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18 July 2008

The Lambs, Again and Still

In my prior post we left the story of Charles and Mary Lamb at the scene of the crime -- Mary's murder of her mother, brought on by a fit of lunacy or simply the pressures of too much work, responsibility, unfreedom, in the life of a poor spinster mantua-maker of unstable temperament.

What never ceases to surprise me about the story was how little scapegoated Mary was. Her crime transgressed one of the most sacred family bonds, and yet the Morning Chronicle, in its report, had no difficulty pointing out that she was stressed by the "harassing fatigues of too much business." Fox News would have done much worse by her. While as for the jury, it brought back its verdict of lunacy "without hesitation."

The story reaches a branching path here. John Lamb, the older brother, wanted Mary committed to an asylum for life, even if it were in Bedlam. It was Charles, whom Mary had taken loving care of as a child, who found a humane private asylum for her, and who, two years later, brought her home. (The law allowed for this: an insane criminal might be released if a family member who could certify his ability to provide proper care.)

And so the brother and sister lived the remainder of their lives in what Charles, in one of his essays, called a life of "double singleness."

It was an urban life, taking delight in London streets great and small. This, quoted from Charles, by Ann Fadiman, in her wonderful essay "The Unfuzzy Lamb":
O! her lamps of a night! her rich goldsmiths, prinshops, toyshops, mercers, hardwaremen, pastry-cooks! St. Paul's Churchyard! The Strand! Exeter Change! Charing Cross!

It was a literary life. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt and Godwin attended weekly literary evenings at the Lambs'. There's a tart, funny little play about one of those evenings called "The Coast of Illyria" by Dorothy Parker and Ross Evans. (Yes, that Dorothy Parker: the "you might as well live" Dorothy Parker recast the Lambs' circle as a sort of boozy, druggy Algonquin group. Not without historical basis: one of my favorite bits is when Coleridge, who's gotten his apothecary to agree to prohibit his dosages of laudanum, meets a new guest, a young Thomas de Quincey, who has in his pocket a list of every source of opium in London. The older writer takes the younger writer by the affectionate arm; it's a "Louis, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" moment.)

In a century when literary lives for women were hard won, Mary's had been most particularly so. The bitter irony is that if she hadn't cracked under the pressures of her life, the pressures of her life and family would have destroyed her. Charles saw to it that she never had to go back to sewing -- and at times when her stability wavered, he walked her back to the asylum (strait-jacket in hand) for spells of recovery. He worked all his life as a clerk to support her (he detested the work, by the way, and he wasn't very good at it: biographers have found the accounts he worked at, and traced his errors in ciphering).

She kept house; they wrote in the evenings. They got writing commissions from their friend Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft's widower and Mary Shelley's father), who earned his living keeping a children's bookstore and publishing children's books. I saw a copy of the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare on the children's shelves of a local bookstore this week (she did the comedies, he the tragedies) . James Joyce read Charles Lamb's retelling of the Odyssey when he was 10; by Joyce's own account, it was this version rather than the original that lies at the core of his formidable Ulysses.

Their output is mixed, minor, and all the more interesting for its marginality and originality. Mrs. Leicester's School, a collection of stories for girls, begins with a spooky (especially in Mary's circumstances) recounting by a child of being taught how to read from the letters on her mother's gravestone. One can see the tag-ends of romanticism (the scary, almost preverbal intimations of life and death) in these stories. There's also a formal playfulness: a monologue told in the voice of the littlest girl at school has the happy, repetitive, anti-narrative quality of say, a Good Night Moon; Mrs. Leicester has to make a comic, almost post-modern interruption to stop the child from speaking forever.

In 1814, Mary published a surprising essay, "On Needle-Work" in the British Ladies Magazine, under the name of Sempronia. A modest proposal, but radical for all that: a request that women not sew, but pay to have it done, written at a time that women of a broad spread of classes were never far from their sewing (even to the supremely decorative and utterly useless Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park).

