In the north London suburb of Edmonton where I grew up, virtually the only feature of note is Charles Lamb’s cottage in Church Street, which is marked with a blue plaque. The essayist lived there in the first half of the nineteenth century. Lamb was born in 1775 and in 1792 began thirty-three years of tedious work as a clerk at the East India Company counting-house. Over the length of his adult life he lived – on and off – with his sister Mary. Their story is told in Sarah Burton’s highly readable A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb (2003).
The incident that was to define the lives of both siblings occurred in 1796. Mary had a congenital mental condition, and in a fit of madness stabbed her mother through the heart while the family was at dinner. She was committed to a madhouse but within two and a half years was freed from official constraint and put into the care of her brother Charles. Yet in most years thereafter she needed to spend further time in care. A friend reported chancing upon the pair in the street one day as Charles, carrying a straitjacket, escorted his sister to Hoxton asylum.
The wretchedness of such scenes was in marked contrast to Mary’s behaviour when in normal health. Their friend William Hazlitt wrote of ‘the sweetness of her disposition, the clearness of her understanding and the gentle wisdom of all her acts and words’, and he seemed to speak for all who knew her. Charles was devoted to his sister and she to him. Their mutual supportiveness, in life and in their literary work, is often compared to that of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.
When Mary was well, the Lambs were renowned for their hospitality and – in Charles’s case – a good deal of hard drinking. Friends included literary luminaries such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Hazlitt, plus an unusually wide circle of eccentrics. Lamb wrote that he had never made any lasting friends ‘that had not some tincture of the absurd in
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