Fatal Women of Romanticism

By Adriana Craciun | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
The subject of violence: Mary Lamb, femme fatale

On 26 September 1796, the Morning Chronicle gave the following account of the “fatal catastrophe” that blighted the lives of Mary and Charles Lamb:

On Friday afternoon the Coroner and a respectable Jury sat on the body of a Lady in the neighbourhood of Holborn, who died in consequence of a wound from her daughter the preceding day. It appeared by the evidence adduced, that while the family were preparing for dinner, the young lady seized a case knife laying on the table, and in a menacing manner pursued a little girl, her apprentice, round the room; on the eager calls of her helpless infirm mother to forbear, she renounced her first object, and with loud shrieks approached her parent.

The child by her cries quickly brought upthe landlord of the house, but too late–the dreadful scene presented to him the mother lifeless, pierced to the heart, on a chair, her daughter yet wildly standing over her with the fatal knife, and the venerable old man, her father, weeping by her side, himself bleeding at the forehead from the effects of a severe blow he received from one of the forks she had been madly hurling about the room. (LCML, I: 45)

Mary Anne Lamb, the murderer in question, had suffered years of neglect by her mother, and yet, as the newspaper account went on to say, “her carriage towards her mother was ever affectionate in the extreme. ” As her mother became incapacitated, the responsibility for her care as well as that of her ill father fell disproportionately on Mary Lamb's shoulders; this responsibility, combined with her exhausting labors as a mantua-maker and her mother's coldness towards her, contributed to Lamb's violent behavior. Lamb was spared incarceration and execution because the inquest determined the cause of the murder was “lunacy”; she remained in her brother Charles's care until his death, with periodic incarcerations in private asylums during subsequent violent outbreaks. Remarkably, after the murder Mary Lamb went on to build a career as an author of popular children's literature, in such works as her

-21-

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