Episode 24: The Lives and Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb

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Dr Felicity James, author of Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s and current custodian of Charles’s writing chair, introduces the Slightly Foxed editors to siblings at the heart of a literary circle. In their Tales from Shakespeare, gentle-hearted drunken-dog Charles wrote the tragedies and Mary, often chided for laughing, the comedies, and together they penned letters using different coloured inks. From a murder in the home and time in private asylums to conversations with Coleridge at the pub, dissertations on roast pig and salons in their London lodgings, we explore the lives of the Lambs and their friendships through books.


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Show Notes

Please find links to books, articles, and further reading listed below. The digits in brackets following each listing refer to the minute and second they are mentioned. (Episode duration: 43 minutes; 43 seconds)

Books Mentioned

We may be able to get hold of second-hand copies of the out-of-print titles listed below. Please get in touch with Jess in the Slightly Foxed office for more information.

An Englishman’s Commonplace Book, Roger Hudson (2:03)

Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s, Felicity James is out of print (2:44)

– There have been two editions of the Lambs’ letters: The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, ed. Edwin W. Marrs, Jr., 3 vols. [which go up to 1817], Cornell University Press, 1975, and The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas, 3 vols., Dent, 1935. Sadly neither is still in print.

Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary Lamb (14:33)

Mrs Leicester’s School and Poetry for Children, Charles and Mary Lamb are out of print (14:44)

Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb is out of print (16:46)

A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, Sarah Burton is out of print

The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel (39:12)

Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss (41:00)

Related Slightly Foxed Articles

Streets, Streets, Streets, Felicity James on the letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, Issue 65

A Delight in Digression, David Spiller on Essays of Elia, Issue 64 (16:46)

Other Links

The Charles Lamb Society (36:28)

Opening music: Preludio from Violin Partita No.3 in E Major by Bach

The Slightly Foxed Podcast is hosted by Philippa Lamb and produced by Podcastable

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Comments & Reviews

  1. The Slightly Foxed podcast, like the quarterly and old bookshop of the same name, is almost muskily lovely. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine listening to with a dog at your feet and whisky by your side in a draughty Mitfordesque folly. Ordinarily, you might attribute its homeliness to the fact that it is recorded around a kitchen table. But with the hosts now socially distanced across the country, and it feeling just as cosy, you realise that the atmosphere must derive from something else.

    In the latest episode, Philippa, Hazel and Gail were joined down the line by biographer Felicity James to discuss the early 19th-century writers Charles and Mary Lamb. Perhaps best known today for their Tales from Shakespeare, the siblings, of whom Mary was the elder by a decade, earned some notoriety in their own time for their bond following a terrible family drama.

    It began, as James recounted, just before dinner on 22 September 1796 when Mary, then a dressmaker, was chiding her apprentice. Having grown up quite comfortably in the Inner Temple, where her father was a clerk, Mary had found herself working around the clock to support him after his employer died and he himself suffered a stroke. Her ill mother, similarly dependent, stepped in to resolve the dispute. Suddenly, Mary snapped. Charles returned from work at East India House to find his mother fatally stabbed in the heart, his father wounded with a fork, and Mary grasping a carving knife.

    It was probably for the best that, when Charles and Mary came to compose their Shakespeare for children, he did the tragedies and she the comedies. The matricide naturally had a devastating effect upon her already deteriorating mental health. Extraordinarily, between her stays at an asylum, Charles had her live with him and join his literary circle. Coleridge, Hazlitt and the Wordsworths were apparently enlightened enough to forgive Mary her murderous past.

    This story might have made for lurid telling, but the podcasters let James set it out plainly before interjecting with pertinent questions and steering the discussion to the Lambs’ work. The respectful quietness of Slightly Foxed is one of its virtues. Where other podcasts suffer from a crescendo of competing voices, this is steady and understated and, yes, all the cosier for being so.

    I particularly enjoyed hearing of Mary ‘admiring the stale peas and cauliflowers’ on a Saturday night in the lakes with the Wordsworths. As the reading list accompanying this podcast reveals, most of the books by the Lambs and pertaining to them — collected letters, essays, biographies, children’s books — are out of print. The opportunity to hear Mary’s words read aloud was therefore all the more precious.

  2. Angela Lee-Foster says:

    I long ago read Sarah Burton’s biography of the Lambs and found Charles and Mary a fascinating and intriguing sibling couple. It strikes me that Mary, as creatively minded as her brother, was stifled by the confines of her age: lack of access to education, caring for elderly relatives, duties of a daughter limiting her to little life outside home which undoubtedly contributed to her ill mental health. Surrounded as she was by the writing men of her time, she must have keenly felt mentally and physically constrained. Hearing elements of their letters and getting a glimpse of their ‘double life’ the Lambs remain intriguing. Thanks for a great episode.

  3. Jasmine Simeone says:

    As usual this is a most informative and fascinating podcast. I was brought up to understand that Charles and Mary Lamb were important figures – but without any real evidence. They seemed to be people that my father had a lasting reverence for . . . They never really impinged on my own reading. So I find this extremely interesting and evocative. I did not know the story of why they lived together, and I was not aware that they were more than just authors of children’s books which were out of date by the time I was a child. I love the periphery of these podcasts by the way – I look forward eagerly to sounds of the dogs, but they usually disappoint as you manage to keep them out of the sounds! Keep doing them!

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