Mary Lamb (1883)
by Anne Gilchrist
Chapter I.
2360676Mary Lamb — Chapter I.1883Anne Gilchrist


Parentage and Childhood.

1764–1775.—Æt. 1–10.

The story of Mary Lamb's life is mainly the story of a brother and sister's love; of how it sustained them under the shock of a terrible calamity and made beautiful and even happy a life which must else have sunk into desolation and despair.

It is a record, too, of many friendships. Round the biographer of Mary as of Charles, the blended stream of whose lives cannot be divided into two distinct currents, there gathers a throng of faces—radiant immortal faces some, many homely every-day faces, a few almost grotesque—whom he can no more shut out of his pages, if he would give a faithful picture of life and character, than Charles or Mary could have shut their humanity-loving hearts or hospitable doors against them. First comes Coleridge, earliest and best beloved friend of all, to whom Mary was "a most dear heart's sister"; Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy; Southey; Hazlitt who, quarrel with whom he might, could not effectually quarrel with the Lambs; his wife, also, without whom Mary would have been a comparatively silent figure to us, a presence rather than a voice. But all kinds were welcome so there were but character; the more variety the better. "I am made up of queer points," wrote Lamb, "and I want so many answering needles." And of both brother and sister it may be said that their likes wore as well as most people's loves.

Mary Anne Lamb was born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, on the 3rd of December 1764—year of Hogarth's death. She was the third, as Charles was the youngest, of seven children all of whom died in infancy save these two and an elder brother John, her senior by two years. One little sister Elizabeth, who came when Mary was four years old, lived long enough to imprint an image on the child's memory which, helped by a few relics, remained for life. "The little cap with white satin ribbon grown yellow with long keeping and a lock of light hair," wrote Mary when she was near sixty, "always brought her pretty fair face to my view so that to this day I seem to have a perfect recollection of her features."

The family of the Lambs came originally from Stamford in Lincolnshire, as Charles himself once told a correspondent. Nothing else is known of Mary's ancestry; nor yet even the birth-place or earliest circumstances of John Lamb the father. If, however, we may accept on Mr. Cowden Clarke's authority, corroborated by internal evidence, the little story of Susan Yates, contributed by Charles to Mrs. Leicester's School, as embodying some of his father's earliest recollections, he was born of parents "in no very affluent circumstances" in a lonely part of the Fen country, seven miles from the nearest church an occasional visit to which, "just to see how goodness thrived," was a feat to be remembered, such bad and dangerous walking was it in the fens in those days, "a mile as good as four." What is quite certain is that while John Lamb was still a child his family removed to Lincoln, with means so straitened that he was sent to service in London. Whether his father were dead or, sadder still, in a lunatic asylum—since we are told with emphasis that the hereditary seeds of madness in the Lamb family came from the father's side—it is beyond doubt that misfortune of some kind must have been the cause of the child's being sent thus prematurely to earn his bread in service. His subsequently becoming a barrister's clerk seems to indicate that his early nurture and education had been of a gentler kind than this rough thrusting out into the world of a mere child would otherwise imply: in confirmation of which it is to be noted that afterwards, in the dark crisis of family misfortune, an "old gentlewoman of fortune" appears on the scene as a relative.

In spite of early struggles John Lamb grew up

A merry cheerful man. A merrier man,
A man more apt to frame matter for mirth,
Mad jokes and antics for a Christmas-eve,
Making life social and the laggard time
To move on nimbly, never yet did cheer
The little circle of domestic friends.

Inflexibly honest and upright too, with a dash of chivalry in his nature; who is not familiar with his portrait as "Lovel" in The Benchers of the Inner Temple? Elizabeth his wife, a native of Ware, whose maiden name was Field, was many years younger than himself. She was a handsome, dignified-looking woman; like her husband fond of pleasure; a good and affectionate mother, also, in the main, yet lacking insight into the characters of her children—into Mary's at any rate, towards whom she never manifested that maternal tenderness which makes the heart wise whatever the head may be. Mary, a shy, sensitive, nervous, affectionate child, who early showed signs of a liability to brain disorder, above all things needed tender and judicious care. "Her mother loved her," wrote Charles in after years, "as she loved us all, with a mother's love; but in opinion, in feeling and sentiment and 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 and repulse. Still she was a good mother. God forbid I should think of her but most respectfully, most affectionately. Yet 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."

