A Double Life: A biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, by Sarah Burton

Charles Lamb's 'Essays of Elia' are sparkling classics of prose, but, as Mark Bostridge relates, behind his urbanity lurked the demons of madness and despair

Sunday 17 August 2003 00:00 BST

Many of us probably possess a rather cosy notion of that brother and sister writing partnership, Charles and Mary Lamb, based on early reading of their classic work for children, Tales from Shakespeare. First published in 1807, and never out of print, these stories, adapted from 20 of Shakespeare's plays, are clever and powerful summaries designed to provide children with enough plot and characterisation to allow them to understand the plays themselves when they later see or read the authentic versions.

Described as "one of the most conspicuous landmarks in the history of the romantic movement", the Tales deviated from the Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Rousseau about the importance of moral instruction in children's literature. Whereas Locke and Rousseau rejected fantasy and romance, and mistrusted the folk or fairy tale, the Lambs, like their friends Coleridge and Wordsworth, despised the "goodyness" of much contemporary writing for children, and prized the examples of the fanciful and fantastic that Shakespeare offered. They believed that without these, the poetic impulse in a child might be extinguished.

Mary Lamb, 11 years her brother's senior, was responsible for 14 comedies and histories, while Charles wrote the six tragedies - though only Charles's name appeared on the title page - and the book was published to immediate acclaim by William Godwin and his second wife Mary Jane ("that damned infernal bitch" as the Lambs called her) who specialised in publishing and selling juvenile books.

Sarah Burton, the Lambs' latest biographer, notes that despite the preponderant role that Mary took in the Tales, this brother-and-sister collaboration was evenly matched, mutually dependent, based on shared ideas, and that this arrangement applied to life as well as to literature. The Lambs' relationship did not possess the passionate intensity of the bond between that other pair of Romantic siblings, William and Dorothy Wordsworth - all that petting on the carpet, which we find so uncomfortable today. However, it was no less a "Union of affection", unstinting in its care and protectiveness, but also so co-dependent that the depression and misery of one easily rubbed off on the other. "They are the World one to the other," wrote a friend, and one of the most successful aspects of Burton's dual biography is the wise and perceptive way in which she deals with the workings of their siblinghood. Her pace could, at times, be brisker, and disappointingly there are no illustrations, but the book is full of fascinating revelations and hypotheses, which are the product of deep research and close empathy.

Underscoring the Lambs' partnership was an event of such violent tragedy that it immediately disposes of any comfortable image one might have of the couple. Mary and Charles, and their older brother, John, who was as distant from his siblings as they were close, were the children of a lawyer's clerk. Brought up in the Temple where his father worked, Charles was sent to Christ's Hospital (where he met Coleridge), while Mary, after a brief spell of formal education, began an apprenticeship as a dressmaker, and was a fully fledged mantua-maker by the time Charles left school and started work at East India House, where he would be employed for most of his life. There may have been a history of mental instability in the family; certainly, for a short time, in 1795-6, Charles had a complete breakdown and was confined in Hoxton madhouse. But it was the strain of his sister's life at this time, caring for a senile father, paralysed mother and elderly aunt, as well as carrying out her domestic duties on a limited budget, and training an apprentice, that led Mary suddenly to snap. One evening in September 1796, Mary became hysterical, and pursued her young apprentice round the room with a knife. Her mother intervened and was stabbed to death through the heart. A verdict of temporary insanity was found against Mary and, under the comparatively benign rules that then existed, she was placed under Charles's guardianship after a period in a private madhouse in Islington.

For the rest of her life, Mary would occasionally return to private madhouses whenever her psychosis took hold of her, and the Lambs rarely travelled without taking a straitjacket with them. Burton believes that in the early years Mary would have received fairly humane treatment, though she points to the horrifying scandals associated with private madhouses in the second decade of the 19th century, with their brutal regimes, which may have led to Mary being boarded out as a private patient with female boarders in later years.

The Lambs' life together, over four decades, in a variety of rented lodgings allowed them both to pursue their writing careers and to receive their friends. Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Hazlitts, Southey and Leigh Hunt were all regular visitors, and Charles's advice to Coleridge to "cultivate simplicity" is seen as one of the earliest declarations of the Romantic sensibility in poetry. As a critic, especially as an advocate of "English Dramatic Poets who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare" (the subject of one of his books), Charles's stock declined in the course of last century, but Burton writes affectionately and with sensitive understanding of the complexity of "Elia", the autobiographical persona of Charles's famous Essays. These are not as accessible as they should be, though "A Batchelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People" and "Confessions of a Drunkard" remain among his most popular works.

Charles's problem was the bottle. Despite crushing hangovers and a reputation for being a handful socially (Carlyle thought him thoroughly gin-soaked and more of a "Tomfool" than wit), Charles believed he needed to drink in order to reach the natural high, "the internal wine", of the poet. Burton sensibly pays limited attention to his poetry and stage plays but, drawing on recent scholarship, she does confirm the importance of Mary's essay, "On Needle-work", written under a pseudonym in 1814 when Mary was 50. This argued that there was no economic imperative for middle-class women to make their own clothes when garments could be bought ready made. By filling their days with needlework, Mary went on, these amateur seamstresses were not only depriving the professional needlewoman of her living, they were also culturally disadvantaging themselves. It was a shrewd insight into the condition of working women as well as an early exposition of feminism.

All may not have been pure sibling bliss between the Lambs. Burton suggests that Mary may well have been jealous of the young orphan, Emma Isola, whom the Lambs adopted in the decade before Charles's death in 1834, and with whom Charles was possibly in love. Mary, who was experiencing one of her periodic attacks, apparently came back to full possession of her senses "as if by an electrical shock", the moment she was told that Emma was married, and therefore, so the theory goes, unlikely to pose any further threat to Mary's position in the future.

Did Mary fear that she might slay Emma as she had once killed her mother? This does pose a terrifying alternative scenario for the Lambs' last years. In reality, they reached the end of their lives in the state of "hypostatical union" that had characterised all their years together. "When Mary calls, it is understood that I call too, we being univocal," Charles once said. She survived him by 13 years. Their last home together was a madhouse.

'Essays of Elia' by Charles Lamb (a facsimile of the 1823 edition) is available from University of Iowa Press (pbk £15.50). See www.eurospan.co.uk for details

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