When I was in fifth grade, our class had a new, young teacher. We were her first job, and while she was excited, it appeared that she found our extremely small, somewhat poor, Catholic school lacking. in resources, especially the school library. To make up for the lack of books there, she offered to go to her own town's library and check out books to make a class library, if we would just tell her what we were interested in. This wasn't that big a deal for me--my family went to the library about once a week anyway (and to this day, there are few places in the world that ever make me feel as at ease and happy as a library). But when she asked me what kind of books I wanted, I told her that I wanted Shakespeare. As a theater kid, I knew I would need to read Shakespeare at some point, but probably more important at that time, I thought that smart, educated people read Shakespeare--for fun, no doubt--and if I ever wanted to be able to keep up with the smart educated people, I would need to have read his works, too. My earnest young teacher didn't bring me a collected works, or anything like that, but a book called Tales from Shakespeare, which turned out to be basically synopses of a number of plays. I was a little disappointed, but read it anyway, and thought, well, that's a nice start, let's move on. What I really remember about it though (other than that it had a yellow cover with the title in a very old-fashioned curly script) was the authors' names, Charles and Mary Lamb. I read the preface, or maybe the book flap and found out that they were brother and sister. I didn't have any brothers, and therefore was always very intrigued by any brother-sister relationship (I also didn't go to camp, which has resulted in perhaps a rather unhealthy fascination with other people's stories about camp). I remember thinking how amazing it seemed that a brother and sister could get on so well that they would write a book together. After all, on TV brothers and sisters usually fought; these two, I though, must have been very good friends. I remembered that much more than any story in the book.
I ran across the name Mary Lamb again recently, while reading Adam Sisman's The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge. Charles Lamb was friends with Samuel Coleridge, and while describing their relationship, Sisman mentioned that Charles's sister Mary had one day gone mad and stabbed their mother to death. She was found not guilty for reason of "lunacy" and released into Charles's care, and they lived together for the rest of their lives. As good as Sisman's book was, I found that when I finished I was more interested in finding out what exactly happened with Mary Lamb, the author of that yellow-jacketed children's book, than much more about Wordsworth and Coleridge. So, then, I found Kathy Watson's book about Mary Lamb, The Devil Kissed Her.
(yes, that intro was long enough, wasn't it?)
Watson's book appears to be one of the few out there that is primarily about Mary Lamb; in most cases she is just a corollary in a book about Charles, or lumped in with other pre-Victorian women writers. It's a slim little book, but a useful one.
The Lamb family were not quite middle-class, not quite working-class. John Lamb, Charles and Mary's father, was "in service." He was a butler/waiter in the Inner Temple in London, serving Samuel Salt, a barrister who lived in the lawyer's residences. Salt generously allowed the Lamb children the use of his library, and most of Mary's education and aspiration came from her early days reading the books in Salt's library. As a girl, of course, she didn't have much formal schooling. John, her older brother, and Charles, her much younger sibling (by eleven years, Mary born in 1764, Charles in 1775) did go to school, although Mary, who seems to have taken charge of Charles at a young age, taught him to read first; he later returned the favor by teaching her Latin.
Mary was taught to be a seamstress, and struggled to make a living at that. She was good enough, apparently, but with seamstress being one of the few occupations that a young woman of modest family coudl enter, the competition was fierce. There were many, many more seamstresses in London than women who needed their dresses made for them. When there was work, it was grueling, with the seamstress having to spend hours hunched over her project in low light, making the tiny stitches. And those hours of work added up to very little money. Charles, meanwhile, got a clerk job at the East India Company, a good enough job, and one that allowed him to at least lead somewhat of a social life with the other young clerks--in other words, he went out drinking, often. As blithe a life as that might seem, he did suffer from bouts of what was then called "melancholia" and in 1795 was hospitalized for six weeks after an apparent nervous breakdown.
By 1796 the family was in somewhat dire straits. Salt had died and at his age, it was impossible for John Lamb to get another position. They also lost their rooms in the Inner Temple where they had lived for years. The family moved to smaller and drabber apartments as they tried to survive on Mary's meager earnings and Charles's clerk's salary. John Lamb appears to have been descending into dementia, and Mary's mother had a stroke that left her bedridden and immobile. An elderly aunt also was living with the family. Mary was left to take care of them all, and one summer day, snapped and killed her mother.
Of course the strain Mary was under wasn't solely to blame (though in the newspaper account included in Watson's book, that point is made rather sympathetically). While Charles had had his bout with melancholia and likely struggled with on and off depression during his life (which wasn't much helped by his heavy drinking), Mary seems to have had what we now would call bipolar disorder, or manic-depression or whatever is the term du jour (I am not a psychiatrist and can no longer keep up with the parsing of the definitions). Of course at that time, no one had any clue what this meant. People were just beginning to study the brain; treatment for any such disorder was well over a century away. All anyone could say was that sometimes Mary was fine, and sometimes she was mad.
Charles and Mary recognized this. As they set off on their life together, they seemed to have purposely chosen places to live that were within reach of several asylums. Mary began to recognize symptoms that she was on the verge of a bout of madness, and with Charles leading the way, would go off to one of the asylum's to be kept under care until it passed. One of the enduring images of Watson's book is a neighbor's description of Charles and Mary walking arm and arm up a street towards an asylum, both quietly crying. And when she was in the madhouse, Charles would visit every day--which was very important. While treatment for anyone in an asylum at that time was rough (Mary knew when she went in that she would end up in some kind of restraints), those in asylums with vigilant relatives who visited often were better treated than those locked away and ignored.
