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Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London. W.W. Norton, 2005; 314 pages; $24.95.


Mary Lamb -- a dutiful daughter, well liked by just about everyone -- killed her own mother with a knife. She spent the rest of her life in and out of madhouses, yet the crime and its aftermath opened up a life that no woman of her time or class could have expected. Free to read extensively, Lamb discovered her talent for writing. She and her brother, the essayist Charles Lamb, embarked on a literary collaboration that resulted in the famous Tales from Shakespeare. Confidante to many of Britain's Romantics including Coleridge, Godwin, and Wordsworth, Mary Lamb stood at the vibrant center of a colorful literary circle. Through a deep reading of history, letters, and literature, Susan Tyler Hitchcock brings to life an intriguing portrait of Lamb and her world. This narrative of a nearly forgotten woman becomes a tapestry of insights into creativity and madness, the changing lives of women, and the redemptive power of the written word.


Publishers Weekly: One afternoon in 1796, Mary Lamb, aged 31, killed her mother with a carving knife at the dinner table.... Despite eventual bestselling collaborations with her brother, essayist Charles Lamb, Mary left an erratic documentary trail, with only one significant personal essay, which Hitchcock sees as proto-feminist. Charles, her lifelong protector, remains the best source about his sister and their shared life. But his letters to such friends as Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey show some reserve about the delicate subject of his sister's mental health.

Booklist: Mary Lamb and her younger brother, Charles...were immersed in both scandal and the elite literary circles of their times. In 1796, 31-year-old Mary Lamb stabbed her own mother to death in an apparent act of lunacy, according to the courts of the day. Rather than being sentenced to death, Mary was sent to a madhouse. Although she was released six months later and eventually rejoined her brother, Mary was to have periodic relapses for the rest of her life, and her first trip to the madhouse was hardly the last.... Touching on the lunacy laws of the day, the plight of women, and the burgeoning children's publishing industry, Hitchcock vividly evokes the changing times the Lambs lived in. A vibrant literary biography.


Susan Tyler Hitchcock has written seven books. She has a Ph.D. in English and works as a freelance writer and editor. She lives outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.


Charles Lamb, Mary's brother, said, "What is reading, but silent conversation."

I began my talk with Ms. Hitchcock by asking if, as a child, she read a great deal.

"Oh, yes," she said, "I was definitely an avid reader." She recalled that in her mind's eye, she could see her earliest favorite book. "It was called The Magic Egg or something like that. It was a Big Golden Book. I also am quite sure that I had a picture book of Peter Pan because I was totally obsessed with Peter Pan. I identified with Peter Pan. But of course it was Mary Martin as Peter Pan so that helped the gender leap. Charlotte's Web, I remember that. The Pooh books were very important to me. In high school, I loved Thomas Hardy; I loved Virginia Woolf. Loved Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen never quite thrilled me."

"When did you figure out that you wanted to be a writer?"

"Well, I've gone to one high school reunion only, and when I told people who remembered me in high school that I was a writer, they said, 'I'm not surprised.' I wouldn't have said back then that's what I wanted to be. But I was already involved in a literary magazine, and I got permission from my English teachers to do unorthodox things for my papers."

"Like what?"

"I remember an 11th- or 12th-grade assignment on Death of a Salesman, the play by Arthur Miller. I wrote it in ballpoint pen, in three different colors, each color representing a different aspect of Willy Loman's personality. I think this proved to my teacher, early on, that I knew the standard forms, and she was willing for me to explore. But the one high school assignment that was such an omen of where I was going to be now in my life was in a course in modern history. I got a copy of the journals and diaries of Napoleon. I didn't use any words of my own. I read through all of Napoleon's work and found passages that seemed important and telling. I typed those out, and then I cut them into different-sized sheets and organized them in a binder so that you read through and got a picture of Napoleon's life and conflicts and states of mind.

"After I did this book on Mary Lamb, I said, 'This is the same thing.' Because that's where I started with this book as well. I read the journals and letters and found the passages that told the story, and then I wove them together with my own narrative."

I wondered, I said, how Mary Lamb learned to write.

"I've thought about that, too, because she went to the grammar school and, of course, was in a girl's class, not a boy's class. She would have learned how to form letters and use, I suppose, a quill pen."

Few of Mary's letters have survived. "I would say there are only about 30 letters that we know that she wrote," said Ms. Hitchcock. "It's very likely, except for an occasional perfunctory 'thank you' note, that more than a good majority of the letters that she wrote are quoted in my book, because there just aren't that many. One of the frustrations and challenges of writing the book was that Mary's killing her mother was a secret; Mary and Charles didn't refer to it much in letters. Mary really didn't write many letters. So to put this together was not unlike putting together a detective story."

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