"How," I asked, "did the Lamb family keep Mary from going to prison? Was it by calling her mad?"
"Well, because it was matricide and not murder of an unrelated person, the response traditionally has been, both before and since, more sympathetic. The understanding is that this is a psychological event more than a murder. I always paused when I called it a 'murder' because there are so many layers of meaning to that word that don't necessarily fit what Mary did."
"The word 'matricide' seems so literary."
"I know. I discovered that an old friend of mine actually had done significant research into the legal history of parricide, 'parent murder.' His finding had been that there was an unspoken tradition of sympathy and leniency toward the perpetrator based on the fact that this was not something anyone would do out of hatred but rather from frustration or psychological imbalance. There are very few cases of matricide on the books, but Mary's case was like the cases that led up to the insanity plea, in the sense that the act was looked upon as something that couldn't have possibly been done in a rational state of mind."
"How did Charles feel about Mary's murder of their mother?"
"There's not a simple answer. His first concern was Mary, more than grief for his mother. He states early on that he feels guilty about that. My hunch is that the mother was a difficult person, perhaps manic-depressive, and that Charles recognized that much of their mother's difficult personality took its toll on Mary. He probably had watched that through his 21 years of life. So there was already a built-in sense of anger toward the mother and sympathy toward the sister. I tippytoe around all this because it's hard to talk about, justifying anyone's killing her own mother. But what little indication there is suggests that it was a very unhappy relationship in which Mary was really victimized.
"And," Ms. Hitchcock said, "to add to that difficult relationship with the mother, one cannot help but think of the difficulty for Mary of knowing that she was as smart as her two brothers and watching them go to good schools and move into the middle class and get jobs that took them out of the house and paid them money and gave them a future. She had none of these opportunities. There are many reasons for her to have been frustrated to the point of snapping."
I laughed, saying, "I imagined the mother complained to Mary about Mary's preparation of dinner one too many times."
Ms. Hitchcock did not disagree. She imitated the voice she imagined as that of Mary's mother. " 'Why did you do this? Why didn't you do that?' " Returning to her own voice, Ms. Hitchcock said, "I think one of the reasons that this story fascinates us is that many of us remember that part of our mothers. If you take that part and blow it up to its extreme, you can identify."
"Or," I suggested, "that part of yourself, too."
Mary Lamb, before her mother's death, helped supplement the family income by taking in sewing, an occupation spoken of in Lamb's day as "mantua making." I asked Ms. Hitchcock about this.
"'Mantua' comes from the French word monteau, meaning 'coat.' In Mary Lamb's time a mantua was a fashionable garment that was a cross between a vest and a dress, that covered another longer and fuller dress. A garment like that was the traditional mantua in the English fashion of the mid- to late 18th Century. By the time Mary Lamb herself was involved in the trade called 'mantua making,' mantua meant clothing in general.
"I was fascinated by the connotations of the term. I wasn't aware that it really did carry with it a connotation of sexuality. It's hard for us even to imagine today, but there's one image that I found of two milliners looking over a man, taking his measurements, and it's ripe with sexuality. You get the point from just that picture alone. Also, there were entire plays and novels written about the loose behavior of the mantua makers. So Mary was moving into a difficult reputation by taking up that trade."
"She must have felt humiliated."
"Yes, I think that was a factor in the whole spirit of the household, that they had lived so happily and protected in the Inner Temple, really sort of a walled community. And her father became unable to do his work and then his patron died, and they were forced to move into this tiny apartment. The apartment was in the law district but outside the walls and amidst the rabble of London."
"And the family was scraping together a living."
"That's right. The father got a little bit of money. His sister who lived with them was older than either the father or the mother but was also hard to live with. She had some sort of fund or pension or endowment, but it was minuscule. She paid her way, but that's all. Then there were the two sons bringing in a little money, but not much."
I found it interesting that after Mary knifed her mother, her family was not afraid of Mary. They didn't sense her as dangerous to them.
"They loved her," Ms. Hitchcock said. "They appreciated her and they honored her intellect. Really, the closest we get to hearing that someone might be frightened of her was a letter that Coleridge wrote to his wife after having witnessed one of Mary's oncoming manic episodes. But even his description is not one in which he fears for himself. It more has to do with Mary's awareness that she's losing control. She tells him, 'Here it comes again.' I think she had psychological sensitivity and control over herself and got to the point where she knew the signs and knew when it was time for her to return to the madhouse."
"One of your book's saddest points is your mention of Charles returning Mary to the madhouse and their carrying her straitjacket with them. That is heartbreaking."