Middlesex University Lamb Biographies
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Extracts from Mary Lamb,
by Mrs Gilchrist 1883


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Aunt Hetty did not find her expectations of a comfortable home realised under the roof of the wealthy gentlewoman, who proved herself a typical rich relation and wrote to Charles at the beginning of the new year that she found her aged cousin indolent and mulish,

"and that her attachment to us" (he is telling Coleridge the tale, to whom he could unburden his heart on all subjects, sure of sympathy) "is so strong that she can never be happy apart. The lady with delicate irony remarks that if I am not an hypocrite I shall rejoice to receive her again; and that it will be a means of making me more fond of home to have so dear a friend to come home to! The fact is, she is jealous of my aunt's bestowing any kind recollections on us while she enjoys the patronage of her roof. She says she finds it inconsistent with her own c ease and tranquillity' to keep her any longer; and, in fine, sum- mons me to fetch her home. Now, much as I should rejoice to transplant the poor old creature from the chilling air of such patronage, yet I know how straitened we are already, how unable already to answer any demand which sickness or any extraordinary expense may make. I know this; and all unused as I am to struggle with perplexities, I am somewhat nonplussed, to say no worse."

Hetty Lamb found a refuge and a welcome in the old humble home again. But she returned only to die; and Mary was not there to nurse her. She was still in the asylum at Islington; and was indeed herself at this time recovering from an attack of scarlet fever, or something akin to it.

Early in January 1797 Lamb wrote to Coleridge:_

"You and Sara are very good to think so kindly and so favourably of poor Mary. I would to God all did so too. But I very much fear she must not think of coming home in my father's lifetime. It is very hard upon her, but our circumstances are peculiar and we must submit to them. God be praised she is so well as she is. She bears her situation as one who has no right to complain. My poor old aunt, whom you have seen, the kindest goodest creature to me when I was at school, who used to toddle there to bring me good things when I, school-boy like, only despised her for it, and used to be ashamed to see her come and sit herself down on the old coal-hole steps as you went into the old Grammar School and open her apron and bring out her basin with some nice thing she had caused to be saved for me,_the good old creature is now lying on her death-bed. I cannot bear to think on her deplorable state. To the shock she received on that our evil day from which she never completely recovered, I impute her illness. She says, poor thing, she is glad she is come home to die with me, I was always her favourite. "

She lingered a month, and then went to occupy

"I own I am thankful that the good creature has ended her days of suffering and infirmity," says Lamb to Coleridge. "Good God! who could have foreseen all this hut four months back ! I had reckoned, in particular, on my aunt's living many years; she was a very hearty old woman. . . . But she was a mere skeleton before she died; looked more like a corpse that had lain weeks in the grave than one fresh dead."

"I thank you; from my heart, I thank you", Charles again wrote to Coleridge, "for your solicitude about my sister. She is quite well, but must not, I fear, come to live with us yet a good while. In the first place, because it would hurt her and hurt my father for them to be together; secondly, from a regard to the world's good report; for I fear tongues will be busy whenever that event takes place. Some have hinted, one man has pressed it on me, that she should be in perpetual confinement. What she hath done to deserve, or the necessity of such an hardship I see not; do you ?"

At length Lamb determined to grapple, on Mary's behalf, with the difficulties and embarrassments of the situation.

"Painful doubts were suggested," says Talfourd, "by the authorities of the parish where the terrible occurrence happened, whether they were not bound to institute proceedings which must have placed her for life at the disposition of the Crown, especially as no medical assurance could be given against the probable recurrence of dangerous frenzy. But Charles came to her deliverance; he satisfied all the parties who had power to oppose her release, by his. solemn engagement that he would take her under his care for life; and he kept his word. Whether any communication with the Home Secretary occurred before her release I have been unable to ascertain. It was the impression of Mr Lloyd, from whom my own knowledge of the circumstances, which the letters. do not contain was derived, that a communication took place, on which a similar pledge was given. At all events the result was that she left the asylum and took up her abode," "

not with her brother yet, but in lodgings near him and her father.

He writes to Coleridge, April 7th, 1797:

"Lloyd may have told you about my sister. ... If not, I have taken her out of her confinement, and taken a room for her at Hackney, and spend my Sundays, holidays, &c., with her. She boards herself. In a little half year's illness and in such an illness, of such a nature and of such consequences, to get her out into the world again,, with a prospect of her never being so ill again, this is to be ranked not among the common blessings of Providence. May that merciful God make tender my heart and make me as thankful as, in my distress, I was earnest in my prayers. Congratulate me on an ever-present and never alienable friend like her, and do, do insert, if you have not lost, my dedication [to Mary]. It will have lost half its value by coming so late". "

And of another sonnet to her, which he desires to have inserted, he says :

"I wish to accumulate perpetuating tokens of my affection to poor Mary."

Two events which brightened this sad year must not be passed over though Mary, the sharer of all her brother's joys and sorrows, had but an indirect participation in them. Just when he was most lonely and desolate at the close of the fatal year he had written to Coleridge:

"I can only converse with you by letter, and with the dead in their books. My sister, indeed, is all I can wish in a companion; but our spirits are alike poorly, our reading and knowledge from the self- same sources, our communication with the scenes of the world alike narrow. Never having kept separate company or any 'company' together - never having read separate books and few books together, what knowledge have we to convey to each other ? In our little range of duties and connections how few sentiments can take place without friends, with few books, with a taste for religion rather than a strong religious habit! We need some support, some leading-strings to cheer and direct us.

You talk very wisely and be not sparing of your advice; continue to remember us and to show us you do remember; we will take as lively an interest in what concerns you and yours. All I can add to your happiness will be sympathy; you can add to mine more, you can teach me wisdom. "

Quite suddenly, at the beginning of the new year, there came to break this solitude Charles Lloyd, whose poems were to company Lamb's own and Coleridge's in the forthcoming volume: a young man of quaker family who was living in close fellowship with that group of poets down in Somersetshire towards whom Lamb's eyes and heart were wistfully turned as afterwards were to be those of all lovers of literature.

