MAD MARY LAMB by Susan Tyler Hitchcock


Lunacy and Murder in Literary London
Age Range: 1764 - 1847
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Another deft portrait (see The Devil Kissed Her, p. 680) of the woman who murdered her mother and later joined with better-known brother Charles to write Tales from Shakespeare.

Hitchcock (Coming About, 1998, etc.) dives into a deep and rich sea teeming with literary life. Problem is, though, that once you begin writing about the Lambs, well, here come Coleridge (their dear friend) and Wordsworth and Hazlitt and Godwin and Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. And once you mention Claire Clairmont (as the author does), then lubricious Lord Byron also swims among this vast school of Romantics, all of whom seem to have corresponded with one another, many of whom kept diaries. How to keep the focus on talented and mad—if often demure—Mary Lamb (1764–1847), with all these other fascinating creatures splashing nearby, clamoring for attention? Hitchcock manages quite well. Although she takes numerous glances elsewhere (how can she not?), she proceeds in steady, professional fashion to tell Mary’s story, revealing a knowledge of the major biographies of the principal Romantics and of the correspondence and writings of Charles and Mary. She imagines a rather sensational reenactment of the murder—a flash of a knife in the Lambs’ kitchen in 1796, excused by a coroner’s inquest as an act of patent lunacy. After time in a madhouse, Mary eventually joined her brother Charles for what would be the rest of their lives. Born into the servant class, the Lambs rose into the middle class by virtue of their pens (and Charles’s reliable labors for the East India House), finding their niche in a circle that included most of the literary luminaries of the age. Mary periodically returned to the madhouse for weeks and months, slipping into virtually permanent twilight after her brother’s death in 1834. Hitchcock persuades us that she was a major contributor to the Lambs’ literary creations.

An informed and sympathetic portrait of a troubled mind and humble heart. (32 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-393-05741-0
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2004


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