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Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London Paperback – February 17, 2006


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 326 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (February 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393327531
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393327533
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,305,629 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

One afternoon in 1796, Mary Lamb, aged 31, killed her mother with a carving knife at the dinner table. Like Kathy Watson in her recent The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb, Hitchcock diagnoses manic-depression at the heart of Mary's matricidal act and her subsequent stays in Britain's early mental asylums. Hitchcock (Coming About: A Family Passage at Sea), however, is far more willing to speculate about the gaps in the record of Mary's life, not to mention her thoughts and feelings as she regained something like a normal existence after the murder, which was judged an act of madness. Despite eventual bestselling collaborations with her brother, essayist Charles Lamb, in Tales from Shakespeare and Poetry for Children, Mary left an erratic documentary trail, with only one significant personal essay, which Hitchcock sees as proto-feminist. Charles, her lifelong protector, remains the best source about his sister and their shared life. But his letters to such friends as Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey show some reserve about the delicate subject of his sister's mental health. With such gaps, Hitchcock often resorts to reading into existing texts or inferring details of Mary's asylum experiences from typical practices of the time, which only partially resuscitates this tragic but elusive life. 32 illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker

In 1796, in a fit of insanity, Mary Lamb, aged thirty-one, murdered her mother with a carving knife. Thereafter, despite periodic spells in asylums, she played host to Coleridge and Wordsworth and was the principal author of the famous "Tales from Shakespeare," written with her better-known brother Charles. Charles was an alcoholic with a stutter and a limp who had a blistering sense of humor, and who, under the pen name Elia, artfully reinvented the personal essay. It was only a matter of time before modern biographers rediscovered the unconventional pair. Hitchcock's is the third biography of the Lambs to appear in the past couple of years, and capably rescues Mary from the footnotes of her brother's story. But this somewhat bland account fails to convey the quirkiness of the Lamb siblings, or to illuminate a literary partnership that lasted for nearly forty years.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
When criminals are touched with madness, we try to figure out ways of keeping them from being punished unfairly. No one would think it right to punish a child, for instance, for something the child could not conceive as wrong, and it should be the same for criminals who lack such judgement. There have been many laws concerning such matters, starting with the famous McNaughton rule, formed in England in 1843, which ruled that one could not be found guilty if there was no capacity to know an action was against the law. It is surprising that society may have been dealing with insane criminals with more sensibility and sensitivity before McNaughton than after. That is one of the lessons in _Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London_ (Norton) by Susan Tyler Hitchcock. Mary Lamb probably had a bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, starting around 1796, and it had to be treated intermittently for the rest of her life. This did not preclude her producing, with her brother, the classic _Tales from Shakespeare_. Hitchcock has brought light to this forgotten instance of madness, and examined Mary Lamb's case from literary, social, legal, and psychiatric sides, to tell a remarkable story of madness and redemption.

On 22 September 1796, Mary Lamb, 31 years old, was at her parents' home above a wig shop in London, when she took her knife and stabbed her mother in the chest, killing her, and she threw a fork that cut her father's forehead. The gruesome crime is at the very start of Hitchcock's book, and it made a sensation at the time. She was not tried for murder, and she was not put into prison. She was put under the care of her younger brother Charles, a renowned essayist, and remained in Charles's care for the rest of his life.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Aimee Thor on April 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
1. The subject of this book is great!

2. The writing style is a bit wobbly at times.

3. The author jumps around and discusses way too many famous literary figures who have little or nothing to do with Mary Lamb's personal triumphs and failures.

4. Very little is actually told about Mary Lamb, who is supposed to be the featured character of this story!

5. The author inserts a lot of modernistic idealogy that would have been unknown to English men and women in 1795.

6. Gives a quick summary of a very complex woman.

7. Gives an even quicker summary of a very changing, difficult, and dramatic period of English history.
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Format: Hardcover
In 1796 Mary Lamb thrust a knife into her mother's chest, in that instant breaking free of the drudgery that consumed her days, but at what cost? Sent to Fisher House, a private, quasi-affordable madhouse in Islington, Mary underwent the usual brutal and humiliating treatments dictated by science at the time, similar to those King George III was subjected to ten years before. Whether the madhouse experience damaged her creatively is still a source of discussion, but certainly she fell into line, causing no further disturbance, eventually moving into rooms of her own with the help of her younger brother, Charles Lamb. Eventually Charles and Mary Lamb devised a manner of living, what he called "double-singleness", Mary accepted into her brother's literary circle and appreciated for her sharp intelligence and intellectual curiosity. Together they co-authored three books, Tales from Shakespear (1807), Mrs. Leicester's School (1809) and Poetry for Children (1809).

Mad Mary Lamb is an extensively researched, impressive reconstruction of Mary's life on the fringes of literary society, freed by the act that sundered her from family obligations beyond the society of her brother. London was teeming with literary genius, the country infused with political uncertainty and a rapidly changing world where ideas were exchanged in lively debate in salons all over the city. Most women were hidden behind society's restraints, great literary achievements solely the purview of the male gender. While Charles moved in and out of his own creative forays, Mary nurtured seeds of her own writing. Her contribution to Tales of Shakespear was certainly equal to her brother's, a challenging task in any case.
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Format: Paperback
"Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London" begins with the September 1796 murder of elderly Elizabeth Lamb. Her spinster daughter, Mary, snapped under the strain of caring for her aging parents and aunt, and reacted to a caustic remark by plunging a carving knife deep into Mrs. Lamb's chest. Mary was confined in a private lunatic asylum for several weeks, and spent the rest of her life juggling literary brilliance and debilitating insanity. Her champion was her brother, famous essayist and poet Charles Lamb, with whom she lived until his death in 1834.

Charles and Mary Lamb co-authored a children's book called Tales from Shakespeare, which became a bestseller and remained in print for many years. Together and separately, the Lambs produced children's books, poetry collections, and magazine and newspaper articles. Their success made them central figures in an energetic writers' and artists' circle that included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Hazlitt.

The book is well-written but the title is somewhat misleading. It's not a work of True Crime per se: "Mad Mary Lamb" is both a biography of the Lamb siblings and a history of early nineteenth England's literary establishment. But Susan Tyler Hitchcock advances the intriguing argument that the act of matricide freed Mary to become a 'woman of letters'. As a mental patient, she experienced few of the expectations or demands that women of her era traditionally dealt with, leaving her free to undertake the unconventional role of female writer. The death of her mother was the birth of her literary career.
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Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London
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