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Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London    by Susan Tyler Hitchcock order for
Mad Mary Lamb
by Susan Tyler Hitchcock
Order:  USA  Can
W. W. Norton, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Many readers already know a little bit about Mary Lamb (either through familiarity with Charles and Mary Lamb's wonderful book for young readers, Tales from Shakespeare, or others of their many works of poetry and prose, or through familiarity with the Lambs' friendships with other famous figures who dominated early 19th century English literature), but not many know the rest of the story.

Now, finally in paperback, here is Susan Tyler Hitchcock's compelling tale of Mary Lamb, a complex woman whose interesting life was powerfully dominated by her strength of intellect and literary creativity; her steadfast friendships and love; and - perhaps most profoundly - madness and murder.

In September of 1796, as Mary was approaching her 32nd birthday, she was living with her parents (John and Elizabeth) and her younger brother Charles at Little Queen Street in London. Mary helped support her invalid parents (and her elderly Aunt Sarah who also lived with them) by working at home as a dressmaker (mantua-maker) while 21 year old Charles shared in the financial responsibilities for the small but troubled family by working as an accounting clerk at East India House.

On the 22nd of September, however, something inexplicable happened. Mary became angry at the young 9 year old apprentice who shared the Lambs' home, and when an agitated Elizabeth Lamb shrieked at her daughter Mary, the daughter - a woman with a history of emotional problems - suddenly redirected her anger by fatally stabbing her mother with a carving knife and then wounding her father John with a serving fork. Within 24 hours, even before the local coroner's enquiry had decided that the murderous outburst was caused by legally excusable lunacy rather than some other criminally culpable conduct, Mary's brother Charles had already had her removed to Fisher House, a modestly priced private madhouse on the outskirts of London, where she remained for six months. When released from Fisher House, Mary would eventually rejoin Charles, and they would never - at least not permanently - part from each again.

That, in a nutshell, is an account of the infamous incident which would forever affect the lives of a most remarkable woman and her equally remarkable brother. The circumstances which went before and the years which followed the incident - the intriguing sum and substances of the lives of Mary and Charles Lamb - are the subjects of Susan Tyler Hitchcock's profoundly moving narrative.

We encounter Mary - a humble and serene woman who was devoid of selfishness and (curiously enough) remorseless (at least openly) about the murder of her mother; we also discover that Mary was a voracious reader and a gifted writer. However, Mary was also bedeviled by emotional problems that would require her to be regularly and frequently placed in madhouses for seclusion and care. The problem was so severe, as one of her brother's friends noted, that 'they used to carry a straitjacket with them' in case of emergencies.

We also encounter Charles - a brilliant man 'slow of speech and reserved of manners' who often felt like an outsider; with an irrepressible wit, a self-deprecating humor, and - at the same time - a passion for poetry, Charles the accomplished writer cherished his life of the imagination which was 'the one way he could express feelings unutterable amid the grief and demands of everyday, and every night, life.' Charles, however, also had emotional problems (and alcohol abuse problems), and in 1795 he also spent time in a London madhouse.

But rather than encountering individuals - Mary and Charles - we encounter a brother and sister whose lifelong love for each other (and their friends - Coleridge, the Wordsworths, Godwin, and Hazlitt among them) was the frequently tested but consistently solid center of their life together. A remarkable balancing act of mutual care and forbearance, the Lambs lived a fascinating life together overflowing with laughter and tears by drawing upon each other's strengths and tolerating each other's weaknesses and excesses.

Mad Mary Lamb, which I most enthusiastically recommend, is the Lambs' absolutely captivating story. Readers will be mesmerized.

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