Monday, April 19, 2010

A Double Life; A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, Sarah Burton (Viking, 2003)

This thoughtful and well told biography of a brother and sister, whose lives spanned the  late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,  is quite moving.  Throughout her life Mary Lamb had many episodes of what today would likely be diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder. These episodes occurred almost yearly, lasted from weeks to months and grew more frequent as she grew older. During the first episode, when she was 32, she killed her mother and injured her father. She was not tried, but simply declared insane and released to the custody of her 21 year-old brother. She stayed in a "madhouse" for six weeks and then returned home. Between episodes she was reported to have been a sensible, sensitive woman who was responsible for writing much of the Lambs' most enduring literary work "Tales from Shakespeare." Mary never harmed anyone else during her episodes, but both Mary and Charles were sufficiently concerned about her violence that they purchased a straitjacket that they kept with them even while traveling and used on occasion to assist in getting Mary to a madhouse. These madhouses were run by laypeople and Mary apparently only received medical treatment on one occasion. Charles appears to suffered from chronically from depression, having spent at least one period of time in a madhouse himself. His drinking was excessive and daily throughout most of his adult life, though he was able to hold a job at the East India Company for forty years. As their lives were well documented through their writings and comments of friends {Coleridge, Wordsworth etc] this dual biography provides a remarkable glimpse into the course of these psychological disorders. I was especially moved by the beautiful descriptions of what it was like for friends to listen to Mary as she entered an episode of illness. They are of particular interest as they seem not to have been influenced by medical theories. Here are two examples:
Charles Lamb wrote of his sister that: "When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world. Her heart is obscured, not buried; it breaks out occasionally; and one can discern a strong mind struggling with the billows that have gone over it. I could be nowhere happier than under the same roof with her. Her memory is unnaturally strong; and from ages past, if we may so call the earliest records of our poor life, she fetches thousands of names and things that never would dawned on me again, and thousands from the ten years she lived before me. What took place from early girlhood to her coming of age principally lives again (every important thing and every trifle) in her brain with the vividness of real presence. For twelve hours incessantly she will pour out without intermission all her past life, forgetting nothing, pouring our name after name to the Waldens [the keepers of the madhouse, where they both lived at this time in their lives] as if in a dream; sense and nonsense; truth and errors huddled together; a medley between inspiration and possession." [Burton, 2003, 370-371]


Charles Lamb's friend and biographer said of Mary that "Though her conversation in sanity was never marked by smartness or repartee; seldom rising beyond that of a sensible quiet gentlewoman appreciating and enjoying the talents of her friends, it was otherwise in her madness... 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 best styhle of the old comedy. It was all broken and disjointed, so that her hearer could remember little of her discourse; but the fragmets werre like jewelled speeches of Congeve, only shaken from their setting. Thjere was sometimes even a vein of crazy logic running through them, associating things essentially most dissimilar but connecting them by a verbal association in strange order. As a mere physical instance of deranged intellect, her condition was, I believe, extraordinary; it was as if the finest elements of mind had been shaken into fantastic combinatiions like those of a kaleidoscope... [Burton, 2003, 241-2].

2 comments:

  1. I will learn this article by heart. I have high hopes for this platform. I hope you do the same.


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  2. Having been diagnosed with Bipolar II after two manic episodes in approx. 12 years after periods of extreme stress (not sleeping 3 nights during a court case) and mistakenly taking two steroid tablets, I have always been interested in creative people with this problem. I was researching Shakespeare for lessons with my granddaughter when a friend told me about Charles & Mary Lamb - what fascinating people. I will encourage my granddaughter to read their stories so that she will also understand more about me and my creativity. Thank you for your Blog.

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