cover image MAD MARY LAMB: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London

MAD MARY LAMB: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, . . Norton, $24.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05741-6

One afternoon in 1796, Mary Lamb, aged 31, killed her mother with a carving knife at the dinner table. Like Kathy Watson in her recent The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb, Hitchcock diagnoses manic-depression at the heart of Mary's matricidal act and her subsequent stays in Britain's early mental asylums. Hitchcock (Coming About: A Family Passage at Sea ), however, is far more willing to speculate about the gaps in the record of Mary's life, not to mention her thoughts and feelings as she regained something like a normal existence after the murder, which was judged an act of madness. Despite eventual bestselling collaborations with her brother, essayist Charles Lamb, in Tales from Shakespeare and Poetry for Children , Mary left an erratic documentary trail, with only one significant personal essay, which Hitchcock sees as proto-feminist. Charles, her lifelong protector, remains the best source about his sister and their shared life. But his letters to such friends as Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey show some reserve about the delicate subject of his sister's mental health. With such gaps, Hitchcock often resorts to reading into existing texts or inferring details of Mary's asylum experiences from typical practices of the time, which only partially resuscitates this tragic but elusive life. 32 illus. not seen by PW . Agents, Miriam Goderich and Jane Dystel. (Jan.)