BOOKS: FETCH THE STRAITJACKET ; 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; A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb by Sarah Burton VIKING Pounds 16.99 Pounds 14.99 (+ Pounds 2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122
Bostridge, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
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. …