"Sempronia" proposes needlework as a female profession as a way of questioning the value of women’s time and the meaning of work and leisure. The essay's an attempt to understand how women -- their time, their labor, their emotions and intellect -- might fit into the broader scheme of what would soon enough be called “political economy.” It’s an unusual polemic, addressed both to the rich women who ought to be doing something else and the poor women who need to be paid for this work. The tone is gentle, insinuating, or perhaps mildly passive-aggressive; conclusions hover in the margins. Like so many writers of the romantic era (which was also, importantly, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), Mary Lamb asked more questions (about the inner and the outer life) than she could answer.

Ultimately, for both Lambs, it was a satisfying and yet a frustrating life. Charles would have liked to marry; he would have liked to write more extensive, more important stuff than his Elia essays (though he couldn't have asked for a better, smarter, and more loving reader than Anne Fadiman -- do check out "The Unfuzzy Lamb" -- it's in her own essay collection, At Large and At Small).

And it's a single/double life that holds more questions than answers for me as well.

Because although I write Regency-set romances -- and although these romances are perforce set in toney Mayfair or on country estates, my own imagination keeps wandering back to London east of Regent Street, to shabby apartments like the Lambs over wigmakers' shops, to the Godwins' children's bookshop in smelling distance from the Smithfield cattle market -- to lives patched together of the fabric of an era just on the other side of our own, just before the Big Bang of western industrialism, and not so long before madness came closer to all our homes via Freud...

OK -- your turn. What are the stirrings of madness, change, and romantic disorder that you see beneath the wit, grace, and gravitas of the Regency period?

(Or would you rather not look at that side of things?)

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19 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I'm still digesting your marvelous post, to weigh in on madness, although I can handily say that I prefer to see the grit behind the gloss, which is why I tend to gravitate to historical fiction that does that. There are a few recent novels written by contemporary authors that are set during the early and mid-Victorian eras (e.g. The Dress Lodger , The Crimson Petal and the White and The Tea Rose that do this beautifully). We easily accept the darkness and the social subcultures in Victorian settings, but for some reason there is still a resistance (editorial, not authorial??) to showing the darker social imperfections that lay beneath the lacquered mores of the Regency.

Our own Tracy is very successful at shining a torch into the darkness, but she's also not writing straight romance.

I grew up on the Lambs' Tales From Shakespeare, in fact I probably first read them when I was in sixth grade, a year or so before I began reading the plays themselves. I never knew anything about the Lambs, however, until I was much older.

Dorothy Parker's play sounds wickedly funny, for its historical allusions as well as for its inside jokes. I'm going to have to find a copy ASAP!

1:11 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I like a little grit in my Regency world. A glimpse of the seamy underbelly of the city and of civilization. I’ve been toying with how to center a book around The London Monster, but I haven’t yet come up with an angle.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

There have been a few regency authors who have taken a look at aspects of the darker side of the Regency. Carla Kelly's ONE GOOD TURN, a Mary Balogh Christmas novella and several of Diane Perkins/Diane Gaston's books come to mind immediately.

As a writer I think it would be fascinating to visit the parts of London the ton generally avoid and have a story simmering. But the truth is I tend to put a gloss on everything I write. Must work harder at letting the rougher edges of life show.

As a reader I do not mind seeing the darkness (in any genre) but want to feel as though the characters have triumphed over it in the end.

Pam, your posts are always thought provoking and fascinating. Thanks

1:48 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

It is also the time where mad heroines in opera became really popular. Lucia di Lammermoor has a lot of sisters: Imogene (Donizetti, Il pirata), Ophelia (Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet), Lady Macbeth (Verdi), La Straniera (Bellini), Anna Bolena (Donizetti), Gabriella di Vergy (Donizetti, again) who all die of madness - some after they've stabbed a rival, almost killed their kids or whatever. Some happier ones get cured: Elvira (Bellini, I Puritani), La Sonnambula (Bellini), Linda di Chamonix (Donizetti). And there are some that are not actually mad, but close to it, Abigaille (Verdi, Nabucco), Odabella (Verdi, Attila), Antonina (Donizetti, Belisario), Norma (Bellini). On the other hand, there's only one genuine madness scene for a male singer (Murena, in Donizetti's Il proscritto) and a few basket cases (Rigoletto, Attila, Macbeth; all Verdi).

