The Lamb family was afflicted with mental illness that affected individual members to greater or lesser degrees. Charles Lamb’s six-week period of internment in a mental health facility – more appropriately, an asylum – could be considered an aberration in his otherwise productive literary life. His sister Mary, however, was more deeply afflicted with this condition, and spent more of her years in a debilitating state than Charles. Mackery End, in Hertfordshire is a thinly-veiled portrait of Mary and of their life together – a life, Charles does not shy away from conceding, that deprived him of the opportunity to enjoy a fuller, more independent existence. In Mackery End, the figure of Bridget is indisputably based upon Mary, including the ten-year age difference between siblings, with Mary being the elder child.
Being a full-time caregiver is well-known to be extraordinarily stressful, and generally can be expected to infringe on the caregiver’s own emotional well-being. Charles was Mary’s full-time caregiver, and his prose reflects the loving relationship tinged with resentment at the path his life has taken, as is evident in the following passage:
“I have obligations to Bridget, extending beyond the period of memory. We house together, old bachelor and maid, in a sort of double singleness; with such tolerable comfort, upon the whole, that I, for one, find in myself no sort of disposition to go out upon the mountains, with the rash king’s offspring, to bewail my celibacy.”
If this passage alludes to the closeness of the relationship and to Charles’ acknowledgement of his responsibility to his sister, the following reminiscing of an early, more carefree time illuminates the eternal sadness for a more promising past:
“The oldest thing I remember is Mackery End . . . a farmhouse delightfully situated within a gentle walk from Wheathampstead. I can just remember having been there, on a visit to a great-aunt, when I was a child, under the care of Bridget . . . I wish I could throw into a heap the remainder of our joint existences, that we might share them in equal division. But that is impossible.”
Charles is recalling an earlier, happier time, when Bridget/Mary was the responsible older sister who cared for her brother. Most of that boy’s life, however, would see the roles reversed, with the adult Charles taking care of Mary. He knows there was no other choice, and made his peace with the arrangement, but he also carries with him a lamentation for a life that never was.