History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 June 2008

A Garden of Branching Paths: Thoughts on the Strange Lives of Charles and Mary Lamb

I had a sister--
The devil kist her
And raised a blister

The lines of doggerel would have a mysterious -- even a queasy -- feel about them, I think, even if I didn't know their provenance. But knowing, as I do, that they were dreamed up by Charles Lamb (who also dug that soggy trough in the middle-school curriculum known as the "Essay on Roast Pork") makes them seem even odder.

Learning that when the sister in question (Mary Lamb), was thirty-one years old, she killed their mother in a fit of manic delirium, raises the ante from odd to shocking.

And finding out that some thirty-five years later (when he and his sister were fading and feeble, as in this picture), Charles Lamb was wont to repeat the lines of doggerel in compulsive, sometimes drunken rhythms, makes me want to send my historical imagination back to the West End where things were prettier, less weird, or (in my fantasies, at least) more like a comforting costume movie.

But the Lamb story keeps pulling me back -- to a pair of eccentric lives lived very few degrees of separation away from some of the literary greats of their era (from late Georgian to early Victorian: Mary was thirty-one in 1796).

It also sends me back to many of the facts of daily life for the very many Londoners not protected by estate or property; to my own, ongoing thoughts about nineteenth century sibling relationships (as in my earlier Dorothy Wordsworth post); and (frankly) to a heap of as yet undigested material imported from that foreign country The Past, Where They Did Things Differently.

In the Lamb story and in its environs -- as with certain dull, obscure urban neighborhoods -- you can turn in any direction, set yourself walking, and find yourself someplace interesting.

To begin, perhaps, with the Lamb family's place in the world of work and social status. Bearing no relation whatever to the fascinating aristocrat Lady Caroline Lamb, their family had been in domestic service for generations; Charles and Mary's father was personal servant to a barrister who lived in handsome chambers in the Inner Temple, the heart of London's legal establishment. The Lamb family's apartment adjoined the barrister's wine cellar, but the children grew up surrounded by "handsome quadrangles, beautiful gardens... coats of arms... a magnificent round church..."

And they had the freedom of the barrister's library. Which was particularly precious for Mary, who was only briefly sent to a very inadequate school for girls, while Charles and another brother attended Christ's Hospital, a charity school that provided boys with an excellent classical education free of charge, and where Charles made his lifelong friends, the writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Leigh Hunt.

(Poet and editor Leigh Hunt is not much known now, but he was famous in his time for (as the judge had it) "printing and publishing a scandalous and defamatory libel upon his royal highness the prince regent." The offending text? Free speech advocates take note: Hunt and his brother went to prison for two years for writing that Prinny:
was a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country, or the respect of posterity!)

But (see what I mean by those very few degrees of separation?) I'm wandering away from the Lamb story, and especially from Mary's.

Years pass. The barrister dies, the Lambs have to leave the Inner Temple; the quaint, edenic urban childhood comes to a close. The parents grow old, crippled; a querulous aunt comes to live with them in an apartment above a wig-maker's shop in Little Queen Street in Holburn.

Charles becomes a clerk at the East India House -- imagine row upon row of young, aging, and old Bob Cratchits standing at high desks, writing and ciphering every numerical value from every item of every shipment coming in and going out of that vaster-than-empires trading monopoly. It's deadening work, but the hours aren't long; I was surprised to learn that it brought with it a pension; and Charles and his friends had time for drinking, larking, flirting, going to the theater, and (remember, it's the romantic era) fancying themselves poets and artists.

Mary is apprenticed to a mantua-maker and becomes one herself, eventually taking on a nine-year-old apprentice of her own.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a "mantua" was a sort of loose gown, but by late Georgian times "mantua-maker" has come generally to mean a dressmaker -- someone who makes and mends a lady's clothes. Romance writers prefer the Frenchier, more fashionable-sounding "modiste," and there were a few fashionable seamstresses who kept fashion spies in Paris and served the aristocracy. But there weren't many of them, and who knows how viable even their businesses were?

Because in general, this respectable independent trade for women was a tough way to make a living, and pretty much impossible to make a good one at. Not a jot of economic security came with it, of course -- certainly not a pension. And whereas Charles Lamb got to put down his pen every afternoon and meet his friends at an inn called The Salutation and the Cat, Mary (and her sister mantua-makers) worked at home, sometimes far into the night, when they weren't ministering to relatives -- in Mary Lamb's case, the three old people at home with her in Little Queen Street.

