In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf recounts the life of Shakespeare's sister, a woman who, though possessing considerable talents of her own, was doomed because of the cultural prejudices of her time to die unknown, "buried at some cross-roads where the omnibus now stops outside Elephant and Castle."1 Shakespeare, of course, had no sister; Woolf s tale was an allegory contained in a speech she delivered in 1928 to the young, aspiring female students of Cambridge University -- that mighty symbol of male dominance that only in recent decades had consented to open its doors to women. Yet like so many fictional characters, the Bard's forgotten sister has counterparts in history, women of great intelligence and ability who frequently go underappreciated today because of the wider attention given to their more famous brothers. Three such figures lived during the nineteenth century, within fifty years of Woolf s birth in 1882, and were surely known to her. Although not as tragic as the tale of Shakespeare's legendary sister, their true stories are of considerable interest, not only in themselves, but also in the added dimension they bring to the brothers' careers and in the additional historical information they contribute to contemporary British culture as a whole.
The first of these three women is Mary Lamb, sister of Charles Lamb, the famous theater critic, letter writer, essayist, and a friend or associate of nearly all the major authors and poets of his generation. Charles Lamb's correspondence might easily be regarded as a chronicle of early nineteenth-century British Romanticism. Although historians have long recognized that his sister played a prominent role in her brother's life -- as hostess of his celebrated Wednesday soirées, companion, and inspiration for several of his best-known works -- they generally do not consider her as an important historical figure in her own right. This book, however, will demonstrate that far from being simply a passive