Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London

Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London. W.W. Norton, 2005; 314 pages; $24.95.


Mary Lamb -- a dutiful daughter, well liked by just about everyone -- killed her own mother with a 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. Free to read extensively, 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 Shakespeare. 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 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.


Publishers Weekly: One afternoon in 1796, Mary Lamb, aged 31, killed her mother with a carving knife at the dinner table.... Despite eventual bestselling collaborations with her brother, essayist Charles Lamb, 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.

Booklist: Mary Lamb and her younger brother, Charles...were immersed in both scandal and the elite literary circles of their times. In 1796, 31-year-old Mary Lamb stabbed her own mother to death in an apparent act of lunacy, according to the courts of the day. Rather than being sentenced to death, Mary was sent to a madhouse. Although she was released six months later and eventually rejoined her brother, Mary was to have periodic relapses for the rest of her life, and her first trip to the madhouse was hardly the last.... Touching on the lunacy laws of the day, the plight of women, and the burgeoning children's publishing industry, Hitchcock vividly evokes the changing times the Lambs lived in. A vibrant literary biography.


Susan Tyler Hitchcock has written seven books. She has a Ph.D. in English and works as a freelance writer and editor. She lives outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.


Charles Lamb, Mary's brother, said, "What is reading, but silent conversation."

I began my talk with Ms. Hitchcock by asking if, as a child, she read a great deal.

"Oh, yes," she said, "I was definitely an avid reader." She recalled that in her mind's eye, she could see her earliest favorite book. "It was called The Magic Egg or something like that. It was a Big Golden Book. I also am quite sure that I had a picture book of Peter Pan because I was totally obsessed with Peter Pan. I identified with Peter Pan. But of course it was Mary Martin as Peter Pan so that helped the gender leap. Charlotte's Web, I remember that. The Pooh books were very important to me. In high school, I loved Thomas Hardy; I loved Virginia Woolf. Loved Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen never quite thrilled me."

"When did you figure out that you wanted to be a writer?"

"Well, I've gone to one high school reunion only, and when I told people who remembered me in high school that I was a writer, they said, 'I'm not surprised.' I wouldn't have said back then that's what I wanted to be. But I was already involved in a literary magazine, and I got permission from my English teachers to do unorthodox things for my papers."

"Like what?"

"I remember an 11th- or 12th-grade assignment on Death of a Salesman, the play by Arthur Miller. I wrote it in ballpoint pen, in three different colors, each color representing a different aspect of Willy Loman's personality. I think this proved to my teacher, early on, that I knew the standard forms, and she was willing for me to explore. But the one high school assignment that was such an omen of where I was going to be now in my life was in a course in modern history. I got a copy of the journals and diaries of Napoleon. I didn't use any words of my own. I read through all of Napoleon's work and found passages that seemed important and telling. I typed those out, and then I cut them into different-sized sheets and organized them in a binder so that you read through and got a picture of Napoleon's life and conflicts and states of mind.

"After I did this book on Mary Lamb, I said, 'This is the same thing.' Because that's where I started with this book as well. I read the journals and letters and found the passages that told the story, and then I wove them together with my own narrative."

I wondered, I said, how Mary Lamb learned to write.

"I've thought about that, too, because she went to the grammar school and, of course, was in a girl's class, not a boy's class. She would have learned how to form letters and use, I suppose, a quill pen."

Few of Mary's letters have survived. "I would say there are only about 30 letters that we know that she wrote," said Ms. Hitchcock. "It's very likely, except for an occasional perfunctory 'thank you' note, that more than a good majority of the letters that she wrote are quoted in my book, because there just aren't that many. One of the frustrations and challenges of writing the book was that Mary's killing her mother was a secret; Mary and Charles didn't refer to it much in letters. Mary really didn't write many letters. So to put this together was not unlike putting together a detective story."

"How," I asked, "did the Lamb family keep Mary from going to prison? Was it by calling her mad?"

"Well, because it was matricide and not murder of an unrelated person, the response traditionally has been, both before and since, more sympathetic. The understanding is that this is a psychological event more than a murder. I always paused when I called it a 'murder' because there are so many layers of meaning to that word that don't necessarily fit what Mary did."

"The word 'matricide' seems so literary."

