitt. This book adds an important dimension to our understanding of an era dominated by men, highlighting Mary's contributions to Charles's work as well as documenting the effect of madness on her life and creativity. Recommended for college and large public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/04.]-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another deft portrait (see The Devil Kissed Her, p. 680) of the woman who murdered her mother and later joined with better-known brother Charles to write Tales from Shakespeare. Hitchcock (Coming About, 1998, etc.) dives into a deep and rich sea teeming with literary life. Problem is, though, that once you begin writing about the Lambs, well, here come Coleridge (their dear friend) and Wordsworth and Hazlitt and Godwin and Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. And once you mention Claire Clairmont (as the author does), then lubricious Lord Byron also swims among this vast school of Romantics, all of whom seem to have corresponded with one another, many of whom kept diaries. How to keep the focus on talented and mad-if often demure-Mary Lamb (1764-1847), with all these other fascinating creatures splashing nearby, clamoring for attention? Hitchcock manages quite well. Although she takes numerous glances elsewhere (how can she not?), she proceeds in steady, professional fashion to tell Mary's story, revealing a knowledge of the major biographies of the principal Romantics and of the correspondence and writings of Charles and Mary. She imagines a rather sensational reenactment of the murder-a flash of a knife in the Lambs' kitchen in 1796, excused by a coroner's inquest as an act of patent lunacy. After time in a madhouse, Mary eventually joined her brother Charles for what would be the rest of their lives. Born into the servant class, the Lambs rose into the middle class by virtue of their pens (and Charles's reliable labors for the East India House), finding their niche in a circle that included most of the literary luminaries of the age. Mary periodically returned to the madhouse for weeks andmonths, slipping into virtually permanent twilight after her brother's death in 1834. Hitchcock persuades us that she was a major contributor to the Lambs' literary creations. An informed and sympathetic portrait of a troubled mind and humble heart. (32 illustrations, not seen)Agents: Miriam Goderich & Jane Dystel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393057416
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/2005
  • Pages: 332
  • Product dimensions: 5.64 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s last book was Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London. Married with two children, she lives near Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Table of Contents

Prelude : the dreadful scene imagined 15
1 The only daughter 21
2 Their verdict : lunacy 30
3 In the madhouse 45
4 Reading, writing, and Mantua making 61
5 Charles alone 73
6 Double singleness 93
7 The circle forms 106
8 Children's books 131
9 Tales from Shakespeare 157
10 Schoolgirl tales 179
11 Poetry for children 197
12 The politics of needlework 215
13 Elia appears 233
14 Her twilight of consciousness 255
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