John, the eldest, a handsome, lively, active boy, was just what his good looks and his being the favourite were likely to make of a not very happily endowed nature. "Dear little selfish craving John" he was in childhood, and dear big selfish John he remained in manhood; treated with tender indulgence by his brother and sister who cheerfully exonerated him from taking up any share of the burthen of sorrow and privation which became the portion of his family by the time he was grown up and prosperously afloat.

A maiden aunt, a worthy but uncanny old soul whose odd silent ways and odder witch-like mutterings and mumblings coupled with a wild look in her eyes as she peered out from under her spectacles, made her an object of dread rather than love to Mary as afterwards to Charles in whom she garnered up her heart, completed the family group but did not add to its harmony for she and her sister-in-law ill agreed. They were in "their different ways," wrote Mary, looking back on childhood from middle-life, "the best creatures in the world; but they set out wrong at first. They made each other miserable for full twenty years of their lives. My mother was a perfect gentlewoman; my aunty as unlike a gentlewoman as you can possibly imagine a good old woman to be; so that my dear mother (who, though you do not know it. is always in my poor head and heart), used to distress and weary her with incessant and unceasing attention and politeness to gain her affection. The old woman could not return this in kind and did not know what to make of it—thought it all deceit, and used to hate my mother with a bitter hatred; which, of course, was soon returned with interest. A little frankness and looking into each other's characters at first would have spared all this, and they would have lived as they died, fond of each other for the last ten years of their lives. When we grew up and harmonised them a little, they sincerely loved each other."

In these early days Mary's was a comfortable though a very modest home; a place of "snug fire-sides, the low-built roof, parlours ten feet by ten, frugal boards, and all the homeliness of home"; a wholesome soil to be planted in which permitted no helplessness in the practical details of domestic life; above poverty in the actual though not in the conventional sense of the word. Such book-learning as fell to her lot was obtained at a day-school in Fetter Lane, Holborn, where, notwithstanding the inscription over the door, "Mr. William Bird, Teacher of Mathematics and Languages," reading in the mother-tongue, writing and "ciphering" were all that was learned. The schoolroom looked into a dingy, discoloured garden, in the passage leading from Fetter Lane into Bartlett's Buildings; and there boys were taught in the morning and their sisters in the afternoon by "a gentle usher" named Starkey, whose subsequent misfortunes have rescued him and Mary's school-days from oblivion. For, having in his old age drifted into an almshouse at Newcastle, the tale of his wanderings and his woes found its way into print and finally into Hone's Every Day Book, where, meeting the eyes of Charles and Mary Lamb, it awakened in both old memories which took shape in the sketch called Captain Starkey.

"Poor Starkey, when young, had that peculiar stamp of old-fashionedness in his face which makes it impossible for a beholder to predict any particular age in the object. You can scarce make a guess between seventeen and seven-and-thirty. This antique caste always seems to promise ill-luck and penury. Yet it seems he was not always the abject thing he came to. My sister, who well remembers him, can hardly forgive Mr. Thomas Ranson for making an etching so unlike her idea of him when he was at Mr. Bird's school. Old age and poverty, a life-long poverty she thinks, could at no time have effaced the marks of native gentility which were once so visible in a face otherwise strikingly ugly, thin, and careworn. From her recollections of him, she thinks that he would have wanted bread before he would have begged or borrowed a halfpenny. 'If any of the girls,' she says, 'who were my schoolfellows should be reading through their aged spectacles tidings from the dead of their youthful friend Starkey, they will feel a pang as I do at having teased his gentle spirit.'

"They were big girls, it seems, too old to attend his instructions with the silence necessary; and, however old age and a long state of beggary seems to have reduced his writing faculties to a state of imbecility, in those days his language occasionally rose to the bold and figurative, for, when he was in despair to stop their chattering, his ordinary phrase was, 'Ladies, if you will not hold your peace, not all the powers in heaven can make you.' Once he was missing for a day or two; he had run away. A little, old, unhappy-looking man brought him back—it was his father, and he did no business in the school that day but sat moping in a corner with his hands before his face; the girls, his tormentors, in pity for his case, for the rest of the day forbore to annoy him.