"I know. I discovered that an old friend of mine actually had done significant research into the legal history of parricide, 'parent murder.' His finding had been that there was an unspoken tradition of sympathy and leniency toward the perpetrator based on the fact that this was not something anyone would do out of hatred but rather from frustration or psychological imbalance. There are very few cases of matricide on the books, but Mary's case was like the cases that led up to the insanity plea, in the sense that the act was looked upon as something that couldn't have possibly been done in a rational state of mind."

"How did Charles feel about Mary's murder of their mother?"

"There's not a simple answer. His first concern was Mary, more than grief for his mother. He states early on that he feels guilty about that. My hunch is that the mother was a difficult person, perhaps manic-depressive, and that Charles recognized that much of their mother's difficult personality took its toll on Mary. He probably had watched that through his 21 years of life. So there was already a built-in sense of anger toward the mother and sympathy toward the sister. I tippytoe around all this because it's hard to talk about, justifying anyone's killing her own mother. But what little indication there is suggests that it was a very unhappy relationship in which Mary was really victimized.

"And," Ms. Hitchcock said, "to add to that difficult relationship with the mother, one cannot help but think of the difficulty for Mary of knowing that she was as smart as her two brothers and watching them go to good schools and move into the middle class and get jobs that took them out of the house and paid them money and gave them a future. She had none of these opportunities. There are many reasons for her to have been frustrated to the point of snapping."

I laughed, saying, "I imagined the mother complained to Mary about Mary's preparation of dinner one too many times."

Ms. Hitchcock did not disagree. She imitated the voice she imagined as that of Mary's mother. " 'Why did you do this? Why didn't you do that?' " Returning to her own voice, Ms. Hitchcock said, "I think one of the reasons that this story fascinates us is that many of us remember that part of our mothers. If you take that part and blow it up to its extreme, you can identify."

"Or," I suggested, "that part of yourself, too."

Mary Lamb, before her mother's death, helped supplement the family income by taking in sewing, an occupation spoken of in Lamb's day as "mantua making." I asked Ms. Hitchcock about this.

"'Mantua' comes from the French word monteau, meaning 'coat.' In Mary Lamb's time a mantua was a fashionable garment that was a cross between a vest and a dress, that covered another longer and fuller dress. A garment like that was the traditional mantua in the English fashion of the mid- to late 18th Century. By the time Mary Lamb herself was involved in the trade called 'mantua making,' mantua meant clothing in general.

"I was fascinated by the connotations of the term. I wasn't aware that it really did carry with it a connotation of sexuality. It's hard for us even to imagine today, but there's one image that I found of two milliners looking over a man, taking his measurements, and it's ripe with sexuality. You get the point from just that picture alone. Also, there were entire plays and novels written about the loose behavior of the mantua makers. So Mary was moving into a difficult reputation by taking up that trade."

"She must have felt humiliated."

"Yes, I think that was a factor in the whole spirit of the household, that they had lived so happily and protected in the Inner Temple, really sort of a walled community. And her father became unable to do his work and then his patron died, and they were forced to move into this tiny apartment. The apartment was in the law district but outside the walls and amidst the rabble of London."

"And the family was scraping together a living."

"That's right. The father got a little bit of money. His sister who lived with them was older than either the father or the mother but was also hard to live with. She had some sort of fund or pension or endowment, but it was minuscule. She paid her way, but that's all. Then there were the two sons bringing in a little money, but not much."

I found it interesting that after Mary knifed her mother, her family was not afraid of Mary. They didn't sense her as dangerous to them.

"They loved her," Ms. Hitchcock said. "They appreciated her and they honored her intellect. Really, the closest we get to hearing that someone might be frightened of her was a letter that Coleridge wrote to his wife after having witnessed one of Mary's oncoming manic episodes. But even his description is not one in which he fears for himself. It more has to do with Mary's awareness that she's losing control. She tells him, 'Here it comes again.' I think she had psychological sensitivity and control over herself and got to the point where she knew the signs and knew when it was time for her to return to the madhouse."

"One of your book's saddest points is your mention of Charles returning Mary to the madhouse and their carrying her straitjacket with them. That is heartbreaking."

