"That is sad. The possibility was always with them. It weighed heavier and heavier as years went on. My book looks at a period, 20 years, from the time of the murder of the mother in 1796 to Mary's last published work in 1815. From that point on, particularly, there was a sense of increasing length and gravity of her manic episodes and also increasing length and gravity of the depression that she suffered after those. I feel as if she fell silent in 1815, almost giving in to the mental imbalance, as if it's too much for her to be productive and to write. I suspect there were periods when she would still act as hostess and talk with Charles about what he was doing. I'm not sure I mention this in this book, but I've stepped back and realized that Charles's ascent and popularity as a writer was reaching its peak at the time that Mary fell silent in her writing.
"I've wondered whether there was a cause-effect relationship there. Could Mary let go now that Charles was doing so well and making money? That might be possible. Was there a symbiosis? As he got stronger, she got weaker? Or did it just happen that way? I don't know. There's no way to tell for sure."
"I shouldn't have been shocked," I said, "but I was, by the conditions in mental institutions in Mary's day."
"They were horrible. Even though both private and government efforts began to be made during her life, there were still reports of people being kept three to a bed and made to vomit as part of a cure."
"Did King George III's madness have an effect on the treatment of the insane?"
"The king's being mad was one factor that led to looking more closely at what was happening in madhouses. Of course, the king never went into one. But everybody became more aware that madness might not simply be 'the devil inside' but an illness that needed to be treated."
Mary Lamb wrote to a friend about the mistreatment found in mental hospitals. Ms. Hitchcock quoted a phrase from that letter. "I know full well that all of the people in mental hospitals and in the madhouses simply need love and kindness and someone caring for them." Ms. Hitchcock went on to say, about Mary, "I think she saw mistreatment, but I'm not as convinced as other people have been that she actually was herself mistreated. I'm sure that in some ways she was ignored or treated indifferently, but I don't get the sense that she ever was, for example, chained.
"There are a number of reasons to believe that Charles had connections in the world of mental-health treatment through the Quaker community. The Quakers were at the forefront of the more humane, compassionate treatment of mental patients. Charles and Mary may have gotten advice as to where to put her, and how to make sure she was treated, and perhaps even had personal connections to people who worked in these hospitals. I think that Charles was an informed consumer when he went looking for the places that he was going to put Mary."
"Charles missed Mary so deeply during the times she was hospitalized."
"Yes. For many years, Mary Lamb has been a footnote to the work of Charles Lamb. The implication, if not the outright statement, has been that Mary Lamb was Charles's crazy sister and he devoted his life to her, and if it weren't for her, he would have been so much a greater writer. But I see there to be a close, mutually supportive relationship. She helped him write. She helped him stay sober. She helped him have a schedule, she fed him, she laundered his clothing. In the early days she managed the household, she greeted his friends, she kept his friends away when he was trying to write. He couldn't have done what he did without her."
"Charles certainly said that about his sister, that he was nothing without her."
"He did. So, to make it out that she was his albatross is unfair to both of them. Inaccurate as far as he's concerned and unfair to her."
"As I read Mary's work on the Shakespeare tales," I said, "I began to wonder how literate she was, how easily she read."
"That's a good question. She read a lot. She may not have been taught a very high level of reading. But what she was taught, she took it and ran with it. And even going back to the days when her father's employer was alive, that was her escape, to go to his library. And he did allow not only John and Charles but also Mary to borrow books from his library, which I imagine was full of classics and great works of both English and classic literature. I suspect that there was some sharing that went on between Mary and Charles. But since Mary was ten years older than Charles, it was probably in the early days her reading to Charles."
Ms. Hitchcock covers much ground in this book. She offers a mini-history of children's literature, an account of madhouses of Mary's time, tales from the Wordsworth and Coleridge circles, a bit about George III, and even more about Napoleon.
"I found each of those diversions fascinating," she said. "I hope other people do. I know there are diversions or even digressions from the main story, but they all connect. I hope they all enrich. That's my goal. Another of my goals in this book is this: I would feel so good if one of the things that happened was that more people read Mary Lamb's wonderful Mrs. Leicester's School. The stories in this are so clear and lovely. I think they would be interesting even to someone who wasn't as fascinated by Mary Lamb as I am."