"'I had been there but a few months,' adds she, 'when Starkey, who was the chief instructor of us girls, communicated to us a profound secret, that the tragedy of Cato was shortly to be acted by the elder boys, and that we were to be invited to the representation.' That Starkey lent a helping hand in fashioning the actors she remembers; and, but for his unfortunate person, he might have had some distinguished part in the scene to enact. As it was he had the arduous task of prompter assigned to him and his feeble voice was heard clear and distinct repeating the text during the whole performance. She describes her recollection of the caste of characters even now with a relish:—Martia, by the handsome Edgar Hickman, who afterwards went to Africa, and of whom she never afterwards heard tidings; Lucia, by Master Walker, whose sister was her particular friend; Cato, by John Hunter, a masterly declaimer but a plain boy, and shorter by a head than his two sons in the scene, &c. In conclusion, Starkey appears to have been one of those mild spirits which, not originally deficient in understanding, are crushed by penury into dejection and feebleness. He might have proved a useful adjunct, if not an ornament to society, if fortune had taken him into a very little fostering; but wanting that he became a captain—a by-word—and lived and died a broken bulrush."

But the chief and best part of Mary's education was due to the fact that her father's employer, Mr. Salt, had a good library "into which she was tumbled early" and suffered to "browse there without much selection or prohibition." A little selection, however, would have made the pasturage all the wholesomer to a child of Mary's sensitive brooding nature; for the witch-stories and cruel tales of the sufferings of the martyrs on which she pored all alone, as her brother did after her, wrought upon her tender brain and lent their baleful aid to nourish those seeds of madness which she inherited; as may be inferred from a subsequent adventure.

When tripping to and from school or playing in the Temple Gardens Mary must sometimes, though we have no record of the fact, have set eyes on Oliver Goldsmith: for the first ten years of her life were the last of his; spent, though with frequent sojourns elsewhere, in the Temple. And in the Temple churchyard he was buried, just ten months before the birth of Charles.

The London born and bred child had occasional tastes of joyous, healthful life in the country, for her mother had hospitable relatives in her native county, pleasant Hertfordshire. Specially was there a great-aunt married to a substantial yeoman named Gladman living at Mackery End within a gentle walk of Wheathampstead, the visits to whom remained in Mary's memory as the most delightful recollections of her childhood. In after life she embodied them, mingling fiction with fact, in a story called Louisa Manners or the Farm House where she tells in sweet and child-like words of the ecstasy of a little four-year-old girl on finding herself for the first time in the midst of fields quite full of bright shining yellow flowers with sheep and young lambs feeding; of the inexhaustible interest of the farm-yard, the thresher in the barn with his terrifying flail and black beard, the collecting of eggs and searching for scarce violets ("if we could find eggs and violets too, what happy children we were"); of the hay-making and the sheep-shearing, the great wood fires and the farm-house suppers.

This will recall to the reader Elia's Mockery End; how, forty years afterwards, brother and sister revisited the old farm-house one day in the midst of June and how Bridget (so he always called Mary in print) "remembered her old acquaintance again; some altered features, of course, a little grudged at. At first, indeed, she was ready to disbelieve for joy; but the scene soon re-confirmed itself in her affections, and she traversed every out-post of the old mansion, to the wood-house, the orchard, the place where the pigeon-house had stood (house and birds were alike flown), with a breathless impatience of recognition which was more pardonable perhaps than decorous at the age of fifty odd. But Bridget in some things is behind her years."

". . . The only thing left was to get into the house, and that was a difficulty which to me singly would have been insurmountable, for I am terribly shy in making myself known to strangers and out-of-date kinsfolk. Love, stronger than scruple, winged my cousin in without me; but she soon returned with a creature that might have sat to a sculptor for the image of Welcome. . . . To have seen Bridget and her,—it was like the meeting of the two scriptural cousins! There was a grace and dignity, an amplitude of form and stature answering to her mind in this farmer's wife, which would have shined in a palace. . . ."

