The Devil Kissed Her: the Story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson

The demands of her parents, both ill in their different ways, were endless. She was physically drained and mentally wound up. From morning to night, she worked and worried, her daily life encompassing the worst of both worlds – she was lonely, isolated in her burden of work and care – but never left alone to recoup her spirits. All her resources – time, energy, money, skills – were pressed into a struggle to keep the feeble Lamb family afloat. No part of her life was truly her own, there was no minute of her day that was not already claimed in the service of someone else. Even at night, there was no privacy; she shared the bed of an elderly invalid. Insomnia is now recognised as a warning signal in manic-depressive illness and it was impossible that Mary could sleep properly in these circumstances. With sleep deprivation, that peculiarly disorienting and distressing mental state, problems are magnified tenfold and rational thought flies out the window. That year, September was as hot as June – 78 degrees Fahrenheit – and working with fabric in that heat would have been miserable and oppressive. And September was traditionally a bad month for dressmakers. So added to the normal family worries over money, there was a seasonal dip in income.

A short but really interesting biography of Mary Lamb (1764-1847), who is well known for two things: the 1807 collection Tales from Shakespeare, in which she and her brother retold a number the great Shakespeare plays in terms deemed suitable for children of the day; and the fact that in 1796 during an attack of mental illness, she stabbed her mother to death in the family kitchen. I had previously listened to a rather good radio play by Carlo Gébler about them.

There’s a lot more than just those two things to Mary’s story. The Lambs were of humble stock – their father was a servant in the Inner Temple, and Mary was trained as a seamstress at a time when the market for sewing was saturated. Charles was a clerk in the East India Company. But he had a scholarship to a boarding school where he befriended Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and that friendship gave him and Mary the contacts in the literary world, in particular with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, which made them able to establish a literary salon and to get a good reception from publishers for their own writings – and they wrote a lot more than Shakespeare. Their network included William Godwin, widower of Mary Wollstonecraft, who actually commissioned Tales from Shakespeare.

This was punctuated by periods of serious illness for Mary, and less frequently for Charles. To be honest, two centuries of advance in medical science would not have helped them very much. In today’s world, they would have benefited from some medicated relief, but not enough to eliminate their problems entirely; and in countries with a decent welfare system, there would have been perhaps more care available and more respite for Charles who ended up carrying most of the burden of Mary’s illness. Even so, Mary lived to her eighties.

Watson tells the story breezily but sympathetically, and even if you don’t know any of the Lambs’ writings (and I bounced off a collection of Charles’ writings a few years back) the human story is of interest. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next up is Discovering Tudor London: A Journey Back in Time, by Natalie Grueninger.

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