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?)
Labels: Anne Fadiman, Charles Lamb, Dorothy Parker, Mad Mary Lamb