"That is sad. The possibility was always with them. It weighed heavier and heavier as years went on. My book looks at a period, 20 years, from the time of the murder of the mother in 1796 to Mary's last published work in 1815. From that point on, particularly, there was a sense of increasing length and gravity of her manic episodes and also increasing length and gravity of the depression that she suffered after those. I feel as if she fell silent in 1815, almost giving in to the mental imbalance, as if it's too much for her to be productive and to write. I suspect there were periods when she would still act as hostess and talk with Charles about what he was doing. I'm not sure I mention this in this book, but I've stepped back and realized that Charles's ascent and popularity as a writer was reaching its peak at the time that Mary fell silent in her writing.

"I've wondered whether there was a cause-effect relationship there. Could Mary let go now that Charles was doing so well and making money? That might be possible. Was there a symbiosis? As he got stronger, she got weaker? Or did it just happen that way? I don't know. There's no way to tell for sure."

"I shouldn't have been shocked," I said, "but I was, by the conditions in mental institutions in Mary's day."

"They were horrible. Even though both private and government efforts began to be made during her life, there were still reports of people being kept three to a bed and made to vomit as part of a cure."

"Did King George III's madness have an effect on the treatment of the insane?"

"The king's being mad was one factor that led to looking more closely at what was happening in madhouses. Of course, the king never went into one. But everybody became more aware that madness might not simply be 'the devil inside' but an illness that needed to be treated."

Mary Lamb wrote to a friend about the mistreatment found in mental hospitals. Ms. Hitchcock quoted a phrase from that letter. "I know full well that all of the people in mental hospitals and in the madhouses simply need love and kindness and someone caring for them." Ms. Hitchcock went on to say, about Mary, "I think she saw mistreatment, but I'm not as convinced as other people have been that she actually was herself mistreated. I'm sure that in some ways she was ignored or treated indifferently, but I don't get the sense that she ever was, for example, chained.

"There are a number of reasons to believe that Charles had connections in the world of mental-health treatment through the Quaker community. The Quakers were at the forefront of the more humane, compassionate treatment of mental patients. Charles and Mary may have gotten advice as to where to put her, and how to make sure she was treated, and perhaps even had personal connections to people who worked in these hospitals. I think that Charles was an informed consumer when he went looking for the places that he was going to put Mary."

"Charles missed Mary so deeply during the times she was hospitalized."

"Yes. For many years, Mary Lamb has been a footnote to the work of Charles Lamb. The implication, if not the outright statement, has been that Mary Lamb was Charles's crazy sister and he devoted his life to her, and if it weren't for her, he would have been so much a greater writer. But I see there to be a close, mutually supportive relationship. She helped him write. She helped him stay sober. She helped him have a schedule, she fed him, she laundered his clothing. In the early days she managed the household, she greeted his friends, she kept his friends away when he was trying to write. He couldn't have done what he did without her."

"Charles certainly said that about his sister, that he was nothing without her."

"He did. So, to make it out that she was his albatross is unfair to both of them. Inaccurate as far as he's concerned and unfair to her."

"As I read Mary's work on the Shakespeare tales," I said, "I began to wonder how literate she was, how easily she read."

"That's a good question. She read a lot. She may not have been taught a very high level of reading. But what she was taught, she took it and ran with it. And even going back to the days when her father's employer was alive, that was her escape, to go to his library. And he did allow not only John and Charles but also Mary to borrow books from his library, which I imagine was full of classics and great works of both English and classic literature. I suspect that there was some sharing that went on between Mary and Charles. But since Mary was ten years older than Charles, it was probably in the early days her reading to Charles."

Ms. Hitchcock covers much ground in this book. She offers a mini-history of children's literature, an account of madhouses of Mary's time, tales from the Wordsworth and Coleridge circles, a bit about George III, and even more about Napoleon.

"I found each of those diversions fascinating," she said. "I hope other people do. I know there are diversions or even digressions from the main story, but they all connect. I hope they all enrich. That's my goal. Another of my goals in this book is this: I would feel so good if one of the things that happened was that more people read Mary Lamb's wonderful Mrs. Leicester's School. The stories in this are so clear and lovely. I think they would be interesting even to someone who wasn't as fascinated by Mary Lamb as I am."

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