How deeply he was moved by this spontaneous seeking for his friendship on Lloyd's part, let a few lines from one of those early poems which, in their earnest simplicity and sincerity, are precious autobiographic fragments tell:

Alone, obscure, without a friend,
A cheerless, solitary thing,
Why seeks my Lloyd, the stranger out ?
What offering can the stranger bring
Of social scenes, home-bred delights,
That him in aught compensate may
For Stowey's pleasant winter nights,
For loves and friendships far away ?
For this a gleam of random joy, Hath flush'd my unaccustom'd cheek,
And with an o'ercharged bursting heart
I feel the thanks I cannot speak.
O sweet are all the Muses' lays,
And sweet the charm of matin bird -
'Twas long since these estranged ears
The sweeter voice of friend had heard.

The next was a yet brighter gleam - a fortnight with 'Coleridge at Nether Stowey and an introduction to Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, forerunner of a lifelong friendship in which Mary was soon to share.

The visit took place in the July of this same year 1797. The prospect of it had dangled tantalizingly before Charles' eyes for a year or more; and now at last his chiefs at the India House were propitious and he wrote:

" May I, can I, shall I come so soon ? . . . . I long, I yearn, with all the longings of a child do I desire to see you, to come among you, to see the young philosopher [Hartley, the poet's first child] to thank Sara for her last year's invitation in person, to read your tragedy, to read over together our little book, to breathe fresh air, to revive in me vivid images of ' Salutation scenery.' There is a sort of sacrilege in my letting such ideas slip out of my mind and memory. . . . Here I will leave off, for I dislike to fill up this paper (which involves a question so connected with my heart and soul) with meaner matter, or subjects to me less interesting. I can talk as I can think, nothing else."

Seldom has fate been kind enough to bring together,. in those years of early manhood when friendships strike their deepest roots, just the very men who could give the best help, the warmest encouragement to each other's genius, whilst they were girding themselves for that warfare with the ignorance and dulness of the public which every original man has to wage for a longer or shorter time. Wordsworth was twenty-seven,. Coleridge twenty-five. Lamb twenty-two.


To Charles Lamb the change from his restricted over-shadowed life in London - all day at a clerk's desk and in the evening a return to the Pentonville lodging with no other inmate than his poor old father, Sundays and holidays only spent with his sister - to such companionship amid such scenes, almost dazed him, like stepping from a darkened room into the brilliant sunshine. Before he went he had written:

" I see nobody. I sit and read, or walk alone and hear nothing. I am quite lost to conversation from disuse; and out of the sphere of my little family (who, I am thankful, are dearer and dearer to me every day), I see no face that brightens up at my approach. My friends are at a distance. Worldly hopes are at a low ebb with me, and unworldly thoughts are unfamiliar to me, though I occasionally indulge in them. Still I feel a calm not unlike content. I fear it is some- times more akin to physical stupidity than to a heaven- flowing serenity and peace. If I come to Stowey, what conversation can I furnish to compensate my friend for those stores of knowledge and of fancy, those delightful treasures of wisdom, which I know he will open to me ? But it is better to give than to receive; and I was a very patient hearer and docile scholar in our winter evening meetings at Mr May's, was I not Coleridge ? What I have owed to thee my heart can ne'er forget. "


On Lamb's return, he wrote in the same modest vein as before -

"I am scarcely yet so reconciled to the loss of you or so subsided into my wonted uniformity of feeling as to sit calmly down to think of you and write.... Is the patriot [Thelwall] come? Are Wordsworth and his sister gone yet? I was looking out for John Thelwall all the way from Bridgewater and had I met him I think it would have moved me almost to tears.

You will oblige me, too, by sending me my great-coat which I left behind in the oblivious state the mind is thrown into at parting. Is it not ridiculous that I sometimes envy that great-coat lingering so cunningly behind! At present I have none; so send it me by a Stowey waggon if there be such a thing, directing it for C. L., No. 45, Chapel Street, Pentonville, near London.

But above all, that inscription [of Wordsworth's]. It will recall to me the tones of all your. voices, and with them many a remembered kindness to one who could and can repay you all only by the silence of a grateful heart. I could not talk much while I was with you but my silence was not sullenness nor I hope from any bad motive; but in truth, disuse has made me awkward at it. I know I behaved myself, particularly at Tom Poole's and at Cruikshank's most like a sulky child; but company and converse are strange to me. It was kind in you all to endure me as you did.

Are you and your dear Sara - to me also very dear because very kind - agreed yet about the management of little Hartley ? And how go on the little rogue's teeth? "

The mention of his address in the foregoing letter, shows that Lamb and his father had already quitted Little Queen Street. It is probable that they did so, indeed, immediately after the great tragedy; to escape, not only from the painful associations of the spot but also from the cruel curiosity which its terrible notoriety must have drawn upon them.

The season was coming round which could not but renew his and Mary's grief and anguish in the recollection of that "day of horrors". "Friday next, Coleridge", he writes, "is the day (September 32nd) on which my mother died"; and in the letter is enclosed that beautiful and affecting poem beginning:

Mary's was a silent grief. But those few casual pathetic words written years afterwards speak her life-long sorrow,

" my dear mother who, though you do not know it, is always in my poor head and heart. "

She continued quiet in her lodgings, free from relapse till toward the end of the year.

On the 10th December Charles wrote in bad spirits,

" My teasing lot makes me too confused for a clear judgment of things, too selfish for sympathy. . . . My sister is pretty well, thank God. We think of you very often. God bless you. Continue to be my correspondent, and I will strive to fancy that this. world is not ' all barrenness.' "

But by Christmas Day she was once more in the asylum. In sad solitude he gave utterance, again in verse form, to his overflowing grief and love:

I am a widow'd thing now thou art gone!
Now thou art gone, my own familiar friend,
Companion, sister, helpmate, counsellor!
Alas ! that honour'd mind whose sweet reproof
And meekest wisdom in times past have smooth'd
The unfilial harshness of my foolish speech,
And made me loving to my parents old
(Why is this so, ah God ! why is this so ?)
That honour'd mind become a fearful blank,
Her senses lock'd up, and herself kept out
From human sight or converse, while so many
Of the foolish sort are left to roam at large,
Doing all acts of folly and sin and shame ?
Thy paths are mystery!
Yet I will not think
Sweet friend, but we shall one day meet and live
In quietness and die so, fearing God.
Or if not, and these false suggestions be
A fit of the weak nature, loth to part
With what it loved so long and held so dear;
If thou art to be taken and I left
(More sinning, yet unpunish'd save in thee,)
It is the will of God, and we are clay
In the potter's hand ; and at the'worst are made
From absolute nothing, vessels of disgrace,
Till His most righteous purpose wrought in us,
Our purified spirits find their perfect rest.