To return to the days of childhood, Mary also paid visits to her maternal grandmother Field, housekeeper to the Plumers at their stately but forsaken mansion of Blakesware; but here the pleasure was mingled with a kind of weird solemnity. Mary has left on record her experiences in a tale which forms a sort of pendant to Blakesmoor in H——shire by Elia. Her story is called Margaret Green, the Young Mahometan, also from Mrs. Leicester's School and, apart from a slight framework of invention ("Mrs. Beresford," her grandmother, being represented as the owner instead of housekeeper of the mansion), is minutely autobiographical. "Every morning when she (Mrs. Beresford) saw me she used to nod her head very kindly and say 'How do you do, little Margaret?' But I do not recollect that she ever spoke to me during the remainder of the day, except indeed after I had read the psalms and the chapters which was my daily task; then she used constantly to observe that I improved in my reading and frequently added, 'I never heard a child read so distinctly.' When my daily portion of reading was over I had a taste of needlework, which generally lasted half an hour. I was not allowed to pass more time in reading or work, because my eyes were very weak, for which reason I was always set to read in the large-print family Bible. I was very fond of reading, and when I could, unobserved, steal a few minutes as they were intent on their work, I used to delight to read in the historical part of the Bible; but this, because of my eyes, was a forbidden pleasure, and the Bible being never removed out of the room, it was only for a short time together that I dared softly to lift up the leaves and peep into it. As I was permitted to walk in the garden or wander about the house whenever I pleased, I used to leave the parlour for hours together, and make out my own solitary amusement as well as I could. My first visit was always to a very large hall, which, from being paved with marble, was called the Marble Hall. The heads of the twelve Cæsars were hung round the hall. Every day I mounted on the chairs to look at them and to read the inscriptions underneath, till I became perfectly familiar with their names and features. Hogarth's prints were below the Cæsars. I was very fond of looking at them and endeavouring to make out their meaning. An old broken battledore and some shuttle-cocks with most of the feathers missing were on a marble slab in one corner of the hall, which constantly reminded me that there had once been younger inhabitants here than the old lady and her grey-headed servants. In another corner stood a marble figure of a satyr; every day I laid my hand on his shoulder to feel how cold he was. This hall opened into a room full of family portraits. They were all in dresses of former times; some were old men and women, and some were children. I used to long to have a fairy's power to call the children down from their frames to play with me. One little girl in particular, who hung by the side of the glass door which opened into the garden, I often invited to walk there with me; but she still kept her station, one arm round a little lamb's neck and in her hand a large bunch of roses. From this room I usually proceeded to the garden. When I was weary of the garden I wandered over the rest of the house. The best suite of rooms I never saw by any other light than what glimmered through the tops of the window-shutters, which, however, served to show the carved chimney-pieces and the curious old ornaments about the rooms; but the worked furniture and carpets of which I heard such constant praises I could have but an imperfect sight of, peeping under the covers which were kept over them by the dim light; for I constantly lifted up a corner of the envious cloth that hid these highly praised rareties from my view.

"The bedrooms were also regularly explored by me, as well to admire the antique furniture as for the sake of contemplating the tapestry hangings which were full of Bible history. The subject of the one which chiefly attracted my attention was Hagar and her son Ishmael. Every day I admired the beauty of the youth, and pitied the forlorn state of him and his mother in the wilderness. At the end of the gallery into which these tapestry rooms opened was one door which, having often in vain attempted to open, I concluded to be locked; and finding myself shut out, I was very desirous of seeing what it contained and, though still foiled in the attempt, I every day endeavoured to turn the lock, which, whether by constantly trying I loosened, being probably a very old one, or that the door was not locked but fastened tight by time, I know not; to my great joy, as I was one day trying the lock as usual, it gave way, and I found myself in this so long desired room.

"It proved to be a very large library. This was indeed a precious discovery. I looked round on the books with the greatest delight: I thought I would read them every one. I now forsook all my favourite haunts and passed all my time here. I took down first one book, then another. If you never spent whole mornings alone in a large library, you cannot conceive the pleasure of taking down books in the constant hope of finding an entertaining book among them; yet, after many days, meeting with nothing but disappointment, it became less pleasant. All the books within my reach were folios of the gravest cast. I could understand very little that I read in them, and the old dark print and the length of the lines made my eyes ache.

"When I had almost resolved to give up the search as fruitless, I perceived a volume lying in an obscure corner of the room. I opened it; it was a charming print, the letters were almost as large as the type of the family Bible. In the first page I looked into I saw the name of my favourite Ishmael, whose face I knew so well from the tapestry, and whose history I had often read in the Bible. I sat myself down to read this book with the greatest eagerness. The title of it was Mahometanism Explained. . . . A great many of the leaves were torn out, but enough remained to make me imagine that Ishmael was the true son of Abraham. I read here that the true descendants of Abraham were known by a light which streamed from the middle of their foreheads. It said that Ishmael's father and mother first saw this light streaming from his forehead as he was lying asleep in the cradle. I was very sorry so many of the leaves were torn out, for it was as entertaining as a fairy tale. I used to read the history of Ishmael and then go and look at him in the tapestry, and then read his history again. When I had almost learned the history of Ishmael by heart, I read the rest of the book, and then I came to the history of Mahomet who was there said to be the last descendant of Abraham.

