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.


Anchored in letters already published in a wide range of secondary sources, this is a compensatory, feminist biography of a woman who played an important but under-celebrated role in the creative work of a more famous male relative. The author holds a Ph.D. in English literature, specializing in Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her book uncovers the intricate network of literary friends surrounding the Lamb siblings, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Blake, William Hazlitt, and William Godwin. Nor does she neglect their sisters, wives and daughters. Of Godwin's two children, one was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

The author contextualizes the events from a history of psychiatry perspective, citing William Cullen and relying on the work of medical historians, such as Roy Porter. She suggests that the madness of King George III may have enhanced public awareness and acceptance of mental disturbance. Occasionally, she lapses into speculation about Mary's feelings and events with an abundance of "probably's" and "must have's," but she generally resists writing more into the story than the record will allow.

For example, she is judiciously cautious about making a retrospective diagnosis of Mary's relapsing illness, acknowledging only briefly that it seems to have been of the kind that might merit a bipolar diagnosis today (277-9). Similarly, she tries to avoid condemning the standards of care delivered in madhouses of the early nineteenth century, although she describes them with unstinting focus on their brutal physicality. Much in this story, including Mary's willingness to return to the asylum year after year, suggests that some good comfort came with the horrifying bad. But the murder is never explained, nor can it be.

Hitchcock claims that Mary's shocking act of matricide and her mysterious malady removed her from the usual confines of social expectations of women--allowing her to work, write, and think for herself, even as she could rarely lay claim to her own achievements. The events are well documented for date and duration, but rarely for details. Nevertheless, the account is a captivating portrait of period life, within a quiet yet chattering social group.


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York



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