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Mary Lamb: Her Malady

"Little could anyone observing Miss Lamb in the habitual serenity of her demeanour" writes Talfourd "guess the calamity in which she had partaken, or the malady which frightfully chequered her life.

From Mr Lloyd who, although saddened by impending delusion, was always found accurate in his recollection of long past events and conversations, I learned that she had described herself, on her recovery from the fatal attack, as having experienced while it was subsiding such a conviction that she was absolved in heaven from all taint of the deed in which she had been the agent - such an assurance that it was a dispensation of Providence for good, though so terrible - such a sense that her mother knew her entire innocence and shed down blessings upon her, as though she had seen the reconcilement in solemn vision - that she was not sorely afflicted by the recollection.

It was as if the old Greek notion of the necessity for the unconscious shedder of blood, else polluted though guiltless, to pass through a religious purification, had, in her case, been happily accomplished; so that not only was she without remorse, but without other sorrow than attends on the death of an infirm parent in a good old age.

She never shrank from alluding to her mother when any topic connected with her own youth made such a reference, in ordinary respects, natural; but spoke of her as though no fearful remembrance was associated with the image; so that some of her most intimate friends who knew of the disaster believed that she had never become aware of her own share in its horrors.

It is still more singular that in the wanderings of her insanity, amidst all the vast throngs of imagery she presented of her early days, this picture never recurred or, if ever it did, not associated with shapes of terror."

Perhaps this was not so surprising as at first sight it appears, for the deed was done in a state of frenzy,, in which the brain could no more have received a definite impression of the scene than waves lashed by storm can reflect an image. Her knowledge of the. facts was never coloured by consciousness but came to her from without " as a tale that is told."

The statement, also, that Mary could always speak calmly of her mother, seems to require some qualification. Emma Isola, Lamb's adopted daughter, afterwards Mrs Moxon, once asked her, ignorant of the facts, why she never spoke of her mother and was answered only with a cry of distress; probably the question coming abruptly and from a child confronted her in a new, sudden and peculiarly painful way with the tragedy of her youth.

"Miss Lamb would have been remarkable for the sweetness of her disposition, the clearness of her understanding, and the gentle wisdom of all her acts and words," continues Talfourd, "even if these qualities had not been presented in marvellous contrast with the distractions under which she suffered for weeks, latterly for months in every year. There was no tinge of insanity discernible in her manner to the most observant eye; not even in those distressful periods when the premonitory symptoms had apprised her of its approach, and she was making preparations for seclusion."

This, too, must be taken with some qualification. In a letter from Coleridge to Matilda Betham, he mentions that Mary had been to call on the Godwins

"and that her manner of conversation had greatly alarmed them (dear excellent creature ! such is the restraining power of her love for Charles Lamb over her mind, that he is always the last person in whose presence any alienation of her understanding betrays itself); that she talked far more, and with more agitation concerning me than about G. Burnet [the too abrupt mention of whose death had upset her; he was an old friend and one of the original Pantisocratic group] and told Mrs Godwin that she herself had written to William Wordsworth exhorting him to come to town immediately, for that my mind was seriously unhinged.'"

To resume.

"Her character," wrote Talfourd, " in all its essential sweetness, was like her brother's, while, by a temper more placid, a spirit of enjoyment more serene, she was enabled to guide, to counsel, to cheer him and to protect him on the verge of the mysterious calamity from the depths of which she rose so often unruffled to his side. To a friend in any difficulty she was the most comfortable of advisers, the wisest of consolers. Hazlitt used to say that he never met with a woman who could reason and had met with only one thoroughly reasonable - the sole exception being Mary Lamb. She did not wish, however, to be made an exception, to the general disparagement of her sex; for in all her thoughts and feelings she was most womanly - keeping under even undue subordination to her notion of a woman's province, an intellect of rare excellence which flashed out when the restraints of gentle habit and humble manner were withdrawn by the terrible force of disease.

Though her conversation in sanity was never marked by smartness or repartee, seldom rising beyond that of a sensible quiet gentlewoman appreciating and enjoying the talents of her friends, it was otherwise in her madness. Lamb in his letter to Miss Fryer announcing his determination to be entirely with her, speaks of her pouring out memories of all the events and persons of her younger days; but he does not mention what I am able from repeated experiences to add, that her ramblings often sparkled with brilliant description and shattered beauty.

She would fancy herself in the days of Queen Anne or George the First, and describe the brocaded dames and courtly manners as though she had been bred among them, in the best style of the old comedy. It was all broken and disjointed, so that the hearer could remember little of her discourse; but the fragments were like the jewelled speeches of Congreve, only shaken from their settings. There was sometimes even a vein of crazy logic running through them, associating things essentially most dissimilar, but connecting them by a verbal association in strange order. As a mere physical instance of deranged intellect, her condition was, I believe, extraordinary; it was as if the finest elements of the mind had been shaken into fantastic combinations, like those of a kaleidoscope."

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

An Essay on Needle-work
1814 - aged 50.

Towards the end of 1814 Crabb Robinson called on Mary Lamb and found her suffering from great fatigue after writing an article on needle-work for the British Lady's Magazine, which was just about to start on a higher basis than its predecessors. It undertook to provide something better than the usual fashion plates, silly tales and sillier verses then generally thought suitable for women ; and, to judge by the early numbers, the editor kept the promise of his introductory address and deserved a longer lease of life for his magazine than it obtained.

Mary's little essay appeared in the number for April 1815 ; and is on many accounts interesting. It contains several autobiographic touches; it is the only known instance in which she has addressed herself to full-grown readers, and it is sagacious and far-seeing. For Mary does not treat of needle-work as an art, but as a factor in social life. She pleads both for the sake of the bodily welfare of the many thousands of women who have to earn their bread by it, and of the mental well-being of those who have not so to do, that it should be regarded, like any other mechanical art, as a thing to be done for hire; and that what a woman does work at should be real work, something, that is, which yields a return either of mental or of pecuniary profit. She also exposes the fallacy of the time-honoured maxim " a penny saved is a penny earned," by the ruthless logic of experience. But the reader shall judge for himself; the Magazine has become so rare a book that I will here subjoin the little essay in full:-



In early life I passed eleven years in the exercise of my needle for a livelihood. Will you allow me to address your readers, among whom might perhaps be found some of the kind patronesses of my former humble labours, on a subject widely connected with female life - the state of needle-work in this country.

