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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

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