I want to interrupt myself here, though, with a familiar from our own times -- told me by a friend who recently visited his psychopharmacologist to get his dosages of Zoloft and Ativan adjusted. Scribbling on his prescription pad, the doc remarked to my friend that he was lucky: born in another century, he'd have been locked up in a madhouse by now.

Well, yes and no. Yes, Georgian London boasted a large number of madhouses -- from the scary, decaying public Bethlem Royal Hospital (the legendary "Bedlam") to Whitmore House (originally called Balmes House) in Hoxton, where for fifteen hundred pounds a year a wealthy family could secure a suite of rooms, a private caretaker, and the comforting knowledge that no one would know the whereabouts of the balmy relative there incarcerated (it's thought that the word "balmy" gets its origin from "Balmes"). And yes, it's true that madhouses were places where troublesome family members (particularly wives) could be locked away forever.

But it also seems to be true that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries madness could be seen as an episodic, controllable sort of thing. Public perception of King George III's 1788 "cure" seems to have had something to do with this, and I'd hazard that an increasing fascination (among intellectuals, at any rate) with romantic imagination had something to do with it as well. Charles Lamb had a breakdown in 1775 and spent six weeks in a private madhouse in Hoxton. Unfortunately, no records of his symptoms or diagnosis survive. All we have is the romantic, slightly shabby bravado of a letter to his friend: Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad.

Charles returned to work after his sojourn and tried to help his sister, with the strain of family finances, the care of the ever more family elders, and with Mary's own increasing mental instability. In fact, on September 22, 1796, Charles was out looking for a Doctor Pitcairn. He'd hoped to have the doctor tend to Mary on the very day when (as The Morning Chronicle had it):

While the family were preparing for dinner, the young lady [Mary Lamb], in a fit of insanity, seized a cafe knife lying on the table, and in a menacing manner pursued a little girl, her apprentice, round the room. On the eager calls of her helpless infirm mother, to forbear, she... approached her parent. The child, by her cries, quickly brought up the landlord of the house, but too late; the dreadful scene presented to him the mother lifeless on a chair, pierced to the heart; her daughter yet wildly standing over her with the fatal knife; and the venerable old man, her father, weeping by her side...

But with all my wandering among the byways of this story (and taking time out for my own speculations) I find that I've run out of time and room to finish the story. Because (at least in my amateur historical investigations) connections breed connections; history becomes a Borgesian, a Shandyesque, and certainly a hypertextual affair. And all I can do is invite you back next time I post, to read about the shape this odd story takes, and how a case of murder and a diagnosis of lunacy become a literary life -- or half of the life, thenceforth lived, in Charles Lamb's words, in "double singleness."

Note on sources: I've drawn on Mad Mary Lamb, by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, The Devil Kissed Her, by Kathy Watson, and my own readings of some of Charles Lamb's essays (all of which are -- trust me -- far more interesting and entertaining than that awful thing about roast pork).

While as for a question: Amateur historians (or even professionals) -- do you sometimes get lost in those devilish details?

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fascinating post Pam. I only recently learned about Mary Lamb's murder of her mother, and her mental illness, while following the links of that glorious time waster Wikipedia. I'm often getting lost while researching, one book leads to another. I find it especially hard since I started my Scandalous Women blog, I keep finding more and more women to write about!

12:17 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

We know today that, say, depression or bipolar illness can lift on its own, even without treatment; that is, if the sufferer survives the episode. Most psychoses tend to be more constant, but then, some depressive illnesses can get pretty psychotic-looking.

They knew little in Charles and Mary Lamb's time, and in a way we still know very little about mental illness.

Very interesting, though, Pam!

1:08 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

So I'm not the only person who gets lost, Elizabeth. Yes, Wikipedia is, as you say, a glorious time waster.

And thanks for the wise words, Diane. It's partly to look at how we approach problems today that we look to the past, I think. Partly to see how much more we know, and partly to ask whether we really do or not. Not that I'd take anybody's Zoloft away, tho! ;-}

3:35 PM  

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