Mary Lamb Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Lamb 1764-1847

English children's literature writer, poet, and essayist.

Initially a silent partner in the literary endeavors of her more celebrated brother Charles, Lamb has earned a reputation in her own right as an important writer in the field of children's literature. This achievement is all the more striking given that Lamb struggled much of her adult life to overcome the debilitating effects and social ostracism brought about by her descent into madness and her subsequent murder of her mother. Partly because of her chronic mental condition and partly because she was a woman, Lamb's essays and poems were originally attributed to and collected in the works of Charles, who had established himself as a respected writer, critic, and journalist. As literary collaborators, Charles and Mary Lamb produced some of the most memorable children's literature of the Romantic period, including Tales from Shakespear (1807) which has endured as a standard introductory guide to Shakespeare's plays for young readers.

Biographical Information

Lamb was born in London on December 3, 1764. Of the seven children born to John and Elizabeth Field Lamb, only Mary, her elder brother, John, and her younger brother, Charles, survived infancy. Lamb's father was employed as a servant for the prominent barrister, Samuel Salt, and the Lamb family resided in living quarters which adjoined Salt's home in the heart of the barrister community at London Temple. The Lamb children were willing recipients of Salt's largesse. With his assistance, both Mary and Charles received a primary education at William Bird's school. Mary was also permitted to use Salt's personal library, thus exposing her to materials beyond the scope of a traditional primary school. Given the prevailing social and cultural restrictions on women pursuing an advanced education, she remained with her family at London Temple and took employment as a seamstress. The family's fortunes took a turn for the worse when their benefactor Salt died in 1792. They left London Temple and took up residence in some inferior quarters in High Holborn. This relocation set into motion a series of inauspicious events which were to have calamitous consequences on the Lamb family. Shortly after their move, Lamb's mother became an invalid due to a debilitating case of arthritis and her father began to succumb to senility. Around this time, Lamb's elder brother, John, moved away, leaving the family in desperate straits. Lamb's younger brother, Charles, whose pronounced stutter had prevented him from becoming a clergyman, tried to establish himself as a clerk at the East India House on an unpaid probationary basis. Lamb nursed her incapacitated parents while also supporting the family by working long hours as an assistant to a dressmaker. In September 1796, after a long, stressful period of providing for her family, Lamb, in a fit of temporary insanity, stabbed her mother to death and grievously wounded her father.

In the aftermath of the calamity, Charles saved Mary from being committed to an insane asylum by securing authorization to have her released into his custody. Charles then filled the role that had driven Mary to the point of madness, working long hours at the East India House only to return home and care for his ailing family. With the death of their father in 1799, Charles and Mary found themselves without the burden of family obligations for the first time in their adult lives. Perhaps because of their harrowing domestic experiences and because of Mary's still fragile condition, the siblings stayed together and forged a close bond which would last until Charles's death in 1834. After a period of instability during which the Lambs moved several times between 1799 and 1800, the siblings eventually settled down in London Temple near their childhood home. At this time, Mary and Charles turned to literary aspirations, mingling with contemporary luminaries such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Godwin. Godwin was particularly influential in establishing the Lambs’ literary careers. Having just founded a publishing company devoted to children's literature, Godwin recruited the Lambs to write juvenile stories for him. This venture resulted in The King and Queen of Hearts (1805), a well-received children's rhyme written by Charles; Tales from Shakespear, written by both Mary and Charles; and Mrs. Leicester's School (1809) and Poetry for Children, Entirely Original (1809), written mostly by Mary. Despite the success of these works and Charles's forays into literary criticism and journalism, the Lambs continued to be hindered by Mary's chronic lapses into madness. Apart from Mary's mental problems, the years between their initial literary success and Charles's death appear to have been the Lambs’ happiest years. Perhaps the pinnacle of this happiness occurred in the early 1820s, when Charles and Mary adopted an eleven-year-old girl named Emma Isola. From the mid-1820s until 1834, the Lambs moved frequently, residing at places such as Islington, Enfield, and Edmonton. Over the years, Mary's bouts with madness worsened, taking an increasing toll on her mental stability and debilitating her physically. After Charles's death, Mary spent the final twelve years of her life in the care of nurses. Lamb died in St. John's Wood on May 20, 1847.

