Thursday, September 22, 2022

'We Shall Be Comfortable By-and-By'

Eric G. Wilson sets the scene as though he were writing a B-movie screenplay: 

“Chairs, crockery, peas, beef, and bread on the floor; mother, bloody from chest to waist, lifeless; father, forehead gashed, bellowing; Aunt Sarah flinching in the corner. Mary towers over the riot, her eyes animal-wild. She has a knife.”


The date, September 22, 1796. The place, 7 Little Queen Street, Holborn, central London. The most famous literary matricide since Orestes was a pup has just taken place. Mary Lamb has fatally stabbed her mother and wounded her father. Her brother Charles wrote five days later to Coleridge, his childhood friend:


“I will only give you the outlines. My poor dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a mad house, from whence I fear she must be moved to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses,—I eat and drink and sleep, and have my judgment I believe very sound.”


In Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb (Yale University Press, 2022), Wilson tells us Charles that morning had gone to consult Dr. David Pitcairn about Mary’s “erratic behavior,” but the doctor was out. Mary, Wilson says, had assumed “crushing responsibilities.” She worked as a seamstress at home. Her mother was almost fully paralyzed and required constant care, as did her father, “who had no more sense than a small child.” Aunt Sarah lived with the Lamb family, was in her eighties “and moody to boot.” Charles had started the year with a six-week stay in the madhouse. A taint of insanity ran through the family. Here is Wilson’s cautious diagnosis of Mary’s condition:


“The consensus is that Mary suffered from bipolar disorder, though one dissenter argues for limbic lobe seizures. Applying twenty-first-century diagnoses to people living over two centuries ago is suspect. Our knowledge of their symptoms is incomplete.”


Charles voluntarily served as Mary’s legal caretaker for the rest of his life (she outlived him by thirteen years). He never married, had no children and always lived with his sister. Wilson picks up the action after the stabbing: “To get from snatching the knife to installing his sister in a madhouse was complicated and courageous. First Lamb had to calm Mary. He was the only one who could; she trusted him, loved him most, and he was not agitated.” Mary’s illness was episodic. The scene of Charles walking Mary to the madhouse recurs periodically throughout his letters. Wilson describes the pitiful state of treatment for mental illness in the eighteenth century as “bloodletting, berating.”


Who can blame Lamb for his  drinking and occasional foolishness? That we judge him among the finest of comic writers in his letters and essays is testimony to human resilience. In 1807, the siblings wrote and published Tales from Shakespeare, a volume that has never gone out of print. Charles wrote to Coleridge in 1809:


“What sad large pieces it cuts out of life!--out of her life, who is getting rather old; and we may not have many years to live together. I am weaker, and bear it worse than I ever did. But I hope we shall be comfortable by-and-by.”


Lamb was still eleven years away from writing the first of his Essays of Elia, his masterpiece.

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