An Extraordinary Life of Murder, Madness, and Literary Talent
by Mary B. Balle
More often than not, Mary Lamb’s contributions to English literature are overshadowed by those of her more famous brother Charles. Her fear of more public recognition was justified because from her youth she suffered from bipolar disorder. During one of her manic episodes, she murdered her mother. From then on, Mary was confined almost yearly to a so-called madhouse. There she would cycle through the frenzy of mania to the depths of stupefied depression, only to recover and resume her position as her brother’s confidante and housekeeper.
Despite this affliction, Mary became a recognized author in her own right as well as a literary collaborator with her brother Charles. She hosted weekly soirees attended by a wide cross section of the literary figures of the time, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Hazlitt. Many of Mary’s friends not only enjoyed her companionship both during and beyond these congenial gatherings, but they also sought her wise counsel on many personal issues.
Coleridge regarded her book Mrs. Leicester’s School as “a rich jewel in the treasury of our permanent English literature.” Mary’s most enduring work, Tales from Shakespeare, co-authored with her brother, has not been out of print since it was first published in 1807.
The story of Mary Lamb’s recuperative powers, devoted friends and acquaintances, and literary talent combine to give us an illuminating look into the lives of women of her era and also a great reading adventure.
While pursuing postgraduate studies in family therapy in London, Mary Blanchard Balle lived in the borough of Islington, where she often passed the Colebrooke Row home where Mary Lamb had once lived. This book sprang from this casual beginning and eventually the realization that Mary, so central to the story of the Lambs, was too often relegated to a secondary position in biographical writings. The author lives in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with her husband.