Mary Lamb (1764 – 1847) was the elder sister of essayist Charles
Lamb and was, in her own right, a well-respected figure in Romantic social circles, praised for her literary accomplishments and
great personal empathy. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a close
friend of her brother, held her in special esteem.
Despite her many graces, she's probably best known today for having
brutally murdered her and Charles' mother, Elizabeth Lamb.
After their father lost his job as a servant, the siblings had to work
to support their parents. Charles served in an office and Mary
took up dress-making, an arduous profession in the days before the
sewing machine. In September, 1796, Mary suffered a fit of rage and
attacked her apprentice with a carving knife for having mishandled an
important order. Her parents tried to intervene, and she wounded her
father and fatally stabbed her mother through the heart. She was placed
in a lunatic asylum until the death of her father, when
she was released into the custody of her brother Charles. Neither of
them ever married, preferring to live together in what Charles called
their "double singleness". But Mary was no Dorothy Wordsworth, to say
the least, and her mental illness (probably Bipolar Disorder) would
force her to return periodically to the care of the asylum over the
course of her life.
There is a current revival of interest in Mary Lamb among scholars of
the Romantic Period. In part, this is due to her sensational life and
her struggles with mental illness. More substantially, however, it is
the merit of her literary work that has attracted this renewed critical
attention, her role having been minimized in former times by the
largely collaborative, private, or anonymous nature of her work.
Major collaborations with Charles:
Also of interest:
- "On Needlework", a letter to the editor of The British Lady's Magazine (1815)
- Her letters, anthologized alongside Charles Lamb's in The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, Volume 6: Letters, 1796-1834