Susan Tyler Hitchcock

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Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography


In September 1796, 32-year-old Mary Lamb (1764-1847), stabbed her mother to death with a carving knife during an incoherent frenzy. Almost immediately, she became calm and was sent to a madhouse, remaining away from home for months until her grieving and unforgiving father had died. Mary was released into the care of her much younger brother, Charles (1775-1834), soon to be known for his poetry and essays. She never went to prison, but would return to the madhouse many times over the next fifty years. As a result, this life is an interesting exploration of chronic mental disturbance in the early nineteenth century.

Neither Charles nor Mary ever married; they always lived together and professed to be each other's dearest friend. Obliged to eke out a middle class income--she (until her crime) at dressmaking, he in an office--they turned to writing, often together. The Lambs' famous Tales from Shakespear [sic] was written mostly by Mary, but their friend William Godwin under Charles's name as sole author first published it. Mary's other books, edifying texts for young female readers, were published anonymously.

Letters to their many friends reveal Mary's vexation with Charles's drinking and smoking and his concerns over her multiple relapses, which were triggered by being obliged to move house. Charles predeceased his older sister by ten years and she spent the rest of her life in chronic care of a private couple, visiting his grave almost every day.

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