To lighten the heavy burthen which many ladies impose upon themselves is one object which I have in view; but, I confess, my strongest motive is to excite attention towards the industrious sisterhood to which I once belonged.

From books I have been informed of the fact upon which The British Lady's Magazine chiefly founds its pretensions; namely, that women have, of late, been rapidly advancing in intellectual improvement. Much may have been gained in this way, indirectly, for that class of females for whom I wish to plead. Needlework and intellectual improvement are naturally in a state of warfare. But I am afraid the root of the evil has not, as yet, been struck at. Work-women of every description were never in so much distress for want of employment.

Among the present circle of my acquaintance I am proud to rank many that may truly be called respectable ; nor do the female part of them in their mental attainments at all disprove the prevailing opinion of that intellectual progression which you have taken as the basis of your work ; yet I affirm that I know not a single family where there is not some essential drawback to its comfort which may be traced to needlework done at home, as the phrase is for all needle-work performed in a family by some of its own members, and for which no remuneration in money is received or expected.

In money alone, did I say ? I would appeal to all the fair votaries of voluntary housewifery whether, in the matter of conscience, any one of them ever thought she had done as much needle-work as she ought to have done. Even fancy-work, the fairest of the tribe! How delightful the arrangement of her materials ! The fixing upon her happiest pattern, how pleasing an anxiety ! How cheerful the commencement of the labour she enjoys ! But that lady must be a true lover of the art, and so industrious a pursuer of a predetermined purpose, that it were pity her energy should not have been directed to some wiser end, who can affirm she neither feels weariness during the execution of a fancy piece, nor takes more time than she had calculated for the performance.

Is it too bold an attempt to persuade your readers that it would prove an incalculable addition to general happiness and the domestic comfort of both sexes, if needle-work were never practised but for a remuneration in money? As nearly, however, as this desirable thing can be effected, so much more nearly will woman be upon an equality with men as far as respects the mere enjoyment of life. As far as that goes, I believe it is every woman's opinion that the condition of men is far superior to her own.

"They can do what they like" we say. Do not these words generally mean they have time to seek out whatever amusements suit their tastes? We dare not tell them we have no time to do this; for if they should ask in what manner we dispose of our time we should blush to enter upon a detail of the minutiae which compose the sum of a woman's daily employment. Nay, many a lady who allows not herself one quarter of an hour's positive leisure during her waking hours, considers her own husband as the most industrious of men if he steadily pursue his occupation till the hour of dinner, and will be perpetually lamenting her own idleness.

Real business and real leisure make up the portions of men's time:- two sources of happiness which we certainly partake of in a very inferior degree. To the execution of employments in which the faculties of the body or mind are called into busy action there must be a consoling importance attached, which feminine duties (that generic term for all our business) cannot aspire to.

In the most meritorious discharges of those duties the highest praise we can aim at is to be accounted the helpmates of man,' who, in return for all he does for us, expects, and justly expects, us to do all in our power to soften and sweeten life.

In how many ways is a good woman employed in thought or action through the day that her good man may be enabled to feel his leisure hours real, substantial holiday and perfect respite from the cares of business ! Not the least part to be done to accomplish this end is to fit herself to become a conversational companion; that is to say, she has to study and understand the subjects on which he loves to talk. This part of our duty, if strictly performed, will be found by far our hardest part. The disadvantages we labour under from an education differing from a manly one make the hours in which we sit and do nothing in men's company too often anything but a relaxation; although as to pleasure and instruction time so passed may be esteemed more or less delightful.

To make a man's home so desirable a place as to preclude his having a wish to pass his leisure hours at any fireside in preference to his own, I should humbly take to be the sum and substance of woman's domestic ambition. I would appeal to our British ladies, who are generally allowed to be the most jealous and successful of all women in the pursuit of this object, I would appeal to them who have been most successful in the performance of this laudable service, in behalf of father, son, husband or brother, whether an anxious desire to perform this duty well is not attended with enough of mental exertion, at least, to incline them to the opinion that women may be more properly ranked among the contributors to than the partakers of the undisturbed relaxation of men.

If a family be so well ordered that the master is never called in to its direction, and yet he perceives comfort and economy well attended to, the mistress of that family (especially if children form a part of it), has, I apprehend, as large a share of womanly employment as ought to satisfy her own sense of duty; even though the needle-book and thread-case were quite laid aside, and she cheerfully contributed her part to the slender gains of the corset-maker, the milliner, the dress-maker, the plain worker, the embroidress and all the numerous classifications of females supporting themselves by needle-work, that great staple commodity which is alone appropriated to the self-supporting part of our sex.

Much has been said and written on the subject of men engrossing to themselves every occupation and calling. After many years of observation and reflection I am obliged to acquiesce in the notion that it cannot well be ordered otherwise.

If, at the birth of girls, it were possible to foresee in what cases it would be their fortune to pass a single life, we should soon find trades wrested from their present occupiers and transferred to the exclusive possession of our sex. The whole mechanical business of copying writings in the law department, for instance, might very soon be transferred with advantage to the poorer sort of women, who, with very little teaching, would soon beat their rivals of the other sex in facility and neatness. The parents of female children who were known to be destined from their birth to maintain themselves through the whole course of their lives with like certainty as their sons are, would |eel it a duty incumbent on themselves to strengthen the minds, and even the bodily constitutions, of their girls so circumstanced, by an education which, without affronting the preconceived habits of society, might enable them to follow some occupation now considered above the capacity, or too robust for the constitution of our sex. Plenty of resources would then lie open for single women to obtain an independent livelihood, when every parent would be upon the alert to encroach upon some employment, now engrossed by men, for such of their daughters as would then be exactly in the same predicament as their sons now are. Who, for instance, would lay by money to set up his sons in trade, give premiums and in part maintain them through a long apprenticeship; or, which men of moderate incomes frequently do, strain every nerve in order to bring them up to a learned profession; if it were in a very high degree probable that, by the time they were twenty years of age, they would be taken from this trade or profession, and maintained during the remainder of their lives by the person whom they should marry. Yet this is precisely the situation in which every parent whose income does not very much exceed the moderate, is placed with respect to his daughters.