I don't think the rise of the mad heroine between about 1775 and 1830 is a chance development. Sure, there have been some before (Mozart's Queen of the Night) but not so many, and I've only listed the ones I remembered without thinking (I bet if I check my CD collection I'll find some more). :)

5:48 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Gee, Gabriele, you listed some of my favorite roles to sing. My debut role in Austria was Mozart's Queen of the Night. I've sung Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma as well. And Medea who came a long a little later. As in romance, fragile heroines losing their mind, over love more often than not, are a staple in opera.

I have to agree that while I love the gentile beauty of the drawing rooms of the Regency period, novels set in the less exalted houses during that period, in the underbelly of London IF they are done well are marvelously moving and enlightening.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

*sings along* Mira, o Norma, quel pargoletti ...

(I'm not a singer, I just had some lessons.)

Louisa, I'm a total belcanto fan. And fortunately, the less well known operas by Donizetti and Bellini are undergoing some rennaissance right now, stronger than the isolated instances of a Maria Callas digging Il Pirata out of some archive.

I think the stage (it was not only opera but plays as well) allowed for emotions that else were repressed in society and thus the culmination of highly emotional opera during the Regency. Mozart wrote for a different sort of audience, imho.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Interesting about that resistance to the Regency's dark side, Amanda; I hadn't thought of it that way, and yes, Tracy does go there.

Who's the London Monster, Kalen?

And Mary, my stuff is always prettier than I think it ought to be too. Someday, I'm going to find the right dissolute romanticism...

Fascinating, Garbriele, about madness and heroines. And Louisa, I'm simply awestruck, to be even blog-chatting with someone who sang queen of the night.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post and follow up comments! I knew a bit about the lambs, but I had no idea about the Dorothy Parker play--I so want to read it now! And I loved the talk about opera heroines--I hadn't thought before about the cluster of mad heroines in operas from the romantic era.

I love writing about the darker side of the Regency and the contrast to the surface elegance (thank you, Amanda and Pam, for the lovely mentions). Even my mom's and my first traditional Regency, which was fully of shopping and balls and Almack's and ices at Gunter's, had a few scenes in the darker side of Regency London.

1:00 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Austen's Persuasion has a whiff of it (not London, but Bath) in the Mrs. Smith scenes.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Tracy, the interesting point is that the Romantic age more or less invented the bad ending for an opera. Before, there was some sort of solution, a deus ex machina, and if anyone died at all, it was a bad guy (Don Giovanni). Just look at Mozart's Idomeneo, Clemenza di Tito or Mitridate - they're all tragic enough while they last, but have a happy end. The same goes for the Baroque opera - heck some obscure composer managed to turn the Arminius subject that way by making him and Germanicus friends and Arminius become an ally of Rome. And there I thought I had invented that friendship to add a layer of emotional depth to the story (though without the ally part). ;)

Rossini had to rewrite the tragic ending of Tancredi for another opera house and have the hero survive. Donizetti still had a sort of deus ex machina ending for Il Proscritto while in his later Poliuto, the innocent hero dies for his religion.

There had been a diversion between opere buffe or comic opera (Love Potion, Barber of Sevillia) and opere serie, tragic operas with a morally satisfying, happy end, mostly based on historical subjects (Semiramide, Adelaide de Borgogna, Maometto, L'assedio di Calais ...). Then came along the odd mix of the opera semiseria, a tragic opera with happy end and some opera buffa elements thrown in. The best example is Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, a girl gone mad but restored to sanity, and the subplot with the marchese who's a plain comic opera character.

It was foremost Donizetti who made the step from the opera seria to the tragic opera with an unhappy ending and innocent victims, and it took him some rewrites of his earlier works until the tragic ending became accepted and a Lucia di Lammermoor, a Rosmonda, even a Roberto Devereux (don't forget the poor tenors) became almost the standard all the way to Verdi's Aida and Desdemona. What helped on the way were historical characters like Maria Stuart, morally ambiguous but tragic enough to make for a moving death scene.

Bellini and Verdi benefitted from this development, albeit Verdi's earlier endings tended to still be on the morally deserved death side (Abigaille in Nabucco, Attila) until we have a tragic death in Ernani. But it was Gilda who became his first truly innocent victim to die, and Violetta who trandescends the morally deserved death by the sheer beauty of her final scene (and her duet with Germont). Verdi loved that girl, and so did the audience - after some time.

