“Like such a blind and senseless tree
As I’ve imagined this to be,
All envious persons are:
With care and culture all may find
Some pretty flower in their own mind,
Some talent that is rare.”—Mary Lamb, from “Envy”
Mary Lamb, born on this date in London in 1764, was lucky to have “some talent that is rare,” along with a caring (and talented) brother. No other sister-brother literary combination in the Romantic Era may have surpassed the achievements—and life stories—of Mary and Charles Lamb except for inveterate diarist Dorothy Wordsworth and her poet sibling William. But even the Wordsworths didn’t collaborate as the Lambs did.
In 1796, lacking money and support from other family members as she coped with a senile father and a mother requiring round-the-clock help, Mary snapped one night. Grabbing a knife at dinnertime, she stabbed her mother to death. Only days after her act of matricide, she was expressing intense remorse over her moment of madness. The authorities agreed not to confine her to an insane asylum so long as Charles, 10 years younger—who himself had been institutionalized for six weeks—agreed to take care of her for the rest of his life.
Paradoxically, Mary—now believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder—was, Charles’ friend William Hazlitt once said, the only exception to his rule that he “never met with a woman who could reason, and had met with only one thoroughly reasonable - the sole exception being Mary Lamb.” Virtually all of his friends praised her warmth and gentleness.
Though Mary published poetry for children, she is probably most famous for Tales From Shakespeare (1807). Though the first edition bore only the name, of Charles (who became famous as an essayist), his sister had actually written two-thirds of these retellings of dramas by The Bard. Perhaps her name was not included originally because of publishers’ sexism (the same reason why the Bronte sisters used pseudonyms when their great novels appeared in the 1840s). Or, perhaps, Mary recoiled from anything that reminded readers of the tragedy that befell her years before.
Mary remained subject to episodes of mental illness throughout the rest of her life. Did this autodidact identify especially with Shakespearean heroes King Lear and Othello in their moments of temporary derangement? Surviving Charles by 13 years, she ended up being buried with him when her own time came to die in 1847.