Even where boys have gone through a laborious education, superinducing habits of steady attention accompanied with the entire conviction that the business which they learn is to be the source of their future distinction, may it not be affirmed that the persevering industry required to accomplish this desirable end causes many a hard struggle in the minds of young men, even of the most hopeful disposition? What, then, must be the disadvantages under which a very young woman is placed who is required to learn a trade, from which she can never expect to reap any profit, but at the expense of losing that place in society to the possession of which she may reasonably look forward, inasmuch as it is by far the most common lot, namely, the condition of a happy English wife ?

As I desire to offer nothing to the consideration of your readers but what, at least as far as my own observation goes, I consider as truths confirmed by experience, I will only say that, were I to follow the bent of my own speculative opinion, I should be inclined to persuade every female over whom I hoped to have any influence to contribute all the assistance in her power to those of her own sex who may need it, in the employments they at present occupy, rather than to force them into situations now filled wholly by men. With the mere exception of the profits which they have a right to derive by their needle, I would take nothing from the industry of man which he already possesses.

"A penny saved is a penny earned" is a maxim not true unless the penny be saved in the same time in which it might have been earned. I, who have known what it is to work for money earned, have since had much experience in working for money saved; and I consider, from the closest calculation I can make, that a penny saved in that way bears about a true proportion to a farthing earned. I am no advocate for women who do not depend on themselves for subsistence, proposing to themselves to earn money. My reasons for thinking it not advisable are too numerous to state - reasons deduced from authentic facts and strict observations on domestic life in its various shades of comfort. But if the females of a family nominally supported by the other sex find it necessary to add something to the common stock, why not endeavour to do something by which they may produce money in its true shape ?

It would be an excellent plan, attended with very little trouble, to calculate every evening how much money has been saved by needle-work done in the family, and compare the result with the daily portion of the yearly income. Nor would it be amiss to make a memorandum of the time passed in this way, adding also a guess as to what share it has taken up in the thoughts and conversation. This would be an easy mode of forming a true notion and getting at the exact worth of this species of home industry, and perhaps might place it in a different light from any in which it has hitherto been the fashion to consider it.

Needle-work taken up as an amusement may not be altogether unamusing. We are all pretty good judges of what entertains ourselves, but it is not so easy to pronounce upon what may contribute to the entertainment of others. At all events, let us not confuse the motives of economy with those of simple pastime. If saving be no object, and long habit have rendered needle-work so delightful an avocation that we cannot think of relinquishing it, there are the good old contrivances in which our grand-dames were wont to beguile and lose their time-knitting, knotting netting, carpet-work, and the like ingenious pursuits - those so often praised but tedious works which are so long in the operation that purchasing the labour has seldom been thought good economy. Yet, by a certain fascination, they have been found to chain down the great to a self-imposed slavery, from which they considerately or haughtily excused the needy. These may be esteemed lawful and lady-like amusements. But, if those works more usually denominated useful yield greater satisfaction, it might be a laudable scruple of conscience, and no bad test to herself of her own motive, if a lady who had no absolute need were to give the money so saved to poor needle-women belonging to those branches of employment from which she has borrowed these shares of pleasurable labour.


Had Mary lived now she would, perhaps, have spoken a wiser word than has yet been uttered on the urgent question of how best to develop, strengthen, give free and fair scope to that large part of a woman's nature and field of action which are the same in kind as man's, without detriment to the remaining qualities and duties peculiar to her as woman. She told Crabb Robinson that "writing was a most painful occupation, which only necessity could make her attempt; and that she had been learning Latin merely to assist her in acquiring a correct style." But there is no trace of feebleness or confusion in her manner of grasping a subject; no want of Latin,nor of any thing else to improve her excellent style. She did enough to show that had her brain not been devastated for weeks and latterly for months in every year by an access of madness, she would have left, besides her tales for children, some permanent addition to literature, or given a recognisable impetus to thought. As it was, Mary relinquished all attempt at literary work when an increase in Charles' income released her from the duty of earning; and as her attacks became longer and more frequent her '' fingers grew nervously averse" even to letter-writing.

Chapter 13

In a letter to Southey, dated May 16th, 1815, Lamb says:

"Have you seen Matilda Betham's Lay of Marie? I think it very delicately pretty as to sentiment, etc"

Matilda, the daughter of a country clergyman of ancient lineage (author of learned and laborious Genealogical Tables, ...), was a lady of many talents and ambitions; especially of the laudable one, not so common in those days, to lighten the burthen of a large family of brothers and sisters by earning her own living. She went up to London, taught herself miniature painting, exhibited at Somerset House, gave Shakespeare readings, wrote a Biographical Dictionary of Celebrated Women, contributed verses to the magazines; and, last not least, by her genuine love of knowledge, and her warm and kindly heart, won the cordial liking of many men of genius, notably of Coleridge, Southey, and the Lambs. When this same Lay of Marie was on the stocks, Mary took an earnest interest in its success, as the following letter prettily testifies:

"My brother and myself return you a thousand thanks for your kind communication. We have read your poem many times over with increased interest, and very much wish to see you to tell you how highly we have been pleased with it. May we beg one favour? I keep the manuscript, in the hope that you will grant it. It is that either now, or when the whole poem is completed, you will read it over with us. When I say with us, of course I mean Charles. I know that you have many judicious friends, but I have so often known my brother spy out errors in a manuscript which has passed through many judicious hands, that I shall not be easy if you do not permit him to look yours carefully through with you; and also you must allow him to correct the press for you. If I knew where to find you I would call upon you. Should you feel nervous at the idea of meeting Charles in the capacity of a severe censor, give me a line, and I will come to you anywhere and convince you in five minutes that he is even timid, stammers, and can scarcely speak for modesty and fear of giving pain when he finds himself placed in that kind of office. Shall I appoint a time to see you here when he is from home? I will send him out any time you will name; indeed I am always naturally alone till four o'clock. If you are nervous about coming, remember I am equally so about the liberty I have taken, and shall be till we meet and laugh off our mutual fears."

"I return you by a careful hand the MSS.," wrote Charles. "Did I not ever love your verses? The domestic half will be a sweet heirloom to have in the family. 'Tis fragrant with cordiality. What friends you must have had, or dreamed of having! and what a widow's cruse of heartiness you have doled among them !"