There were still opere buffe and opere serie in the old meaning along with the great tragic ones (Verdi's last work was Falstaff, and Bellini's I Puritiani has a deus ex machina HEA despite Elvira being mad the better part of the opera), but death and madness surely had found their way into the opera houses.

Footnote: The development from German composer Carl Maria von Weber's Euryanthe or Freischütz - both called 'romantic operas' - with morally deserved endings to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde is a similar one.

Apologies for hijacking the comments, but I know Tracy and Louise will be interested in this topic. :)


Mozart 1756-1791
Rossini 1792-1868
Donizetti 1797- 1848
Bellini 1801-1835
Verdi 1813-1901

Weber 1786-1826
Wagner 1813-1883

8:15 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The London Monster was a man who went about Mayfair attacking unescorted women with a razor. People were so scared that mobs formed and attacked men who they thought might be the Monster. They never did solve the case. It's kind of like a precursor to Jack the Ripper (though without the truly grisly murders). If you look up "The London Monster" on Amazon there's a whole book about the case.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This is such interesting stuff -- the Regency as a site for romantic madness. And who knew about the Monster?

I think it's possible that we look too much through Pierce Egan's eyes at non-ton Regency London.

9:29 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

The darkest Regency-set fiction that's made a lasting impression on me is Warwyck's Woman by Rosalind Laker. The male protagonist is a pugilist and the heroine is a woman sold into marriage to him. It is what made me realize there was more to the Regency than the ton and Mayfair. I do have to say that even Jane Austen's novels can be dark: marriage wasn't the light-hearted "I want to marry for love" seen today's Regency historicals--it was practically a feast or famine situation for women and men of little to no financial or social standing.

On that note, while I do like reading about the seedy underbelly of society, I'm drawn to the struggle of just existing in such a rigid social structure. I find it fascinating to delve into a world where reputation was everything, where women had to carve a position for themselves in a hostile environment, where people of color struggled with issues such as passing, being seen as biologically inferior, and so on. People are just fascinating to me.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the recommendation, la belle -- I'd love to read a book set in the pugilism subculture (which had fascinating ethnic variety: Kit's idol, the boxer Mendoza in The Slightest Provocation was a Jew, but I don't know much about him).

And I agree that there's a dark side underlaying Jane Austen -- though given shorter shrift than I'd like, as in the case of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

7:07 AM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Mary Crawford and her brother were so much more interesting than Fanny and Edmund(though Jonny Lee Miller was hot). Regarding puglism/boxing and ethnicity, it is fascinating. I was just reading up about the canceled fight between Bombardier Billy Wells and Jack Johnson and it's rather amazing how famous and popular Johnson was, despite being black. It seems that then as it is today, being an entertainer crosses color lines.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

When you look at issues of race/ethnicity during the 18th century, you often see that CLASS was more of a bar than race (or legitimacy). The wealthy mixed-race son of daughter of a planter was far more socially acceptable than a self-made man or someone from the middle or lower class. It's really fascinating to see this change during the Victorian period (and a little during the Regency period; Napoleon barred the music of the Chevalier St. George from being played, but whether that's because he was black, or because he'd been the queen's music instructor is hard to say at this point).

3:17 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wow, Kalen, I had no idea about the Chevalier St. Georges, until I just looked him on Wikipedia. What an interesting story and so sad. Apparently a film was made about him.

http://www.lemozartnoir.com/index.html

I personally love reading about both the ton and the underbelly of the regency and Victorian eras and if they can both be in the same novel, the more the better.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love this topic and the comments! Gabriele, thanks for the opera insights. I can't believe I never before thought about operas with tragic endings (with we now consider the norm) starting in the romantic era.

Kalen, I went to a fascinating exhibit at the Museum of the City of London a few years ago on Africans in London.

Elizabeth, I love books that combine the ton and the underbelly of society too. It's a fascinating contrast

8:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm so grateful for the comments. It's really only since I started writing romance set in this time period that I began really paying attention to the romantic poets and their era. I'm learning so much -- and the opera discussion was fascinating.

12:03 AM  

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