Monday, July 09, 2018

'I Hope I Shall Get Quite Stout and Lively'

We ignore minor characters, in literature and life, at our peril. Often interesting in their own right, it’s through them we learn more about the true nature of the major figures. Take Mary Lamb, the factoid version: In 1796, during a fit of insanity, she fatally stabbed her mother and was confined to Fisher House, an asylum in Islington. Her brother Charles, author of Essays of Elia (1823), remained her caretaker and described their bond as “a double singleness.” Together they wrote Tales from Shakespeare (1807). Mary was subject to bouts of insanity for the rest of her life. Charles died in 1834, Mary in 1847.

Mary Lamb was no mere victim, passively defined by her illness. William Hazlitt was not the most even-tempered of personalities, and about women he remained a fool, but Thomas Talfourd in Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1848) reports: “Hazlitt used to say, that he never met with a woman who could reason, and had met with only one thoroughly reasonable -- the sole exception being Mary Lamb.” Hazlitt and the Lambs were safely dead when Talfourd published his account, but the remark rings true. Mary’s shrewdness, good heart and touching devotion to her brother are on display in the letter she wrote on this date, July 9, in 1803. The recipient is another underrated sister, Dorothy Wordsworth:

“Charles is very well and very good—I mean very sober, but he is very good in every sense of the word, for he has been very kind and patient with me and I have been a sad trouble to him lately. He has shut out all his friends because he thought company hurt me, and done everything in his power to comfort and amuse me. We are to go out of town soon for a few weeks, when I hope I shall get quite stout and lively.”

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