Thursday, November 13, 2014

`Except in the Midst of London'

While preparing dinner for her family on Sept. 22, 1796, Mary Lamb grew angry with the young girl who served the Lambs as an apprentice, and chased her around the room until Mary’s mother, an invalid, yelled for her to stop. Mary plunged a carving knife into her mother’s chest and jabbed her father in the head with a fork. Charles took her to the Islington Asylum, Fisher House, and eventually agreed to serve as Mary’s guardian for the remainder of her life. Less than a year earlier, Charles had spent six weeks in a “mad house at Hoxton.” The fatal attack on the Lambs’ mother is the “strange calamity” referred to by Coleridge, Charles’ boyhood friend, in “The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” All of this is prelude to the saddest letter I know, written to Coleridge almost four years later, on May 12, 1800: 

“I don’t know why I write, except from the propensity misery has to tell her griefs. Hetty [the Lambs’ elderly servant] died on Friday night, about eleven o’clock, after eight days’ illness; Mary, in consequence of fatigue and anxiety, is fallen ill again, and I was obliged to remove her [to the asylum] yesterday. I am left alone in a house with nothing but Hetty’s dead body to keep me company. To-morrow I bury her, and then I shall be quite alone, with nothing but a cat to remind me that the house has been full of living beings like myself. My heart is quite sunk, and I don’t know where to look for relief. Mary will get better again; but her constantly being liable to such relapses is dreadful; nor is it the least of our evils that her case and all our story is so well known around us. We are in a manner marked. Excuse my troubling you; but I have nobody by me to speak to me. I slept out last night, not being able to endure the change and the stillness. But I did not sleep well, and I must come back to my own bed. I am going to try and get a friend to come and be with me to-morrow. I am completely shipwrecked. My head is quite bad. I almost wish that Mary were dead.” 

At the time of the attack, Lamb was twenty-one and Mary was ten years his senior. She outlived him by twelve years, and for the rest of her life had to be periodically recommitted to the asylum. Since 1792, he had worked as a clerk in the East India House, where he would remain for thirty-three years. Not until 1820 would he write the first of his Essays of Elia, his claim to literary immortality. That Lamb drank surprises no one. Some of us are unduly burdened with misfortune. Some, as a result, inflict their suffering on others. A rare few convert pain into art.  That Lamb transformed himself into one of the most amusing writers in the language is a minor miracle. The most chilling sentence in the letter quoted above is “We are in a manner marked.” The Lambs' sorrow was public, and people can be remarkably cruel. Eight days after the 1800 letter to Coleridge, Lamb used similar language in a letter to a new friend, Thomas Manning. On May 20 he writes: 

“I am in much better spirits than when I wrote last. I have had a very eligible offer to lodge with a friend in town. He will have rooms to let at midsummer, by which time I hope my sister will be well enough to join me. It is a great object to me to live in town, where we shall be much more private, and to quit a house and neighbourhood where poor Mary’s disorder, so frequently recurring, has made us a sort of marked [italics added] people. We can be nowhere private except in the midst of London.” 

One thinks of the mark of Cain, who, like Mary, killed a family member and was condemned to be forever “a fugitive and a vagabond.”

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

Not long ago I referred to someone's saint-like behavior during a very long ordeal of care-taking. She was startled, and seemed to think it wiped away all her labors and her patience when she admitted that she had sometimes been angry. I felt quite otherwise. And to me, that Lamb could feel that he "almost" wished his sister dead says so much about his long patience and loyalty and endurance. He really tugs at the heart.