"If Ishmael had engaged so much of my thoughts, how much more so must Mahomet? His history was full of nothing but wonders from the beginning to the end. The book said that those who believed all the wonderful stories which were related of Mahomet were called Mahometans and True Believers; I concluded that I must be a Mahometan, for I believed every word I read.

"At length I met with something which I also believed, though I trembled as I read it. This was, that after we are dead we are to pass over a narrow bridge which crosses a bottomless gulf. The bridge was described to be no wider than a silken thread, and it is said that all who were not Mahometans would slip on one side of this bridge and drop into the tremendous gulf that had no bottom. I considered myself as a Mahometan, yet I was perfectly giddy whenever I thought of passing over this bridge. One day, seeing the old lady totter across the room, a sudden terror seized me for I thought how would she ever be able to get over the bridge? Then, too, it was that I first recollected that my mother would also be in imminent danger; for I imagined she had never heard the name of Mahomet, because I foolishly conjectured this book had been locked up for ages in the library and was utterly unknown to the rest of the world.

"All my desire was now to tell them the discovery I had made; for, I thought, when they knew of the existence of Mahometanism Explained they would read it and become Mahometans to ensure themselves a safe passage over the silken bridge. But it wanted more courage than I possessed to break the matter to my intended converts; I must acknowledge that I had been reading without leave; and the habit of never speaking or being spoken to considerably increased the difficulty.

"My anxiety on this subject threw me into a fever. I was so ill that my mother thought it necessary to sleep in the same room with me. In the middle of the night I could not resist the strong desire I felt to tell her what preyed so much on my mind.

"I awoke her out of a sound sleep and begged she would be so kind as to be a Mahometan. She was very much alarmed, for she thought I was delirious, which I believe I was; for I tried to explain the reason of my request, but it was in such an incoherent manner that she could not at all comprehend what I was talking about. The next day a physician was sent for and he discovered, by several questions that he put to me, that I had read myself into a fever. He gave me medicines and ordered me to be kept very quiet and said he hoped in a few days I should be very well; but as it was a new case to him, he never having attended a little Mahometan before, if any lowness continued after he had removed the fever he would, with my mother's permission, take me home with him to study this extraordinary case at his leisure; and added that he could then hold a consultation with his wife who was often very useful to him in prescribing remedies for the maladies of his younger patients."

In the sequel, this sensible and kindly doctor takes his little patient home, and restores her by giving her child-like wholesome pleasures and rational sympathy. I fear that this only shadowed forth the wise tenderness with which Mary Lamb would have treated such a child rather than what befell herself; and that with the cruelty of ignorance Mary's mother and grandmother suffered her young spirit to do battle still, in silence and inward solitariness, with the phantoms imagination conjured up in her too-sensitive brain. "Polly, what are those poor crazy, moythered brains of yours thinking always?" was worthy Mrs. Field's way of endeavouring to win the confidence of the thoughtful suffering child. The words in the story, "my mother almost wholly discontinued talking to me," "I scarcely ever heard a word addressed to me from morning to night" have a ring of truth, of bitter experience in them, which makes the heart ache. Yet it was no result of sullenness on either side, least of all did it breed any ill-feeling on Mary's. It was simple stupidity, lack of insight or sympathy in the elders; and on hers was repaid by the sweetest affection and, in after years, by a self-sacrificing devotion which, carried at last far beyond her strength, led to the great calamity of her life. Grandmother Field was a fine old character, however, as the reader of Elia well knows. She had

A mounting spirit, one that entertained
Scorn of base action, deed dishonourable
Or aught unseemly.

Like her daughter, Mrs. Lamb, she had been a handsome stately woman in her prime and when bent with age and pain, for she suffered from a cruel malady, cheerful patience and fortitude gave her dignity of another and a higher kind. But, like her daughter, she seems to have been wanting in those finer elements of tenderness and sympathy which were of vital consequence in the rearing up of a child smitten like Mary with a hereditary tendency to madness.