Charles Lamb

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Sketch the character of Bridget Elia in Charles Lamb's Mackery End, in Hertfordshire. 

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As another answer noted, Bridget is based on Charles' ten-year-older sister, Mary, who acted as a mother to him in a highly dysfunctional family. In real life, Mary stabbed their mother to death in a fit of rage and was placed in an insane asylum. Charles was able to get her out by pledging to support and care for her, which he did for the rest of his life, working, as was common then, six days weeks with only one week of vacation a year. He never married, and like the fictional Bridget and Elia in the essay, Mary and Lamb lived "in a sort of double singleness."

In this essay, Lamb paints a portrait of Bridget, a woman who is based on Mary but does not share her troubled past. He describes Mary as a gentle woman who loves to read—but not the seventeenth century literature that Elia prefers. Mary likes modern works and works with narratives: stories she can get involved in. Bridget can be opinionated, as can Elia. He is usually right about facts, but when it comes moral issues, she is most often able to persuade him to her point of view. Fortunately, he says, Bridget has not been puffed up by a fancy but pointless female education and so remains a simple soul:

she happily missed all that train of female garniture, which passeth by the name of accomplishments.

Bridget is more driven by feeling than Elia, but despite some inevitable clashes and a tendency to over involve herself in other people's problems, the twosome get along well. Bridget is a good companion on outings, such as to the theatre, but is especially fine as travel companion. From this, Elia is able to seque to the trip they took to see relatives in Mackery End, in Hertfordshire.

Lamb was a Romantic, a close friend to people like Coleridge (who he went to school with) and Wordsworth. He quotes Wordsworth in the essay, and like Wordsworth and the other Romantics, places a great value on memory. He cherishes his own fleeting memories and the memories Bridget has of Hertfordshire, which make her girlish again despite being in her fifties.

As a Romantic, too, Lamb shows a simple soul like Bridget (and Elia) in a positive light, writing in a heartwarming away about their ordinary yet intellectually and emotionally rich life together.

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Bridget Elia is an older woman who lives with the narrator as his housekeeper. They're cousins. They get along well and don't argue a great deal—though occasionally they find themselves at odds over something. She's a positive woman who is friends with free-thinkers and the kinds of people who are interested in new systems.

She's a positive person. When things are really bad, she's a good person to have around. He says that when they argue, she often convinces him unless it's a matter of concrete facts. This means that she's persuasive and argues from a position of logic or is able to sway him with emotion. It's clear that he cares about her beyond the obligation he feels to her, which speaks well of her character.

Bridget doesn't like to hear her faults; however, the narrator is aware of a few of them. He says that she often loses track of the conversation when people are around. Sometimes she reads when company is over. She wasn't well-educated and doesn't understand feminine sensibilities but rather enjoys reading modern books and books about adventure. When minor problems occur, she can sometimes be a little too involved in the problems, which doesn't help the person actually experiencing it.

Bridget is a little immature at times but wonderful to travel with. She's about ten years older than the narrator.

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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.

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