Mary Lamb: Insanity and Matricide Among the Romantic Poets

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Death by Carving Knife

It’s hard to imagine that someone guilty of killing her own mother went on to become a famous literary figure. Image by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved.

The life of Mary Lamb (1764- 1847) was an extraordinary one. This gifted writer and loyal supporter of her younger brother, poet, essayist and drama critic, Charles Lamb (1775-1834), was always subject to bouts of insanity, usually accompanied by a tendency to violence. This madness led to tragic results when she took a carving knife to her own mother.

At the time of this terrible incident in September, 1796, Charles Lamb worked at the East India House in London. It seems he returned to their home just in time to wrest the knife from her hand before she did further damage, but not in time to save their infirm mother.

Mary Goes Into the Madhouse

Charles and Mary Lamb’s father, John, worked for Samuel Salt, a Bencher at the Inner Temple, and Salt was instrumental in assisting Charles’ entry to Christ’s Hospital, where Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also being educated. The two young men formed a lifelong friendship. He and Mary also had contact with Wordsworth, Southey and Hazlitt.

Shortly after the tragedy of the carving knife, Lamb wrote to his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on 17 September, 1796. The letter, published in Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu, acknowledges that Coleridge might already know about the terrible calamities that had befallen the Lamb family, possibly from the “public papers.” Lamb says:

“I will only give you the outlines. My poor dear dearest sister, in a fit of insanity, has been the death of our own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a madhouse from whence I fear she must me moved to an (sic) hospital. God has preserved me my senses. I eat and drink and sleep and have my judgement, I believe, very sound.”


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Charles explains that Mary wounded their father in the attack and he needed care, as did his aunt, but that he, Charles, was feeling calm and composed. No doubt the poet found some consolation through his deep, religious beliefs.

A Bad Start In Life

Mary Lamb was born on 3 December 1764. Her father was servant to a barrister, and her mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of a housekeeper, had always been in service. In Kathy Watson’s book, The Devil Kissed Her, Mary is described as resembling the actress Mrs. Siddons, being fairly attractive and with the same long nose and dark hair.

The main trauma she appeared to have suffered as a child was the death of her baby sister. She was around four years old at the time, old enough to have cuddled and played with the little girl. The grief of her loss remained with her throughout her life.

There were further trials when her father John’s sister, Hetty, came to live with the family according to Watson. Hetty and Elizabeth disliked each other intensely. Elizabeth was a gentle woman, and always anxious to please. Hetty was the opposite. She found Elizabeth’s attempts to get along with her tedious and oppressive, and suspected her sister-in-law of being deceitful.

Watson quotes Mary: “They [meaning Elizabeth and Hetty] made each other miserable for a full twenty years of their lives.”  This, of course, must have resulted in a tense and unhappy household.

On the death of Salt in 1792, the Lambs had to move from the Temple into lodgings in Little Queen’s Street. The family was poor and had to struggle to survive. This compelled Elizabeth to work as a seamstress as well as bear and look after their children, although of the seven children she bore, only three survived.

Charles Lamb: A Loyal Brother

Mary endured onerous responsibilities, as Elizabeth became infirm and needed constant care and attention. Perhaps it was little wonder she was prone to awful bouts of insanity.

The newspaper report of her trial in The Times, on Saturday, September 24, 1796, expanded on the gruesome details, reprinted on the website Biographies: Charles Lamb:

“On Friday afternoon the Coroner and Jury sat on the body of a Lady, in the neighbourhood of Holborn, who died in consequence of a wound from her daughter the previous day. It appeared by the evidence adduced, that while the family were preparing for dinner, the young lady seized a case-knife laying on the table, and in a menacing manner pursued a little girl, her apprentice, round the room. On the calls of her infirm mother to forbear, she renounced her first object, and with loud shrieks approached her parent.

“The child, by her cries, quickly brought up the landlord of the house, but too late. The dreadful scene presented to him the mother lifeless, pierced to the heart, on a chair, her daughter yet wildly standing over her with the fatal knife and the old man her father weeping by her side, himself bleeding at the forehead from the effect of a severe blow he received from one of the forks she had been madly hurling about the room.”

