Mary Lamb was born on 3 December 1764 in the Temple, London, the second of three surviving children to John Lamb (c.1722-1799), waiter to the Inner Temple, and his wife Elizabeth (c.1732-1796). Though Mary received very little formal schooling, she became an autodidact who taught herself Latin, French and Italian in her later years; her reading habit was developed in childhood when she was granted free range of the library of her father's employer, Samuel Salt, a Bencher of the Inner Temple. But after Salt's death in 1792, her parents were obliged to quit the Temple, and moved with their two younger children, Mary and Charles, to 7 Little Queen Street, Lincolns Inn Fields.
A contemporary describes them at this time as 'helpless and poor, and all huddled together in a small lodging, scarcely large enough to admit their moving about without restraint.' (Procter: 119) Trained as a mantua maker, at a time when, according to Mary Wollstonecraft, that profession was considered next to that of a prostitute, as necessitude so often forced the struggling needlewoman to resort to the sale of her body rather than her labour (Wollstonecraft: 261), Mary was not only burdened with the financial responsibilities of the family but also with the care of a father rapidly sinking into senility and a mother, physically ailing, who required her daily and nightly attendance. Charles, then a meagrely waged clerical apprentice, in his early twenties, added to the family's troubles in the winter of 1795/6 by succumbing to an attack of madness which required his confinement for six weeks in a mad house at Hoxton. Their older brother, John, had detached himself from any responsibility for the family's precarious position. Under these conditions Mary's control suddenly snapped. She had previously suffered at least one attack of a mental illness which has been categorized by her twentieth-century biographers as a manic-depressive or bi-polar disorder. (Courtney: 236, 370). The strains of her present situation resulted in a particularly virulent outbreak of mania on 22 September 1796. A contemporary newspaper report describes the incident:
On Friday afternoon the Coroner and a respectable Jury sat on the body of a Lady in the neighbourhood of Holborn, who died in consequence of a wound from her daughter the preceding 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 eager calls of her helpless 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, her daughter yet wildly standing over her with the fatal knife [...]
It seems the young Lady had been once before, in her earlier years, deranged, from the harassing fatigues of too much business. - As her carriage towards her mother was ever affectionate in the extreme, it is believed that in the increased attentiveness, which her parents' infirmities called for by day and night, is to be attributed the present insanity of this ill-fated young woman. (Morning Chronicle, 26 September 1796)
In a letter to Coleridge written a few days after his mother's death, her brother Charles echoes the report's conclusions. He was convinced that it was, paradoxically enough, the wholeheartedness of Mary's commitment to her mother, a commitment which he considered to be insufficiently recompensed, that led to her breakdown.
Poor Mary, my mother [...] in opinion, in feeling, & sentiment & disposition, bore so distant a resemblance to her daughter, that she never understood her right. Never could believe how much she loved her - but met her caresses, her protestations of filial affection, too frequently with coldness & repulse. [...] she would always love my brother above Mary, who was not worthy of one tenth of that affection, which Mary had a right to claim. But it is my Sister's gratifying recollection, that every act of duty & of love she could pay, every kindness (& I speak true, when I say to the hurting of her health, & most probably in great part to the derangement of her senses) thro' a long course of infirmities & sickness, she could shew her, she ever did. (i, 52)
His letter, written as it was very shortly after his mother's death, indicates clearly where his family loyalties lay. Although himself bereaved by her act, he identifies with the sister who, ten years his elder, had been his nurse in childhood, and in adolescence his closest friend, and criticises as neglectful his unfortunate parent.
In 1796, persons found guilty of committing an act of manslaughter while mentally impaired were not required to suffer permanent incarceration provided that sufficient surety could be given that they would be taken care of as potentially unstable for the rest of their lives. This pledge Charles gave for his sister, and the two lived together for the next thirty-eight years, their lives intermittently interrupted by recurring bouts of Mary's madness. Though Mary was thus saved from the worst possible consequences of her act, she still had to endure the opprobrium and fear with which her history was regarded. But the loving attitude which, according to her brother, she always demonstrated towards her mother before September 1796 seems to have persisted with, if anything, increased intensity after the matricide. Restored to sanity but a few days after the 'day of horrors', she told her brother, in a letter written from the Islington madhouse in which she was confined, that she felt assured of their mother's forgiveness. 'I have no bad terrifying dreams,' she writes:
At midnight when I happen to awake, the nurse sleeping by the side of me, with the noise of the poor mad people around me, I have no fear. The spirit of my mother seems to descend, & smile upon me, & bid me live to enjoy the life & reason which the Almighty has given me -. I shall see her again in heaven; she will then understand me better, my Grandmother too will understand me better, & will then say no more as she used to Do, "Polly, what are those poor crazy moyther'd brains of yours thinkg. of always?" (i, 52)
Her precise recollection of the grandmother's wounding words indicates Mary's painful awareness of the manner in which she was actually seen by the maternal side of her family, but she builds up in opposition to it a beatified image of a kind and understanding mother figure.