Major Works

Commentators have maintained that Lamb's enduring literary achievement primarily rests upon her contributions to Tales from Shakespear, a collection of prose essays for children that summarize the events and identify the central themes of a number of Shakespeare's plays. Of the twenty essays in the collection, literary scholars have speculated that Mary wrote fourteen, whereas Charles wrote six. Indeed, the uncertainty lies in the fact that only Charles's name appears as the author of the work; at the time, social convention generally dictated that female writers should either use a masculine pseudonym or publish under the auspices of a male associate. Critics have observed that the fundamental value of the work lies in the Lambs’ ability to distill the sophisticated psychological and aesthetic elements of Shakespeare's plays into concise, yet descriptive prose which a young audience could understand. The collection proved to be an immediate success, going through five editions in the decade following its initial publication. Mary's next work, Mrs. Leicester's School, is a collection of stories written in the context of several new students who arrive at a school and who, by way of introduction, relate their personal histories to one another. Autobiographical in nature, most of the tales relate Lamb's reminiscences about attending primary school and her valuable extracurricular experiences under Salt's patronage. As with the Tales from Shakespear, Charles collaborated with Mary on some of the essays. Given that this collaboration mainly occurred in the final three chapters, some literary scholars have speculated that Charles was compelled to complete the work after Mary had suffered another one of her recurring bouts with insanity. After the publication of Mrs. Leicester's School, Lamb began writing poems which recount a vast array of mundane childhood events and experiences. These poems were collected in Poetry for Children, Entirely Original and also included some verse contributions from Charles. Commentators have generally characterized these poems as well-crafted reflections on the innocent experiences of childhood which likely resonated with the young audience to which the Lambs appealed. Critics have also pointed out that the Lambs included verses featuring topics of moral instruction and social awareness in an effort to nurture in their young readers a spirit of ethics and social responsibility.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime and in subsequent generations, Lamb's personal troubles cast a shadow over her and Charles's literary accomplishments. Contemporary critics who were largely unaware of the fact that Mary wrote most of the Lambs’ successful juvenilia instead wondered at how Charles could produce such lucid and innocent prose and poetry with the frequent distractions and social marginalization caused by his mentally ill sister. Nevertheless, apart from Tales from Shakespear, popular and critical interest in the Lambs’ juvenile prose and poetry waned not long after the siblings died. Analysis of Mary's literary career was virtually nonexistent until the late twentieth century when critical disciplines emphasizing feminism, gender studies, and new historicism came into vogue. From these perspectives, commentators began to examine Mary's literary works as documents that reveal the disturbing personal struggles of a mentally ill author attempting to maintain her identity in a repressive and unsympathetic patriarchal society. Among the first critics to champion Lamb's literary achievement, Jean I. Marsden has suggested that Mary's role as “the perpetrator of a lurid matricide” has been detrimental to the serious critical consideration of the significance of her contributions to the Tales from Shakespear. Marsden argues that critics have overlooked how Mary carefully crafted each essay to invigorate and appeal to a female audience, despite the fact that social convention dictated that she reduce Shakespeare's mature treatment of sexuality and relationships to “proper ladies’ reading material.” A host of modern commentators also have examined how the Lambs’ unusual adult relationship might have informed their collaborations on children's literature. Jane Aaron has contended that these juvenile works invalidated masculinity at a time when patriarchal ideology was the foundation for society and culture, noting that the Lambs constructed a “shared identity which was essentially either female or childlike in its nature.” Meaghan H. Dobson has analyzed Mary and Charles's contributions to Mrs. Leicester's School, observing that both siblings appear to have resisted the prevailing attitudes of the patriarchal order. Dobson points out that Charles did so by opposing dominant masculine gender codes, whereas Mary sought the solace of an artistic community which offers women the freedom to create their own identities through memory and imagination. Similarly, Donelle R. Ruwe has examined how Poetry for Children, Entirely Original manipulates the Romantic ideal of childhood to challenge the traditional patriarchal structure of poetics, using “representations of children to send a message about the gendering of culture to adults.” Bonnie Woodbery has posited that Mary's writings reveal her struggle to recover her personal identity from the invasive mental and physical asylum experience and to oppose the cultural and institutional silencing of the insane during the Romantic period. According to Woodbery, “Lamb's writing, as painful and destructive for her as it was, offered her a chance to confront and resist her society's constructions of madness and the feminine.”