But when it was over, and they were back together, they seemed to have an enormously good time living together. They began to throw weekly parties for an assortment of artists and writers, a sort of salon, with Mary, astonishingly, the gracious. witty hostess. For when Mary was lucid, she was quite popular, with a circle of friends that included the leading lights of British literary society at the time (both Mary and Charles seemed to have had almost schoolgirl/schoolboy crushes on Coleridge; then again, it seemed like everyone did). Although she met many through Charles, they liked Mary just as well on her own.*
Th two of them seemed inseparable. They finished each other's sentences and sometimes seemed to be almost doing a comic routine, with Mary as the mischieveous straight man; in the words of friends and visitors, almost lost when the other was even just across the room. In a way their relationship seemed much more like that of twins than siblings separated by double digits.
The purpose of Watson's book, though, is to establish that Mary, so often historically treated as Charles's sidekick, had a life of her own. She had her own circle of friends, and a brief moment at a writing career, although one not often acknowledged. Charles and Mary got the Tales from Shakespeare job from William Godwin, who was trying to establish a business as a publisher of children's books (under an assumed name--Godwin's own was too associated with radicalism). Charles did work on some of the tales, but busy trying to make it as a playwright (he failed; he eventually found success as an essayist), wasn't really that interested. Mary, however, was thrilled with the project, and did the bulk of the work, enjoying it more than anything else in her life to that time. When it was over, she was almost bereft, without the work to occupy her.
Tales was a huge success, but Mary was not originally credited as an author--Charles was the only one listed, something which was not uncommon in a time when many women still opted to write under male pen names. However, Godwin knew who did the work, and Mary was given a chance to write a book on her own. Mrs. Leicester's School was a sort of Decameron for young girls, in which a group of girls just arriving at boarding school are given the task of each telling a story about themselves to the others (it is, by the way, perhaps too interesting how many of the stories seem to be about absent mothers, dead mothers, stepmothers...Mary, we see you have some issues to work out). This book was also a success (her initials were all that was listed for the author). However, after that, Mary's writing career seems to have ended, other than some essays and poems. It would seem that after the popularity of her other work, that Mary would have been able to continue on for the rest of her life as perhaps one of the first great children's book writers. But something put an end to it--either the potential was lost on those in publishing, or Mary herself lost interest, or maybe with her mental problems, she felt it was too much to take on this kind of work. Nonetheless, she was undoubtedly a writer of her own merit, not just Charles's assistant, as it may sometimes seem.
And although happy with Charles, Mary was aware of the life that her madness prevented her from having. Watson uses Mary's fascination with a friend's love life and attempts to find a husband as an example of how Mary vicariously tried to experience the life of a young woman through others. Mary knew she would never marry and have children, and thus tried to live it through others (the friend in question, by the way, did marry, and it turned out to be such a disaster that even Mary thought herself well out of the heartbreak that is a risk of such things). This whole part of her life existed independent of Charles--she understood her lot and was glad to have him, but this was no faux marriage for her. She would have liked something else but knew it wasn't meant to be. I may be putting it all in melodramatic terms (melodrama from me?! the shock is too much!! I faint), but what I am trying to say is that Watson is using this as evidence that Mary did not regard herself as an appendage to Charles. She would have liked her own life.
Indeed, Watson points out that even though it seems like Mary should have been the one dependent on Charles, he was more likely dependent on her. She kept the little household running (when she was not locked up in the madhouse), and was his best friend. He made a few attempts at courting other women, but was turned down. Even so, it seems like Mary would have been part of the package with him--he could not see life without her. The knowledge that Mary and her ailment would have accompanied Charles certainly played at least a part in one woman's refusal of his proposal. Friends privately hoped that Charles would die before Mary, because they believed Mary would be able to get on by herself, but Charles would be so devastated that he would not be able to manage. And she did outlive him by thirteen years (Charles died in 1834, Mary in 1847), in quite comfortable fashion too, with her circle of friends, correspondents, and Charles's pension from the East India Company.
Watson's book is a quick read and a good one. She does a particularly good job in covering both the lives of lower-class women during that time period, as well as the treatment of those with mental disorder. While it's easier to make the case now that the Lambs are not of the greatest importance in literary history than that they were, they're at least in the next tier down, and therefore worth reading about. Oh what do I mean, anything or anyone is worth reading about if it's done well.
If she is remembered at all today, Mary Lamb is remembered for Tales of Shakespeare, for which she now is duly credited; her murder of her mother is discussed now as rarely as it was back in her own day--it was even left out of the early biographies of Charles, because of respect for her privacy. Yet, as Watson points out, the uncomfortable truth--and it is very, very uncomfortable--is that that event probably saved Mary's life. If she hadn't commmitted such an extreme act, she would have been left to toil as the caretaker of the rest of her family, grimly sewing away until her eyesight was gone, making sure everyone else lived while her own life withered away. Instead, she was taken out of that world and given another chance. You can't condone her act, but you can excuse it because of her obvious mental illness. And you can excuse it even further if you take into account the drudgery that made up most women's lives at that time, and many others. It is a sad, sad world in which the only chance a woman--indeed, a person--gets comes from madness and murder. Many women, laboring under the same strain, may have read Mary's story in the newspapers when it happened, and thought, "There but for the grace of god, go I." But if they had known what was to follow and how Mary's life changed for the better, they may have found themselves wishing secretly and darkly for Mary's tradeoff of occasional madness for occasional freedom.