After Mary murdered their mother, she was officially certified as insane, and sent to an Islington mental asylum. Charles, meanwhile, moved into lodgings with his sick father, as close as he could to the asylum.

Fortunately for Mary, as seen from his letter to Coleridge, Charles was a concerned and caring brother. It may have helped that he, too, had suffered a fit of temporary insanity in 1795, causing his confinement in an asylum for several weeks. On her release, he took her into his care and guardianship. Their father died in 1799, and so Mary moved into Charles’ lodgings with him.

Charles devoted himself to her welfare and the two became inseparable, although Mary was to continue to suffer from regular bouts of illness.

Charles’ Poem: The Old Familiar Faces

This poem, composed in 1798, was, perhaps, cathartic for Charles Lamb. This young man had to carry the burden of such terrible memories, while supporting his sick sister. It should be remembered that at the time of the murder, when Mary was 32 years old, her younger brother was only 21. Here are two stanzas, the first and the fourth.

“Where are they gone, the old familiar faces? / I had a mother but she died and left me, / Died, prematurely in a day of horrors – / All, All are gone, the old familiar faces.

“I loved a love once, fairest among women; / Closed are her doors on me, I must not see her – / All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.”

Literary Activities

It might be expected, after such dreadful trauma, the pair would live quietly and not attempt any further demanding projects. The opposite was the case. Charles wrote a poetical drama, John Woodvil, and a prose piece, Rosamund Gray. He attempted journalism around the turn of the century, and he wrote articles, criticism, articles and short, witty features for the Morning Post and for The Londoner.

Next, came a project the siblings could complete together. William Godwin, (husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley) commissioned Charles Lamb to produce simplified versions of Shakespeare’s plays, and so Charles took on the tragedies and entrusted the comedies to Mary. He called the book, “Tales from Shakespeare.”  Published in 1807, Tales was a great success.

IMG_4878 Shakespeare

Charles Lamb produced the Shakespeare for Very Young Children and Young Ladies. Image by Rosevita.

For Very Young Children and Young Ladies

However, the book wasn’t just for children. Here is an excerpt from the original preface, reprinted in the Introduction to the author’s copy:

“It has been wished to make these Tales easy reading for very young children. To the utmost of their ability, the writers have constantly kept this to mind, but the subjects of most of them made this a very difficult task. It was no easy matter to give the histories of men and women in terms familiar to the apprehension of a very young mind.

“For young ladies, too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book…”

The Lambs continue by entreating boys to assist their sisters and to explain to them what was hardest for them to understand.

Obviously, this was a well-meaning and probably effective action, although it says a great deal about the shortcomings of society at that time – a society that excluded “young ladies” from pursuits that might be too hard for them!

However, the Tales are easy to read, and Shakespeare’s language can sound strange to the ears of those who are not familiar with him. The Tales are probably helpful to young men too!

Mary went on to write some successful stories for children, including Mrs. Leicester’s School in 1809. As ever, the siblings enjoyed collaborating and Charles contributed three stories of his own.

Emma Isola and the Lambs

A rather heartwarming addition to this sad story is that of Emma Isola, an orphan, whom Charles and Mary adopted. In 1827, the three of them moved to Enfield, and later to Edmonton. Charles’ contemporaries admired him for his gentle personality and his whimsical humour, which attracted many friends. When he died in 1834, he had outlived his friend, Coleridge, by six months.

Mary Lamb was fortunate is having such a man for her brother, a brother who supported her through terrible times, and who remained close to her and included her in everything he did. But for their close relationship, it is doubtful Mary’s legacy would be available to us. The following, touching passage appears at the end of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Authors’ Preface to the Tales:

“…it is the writers’ wish that the true Plays of Shakespeare may prove to them {e,g,young readers} in older years – enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity, for, of examples, teaching these virtues, his pages are full.”

When Mary Lamb died in 1847, at age 82, she was buried next to her beloved brother in a churchyard in Edmonton, Middlesex.

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© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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