But as to the correction of the press, that proved a rash suggestion on Mary's part; for the task came at an untoward time, and Charles had to write a whimsical-repentant letter, which must have gone far to atone for his shortcoming:

" All this while I have been tormenting myself with the thought of having been ungracious to you, and you have been all the while accusing yourself. Let us absolve one another and be quiet. My head is in such a state from incapacity for business, that I certainly know it to be my duty not to undertake the veriest trifle in addition. I hardly know how I can go on. I have tried to get some redress by explaining my health, but with no great success. No one can tell how ill I am, because it does not come out to the exterior of my face, but lies in my skull, deep and invisible. I wish I was leprous, and black-jaundiced skin-over, or that all was as well within as my cursed looks. You must not think me worse than I am. I am determined not to be overset, but to give up business rather, and get 'em to allow me a trifle for services past. Oh, that I had been a shoemaker, or a baker, or a man of large independent fortune. Oh, darling laziness! Heaven of Epicurus ! Saint's Everlasting Rest! that I could drink vast potations of thee through unmeasured Eternity. Otitrm cum vel sine dignitate. Scandalous, dishonourable, any kind of repose. I stand not upon the dignified sort. Accursed, damned desks, trade, commerce, business. Inventions of that old original busy-body, brain-working Satan_Sabbathless, restless Satan. A curse relieves ; do you ever try it ? A strange letter to write to a lady, but more honeyed sentences will not distil. I dare not ask who revises in my stead. I have drawn you into a scrape, and am ashamed, but I know no remedy. My unwellness must be my apology. God bless you (tho' he curse the India House and fire it to the ground), and may no unkind error creep into Marie. May all its readers like it as well as I do, and everybody about you like its kind author no worse ! Why the devil am I never to have a chance of scribbling my own free thoughts in verse or prose again ? Why must I write of tea and drugs, and price goods and bales of indigo ? Farewell...."

Miss Betham possessed the further merit of having a charming little sister, for such she must surely have been to be the cause and the recipient of such a letter as the following from Mary. Barbara Betham was then fourteen years old:

" November 2, 1814

It is very long since I have met with such an agreeable surprise as the sight of your letter, my kind kind young friend, afforded me. Such a nice letter as it is too; and what a pretty hand you write! I congratulate you on this attainment with great pleasure, because I have so often felt the disadvantage of my own wretched handwriting. You wish for London news. I rely upon your sister Ann for gratifying you in this respect, yet I have been endeavouring to recollect whom you might have seen here, and what may have happened to them since, and this effort has only brought the image of little Barbara Betham, unconnected with any other person, so strongly before my eyes, that I seem as if I had no other subject to write upon. Now I think I see you with your feet propped upon the fender, your two hands spread out upon your knees_an attitude you always chose when we were in familiar confidential conversation together_telling me long stories of your own home, where now you say you are 'moping on with the same thing every day/ and which then presented nothing but pleasant recollections to your mind. How well I remember your quiet, steady face bent over your book. One day, conscience-stricken at having wasted so much of your precious time in reading, and feeling yourself, as you prettily said, ' quite useless to me,' you went to my drawers and hunted out some unhemmed pocket-handkerchiefs, and by no means could I prevail upon you to resume your story-books till you had hemmed them all. I remember, too, your teaching my little maid to read, your sitting with her a whole evening to console her for the death of her sister, and that she, in her turn, endeavoured to become a comforter to you, the next evening, when you wept at the sight of Mrs Holcroft, from whose school you had recently eloped because you were not partial to sitting in the stocks. Those tears, and a few you dropped when my brother teased you about your supposed fondness for an apple- dumpling, were the only interruptions to the calm contentedness of your unclouded brow.

We still remain the same as you left us, neither taller, nor wiser, or perceptibly older; but three years must have made a great alteration in you. How very much, dear Barbara, I should like to see you!

We still live in Temple Lane, but I am now sitting in a room you never saw. Soon after you left us we were distressed by the cries of a cat, which seemed to proceed from the garrets adjoining to ours, and only separated from ours by a locked door on the farther side of my brother's bed-room, which you know was the little room at the top of the kitchen stairs. We had the lock forced, and let poor puss out from behind a panel of the wainscot, and she lived with us from that time, for we were in gratitude bound to keep her, as she had introduced us to four untenanted, unowned rooms, and by degrees we have taken possession of these unclaimed apartments, first putting up lines to dry our clothes, then moving my brother's bed into one of these more commodious than his own rooms; and last winter, my brother being unable to pursue a work he had begun, owing to the kind interruptions of friends who were more at leisure than himself, I persuaded him that he might write at ease in one of these rooms, as he could not then hear the door-knock, or hear himself denied to be at home, which was sure to make him call out and convict the poor maid in a fib. Here, I said, he might be, almost really not at home. So I put in an old grate, and made him a fire in the largest of these garrets, and carried in his own table and one chair, and bid him write away and consider himself as much alone as if he were in a lodging in the midst of Salisbury Plain, or any other wide, unfrequented place where he could expect few visitors to break in upon his solitude. I left him quite delighted with his new acquisition, but in a few hours he came down again, with a sadly dismal face. He could do nothing, he said, with those bare white-washed walls before his eyes. He could not write in that dull unfurnished prison!

The next day, before he came home from his office, I had gathered up various bits of old carpeting to cover the floor; and to a little break the blank look of the bare walls I hung up a few old prints that used to ornament the kitchen; and after dinner, with great boast of what improvement I had made, I took Charles once more into his new study. A week of busy labours followed, in which I think you would not have disliked to be our assistant. My brother and I almost covered the walls with prints, for which purpose he cut out every print from every book in his old library, coming in every now and then to ask my leave to strip a fresh poor author, which he might not do, you know, without my permission, as I am elder sister. There was such pasting, such consultation upon these portraits, and where the series of pictures from Ovid, Milton, and Shakespeare would show to most advantage, and in what obscure corners authors of humble rank should be allowed to tell their stories. All the books gave up their stores but one, a translation from Ariosto, a delicious set of four and twenty prints, and for which I had marked out a conspicuous place; when lo, we found at the moment the scissors were going to work, that a part of the poem was printed at the back of every picture ! What a cruel disappointment! To conclude this long story about nothing, the poor despised garret is now called the print room, and is become our most familiar sitting-room. . . . The lions still live in Exeter Change. Returning home through the Strand, I often hear them roar about twelve o'clock at night. I never hear them without thinking of you, because you seemed so pleased with the sight of them, and said your young companions would stare when you told them you had seen a lion.

