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3.0 out of 5 stars Only skims the surface of the deep waters of her mind, 28 July 2010
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The first decade of the 21st century has seen a sudden flurry of books on Mary Lamb (1764-1847). Sarah Burton's A Double Life in 2003, Kathy Watson's The Devil Kissed Her in 2004 and this latest one, Susan Tyler Hitchcock's Mad Mary Lamb in 2005. Famous as co-author of Tales from Shakespeare, the sister of essayist Charles Lamb who befriended the poets Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats, and of course for having murdered her mother aged 31, Mary Lamb also formed a key lynchpin of Lisa Appignanesi's history of women and mental illness, Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 in 2007.

Born on 3 December 1764 to John and Elizabeth Lamb - they had seven children in total, only three of whom survived into adulthood - Mary grew up amongst the judges' offices of Inner Temple, London. As their father suffered a stroke and mother developed arthritis which left her practically immobile, the family came to increasingly depend on Charles and especially on their only daughter Mary (the elder brother John - his mother's favourite - having managed to absolve himself early of their care). Late in 1795, Charles suffered a mental breakdown and spent six weeks in Hoxton House, London's best-known private "madhouse" (as they were then called). To aid Mary at home, the help of a nine year-old apprentice was secured whom Mary, aggravated by her charge increasing rather reducing her stress, chased around the room one evening with a carving knife whilst dinner was being prepared. Her mother verbally intervened, chiding Mary for her short temper, at which point Mary plunged the knife into her mother's heart. She died instantly. Without a trial she was declared "a lunatic" and removed to Fisher House, a madhouse in Islington - then a village outside of London.

Astonishingly, Mary seemed to recover a good degree of psychological equilibrium very quickly and was sitting quietly and serenely when her devoted brother Charles visited. Charles agreed to care for her for the rest of his life, remarking to his old school chum S.T. Coleridge (who often had a sympathetic ear for Charles's troubles), "Poor Mary, my mother indeed never understood her right" (letter of 17 October 1796). Taking the mentally fragile Mary under his wing sealed the almost symbiotic intensity of their sibling bond; earlier as children she, over ten years his senior, had cared for Charles like a surrogate mother. After their father's death and a short spell where Mary boarded alone in Hackney, they lived together, moving into lodgings near St. Paul's Cathedral and then back in Inner Temple. Mary continued her mantua-making (stitching garments for male and female customers) while Charles worked as an accounting clerk for the East India Company, which traded in cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre, tea and opium. "Charles saw in his sister," Hitchcock writes, "an intelligent, potentially productive, gentle, and sympathetic individual" (85). In spite of at least seven bouts of severe mental agitation which required Mary's return to the madhouse for six week stays, the brother and sister managed to collaborate on a children's book which explained the stories of Shakespeare's plays to, as Charles called them in his typical, sweet-humoured way, "the little people" (letter to Thomas Manning, 10 May 1806). First published by radical author-turned-bookseller William Godwin, it is still in print today.

Hitchcock seems rather tactlessly to argue that the horrific act of matricide which Mary committed in her early thirties freed her from the confines of a more socially conventional life: "One thrust of the knife," she summarises, "changed her fate" (280). Yet her analysis - the book in fact tends to be more descriptive than analytical - is bereft of much psychological detail or framework so that we don't get any closer to understanding what might have motivated Mary's matricide and how the act might have changed her. Psychologists might nowadays describe Mary as taking on a caretaker role for those around her (as was generally expected of daughters in late 18th century England) as well as being unable to seek non-violent ways out of that straitjacket into more creative forms of living and self-development. Charles had his psychological defences - irony, humour and self-deprecation which masked deeper feelings of awkwardness and self-doubt - but what defences were available to Mary within a family constellation that (aside from her brother) refused to understand her or treat her with sympathy? This left her vulnerable, I would imagine, to a well of suppressed aggression rising up behind a façade of polite affability and service which, when provoked by a lack of parental understanding, an excess of stress, and a country that tended to punish rather than alleviate mental illness, could burst forth in the form of extreme violence. With terrible poignancy Charles reported during the desperate weeks after the killing of his mother that Mary had told him, "I shall see her again in heaven; she will then understand me better" (letter to Coleridge, 17 October 1796).
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Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London
Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London by Susan Tyler Hitchcock (Hardcover - 10 May 2005)
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