Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Mad Mary Lamb

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Mad Mary Lamb. I loved the Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare when I was a child and was always fascinated by the thumbnail biography of murder and insanity in the introduction. Hitchcock has retold the complete story of Mary and Charles' life together after Mary stabbed their mother in a fit of insanity. They lived together in happy domesticity although both suffered from periodic bouts of mental illness and instability. They began to have an influentail circle of friends who gathered informally in the evenings to drink, smoke, and talk. Charles was an aspiring poet and they were both close friends of the Wordsworth's, Coleridge, and other writers, poets, and publishers. Mary was a quiet and gentle woman by all accounts who stayed in the backround but displayed great kindness and intelligence when she participated in discussions. While Charles was the more published and confidant, eventually the two began to collaborate on projects and jointly wrote several children's books. It's interesting that Charles regarded Mary as caring for him rather than the other way around (since Mary had semiannual confinements in madhouses).
The Lambs had an extensive and fascinating correspondence of letters with friends that Hitchcock draws on to illuminate their story. She quotes Charles Lamb's letter about his sister's reading tastes: "'She must have a story - well, ill, or indifferently told - so there be life stirring in it, and plenty of good or evil accidents.'" Which is exactly how I feel when I'm deciding whether to continue a mediocre book. This was a great story indifferently told. Actually, most of the book was engrossing (and the story of the Lambs's lives and literary circle was wonderful material), but some of the author's assertions and extrapolations were illogical, self-contradictory, or vague. At times the writing detracted from the story, mostly when she was imagining the feelings and emotions of Mary herself. The conclusion seemed also hastily tacked on like a bit of a dissertation added so that the book could be said to have a specific argument. The excerpts from letters that form the scaffolding of the book far outshine the author's own voice. Flaws and all, though, a great deal of research was well synthesized to tell the story. I really wanted to go to the brother and sister's smokey evening gatherings to argue and talk about books or at least have someone to write long letters to.

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