And now, my dear Barbara, farewell. I have not written such a long letter a long time, but I am very sorry I had nothing amusing to write about. Wishing you may pass happily through the rest of your schooldays and every future day of your life,

" I remain,

Your affectionate friend,


My brother sends his love to you. You say you are not so tall as Louisa - you must be; you cannot so degenerate from the rest of your family " ["the measureless Bethams," Lamb called them]. " Now you have begun I shall hope to have the pleasure of hearing from you again. I shall always receive a letter from you with very great delight."

Chapter 14

As a set-off against the already mentioned sorrows of this time, a new element of cheerfulness was introduced into the Lamb household; for it was in the course of the summer of 1823 that, during a visit to Cambridge, they first saw Emma Isola, a little orphan child of whom they soon grew so fond that eventually she became their adopted daughter, their solace and comfort. To Mary especially was this a happy incident.

"For" says Mrs Cowden Clarke in the Recollections already alluded to, "she had a most tender sympathy with the young" - as the readers of Mrs Leicester's School will hardly need telling. "She was encouraging and affectionate towards them, and won them to regard her with a familiarity and fondness - rarely felt by them for grown people who are not their relations. She threw herself so entirely into their way of thinking and contrived to take an estimate of things so completely from their point of view, that she made them rejoice to have her for their co-mate in affairs that interested them. While thus lending herself to their notions she, with a judiciousness peculiar to her, imbued her words with the wisdom and experience that belonged to her maturer years; so that while she seemed but the listening, concurring friend, she was also the helping, guiding friend. Her monitions never took the form of reproof, but were always dropped in with the air of agreed propositions, as if they grew - out of the subject in question, and presented themselves as matters of course to both her young companions and herself."

The following is a life-like picture, from the same hand, of Mary among the children she gathered round her in these Russell Street days, - Hazlitt's little son William, Victoria Novello (Mrs Clarke herself) and Emma Isola. Victoria used

"to come to her on certain mornings, when Miss Lamb promised to hear her repeat her Latin grammar, and hear her read poetry with the due musically rhythmical intonation. Even now the breathing murmur of the voice in which Mary Lamb gave low but melodious utterance to those opening lines of the Paradise Lost: -

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe, -

sounding full and rounded and harmonious, though so subdued in tone, ring's clear and distinct in the memory of her who heard the reader. The echo of that gentle voice vibrates, through the lapse of many a revolving year, true and unbroken in the heart where the low-breathed sound first awoke response, teaching together with the fine appreciation of verse music the finer love of intellect conjoined with goodness and kindness. . . .

One morning, just as Victoria was about to repeat her allotted task, in rushed a young boy who, like herself, enjoyed the privilege of Miss 'Lamb's instruction in the Latin language. His mode of entrance - hasty and abrupt - sufficiently denoted his eagerness to have his lesson heard at once and done with, that he might be .gone again; accordingly Miss Lamb, asking Victoria to give up her turn, desired the youth - Hazlitt's son - to repeat his pages of grammar first. Off he set, rattled through the first conjugation post-haste; darted (through the second without drawing breath; and so on right through in no time. The rapidity, the volubility, the triumphant slap-dash of the feat perfectly dazzled the imagination of poor Victoria, who stood admiring by, an amazed witness of the boy's proficiency. She herself, a quiet plodding little girl, had only by dint of diligent study and patient, persevering poring been able to achieve a slow learning and as slow a repetition of her lessons. This brilliant, off-hand method of despatching the Latin grammar was a glory she had never dreamed of. Her ambition was fired, and the next time she presented herself book in hand before Miss Lamb, she had no sooner delivered it into her hearers than she attempted to scour through her verb at the same rattling pace which had so excited her admiration. Scarce a moment and her stumbling scamper was checked. 'Stay, stay! how's this? What are you about, little Vicky?' asked the laughing voice of Mary Lamb. 'Oh, I see. Well, go on ; but gently, gently ; no need of hurry.' She heard to an end and then said, 'I see what we have been doing - trying to be as quick and clever as William, fancying it vastly grand to get on at a great rate as he does. But there 's this difference: it's natural in him while it's imitation in you. Now, far better go on in your old staid way - which is your own way - than try to take up a way that may become him, but can never become you, even were you to succeed in acquiring it. We'll each of us keep to our own natural ways, and then we shall be sure to do our best"

And when Victoria and Emma Isola met there, Mary entered into their girlish friendship, let them have their gossip out in her own room if tired of the restraint of grown-up company and once, before Emma's return to school, took them to Dulwich and gave them a charming little dinner of roast fowl and custard pudding. . .

"Pleasant above all" says the surviving guest and narrator, "is the memory of the cordial voice which said in a way to put the little party at its fullest ease, 'Now remember, we all pick our bones. It isn't considered vulgar here to pick bones"


In The Century Magazine for September 1882 are seven letters to John Howard Payne, an American playwright, whom Lamb was endeavouring to help in his but partially successful struggle to earn a livelihood by means of adaptations for the stage in London and Paris. Mrs Cowden-Clarke speaks of this Mr Payne as the acquaintance whom Mary Lamb,

"ever thoughtful to procure a pleasure for young people",

had asked to call and see the little Victoria, then at school at Boulogne, on his way to Paris. He proved a good friend to Mary herself during that trip to France which, with a courage amounting to rashness, she and Charles undertook in the summer of 1822.

" I went to call on the Lambs to take leave, they setting out for France next morning", writes Crabb Robinson in his diary, June 17th. "I gave Miss Lamb a letter for Miss Williams, to whom I sent a copy of Mrs Leicester's School. The Lambs have a Frenchman as their companion and Miss Lamb's nurse, in case she should be ill. Lamb was in high spirits; his sister rather nervous."

The privation of sleep entailed in such a journey combined with the excitement, produced its inevitable result and Mary was taken with one of her severest attacks in the diligence on the way to Amiens. There, happily, they seem to have found Mr Payne, who assisted Charles to make the necessary arrangements for her remaining under proper care till the return of reason, and then he went on to Paris, where he stayed with the Kennys, who thought him dull and out of sorts, as well he might be. Two months afterwards we hear of Mary as being in Paris. Charles, his holiday over, had been obliged to return to England.