Kindness and understanding were qualities which according to all contemporary records Mary herself showed throughout her life. Wordsworth, for example, in his elegy to Charles, describes his sister as ‘the meek,/ The self-restraining and the ever-kind’. (Wordsworth, iv, 275) P. G. Patmore testifies to her 'universal loving-kindness and toleration', and Barry Cornwall recalls her habitual conciliatory placidity. (Patmore, iii, 200; Procter, 128) De Quincey, in his account of his first meeting with the Lambs, maintains that the manner in which Charles teased him for his idolatrous worship of Coleridge's poetry would have led to a quarrel between them had it not been for the mediating 'winning goodness' of 'that Madonna-like lady', Mary, 'before whom', he says, 'all resentment must have melted in a moment'. (De Quincey, iii, 35) Thomas Talfourd in his Final Memorials of Charles Lamb portrays Mary as one who was 'to a friend in any difficulty [...] the most comfortable of advisers, the wisest of counsellors.' He adds to his own account Hazlitt's testimony to her good sense: Mary, alone of all her sex, becomes the exception that proves Hazlitt's misogynistic rule: ‘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.’ But when Talfourd goes on to disclose the darker side of Mary's existence, the impossible pressures involved in living a life of perpetual self-restraint become clear. Recording her response to Hazlitt's praises, he adds:
She did not wish, however to be made an exception, to a 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, intellect of rare excellence, which flashed out when the restraints of gentle habit and humble manner were withdrawn by the terrible force of disease.
At such times, as he recalls:
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 lost style of the old comedy [...] the fragments were like the jewelled speeches of Congreve, only shaken from their setting. (Thomas Talfourd, Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, 1848, ii, 126 and 227)
Enduring within herself a double life, one passive and repressively self-restrained, the other, in its madness, self-expressive and active, Mary strove to distance her sane self as far as possible from the act which had destroyed her mother. But her writings, particularly Mrs. Leicester's School (1809) show her endeavouring both to tell the tale of her neglected childhood and resolve the tensions it created.
In Mrs. Leicester's School a consignment of new pupils arrive at Mrs. Leicester's school for girls, and she suggests they spend their first evening together relating to each other the histories of their past lives, so that 'you will not then look so unsociably upon each other.' (iii, 274) Many of Mary’s stories for the volume deal with the girls’ difficulties at home with their immediate family before their appearance at the school, and some clearly include autobiographical material. The collection as a whole, however, reads as a gentle and humorous communication of lessons in sanity learned through harsh experience by Mary Lamb. It was published anonymously in 1809, along with Poetry for Children, entirely original. Tales from Shakespear, designed for the use of young persons had been published earlier in 1807, under Charles Lamb's name only, though in fact about two-thirds of each of these three books for children were Mary's work. Not merely the gender prejudices of the period but more significantly, perhaps, Mary’s history, and the manner of her mother's death, probably left her disinclined to draw any public attention to herself through publishing her name. She only published one piece of prose for adults, the essay 'On Needle-work' contributed to the British Lady's Magazine and Monthly Miscellany (1 April 1815) under the pseudonym ‘Sempronia’. In this essay, as in Mrs Leicester's School, she shows a particular concern for the well-being of disadvantaged women and girls. Her remonstrations on such issues as the lack of remunerative female employment, and the vulnerability of young women to social and parental pressures, show her attempting to spare others through her writing stresses she had herself experienced. Mary Lamb outlived her brother by a number of years, her last decades darkened by increasingly lengthy periods of insanity; she died in St. John's Wood on 20 May 1847, and was buried in Charles's grave in Edmonton churchyard.