Review extracts of ‘A Double Life’
Miranda Seymour in The Spectator:
‘Sarah Burton has picked herself a plum of a subject. The Lambs must be the last interesting members of the Romantic circle to have escaped attention… The story of the Lambs, well-researched and perceptively told here, is not one of great events, beyond that shocking act of matricide. …Sarah Burton has done a splendid job in bringing the Lambs to life, with all their quirks, caprices and tenderness.’
Kathryn Hughes in The Mail on Sunday:
‘Far from being a devoted married couple with children, Charles and Mary Lamb were middle-aged siblings who had lived together all their peculiar lives. Charles was a minor poet and perpetual drunkard. Mary was a manic depressive who had murdered her mother and spent long stretches in a madhouse. Yet, as Sarah Burton shows in this scholarly but deeply moving biography, the Lambs were two of the most charming, popular and genuinely good people you could hope to meet.
‘…Burton’s great achievement in this excellent biography is to make you care about two people whose names are all but forgotten now. Shining through her meticulous research is a sense that she feels deeply for the Lambs and wants to make her readers understand why they should too.
‘And yet there is nothing hectoring or sensationalist about this book. Warm, witty and wise, it is everything the Lambs themselves would have loved.’
Hermione Lee in The Guardian:
‘Sarah Burton’s affectionate, workmanlike double biography of these two peculiar and sympathetic early 19th-century figures sets out to remedy any neglect [of their literary reputations] and to hold the balance between them. Charles comes over more brightly, because he has most of the best lines and stories and more published work, and because Mary is buried in the dark silence of insanity for much of her life. But their steadfast, troubled companionship from childhood into old age, their generous friendships and their odd habits are carefully drawn here. And a very curious picture it is.
‘… There was, always, what one friend called “a constitutional sadness about Lamb’s mind”, and the interdependence between the brother and sister could be wretched as well as sustaining. Mary wrote in 1805: “You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both, to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying & say we will be better on the morrow.”
‘Laughing and crying both together are what Elia’s essays and the Lambs’ life invoke, and it’s a merit of Burton’s book that what could be a deeply depressing story keeps turning into comedy.
‘[Burton] tells a well-organised, lively and interesting story and there is plenty of wonderful writing to be found in it.’
Mark Bostridge in The Independent on Sunday:
‘ “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. …the book is full of fascinating revelations and hypotheses, which are the product of deep research and close empathy.’
Carole Angier in The Sunday Times:
‘Burton … has brought together everything we can know about Charles and Mary Lamb, which is a service to us and to them. They were buried in the same grave; the same book is where they belong.’
Duncan Wu in The Independent Magazine:
‘Sarah Burton’s new biography [is] particularly welcome, the last full-scale Life having appeared in 1905. She treats the story of brother and sister as a “double life”, taking the cue from themselves. … This retelling of the Lambs’ story exploits an adept use of their spoken and written words to bring them convincingly baqck to life, and to trace the course of their “double singleness”. Burton has a sharp eye for the telling anecdote, as when at a party Charles was asked by a doting mother how he liked babies. “Boiled,” he replied.’
Kelly Grovier in the Times Literary Supplement:
‘Admirably researched and lucidly written, her work’s strength lies in allowing its soulful subjects to speak for themselves.’