"Mary Lamb has begged me to give her a day or two", says Crabb Robinson. "She comes to Paris this evening, and stays here a week. Her only male friend is a Mr Payne, whom she praises exceedingly for his kindness and attentions to Charles. He is the author of Brutus, and has a good face."

It was in the following year that most of the letters to Mr Payne, published in the Century, were written. They disclose Mary and her brother zealous to repay one good turn with another by watching the success of his dramatic efforts and endeavouring to negociate favourably for him with actors and managers.

"Ali Pacha will do. I sent my sister the first night, not having been able to go myself, and her report of its effect was most favourable. . . . My love to my little wife at Versailles, and to her dear mother. . . . I have no mornings (my day begins at 5 p.m.) to transact business in, or talents for it, so I employ Mary, who has seen Robertson, who says that the piece which is to be operafied was sent to you six weeks since, &c. &c. Mary says you must write more show-able letters about these matters, for with all our trouble of crossing out this word, and giving a cleaner turn to th' other, and folding down at this part, and squeezing an obnoxious epithet into a corner, she can hardly communicate their contents without offence. What, man, put less gall in your ink, or write me a biting tragedy!..."

The piece which was sent to Mr Payne in Paris to be "operafied" was probably Clari, the Maid of Milan. Bishop wrote or adapted the music: it still keeps possession of the stage and contains Home sweet Home which plaintive, well-worn ditty earned for its writer among his friends the title of the "Home- less Poet of Home" He ended his days as American Consul at Tunis.

This year's holiday (1823), spent at Hastings, was one of unalloyed pleasure and refreshment.

"I have given up my soul to walking", Lamb writes. "There are spots, inland bays, &c., which realise the notions of Juan Fernandez. The best thing I lit upon, by accident, was a small country church (by whom or when built unknown), standing bare and single in the midst of a grove, with no house or appearance of habitation within a quarter of a mile, only passages diverging from it through beautiful woods to so many farm-houses. There it stands, like the first idea of a church, before parishioners were thought of, nothing but birds for its congregation; or, like a hermit's oratory (the hermit dead), or a mausoleum; its effect singularly impressive, like a church found in a desert islelto startle Crusoe with a home image. ... I am a long time reconciling to town after one of these excursions. Home is become strange, and will remain so yet awhile; home is the most unforgiving of friends, and always resents absence; I know its cordial looks will return, but they are slow in clearing up/'

The "cordial looks", however, of the Russell Street home never did return. The plan of the double lodgings, there and at Dalston, was a device of double discomforts; the more so as " at my town lodgings," he afterwards confesses to Bernard Barton,

"the mistress was always quarrelling with our maid; and at my place of rustication the whole family were always beating one another, brothers beating sisters (one, a most beautiful girl, lamed for life), father beating sons and daughters, and son again beating his father, knocking him fairly down, a scene I never before witnessed, but was called out of bed by the unnatural blows, the parricidal colour of which, though my morals could not but condemn, yet my reason did heartily approve, and in the issue the house was quieter for a day or so than I had ever known."

It was time, indeed, for brother and sister to have a house of their own over their heads, means now amply sufficing.

A few weeks after their return Lamb took Colebrook Cottage, at Islington. It was detached, faced the New River, had six good rooms, and a spacious garden behind.

"You enter without passage", he writes, "into a cheerful dining-room, all studded over and rough with old books, and above is a lightsome drawing-room, full of choice prints. I feel like a great lord, never having had a house before."

Chapter 15

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Mary Lamb: her malady
Emma Isola

Contents of chapters

Chapter 1

Parentage and Childhood

Chapter 2

Birth of Charles Coleridge
Domestic toils and trials
Their tragic culmination
Letters to and from Coleridge

Chapter 3

Death of Aunt Hetty
Mary removed from the asylum
Charles Lloyd
A visit to Nether Stowey and introduction to Wordsworth and his sister
Anniversary of the mother's death
Mary ill again
Estrangment between Lamb and Coleridge
Speedy reconcilement

Chapter 4

Death of the father
Mary comes home to live
A removal
First verses
A literary tea-party
Another move
Friends increase

Chapter 5

Personal appearance and manners
Health (her malady)
Influence of Mary's illness upon her brother

Chapter 6

Visit to Coleridge at Greta Hall
Wordsworth and his sister in London
Letters to miss Stoddart
Coleridge goes to Malta
Letter to Dorothy Wordsworth on the death of her brother John

Chapter 7

Mary in the asylum again
Lamb's letters with a poem of hers
Her slow recovery
Letters to Sarah Stoddart
The Tales from Shakespeare begun
Hazlitt's portrait of Lamb
Sarah's lovers
The farce of Mr H.

Chapter 8

The Tales from Shakespeare
Letters to Sarah Stoddart

Chapter 9

Correspondence with Sarah Stoddart
A courtship and wedding at which Mary is bridesmaid

Chapter 10

Mrs Leicester's School
A removal
Poetry for Children

Chapter 11

The Hazlitts again
Letters to Mrs Hazlitt
Two visits to Winterslow
Mr Dawe, R.A.
Birth of Hazlitt's son
Death of Holcroft

Chapter 12

An essay on needle-work

Chapter 13

Letters to Miss Betham and her little sister
To Wordsworth
Manning's return
Coleridge goes to Highgate
Letter to Miss Hutchinson on Mary's state
Removal to Russell Street
Mary's letter to Dorothy Wordsworth
Lodgings at Dalston
Death of John Lamb and Captain Burney

Chapter 14

Hazlitt's divorce
Emma Isola
Mrs Cowden Clarke's Recollections of Mary
The visit to France
Removal to Colebrook Cottage
A dialogue of reminiscences

Chapter 15

Lamb's ill-health
Retirement from the India House and subsequent illness
Letter from Mary to Lady Stoddart
Colebrook Cottage quitted
Mary's constant attacks
A home given up
Board with the Westwoods
Death of Hazlitt
Removal to Edmonton
Marriage of Emma Isola
Mary's sudden recovery
Ill again
Death of Coleridge
Death of Charles
Mary's last days and death

Another natural companion to reading Mary Lamb: Mad Mary Lamb on Susan Tyler Hitchcock's web site
Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London by Susan Tyler Hitchcock